Thursday, April 28, 2011

Unvanquished Spirit

Today, I visited an old friend, Walt Whitman. He asks some very poignant questions:

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;         5
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?

This entry to "I Sing the Body Electric," which is misunderstood by many (particularly those who avoid reading it because their pastor told them it is sinful), responds to Whitman's contemporaries, such as Queen Victoria and the growing popularity of philosophical materialism. It also points to a false dilemma in Western theology, which Thandeka brought to my attention nearly a decade ago. 

In Part I of her systematic theology sequence, entitled Losing Bodies, Saving Souls, Thandeka exposed the thought undergirding St. Augustine's Confessions. For Augustine (and St. Paul before him), the central problem for humanity is the body. As a frame of reference, Thandeka required several dozen books and articles in psychoanalysis, neuroscience and the emerging division of "the prevention and control of violence" that, together, helped a classroom filled with progressive seminarians understand that St. Augustine (and, yes, St. Paul before him) interpolated his own traumatic life experiences into his understanding of Jesus' teachings. Somehow, Augustine's writings form the theological basis for Western Christian thought--all of it: his guilt over childhood misbehavior, his self-righteousness, his quasi-erotic lust for transcendent spiritual experience, the feeling of emptiness in his soul, his quasi-political allegiance to Christian authorities, and so forth. Augustine's solution is to embrace all of the above in service to the soul, and Christian authorities return the favor by codifying Augustine's doctrine of the vanquished flesh.

Thandeka, as an Emmy award-winning journalist, refuses to speak on behalf of Augustine or the field of Human Sciences, but allows these writings to be read on their own terms. Then expertly, as a theologian, she juxtaposes Augustine's inner turmoil with 20th century writers who disclose the key to resolution. Kathleen Greider's Reckoning with Aggression and Arnold Goldberg's Being of Two Minds (among others) respond to troubled individuals such as Augustine. The entire corpus of theology built upon Augustine's disembodied soul, therefore, must be viewed in light of our patriarch's disordered thinking. 

We already know what happens when clergy teach their adherents to deny their bodies in order to save their souls. The slaughter of American Indian, "Latin" American and Philippine peoples illustrate the devastating consequences of the vertical split in Christian theology (not to mention 9/11). What, however, becomes of bodies that fall victim to misguided clergy who act against the souls of those seen as "other." And what ought to become of such clergy?

The Hebrew Bible reader in me wishes for eternal punishment for such impostors. The post-Augustinian in me, however, reminds me that such reprehensible behavior happens as a result of mental illness. This is not to say that Augustine is the problem. People (and theologies) that rely on the manipulation of the soul or of the body gravitate toward the mentally ill musings of Augustine precisely because he encourages their aggression and psychosis. These clergy need a few things: the support of a good psychiatrist, a survey course in postmodern theology, perhaps a re-reading of "I Sing the Body Electric," and maybe even a congregational vote.

Morality becomes immorality when it denies human body/soul: disembodied souls, or clergy whose fleshly impulses consume every ounce of spirituality surrounding their dying bodies. The Salem Witch Trials could not produce peace, and Pat Robertson's hateful remarks about the people of Haiti and New Orleans did not invite "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." For even demons quote scripture. And what of the clergy who preach without regard to goodness, joy, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control and other humanistic/spiritual virtues (those who molest children or swindle parishioners and colleagues)? Such clergy undermine God's perfect creation and, instead of saving lives, they impose upon everyone they encounter a portion of their own unhappiness and hopelessness. They revert society back to the perfect order (i.e., insidious oppression) that Queen Victoria advanced, and they propagate elitism. Such clergy exemplify Whitman's depictions of predatory elbow-rubbing slave-holders in parlors and lecture-rooms (stanzas VII-VIII). 

Who knew Walt Whitman was both a poet and prophet, other than his readers who have healed their own souls through embodying the Spirit that yet lives!

1 comment:

  1. Daniel, Dark text does not contrast enough with your brown background! Otherwise I am impressed.