Why are we talking so much about bodies? Not just Christians, but everyone. Whether it’s our devotion to workouts and dieting, our “gender trouble” and overwrought attempts at sexual ethics, our reproductive anxieties, our reckoning with racial histories, our climate emergency, or some other perplexity, the fleshiness of our lives stands front and center in our conversations, now more than in recent memory. Our bodies matter to us, apparently.

Sarah Coakley has some thoughts about it. Coakley is an eminent theologian, best known for her beautiful discussions of eros that move beyond “libertine” and “repressive” fixations on libido to instead consider desire as belonging to God first and finally, as God’s tug on us into God’s life. I stumbled on an essay of hers from almost 20 years ago, but an excerpt from the introduction proves how relevant it remains (and how clearly her English eyes can discern certain American manias). So, why bodies?

Devoid now of religious meaning or of the capacity for any fluidity into the divine, shorn of any expectation of new life beyond the grave, [the body] has shrunk to the limits of individual fleshliness; hence our only hope seems to reside in keeping it alive, youthful, consuming, sexually active, and jogging on (literally), for as long as possible.

Yet even as we do this (in America, at any rate, with an unexamined neo-ascetical self-righteousness, what from a Christian standpoint we may deem a sweaty Pelagianism), the anxious question presses: what is this “body” that I “have”? From what other site of control am “I” pummeling it into submission, beauty or longevity? Herein lie what Daniel Bell has, in another context, called our “cultural contradictions.” For in the late twentieth-century affluent West, the “body”, to be sure, is sexually affirmed, but also puritanically punished in matters of diet or exercise; continuously stuffed with consumerist goods, but guiltily denied particular foods in aid of the “salvation” of a longer life; taught that there is nothing but it (the “body”), and yet asked to discipline it with an “I” that still refuses complete materialistic reduction. Despite the legion cries for greater “embodiment”, for a notion of self as body, the spectres of religious and philosophical dualism die hard; somewhere the last smile on a Cartesian Cheshire cat still lurks, or is it even a more ancient manifestation of “soul”?

It is, I suggest, precisely these contradictions that should alert us to a latent cultural yearning in the matter of “bodies”—not towards the immediate sexual fulfillment that appears as the ubiquitous cultural palliative (if only in fantasy), but an equally erotic yearning towards a more elusive eschatological goal.

Too highfalutin? Coakley’s main aim in the essay is to compare Judith Butler’s anti-essentialist gender theory with St. Gregory of Nyssa’s vision of gender transformation in God, so the academic orientation may not be for everyone.

However, she does make some more mundane observations, too. With a view to the cultural contradictions about pleasure and self-discipline that she lays out, she goes on to argue about media representation, too:

From this perspective the bodily obsessions just described—the quest for longevity, beauty, health, sexual performance—bespeak a prevailing denial of death. But … it is also in contemporary “popular” cultural products … that we encounter an incipient countervailing acknowledgment of the facts of death, of a longing for a body beyond death, and of confusion in the face of the changed features of the ghostly body.

We, too, have some thoughts about pop culture’s eschatological yearnings. And that’s where Coakley wants to take us, ultimately: to a different, but more hopeful, vision of our bodies.

Featured image: Closer to Truth.