What Defiles the Body: Oliver Sacks and Jesus

Dean Andrew McGowan's sermon at the first Berkeley Community Eucharist of the new term at Yale Divinity School, September 2 2015; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How difficult a thing it is, brothers and sisters, to have a body!

Bodies are the source of great joy, but also of pain. They seem at times to have wills of their own, and can lead us into strange places; and as some of us discover increasingly with time, they break and fail. They become messy and difficult things to deal with.

Because we are self-aware, we can think about our bodies as objects, and as somehow separate from ourselves. This is especially the case when physical need or desire or failure find us in hard places. The body can then be blamed or spurned. There are times when the apostle Paul seems to speak for us all, saying "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

This isn’t the whole of what Paul says about bodies or people, but the sentiment is honest and important. It is tempting to see ourselves as spirits who are merely temporarily and inconsequentially embodied, piloting our fleshy vehicles around until we leave them, our very selves unaffected by the material shells we had to inhabit. This is a sort of “beam me up, Scotty” theology of life and of redemption.

Oliver Sacks (from npr.org)
Oliver Sacks died recently. There are not many researchers and clinicians who have had multiple bestsellers, let alone one of them made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro. But when I heard Sacks was dead, it was not Awakenings that came to mind first but his collection of essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks presented there a series of case studies which, without in any way diminishing the humanity of the subjects, indicated how profoundly disease or injury impacts our very selves. The essay that gives the story its title concerns a man with Agnosia, whose sight was fine but who was unable to recognize or make sense of what he saw. It is reminiscent of another Gospel saying, where Jesus explains the purpose of parables as that people may “look and look, but not see.” Self, it seems, is not independent of the body. Our minds, our selves, are not mere inhabitants of bodies - we, including those remarkable parts of ourselves that are brains and that give rise to minds, are bodies. It is not just how difficult or joyous to have a body, but to be a body.

Sacks' Twitter account a few days before his death had drawn attention to a New York Times article summarizing the work of two other researchers, including Yale SOM colleague Nina Strohminger, on the effects of debilitating conditions like ALS and dementia on the self. Strohminger and Paul Nichols offered, to begin with, the attractive and surely widespread notion that loss of memory was what might most deeply impact the self. I have seen more than one movie in the last couple of years that suggested a self could be uploaded or moved to another body simply by the transfer of data, which seems to reflect that same idea. Strohminger and Nichols however suggested a different conclusion; memory loss could be very significant, but for those around the afflicted person the self was not as dependent on it as we would imagine; rather “the single most powerful predictor of identity change was not disruption to memory — but rather disruption to the moral faculty.” It is what we do that makes us who we are.

Our selves, then, are deeply embodied, and through our bodily choices, our actions on the lives of others and the wider world, we show ourselves to be who we are. In the Gospel, Jesus enters into an inner-Jewish debate about defilement that makes the moral self, our actions and words and their impact on others, the place of opportunity and risk. It may appear that what goes into the body, voluntarily or otherwise, is what defiles. Drugs, bullets, nails, are all apparently sources of defilement. This may be less true than it seems. Hatred and violence, acts of sexual exploitation or of casual injustice, purport to be ways of controlling the other. In truth they, coming from within a person, defile the perpetrator.

What happens to the body of the other, the degraded or disregarded, is nonetheless important; it is important because it is the treatment of a self, not of a shell. This is why black lives matter. It is why the bodies of Coptic martyrs and Syrian refugees matter. It is also why it matters when they nail your God to a cross; because he is not merely pretending to be there, having taken flesh as a convenient marketing and communicating strategy, but as the Gospel also tells us, “the Word became flesh."

The world may yet conclude that it has mastered and defiled the bodies of the innocent and the oppressed by what goes in to them; but the Gospel suggests otherwise, and that the would-be defilers are themselves defiled by such actions. It also suggests that our hope in the body does not end even at crosses and corpses, but affirms the bodily self even to a future that is God’s own. For our hope is not the disembodied persistence of souls, but the renewed embodiment of the resurrection, and a future life where there is neither oppression nor defilement, but the redemption of bodies; "for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."


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