Some Basics of Christian Anthropology and How They Speak to Moral Issues of our Day (Part 2)

Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.

At its root, anthropology considers what human beings are and how they have interacted with one another and the world around them over time. While many think of anthropology as a secular study of cultures from ancient to modern day, I propose that there is also a Christian anthropology, one that considers who and what the human person is based on God’s revelation in His word and through our bodies. Indeed, our body is a revelation from God, and by and through it He teaches us.

This essay (consisting of both today’s and yesterday’s posts) is not a complete discourse on the topic. Rather, I selected certain teachings rooted in Scripture and the nature of our bodies that apply particularly well to moral issues of our day. In yesterday’s post we considered a few basic points; today we conclude with a few more.

Each human being exists because of a sovereign, loving act of God.

It is a biological fact that a unique human being comes into existence at the moment of conception. The DNA in that single-cell embryo contains all the instructions needed for it to develop, over the next twenty years or so, into an adult.

However, Scripture indicates that although we come to exist at a specific moment in time, God has always known and loved us: The word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’ (Jer 1:4-5). Scripture also praises God saying, For You formed my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14). Hence, each of us is specifically intended by God.

This makes every human life sacred. No form of unjust killing can be justified under any circumstances. Each of us is the result not merely of biological processes or human decisions but a sovereign, loving act of God. Our lives come from God and belong to Him. Therefore, abortion, murder, and suicide (including physician-assisted) are grave evils that we must combat. Even capital punishment must be opposed except in rare cases.

Our body is not our own.

A common assertion today is we can do whatever we like with “our own body.” However, Scripture reminds us, You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body (1 Cor 6:19-20). Yes, Jesus redeemed us; He purchased our salvation at the price of His own blood and His own life!

Hence, our bodies are not tools to simply use as we please. Neither are they canvases on which to display tattoos, cuttings, piercings, and the like. We are not to degrade them by using them for excessive or illicit pleasures or to lure others into sin. I do not wish to divert this post into a debate about tattooing and piercing. While such things are not wholly excluded by Church law or Scripture, anything that deliberately, dramatically alters the appearance of the body we received from God is surely problematic. (The nearly permanent quality of such alterations is also concerning.) Such excesses are far too common today, at least in the U.S.

Because our bodies belong to God, we should ask ourselves, “Is God pleased with the way I regard, treat, and make use of the body He has given me?”

There is a nuptial meaning to the body.

We do not exist by ourselves nor only for ourselves. We are contingent beings and, as such, depend on our parents for our existence. Although we exist for our own sake and thus have intrinsic worth, we also exist for others. Our very body speaks to the most fundamental relationships of marriage and family. Simply put, there is a part of our body that is for another. The male and female reproductive organs are designed for each other. This is biologically evident, though sadly some have lost their way and refuse to acknowledge it.

The denial of the purpose of our body’s reproductive organs is manifest in the approval of homosexual practices that “close the sexual act to the gift of life [and] do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” (CCC # 2357). It is also manifest in certain heterosexual practices that close the sexual act to the fruit of life and/or use the sexual organs in disordered ways, ways in which they were not intended to be used.

To restate, there is a nuptial meaning to the body. Our body says to us, “I am for another.” Most of humanity realizes this truth through monogamous marriage. A man leaves his father and mother, seeks a wife, clings to her, and the two become one flesh (cf Gen 2:24). Thus, through the husband and wife, completing and complementing each other, a new member of the human family is created. This is the most common realization of the nuptial meaning of the body.

For priests and for religious brothers and sisters who live celibate lives, the nuptial meaning of the body is realized in a spiritual but real way. Religious sisters are espoused to the Lord, the bridegroom of their souls. Priests and religious brothers take up a spousal relationship with the Church, the bride of their souls. Priests and brothers are not bachelors nor are sisters “single women.” No, each lives in a spousal relationship.

What about members of the laity who never marry? Here, I would argue, a distinction must be made. Because there is a nuptial meaning to the body, there is no vocation to the single life per se. However, those who are currently single (including those who may remain that way permanently), may by that state be available to serve the Lord and the Church or community in a more substantial way. For such individuals, the nuptial meaning of the body is expressed through that vocational service.

Marriage has its structure because children both need and deserve the stable presence of their father and mother in their lives.

God did not design marriage arbitrarily. He set it forth as one man for one woman till death do them part, bearing fruit in their children (see Genesis 2:24-25). He did this because that is what is necessary and best for children. Marriage by its nature is oriented to having children. The Lord’s first command to Adam and Eve was, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28).

