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Eric Simpson

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The Tyranny of the Body in the Quest for Spiritual Life

Posted: 05/27/10 06:55 PM ET

It is not uncommon to hear people speak of the body as though it is the irrefutable master of all conduct due to genes, hormones, dietary factors, and chemical balances or imbalances. The evidence suggests that these kinds of physical attributes of the body are strong indicators of a person's predisposition to certain psychological states and behaviors.

However, a mechanical and deterministic view of behavior is usually not inferred. While there may be specific genes that, if they could be isolated, would indicate someone is more likely to experience psychological reward for certain behaviors that, on a subjective level, outweighs for them the negative consequences of repeating the behaviors, it does not necessarily follow that genes are the ultimate cause of the addictive condition. As UCSC sociologist Craig Reineman concludes in his critique of genetic determinism in regard to alcohol and drug addiction:

Do humans vary in their physiological responses to alcohol and other drugs? Of course. Does this physiological variation mean that some people are more likely to use excessively and develop problems? Probably. Does this mean there is a 'gene for addiction'? It is not yet clear ... For even if such a gene were finally identified, it seems unlikely that it would by itself provide a causal explanation of addictive behaviors. Come the genomic utopia, we will still be faced with the complex, troubled human beings whose lives and behaviors have been forged in the same old messy melange of interfacing variables -- biological, yes, but also sociological, cultural and psychological -- such that at some point in their lives they drink or take drugs too much.

In other words, genes do not seem to tell the whole story; there are environmental factors as well as issues surrounding personal volition that may be thrown into the fracas of all that comprises human action and behavior. While genes may somehow make sex for the sake of seducing others, for instance, a consuming passion for one person, while remaining a more minor but affirmative act of relationship for someone else, there is still a subtext of cultural and sociological influences to which the potential addict is responsive. At the end of the day, we might say the addict at some point succumbs to dispositions that want to enslave him, and chooses to give in rather than fight.

The more the desire is satisfied, the stronger the habit becomes; the stronger the habit is, the more difficult it is to fight. But there always remains the choice to fight, to choose not to give in. It is the myth of Eden and the forbidden fruit retold over and over again on a personal, microcosmic scale.

It could be, then, that genes are telling the same story about behavior as the theologians of the Church, indicating the varying limitations, strengths, points of support and resistance within the range of a multitude of very different people, with as many varying dispositions and weaknesses.

In any case, if the spirit is subjected to the body to the point that one's personality and moral character is under the spell of a biological determinism, the human person is not free.

Given my language regarding the body as a tyrant, one might leap to the conclusion that I have a low view of the physical body. There are historical accounts wherein the body is seen as worthless, unimportant, or even the cause of sin and evil. A duality between body and spirit arises where the former is either given to utility or degraded, and the latter is imbued with value and is all that matters. This is not only Platonic or Gnostic teaching, but an undertow of perhaps unconscious belief in contemporary life. That isn't my intent here. The problem isn't one of value, but, figuratively speaking, of control.

In his letters to a young woman inquiring into the spiritual life, Saint Theophan the Recluse, a Russian priest from the 19th century, gave a Christian rundown of an ancient idea regarding the well-ordered soul. He described the body and its appetites, the soul and the centrality of the heart, the intellect and the emotions, and the life of the spirit -- a hierarchy within the interior cosmos of the human person. He writes:

[The intellect and body] are in and of themselves sinless, and natural to us; but the man who has been shaped by the intellectual, or even worse, by the carnal, is not sinless. He is guilty of granting supremacy within himself to something that was not meant for supremacy and which is supposed to be in a subordinate position ... The error here is of the exclusive predominance of that which is supposed to be subordinate.
The supremacy of bodily appetites over spiritual life is not viewed as abnormal in contemporary western culture. It is assumed that the body is the dictator of the soul, not only because it can be shown empirically that physical conditions have a profound influence on one's mental or psychological state or on one's mood or behavior, but also because it is assumed that the human person is nothing other than the body. There is in this worldview no spiritual life or consciousness apart from the physical. The assumption of an abnormal state as the natural condition of the human being has led to a multi-billion-dollar drug industry, where every psychological or mental malady one might conjure has its commensurate neurological chemical fix, or if the fix isn't in yet, someone is working on it. It has also led to a multi-billion-dollar consumer economy built on advertising, where promises of satisfying various appetites not related to the products, such as sex or the desire for power, help to sell everything from toothpaste to automobiles.


In play is a confusion of carnal and spiritual desires, the former trying to do the work of the latter, since the latter, spiritual life, is stifled and in subjugation. The whole person is out of whack, the spirit repressed to the point of death, but because the physical aspect of the human person is in control, appetite comes first and last. The carnality that feeds the body cannot fulfill spiritual hungers -- the ache for simplicity in the psyche, the search for peace in the heart, the desire for authenticity, the longing for God -- that are all felt needs smothered in the debris of wrecked souls.

Control issues, wanting complete power over one's life and the lives of others, power over the past, present and future, is a reaction to having the inchoate sense that one's interior life is not ordered, that one lives in a condition of enslavement, that the very behaviors one indulges in to satisfy the flesh in the name of "liberty" are the shackles that imprison. Wanting control over the uncontrollable is an attribute common to addicts of all stripes who suffer from the conflicted state of affairs of being a fallible, disordered person in a muddled, skewed, twisted, and unjust world. To borrow an image from Jesus, it amounts to trying to clean a cup by washing the outside of it only, and it results in the "Pharisaism" that he on many occasions sharply challenges. One senses chaos and tries to impose order from without, but neglects his own internal condition. That is a definition of hypocrisy that we have seen played out over and over again both privately and in the public sphere.

I think Kierkegaard is on to something when he describes the spirit as the self's awareness of itself. As such, the human spirit is the life breathed into the human person by God, making her a sentient being. It is an awareness or faculty that has its own vitality from the soul and isn't rooted in one's physicality. One's spirit seems to be not only the breath of consciousness but self-consciousness, the facility that makes us self-aware and, when self-aware, awake to the world around us as well, not to mention capable of relating personally to God. When other appetites obscure the human spirit, we enter the chaos of interior and exterior conflict, addiction, enslavement, and hypocrisy.

The irony is that when the self becomes more opaque to oneself, usually through crisis events, death, divorce, disappointment or dissatisfaction, or other difficulties that come hand-in-hand with being alive, one sees more clearly, if only in brief windows of insight, what and who one really is, and how that identity has been thrown into disorder and distorted. That very act of insight, listening for the true and deepest, most genuine self in silence, is an interior movement that gives deference to the spirit. One arrives at self-control and finds personal liberty by relinquishing the right to control one's life and releasing the desire to control the lives of others.

 

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