Our Bodies Tell Us What We Are
The source of our modern crisis
In John Kleinig’s helpful book Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body, he makes the point that our bodies matter because they tie to our identity and our obligations in a concrete way. Knowing who we are (and knowing what we are meant to be and do) is not a purely psychological exercise. There’s a givenness to ourselves, and that givenness is expressed multidimensionally.
Consider this paragraph:
Our bodies were designed to work with others and with God here on earth. They were made to be receptive and active: receptive in obtaining life from God and active in working with God to promote life here on earth. Each body has received different characteristics and abilities because each body has something different to do. Thus, my male body qualifies me to work as a husband to my wife, a father to my children, and a grandfather to my grandchildren. Unlike me, the body of a single woman qualifies her to serve as a female relative, a female friend, and a female caregiver to others…We all have different vocations according to our location in the world and in our society. My location as a man is in my marriage and my family in the city of Adelaide, Australia. That is where God has appointed me to work with him caring for my wife, children, and grandchildren. He employs me to work with him in that location with those people.
Notice how Kleinig ties together things that we might not think to connect. Our male or female bodies (physical givenness) qualify us for certain work (roles) in certain places (location) among certain others (context). This is a particular way of understanding one’s identity. Instead of delving deep into self-analysis and introspection to determine what we want our identity to be, we can receive an identity based on physical realities that are objectively true of us. These realities tie us to ourselves, our work, our place, and our relationships. Right now, because of who and where my body is, I can serve as a husband to a wife and a father to two children in Louisville, Kentucky. I cannot serve as a single man or a wife. I cannot live like a childless man or a man of grown children. And I cannot live elsewhere than where I am. I am here, I am a husband and a father, and my body tells me this.
Now, here’s the question. Let’s imagine that modern technology can arrange things so that I can constantly move from place to place physically, not tied to any particular neighborhood but always potentially mobile. Let’s further imagine that even more modern technology could separate my attention from my body geographically, so that while I sit in one place, I am actually thinking and speaking and learning and working in another. Imagine that the concept of place was obsolete, because all the tools I needed to make money or feel comfortable were magically portable and because the distance from one place to another was collapsed: either through transportation or some kind of teleportation.
You probably can guess that this magical modern technology is the Internet. It exists. And it’s how a plurality and soon a majority of Western people work and learn. The concept of belonging to a particular location is absolutely foreign to anyone born after 1990. People born since 1990 only know a world in which access to every major economy and people group on planet earth is instantly accessible via computers. The word “place” means only where you want to be. If that’s where your physical body is, great. If it’s not, then your “place” is somewhere else, somewhere you can and should try to enter into through technological means.
Take this principle and work backward through Kleinig’s paragraph. If your location is irrelevant to what you do and what you are, then it’s not true that you are intrinsically tied to your physical place. And if no physical place can describe your current identity, then how could the people around you describe it either? They are just as accidental to your real self as the chair you happen to be sitting in. And if the people around you cannot describe your identity, then your identity is probably not describable in terms of your relationship to them, especially if the legal or social means exist for you to redefine or cast off such relationships. Again, those relationships do not have to describe you, because those people in your life do not necessarily need mean anything about your true self. Your true self is wherever you will it to be.
From here, the crisis of modern culture becomes crystal clear. Our relationships, our roles, and ultimately even our bodies lose any objective givenness. They are simply expressions of our current desires, desires which can change at any time and be replaced quickly with the help of technology. I can decide I don’t want to be a husband or Dad anymore. I can even decide I don’t want to be a man anymore. Why? Because sex and gender are bodily expressions. If the body is simply an obstacle to be overcome in other areas of life, why not in this one?
This is one of the main reasons I’m writing Digital Liturgies. The reshaping of our modern lives in light of the Web and computer technology is a philosophical event. It is also a revolution in self-understanding. I’m exceedingly grateful that I’m not a 14 year old right now, searching for belonging and identity, and offered limitless freedom to find the answers on the Internet. But there are many doing just that. These are crucial times.