Obviously, there must be a father and a mother for a child to exist at all, but beyond the conception of children there is the necessary work of raising them. Children need to have their parents reliably present in their everyday lives so that they can depend on them and trust them. Further, a child needs a father to learn the masculine genius of being human and a mother to learn the feminine genius of being human. This is necessary for the proper and best human formation—psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally. Even an unbeliever should be able to see this. The structure of marriage is not an arbitrary arrangement by God for us to toy with at will.

Sadly, we have done just that. We casually separate what God has joined. God intends for children to be conceived in the sexual union of a husband and wife pledged to each other for life. Having sex and having children are inextricably linked to Holy Matrimony, yet today we have largely separated them. As a result of minimizing the relationship between sex and marriage, there are many marriages without children (by choice) and many children without parents married to each other. We do this through sins and misbehavior such as fornication, adultery, divorce and “remarriage.” The current practice of refusing to favor a married heterosexual couple over a single mother, a single father, or a same-sex couple when placing a child for adoption also severs what God has joined. As a result of all these things, fewer than half of children today grow up in a traditional family.

While children might lose their mother or father through death, to intentionally subject them to anything other than being raised by their own parents is a grave injustice.

The common objection to this teaching is this: “Are you saying that a single mother, a single father, or a homosexual couple cannot raise a child just as well as a married (heterosexual) couple?” The answer is, “Yes, that is exactly what we are saying,” for all the reasons stated above. Some will respond with horror stories that occurred with this or that traditional couple, but atypical occurrences do not alter general norms, and “hard cases make bad law.”

God intends sex, marriage, and children to go together. Having sex naturally leads to having children; this is biologically demonstrable.

Sex, intimacy, and procreation belong together and should not be separated.

Contraception, the artificial prevention of conception that naturally results from human sexual intercourse, is an attempt to sever the connection between sexual relations and having children. Even if not every act of sexual intercourse can result in a child, the bodily truth is that sexual intercourse is directed toward having children. That sex is also pleasurable and may be a sign of love and intimacy does not set aside this point. God joins pleasures to the things that are most necessary for us so that we do not neglect them. For example, the purpose of eating food is to nourish the body. It is also true that eating is pleasurable and sharing meals promotes camaraderie. This does not, however, mean that the primary purpose of food is something other than bodily nourishment. God joins pleasure to food because eating is necessary for our survival, thus they are to be together, not separated.

As an analogy, consider a person who was not particularly interested in the nutritional aspect of food, but rather just liked the pleasure of eating and/or keeping company at feasts. As a result, he would eat and drink to excess, vomit it all up, and then return for more. We all wince at such a horror. This is because eating has a purpose that is being trampled upon in favor of lesser aspects. The proper end, bodily nourishment, is subverted when a person eats to excess and merely for pleasure.

This is precisely what contraception does when it severs the relationship between sex, intimacy, and procreation. We would be similarly aghast at a couple who had sex without any love between them, merely for the purpose of making babies for profit (e.g. selling them for adoption or for use as laborers). This makes the same point: sex, intimacy, and procreation belong together and should not be divided as separate pursuits. Every child deserves to be the fruit of the intimacy and shared love of a stably married father and mother.

Contraception facilitates the violation of the norm Let no one separate what God his joined (see Matt 19:6). The legalization of contraception in the U.S. has led to the explosion of promiscuity and all of the accompanying woes, including sexually transmitted diseases, teenage parents, children raised in single-parent households, and the horror of abortion, which has become the “contraception of last resort.” All of this has gravely harmed or even killed millions of children. Some argue that it is perfectly fine to separate the procreative dimension of sex from its pleasure or its promotion of intimacy, but in separating what God has joined we have reaped a harvest of misery and death. Contraception promotes the exaltation of the pleasure and intimacy of sexual intercourse unmoored from its purpose: the serious business of having and then raising children within a stable marriage. The worship of pleasure and intimacy unmoored from their purpose has led to the unbridled lust we see today.

There will always be more to say about Christian anthropology, but allow the points made in today’s and yesterday’s posts to paint the bigger picture: God has set forth an understanding of the human person both in Scripture and through our very body and soul. We do well to take heed of what He teaches.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Basics of Christian Anthropology (part 2 of 2)

Basics of Christian Anthropology (part 1 of 2)

Creation of Adam – Michelangelo Buonarroti (1510)

Anthropology is, most simply, the science or study of human beings through time and space. Different specialties focus on the analysis of biological/physiological characteristics and the examination of societies/cultures. In the religious sense, anthropology deals with the origin, nature, and destiny of human beings.

