Monday, 14 January 2013

Man and woman: the beginning


It has been a long time since I last read a text that filled me with excitement and admiration and lead me through a seemingly inexhaustible sequence of insights and profound realizations. The book I am talking about is John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them,” which presents his “Theology of the Body” - a term that I have heard mentioned on various blogs but that has meant little more to me than a buzz-word so far.

The book presents the content of a series of talks that Blessed John Paul II gave during his Wednesday general audiences between September 1979 and November 1984 (!) that closely track a manuscript he wrote before being elected pope. Instead of the usual pastoral material, typically presented at events like these, the first chapter already makes it crystal clear that the book is going to be technical and intellectually challenging material. To think that he shared it with the crowds who came to see him in Rome is astonishing to me by itself, as it is the polar opposite of the typical dumbing-down that so often informs pubic communication.

The starting point is the origin of the family in marriage, whose indissolubility Jesus categorically reaffirms when challenged by some Pharisees:
“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator created them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh’? So it is that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined let man not separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6; emphasis by John Paul II)
Here John Paul II picks up on Jesus’ emphasis on “the beginning” and his quoting of verses from two separate chapters of Genesis. Instead of this passage from Matthew being only taken as a confirmation and reinforcement of the Genesis model of marriage, Jesus’ emphasis on “the beginning” triggers an analysis of the creation of humanity. In fact, John Paul II focuses on the specific features and complementary differences of the two Genesis accounts to look not only at the differences between male and female genders, but at key characteristics of what it means to be human.

The first account (which is chronologically more recent and which has more of a theological character) is that “God created man [hā’ādām, collective noun: “humanity”?] in his image, in the image of God he created him, man [zākār, male] and woman [neqēbāh, female] he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, John Paul II’s additions in []). In other words, the creation of man and woman is “a single act.” In contrast, in the second account (which is more ancient and has more of a mythical character), man’s creation (Genesis 2:5-7) precedes that of woman’s (Genesis 2:18-23). However, even here, the first human being is called “man” (’ādām), “while from the moment of the creation of the first woman, [Genesis] begins to call him “male,” îš, in relation to ’iššāh (“woman,” because she has been taken from the male = îš).”

While the above “single-act” creation of the sexes is an aspect of Genesis that I certainly was not aware of, the most impressive move in John Paul II’s analysis comes next and is the insight that the solitude of the pre–male-female differentiated “man,” - expressed in Genesis as “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18) - is a reference not only to an individual’s solitude (lacking a mate) but to a fundamental feature of every person’s nature. In Genesis, the first “man” is shown both as being separate from the rest of creation (being alone in spite of a multitude of other living beings already populating the world) and as searching for his identity (being asked by God to name “every living creature” but not “find[ing] a help similar to himself” (Genesis 2:19-20)).

This original solitude of the human person indicates self-consciousness and the commandment about not eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” introduces self-determination (free will) as a basic feature of humanity. These two together make the human person “created in the image of God” and a “partner of the Absolute.” Next, John Paul II argues that it is man’s (’ādām’s) body that is the source of his awareness of solitude. This body that could have made man place himself as equal among the other created bodies, instead gives him awareness of his otherness and solitude. This in turn makes it evident that “the “invisible” determines man more than the “visible”.”

Next, man’s body is also the means of his “cultivating the earth” (Genesis 2:5) and “subdu[ing] it” (1:28), as the Genesis account further states. As a result, the human body is not only involved in man’s awareness of his separateness from the rest of creation and his potential for self-determination, but also “permits him to be the author of genuinely human activity[, where] the body expresses the person.” The final ingredient that John Paul II identifies in the Genesis account is the introduction of the difference between death an immortality in the form of the mystery of the three of knowledge: “The LORD God gave the man this order: You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17).

With man’s features emerging as his self-consciousness, self-determination and, as their consequence, relating to God as a partner, John Paul II turns to taking a closer look at the meaning of the original unity of humanity. The starting point here is an argument for there being a distinction between “bodiliness and sexuality” whereby our being bodies is fundamental to the structure of our being personal subjects, even before differences between the male and female genders are considered. Being a body is fundamental to being human and is intrinsic to the nature of that humanity (as John Paul II argues above), while masculinity and femininity are “two ways in which [a] human being […] is a body.” These two ways of being human bodies – the “double unity as male and female” – are introduced as means of overcoming the solitude of the sexually undifferentiated human. From the Genesis account of how male and female are differentiated, John Paul II notes in particular two aspects: First, that the “second I” - the female - that emerges from the “torpor” of the undifferentiated man during which differentiation is created - is “also personal and equally related to the situation of original solitude.” Second, that man “shows joy and even exultation […] for the other human being, for the second “I”.”

The first 8 chapters, a high-level synthesis of which the above has attempted, take us to the point of the basic features of man and woman having been sketched out, which is then the starting point for looking at the nature of the marital relationship. What I found particularly impressive, beyond the actual content and the psychological and anthropological profile of the human person that John Paul II presents, is the method of analysis he applies to Genesis. Throughout this discourse he is very clear about considering that text to be of mythical character, which “does not refer to fictitious-fabulous content, but simply to an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.” And he goes on to say that “[w]ithout any difficulty, we discover that content under the stratum of the archaic narrative, truly marvelous in the quality and condensation of the truths contained there.” What a guy! While I certainly cannot echo the “without difficulty” qualifier, the marvelousness and “quality and condensation of the truths” that he manages to reveal in this ancient text is amazing. His approach strikes me as being categorically different both from a naive, literal reading of Genesis that leads some to highly irrational and a-scientific conclusions and from a superficial “this is just a story” approach that fails to uncover deeper meaning.