Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review of Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection

Joshua Paul Smith. Review of Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2007).

The problem of a normative dualism has for centuries—millennia, even—plagued not only the most brilliant theological minds of the Church, but has been a driving force behind popular culture, as well. A Neo-Gnostic separation of soul from body is alive and well in many churches today, and continues to inform popular conceptions of what constitutes a “normal” human body. The harm that this dualism visits upon the body—particularly female bodies—is ironically both physical and spiritual. Bodies are fashioned and broken by the 10-billion-dollar-a-year cosmetic surgery industry, by eating disorders, and by dangerous normative expectations glimpsed in tabloids and on swimsuit models. Few attempts have been made by theologians to reconcile a Christian understanding of a bodily resurrection with feminist conceptions of the body. Such is the basis for Beth Felker Jones’s Marks of His Wounds. In five short chapters, Jones attempts to argue that not only do gendered bodies matter in the future physical resurrection of the dead, they are indeed integral to understanding the grace of God’s redemptive plan for humanity.
Jones’s thesis is twofold: 1) A new, holistic feminist anthropology is needed to replace those feminist theories of the last several decades that have slipped into a body/soul dualism that considers only the female body or only the female essence, and 2) this holistic feminist theory of the body is reconcilable to the orthodox Christian tradition of the physical resurrection of the dead. This twofold thesis is punctuated by the necessity of bodily sanctification reaching from the eschaton into the present.
In the first chapter, entitled, “The Body Broken,” the author establishes the problem that she hopes to address—namely, that current feminist and theological anthropologies have proven insufficient for developing a theology of the body as a psychosomatic (body/soul) unity. To take on a feminist theology of bodily resurrection, it is first necessary to determine what constitutes embodiment, and furthermore, feminine embodiment. A difficulty with any such undertaking is that even feminists are predominantly dualistic when it comes to theories of the body: either a woman is a woman because of her physical composition (essentialism), or gender itself is transcendent and performative, based upon roles dictated by a one’s dominant culture (constructivism). Rejecting this dangerously dichotomous approach, Jones suggests that there is a third option which allows for both the respect of our physical forms as well as the recognition that humans are more than the sum of our parts: the body is good, says Jones, but the body is also broken.
The second and third chapters (“The Body Ordered” and “The Body Dying,” respectively) expand upon this idea with perspectives on the general resurrection of the dead from Augustine and Calvin. Utilizing Augustine’s theology of the body and his understanding of bodies that are “ordered toward God,” Jones argues that physical resurrection of the gendered body must occur if the redeeming work of the Creator is to be complete. The physical body is not inherently evil—quite the opposite, in fact. The physical body, as a creation of God, is good. Through sin, however, holistic body/soul unities become disordered in our love of “things of the flesh” over the “things of God.” Jones insists, along with Augustine, that the future resurrection of the dead necessarily rests on the re-ordering of psychosomatic entities toward the City of God through the transformation of psychikon bodies into pneumatikon bodies.
Jones’s treatment of John Calvin, however, is not as clear. Calvin’s theology of the body, she points out, differs significantly from that of Augustine. While Augustine understood the body to be inherently good yet disordered under sin, Calvin understands the body as that which prevents the soul from fully comprehending God. Where Augustine viewed the corruptibility of the flesh as the ultimate enemy of embodied creatures, Calvin reserves this claim for death itself. In fact, while the future bodily resurrection of the dead is a theological reality for Calvin, he nevertheless maintains an intrinsic dualism that distinguishes body from soul. However, Jones argues that for Calvin, the concept of the noetic—that is, the intellectual knowing of God—is ultimately inextricable from the optic, or the seeing of God at the eschaton, and that these are in turn connected to God’s sanctification of the physical individual. This implied physical act is vital to an embodied feminist theology that embraces the gendered physicality of the resurrection.
In the fourth chapter, “The Body Raised,” the author further argues the necessity to conceptualize human beings as psychosomatic wholes. Jones makes a case for the non-reductive physicalism of the body/soul unity. Regardless of what a soul is, is should be understood as completely inseparable from the physical body. In essence, one’s identity is bound by both body and soul. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the hypostatic unity of Christ himself—though the analogy ultimately breaks down, the psychosomatic unity for which Jones argues is nevertheless very similar to the contention that the physical body of Jesus and the divine nature of Christ were one and the same.
The final chapter, “The Body Sanctified,” establishes an ethics of living the eschaton in the present as proleptic of the future resurrection of the dead. Jones here examines two traditions of resurrection embodiment: the eradication of gender in the resurrection according to Eastern tradition, and the retention of gendered resurrection bodies in the Augustinian tradition. For feminist theologies, the Eastern tradition is particularly problematic, since it rests on the presumption that gender will not be carried over into the resurrection due to the inclination of gendered physical bodies toward lust. This perspective, Jones maintains, is inherently gender-biased. One might here recall the promise of Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas to make Mary the Magdalene male in order that she might participate in the Reign of God. Instead, Jones maintains the full continuity of (albeit redeemed and transformed) gendered bodies in the resurrection. Augustine’s concept of bodies reordered at the eschaton toward the love of God eliminates any concern of lust from those who might claim gender retention unholy. Furthermore, Jones concludes that an embodied resurrection must have implications in the present—the Church much take its cue from Jesus, who remains for us the example of one truly ordered toward God, not in his maleness, but in his cruciformity. 
There are, of course, occasional shortcomings in Jones's argument. For instance, the concept of humans as psychosomatic wholes—the very premise upon which this study rests—leaves a few questions unanswered when explored more thoroughly. If, like Jones, we are to reject both essentialism, which claims that gender is determined by physical anatomy, and constructivism, which holds that gender is the sum of one's environment and social upbringing, then what of those who are subject to the very real dualism lived out every day in the transgender community? If one's gender is integral to his or her identity in the redeemed New Creation, how then are we to approach those for whom sexual identity is an unclear struggle, or otherwise completely dichotomous? If the physical, gendered body is important in the resurrection to mark someone as a fully integrated person, then what of those with androgynous or intersex bodies? Jones's claim has very serious implications for a great number of people whom she fails to acknowledge in her assessment. 
Despite all this, Marks of His Wounds remains a well-argued and thoughtful examination of both the dangers of Neo-Gnostic body/soul dualism and the necessity of an adequate theology of the body that respects what God created as good—human, gendered, psychosomatic wholes. Though at times Jones’s primary thesis may appear lost among dense language and layered thoughts, the book ultimately converges on the very heart of what it means to confess belief in resurrection of the dead: that God created human bodies as good, and God will restore them to that goodness once again in the New Creation.

No comments:

Post a Comment