Vile and Holy Bodies: Sacraments & Surgery

In a 2007 interview with The Other Journal, Eugene McCarraher from Villanova University spoke about the importance of viewing secular culture, not as an independent sphere to which theology has nothing to say. 

Following lines of analyses laid out by John Milbank and William Cavanaugh (and in some cases further radicalising them), McCarraher argued that what takes place in the secular sphere is actually distorted to the extent that it does not square up with the grammar of Christian accounts. 

To put it in McCarraher's words, what secular culture manifests is not its own, completely unique account of the way things are, but "a perversion of our desires for a beloved, sacramental community". This should not only embolden Christians to give more confessionally robust evaluations of the manifestations of contemporary culture, since these accounts should expose cultural dynamics that non-Christian accounts would miss.

Take for instance the issue of plastic surgery, which was covered recently on this blog. Whilst that post looked at plastic surgery as a relevant issue of epistemology, it is also possible to look at plastic surgery as an attempt at divinising the body. If, as Herve Juvin famously said, that the soul is now located on the surface of the skin, the augmentation of the body can be seen as a secular version of augmenting the soul as well. The perfecting of the body to angelic proportions is thus an attempt to realise the earthly body's attempt to reach beyond its mortal coil towards more heavenly states (think of Gillette Venus' equation of shaving with releasing one's "inner goddess").

However, as blogger at large Matthew Tan argued in a paper at the Centre in Theology and Philosophy Conference on the Soul, the postmodern city is only paying lip service to anything truly transcendent, locking all heavenly discourses within a cage of sheer temporality. Plastic surgery is but one example of this locking of the divine within the temporal. This pretense at the heavenly can only end up in disillusionment with all things, including the temporal. Things, including bodies, are thus seen as vile, as the author Evelyn Waugh once observed in his novel Vile Bodies.

Inasmuch as this locking within temporality occurs, it is but a parody of the Christian sacrament. From the standpoint of phenomenlogy, the sacrament presents a temporal sign, but the sign nonetheless has within it the means of saturating temporality and going beyond it to an invisible and real universe.

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