In our times there are many moral issues emerging from viewpoints that diverge widely from our given nature, both physical and spiritual. Numerous false notions (e.g., “transgenderism”) have arisen that either disregard or even deny physical data. Other errors involve ignoring the clear evidence of humans’ spiritual nature, which so distinguishes us from animals.

A Christian/biblical anthropology, however, sees the created order—and the human body in particular—as revelatory. The body is not just accidentally or incidentally present. No, the body is a revelation because through it, God speaks to us of who and what we are and what we ought to do. To this revelatory quality of the body God adds His own words in Scripture, leading to the emergence of a Christian anthropology.

In this essay I would like to review certain aspects of this Christian anthropology. This is by no means a complete or systematic treatise. Rather, it touches on certain key points that address modern errors. The order of these observations is not a perfect progression, but I have tried to progress from basic to more complex points.

We are the union of a body and a spiritual soul.

We are not merely our body nor are we merely our soul. We are the union of the two. Gnostic and dualistic anthropologies seek to divide body and soul or to indicate that a person is only his body or only his soul. Although we can distinguish body and soul intellectually, in reality they are so together as to be one. It is much like the flame from a candle. Although one can distinguish the light of the flame from its heat, one cannot put the heat over here and the light over there. They are so together as to be one. It is like this with our body and soul.

What is the soul?

On one level the soul is the animating principle of any living thing. Hence, even plants and animals have souls. The soul is related to the mysterious principle we call life. Although we casually use words like “life,” “death,” “living,” and “dead,” life is a mysterious reality. Imagine that in one hand I hold and acorn and in the other a stone. From a great distance they may even look alike. However, the acorn has the mysterious spark we call life while the stone does not. If I plant each in the ground and water the area, the acorn responds: first a shoot emerges and eventually a mighty oak tree. In contrast, the rock will do nothing no matter how long I wait; it does not have the mysterious spark called life. Neither does it have the animating principle we call the soul.

If the mysterious quality called life is taken away, the plant, animal, or human “dies.” Because the life that organized him/her/it is gone, the body or what is left falls into disorganization and decay. The force we call “life” and what we call the “soul,” are deeply mysterious.

What makes the human soul unique?

The human soul is different from that of animals and/or plants in that it is a spiritual soul. Scripture says of man, In the image of God He created them (Gen 1:27). It also says, Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into [Adam’s] nostrils, and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7). To no other creatures are such attributions made. To say that we have a spiritual soul, that we have the breath of God within us and are made in His image, is to say that we have intellect and free will. It is our dignity to unite two orders of creation, the material and the spiritual, in our one person. Angels are pure spirit. Animals, though possessed of a soul (an animating principle), have no spirit and are thus material. Humans, however, unite the spiritual and the material. This is our glory and it is the central reason why our body will rise one day, gloriously transformed, and be restored to our spirit.

Sadly, there is a tendency today to equate humans with animals. Some say that humans are merely smart apes and that there are other creatures (e.g., dolphins) just as intelligent as we are. This is demonstrably false. You will know something by its fruits; you can see a cause by its effects. Humans are vastly different from all the other animals, even the highest primates, and this is evident in the effects we produce. While our bodies resemble other animals (especially mammals) in many ways, the similarity ends there. If the animals are just like us, where are their cities and farms? Where are their universities, libraries, and museums? Where is their art, their literature? Where are their legislatures where they pass laws or their courts where they hold one another accountable? Have they traveled to the moon and back? Have they learned and then handed on their knowledge to later generations? Where is their technological progress—or any progress at all, for that matter? Why are animals really no different than they were thousands of years ago?

Clearly there is a vast difference between human beings and other animals. This can be seen in the way we live and what we do, and in what they do not do.

Morally speaking, reducing humans to the state of animals not only robs us of our dignity but also our freedom, because it says that we are merely at the whim of instinct.

A common error today regarding the unity of body and spiritual soul is claiming that one is not one’s body but rather only one’s thoughts and feelings.

This is common among proponents of transgender and/or homosexual ideology. A certain man might say, “I am actually a woman.” A normally observant person would likely retort, “No, your body indicates that you are a man.” Yet, in transgender ideology, that observation is dismissed by saying, in effect, “I am not my body. My body has nothing to do with what or who I really am. I am my thoughts and feelings.” This amounts to a denial that our bodies are revelatory.

In homosexual ideology a similar error is encountered. A biological assessment makes it clear that the male and female reproductive organs are designed for each other. Further, an exit is not an entrance. Here, too, they dismiss the body as being of no relevance. This is pure Gnostic dualism: the body is of no account; one is only spirit, only thoughts and feelings. In such a world, what matters are intentions and thoughts; what the body teaches or indicates is of little account. This is an error because it dismisses the reality that the body presents to us.

The opposing but equally untrue claim is that one is only one’s body.

This is materialism and it denies the existence of soul. In this view, a person is merely a collection of chemicals and interactions between them. We only do what the chemicals and nerves “tell us” to do. We have no spirit and thus no free will. Because human behavior is said to be merely the result of physical interactions over which we have no control, there is no such thing as right or wrong. The absurdity of such a claim can be illustrated in this way:

Materialist: “You are just matter, a mere bag of chemicals.”

Believer: “I think that is dead wrong and an unfounded claim.”

(The materialist then becomes angry at the believer’s refusal to accept his claim.)

Believer: “Why are you angry? I am just a bag of chemicals and my behavior is just the result of the random firing of synapses. I am only saying and doing what those forces are making me say and do. Hence, I am not a responsible agent and your anger is unfounded.”

Obviously, the notion of right and wrong and of being accountable for our actions only makes sense if we have a spiritual soul that is able to rise above the effects of chemical reactions or nerve impulses.

We come in (only) two kinds.

In the creation of the human person, God says, So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Gen 1:27). There are not dozens of different sexes/genders, as some assert. In fact, until recently, the word “gender” was used almost exclusively as a grammatical term (in some languages, nouns, adjectives, verbs, and/or pronouns have a gender) while the word “sex” referred to the classification of organisms as either male or female. (If you doubt me, look in a dictionary that was published any time prior to the last ten years or so.)

Yes, we are either male or female, and it is God who designates this and creates it. Our bodies reveal to us our sex, as designated by God. There is no need for a lengthy study of this matter; it is quite evident from a simple look at the body.

Some object that there are people born with both genitalia or who are ambiguously equipped, but the existence of such abnormalities does not indicate that there is a third (or fourth or more) sex. It does not follow that every anomaly indicates a different kind of human being. For example, some babies are born missing an arm; from this we do not conclude that there are two different sorts of human beings, those with two arms and those with one.

Therefore, given God’s teaching that we are either male or female, any acceptance of “transgender” ideology is inimical to Christian anthropology. It rejects what God has revealed to us in our bodies and what He teaches us in His written word. We must refute claims that there are more than two sexes/genders and insist that people accept the reality of what God has done. There is no such thing as a female “trapped in a male body” or vice versa. Neither can one “transition” so as to “be” the opposite sex. No matter how many surgeries one endures or how many hormones one takes, no matter what sort of clothing one wears, one’s sex cannot be changed. It is written in every cell of the body. One does not simply declare one’s sex nor can one change it. No, each person must humbly accept his or her sex from God, who is Creator and Lord.

In tomorrow’s post we will look at some other principles of Christian anthropology and relate them to errors of our day.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Basics of Christian Anthropology (part 1 of 2)

What Did Jesus Look Like?

The very question, “What Did Jesus Look Like?” says a lot about our modern age. And the silence of the Bible as to the physical appearance of most of its principal characters says a lot too.

We live in a very image driven culture. Ever since the invention of photography and especially television, the physical appearance of people has become quite significant. Perhaps the first real discernment of how important this had become was in the Nixon-Kennedy debate. Those who listened on radio generally thought Nixon won the debate. Those who saw it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And thus it was that physical appearance seems to have been greatly magnified as an assent or liability. It is surely true that physical appearance had importance before,  but now it was magnified. Prior to the invention of photography, films and TV  very few people had access to the physical appearance of influential people before they formed an opinion of them.

The fact that the Bible has so little to say about the physical appearance of Jesus or most of the main figures gives an indication that such facts were of less significance to the people of that time. It may also say something of God the Holy Spirit who chose not to inspire the recordation of such information as a general rule. It would seem that physical attractiveness (or lack thereof) matters little to God? (I am hopeful in this department for my handsomeness has taken a serious hit in recent decades). Perhaps too the Holy Spirit draws back from such descriptions so that we would be encouraged to see ourselves in the narrative of Holy Scripture.

We get occasional references to physical traits. There are the some references to attractiveness. David is said to have a ruddy appearance, Leah seems to have been less attractive than her sister Rachael. Bathsheba surely drew David’s eye. There is also some mentioning of more specific traits. For example the beloved woman in the Song of Songs describes herself as “black” and “beautiful.” Sampson is said to have long hair. Zacheus is said to be of short stature. Herod was an Edomite, a name which refers to the reddish skin of that race of people. You will perhaps want to add to this list in the comments section. But overall the Scriptures are remarkably silent about any extensive physical description of the main protagonists. Who was tall, who was short, what color their skin or hair, or eyes? How long was the hair? Did the person have a beard?

And thus as we consider Jesus we are left with little from the scriptures themselves. It does seem clear that Jesus must have had a vigorous constitution given the extensive journeys he made throughout the mountainous region of the Holy Land. Lengthy walks of 60 miles or more back and forth from  Jerusalem to Galilee and then well north to Tyre and Sidon. Climbs up steep hills and mountains such as Tabor were not for the weak or feeble. I have spoken more of the physical stamina of Christ here: On the Human Stature of Christ. But as for his hair color, relative height, skin tone etc. we have little or nothing.

I would like to speculate however based on a a few criteria of certain possible traits of Jesus’ physical appearance. Again, these are mere speculations. I encourage you to remark on them and to add or subtract as you see fit. These speculations are somewhat random and given here in no particular order.

1. The length of his hair. It is common since the renaissance to see Jesus depicted with long and straight or wavy  locks of flowing hair. I have often wondered if ancient Jewish men ever wore their hair this long. I say this because St. Paul says,  Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him? (1 Cor 11:14). He goes on to speak of long hair as a  “glory” to a woman. I wonder if Paul would have said such a thing if Jesus had the log hair he is often depicted with today? What exactly Paul meant by “long” is a matter for debate. It does not necessarily mean that Jesus went about with hair as short as some men wear it today. The Shroud of Turin, if it is authentic, shows the hair length to be at just about the length of the upper shoulder.  I also doubt that Jesus’ hair would be as straight as many post renaissance artists depict it. If Jesus was a Semite, his hair was probably far more coarse and wiry than European hair. It is also interesting that some of the earliest images we have of Jesus on the Catacomb walls depicts him as clean shaven with short hair. But this may simply be a projection of Mediterranean standards upon him. Again, all these ponderings of mine are speculative.

2. What of Jesus’ complexion? If Jesus was of Semitic stock (a point which some debate) it would follow that his skin was not as dark as that of a sub-Saharan African but neither was it as light as a northern European. Many Scholars think that the ancient Semites had something of an olive tone to their skin, generally dark colored hair that was thick and often wiry or curly. The picture at left was developed by scholars recently using forensic techniques on a skull found from the first century AD. While the skin tone and hair are more speculative, the appearance of the face is based on the techniques of forensic reconstruction (cf  HERE and HERE ). The image is not without controversy. Indeed there seem to be significant differences among scholars as to both the origin, appearance and general anthropology of the Semites who likely descended from Noah’s son Shem according to the Scriptures. Here again, I present these aspects of appearance to you only as speculative.

3. The Shroud of Turin – You have likely read much on the shroud. There is wide consensus today that the shroud comes from a period far earlier than the Middle Ages as was held in the 1980s when some questionable studies were conducted on it. Even if it dates from the time of Christ, this still does not prove it is his image. However the seemingly miraculous manner of the imprinting of the image is strong evidence not to be lightly set aside that this is in fact Christ’s image. Even if it is we have to be careful to remember that he had been savagely beaten and that this may have marred his appearance left on the shroud. Nevertheless, if this is Jesus’ image then we can see that he was 5-feet-10 to almost 6 feet tall and weighed about 180 pounds, had a fairly strong muscular build and a long nose seemingly typical with the Jews of his day. We have already remarked on the length of the hair and, despite Paul’s remark, his hair as depicted on the Shroud  was worn a bit longer than most men of today. The photo at the top of this post is based on the Shroud image. Again I caution,  these observations are all speculative based on the authenticity of the shroud of which the Church makes no official ruling.

Perhaps we do well to end where we began and question our own modern preoccupation with the physical appearance of Jesus and other biblical figures. It is true we are visual and will always prefer to see the face of those we love. But the Bible’s silence on these matters may be instructive and we do well to consider that the Scriptures invite us to look deeper than appearance, deeper than race or ethnicity. The Word became flesh in Jesus, but the Word must also become flesh in us and we must learn to find Christ in the Sacraments (cf  Luke 24:31,35), in the poor, in our neighbor, our enemy, our very selves.

This video is one of the most extraordinary  I’ve seen using a fascinating technology to show the many ways Jesus has been depicted down through the centuries. The images melt and morph into one another!