The body’s promise, the mind’s amen

This is the fourth and final part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1, 2, and 3, whose purpose was to build up to what I say below, can be found here, here, and here.

 

Is there then no way around rationalism and the dualist’s alienation from the body? In fact, there is another possibility, one that doesn’t cut the person off from the suprarational capacities of his body to express meaning. Rather than saying, “This act means X, Y, and Z; therefore I affirm X, Y, and Z”, he can say “I affirm the totality of what this act means.” If he knows that the act naturally means X, Y, and Z, then he must indeed accept those propositions, but he doesn’t truncate the act’s meaning to his partial understanding of it, nor to his intellectual, linguistic mode of signification.  He accepts that his actions have dimensions of meaning that he may not entirely understand, and yet he commits himself to the whole meaning.  He may not realize all that he has promised his wife, but even what he doesn’t yet understand he acknowledges as already promised.

It is this third way that natural law proposes as man’s proper way of being in the world. One can see why, despite being the true and only way to overcome alienation from one’s body, natural law has been embraced more readily by the less intelligent sectors of society. Those with high IQ are more confident in their ability to give meaning to their lives through shear intellectual exertion. They think it fitting that a smarter man can think up a more comprehensive statement of love than a duller man, and they are less eager to imagine that God Himself has given to every man, regardless of intellect, a way of “speaking” his love for his wife with a profundity that no human intellect can match. Those of us who lack the elite’s mental gifts also lack some of their hubris. We would not wish for the depth of meaning in our lives to be limited to what our own imaginations could provide.

We Christians believe that God Himself uses natural significations, the “language of the body”, to make Himself present to us in the sacraments.  God doesn’t overwrite the natural meaning, but uses it to express His relationship to us. It is precisely the natural meaning of marriage as total self-donation between husband and wife that lets it serve as the living image of Christ and His Church. And it is fitting that a suprarational mode of signification should serve as the channel for the superhuman gift of grace.  When I receive the Blessed Sacrament, the priest holds the host before me saying “the body of Christ”, and I say “Amen”.  What does the “amen” mean?  Not that I can really fathom what it means that the thing before me is the body of the Incarnate God, or that I could fully say what it means–what I’m “getting myself into”–for me to consume it.  I have some idea, based on the natural symbolism of consumption, but my “amen” means “I mean what this act means”.  Because I can say this, I can say more than it is possible for a human mind to say; I can perform a supernatural act.

Even more important is the mode of expression natural meanings provide.  Natural meanings are given, rather than being products of one’s private intellect.  They allow us to step outside the limits of our imaginations, of our personal fixations and eccentricities, of the personality and style that we craft for ourselves.  What I say about marriage, fatherhood, and filiation is always colored by my self-image, my idea of what “a person like me” would say.  Natural meanings, by their impersonal–let us instead say “suprapersonal”–nature, allow me to step outside myself and make a completely authentic response to the thing itself.  Being a husband and father means taking on a universal role, a role not of my making but one that lets me participate in the mystery of creation.  The ephemera of my personality fall away, and I engage this mystery, not as “bonald” (35 year old, assistant professor, Star Trek fan, etc) but simply as Man.  By my imagination, I have my own private world, but by natural meanings, I am one with every human being who ever lived.  Fatherhood means the same thing for every father; it’s bigger than any one of us, and yet it is at the core of each of us.  Reflecting on these matters helps us see the real unity of the human race, the unity alluded to in the expression “Man” (“Adam” in Hebrew).  Man is the whole race considered together as one, but Man is also the essence of each individual, what we find when we look deeply into ourselves.  This escape from oneself and into Man is so important that cultures create formalized rituals–at weddings, funerals, etc–to provide more of it.  Here again, part of the act’s meaning is its universality, that I speak the same wedding vows my father said and my son will say.

In this matter the Christian has an advantage.  What is abstract for natural reason becomes concrete and vivid in the light of the Faith.  God’s substance and essence are one, so He alone can bridge complete universality and concreteness.  We believe that Man was made in His image, and at the appointed time, God Himself became Man, a new Adam, making Himself the core of humanity.  So when he acts “as Man”, the Christian realizes a sense in which he is acting “as Christ”.  When the body makes a promise (through sex, childbirth, etc), it is ultimately God Himself making the promise.  If we would not be so mean as to break our own word, how much more should we take care not to break His!

So we find our corporeal existence charged with meaning; God Himself has lent it His own voice.  Will you protest against this aspect of human nature because you didn’t choose it?  But this is what you are!  This is your inmost nature.  Surely the proper response to so great and holy a thing is reverence.  Reverence and gratitude.  Let us embrace our place in the order of nature, the place chosen for us by the Creator.  Let us respect the language of the body, with its suprarational, suprapersonal mode of signification.  Let us follow its calling to grow out of ourselves by putting on Man.

4 Responses

  1. One problem Bonald: there’s no proof this god of yours exists, so who cares what he thinks?

    http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20090412-ENTERTAIN-904120305

    “Missionaries have been preaching to the Pirahãs for 200 years and have converted not one. Everett did not know this when he first visited them in 1977 at age 26. A missionary and a linguist, he was sent to learn their language, translate the Bible for them, and ultimately bring them to Christ.

    Instead, they brought him to atheism. “The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile.””

    “Sexual mores are governed by common sense rather than stricture, which means that single people have sex at will while married people are more circumspect.”

  2. Thanks for sticking with me so long, Drieu.

  3. A lucid and genuinely thought-provoking summary of natural law theory.

    You don’t need me to tell you the argument from the other side, but credit to you for advocating your case well. If the tenure review doesn’t go according to plan, there’s always the law…

  4. […] personal limitations of its members.  This brings us to the second reason, that symbolic action is supra-rational.  It is a type of showing rather than saying and so is not limited by our conceptual categories. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: