Theology of the Body: Part 4: How To Be Naked

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Thus far the understanding of man’s original experience ‘in the beginning’ has perhaps felt a little dry and disconnected, for we are usually not accustomed to think in such a fashion about what I would call the primordial solidarity that we all share by virtue of being human. And to be sure, thinking about man’s original experience in terms of original solitude and unity can feel too abstract for most tastes. The point of JP II’s meditations, however, is not reconstruct an abstraction of the human experience, but rather to demonstrate its conceptual beginnings and foundations not only ‘in the beginning,’ but also as it is borne out in each man’s experience in history. This primordial solidarity is what he sees Jesus referring to in his discussion with the Pharisees, viz-a-viz the “beginning.”

As such, discovering the foundational ‘beginning’ has tremendous implications for the experience of being in and being a body, for by virtue of this embodied state of being man we all partake of the same experience of ‘historical man;’ thus the way in which it was ‘in the beginning’ is something which pertains to each of us now, and is ultimately indispensable for understanding the nature of man as male and female. JP II understands this as an “ontological depth” which is far too often unseen simply because it is too large and foundational for us to normally perceive it in our day-to-day lives.

Earlier we have seen original innocence as a “boundary experience-“ it is that state of man which allows us to peer into the moments of both his innocence and his fall, the former glimpsed by means of the experience of the latter. The sense and realization of being fallen inherently points one back to the original experience of innocence, for in the sense of loss is the perception of that which has been lost.

To round out the initial sketch of his biblical anthropology, JP II moves on to develop the final “original” state which is constituent of man’s nature; that of original nakedness. In the biblical text the male and female were created in such a way that each was aware of the other as a distinct self and thus as a body, but in this knowledge they knew no shame, despite their nakedness. JP II sees in this description another one of those “boundary experiences,” for in historical man the notion of nakedness does indeed include this element of shame. Thus, in the text we are allowed to peer back past the border of shame and understand the original experience of nakedness. For man in his original nakedness, this entailed

their reciprocal experience of the body, that is, the man’s experience of femininity that reveals itself in the nakedness of the body, and, reciprocally, the analogous experience of masculinity by the woman. (TOB 11.4)

The Genesis narrative proceeds to record the sad experience in which man crosses the threshold of shame, and in the new experience of disobedience realizes his shame and nakedness; as the text says, “the eyes of both were opened.” (Genesis 3:7) Continuing apace, this realization of shame is met with the first attempt to obviate it, and the man and woman do so by fashioning coverings for themselves. And while there are no doubt many implications to be drawn from this text, JP II wants to focus on the primordial experience, and what exactly constitutes the crossing over the boundary of shame.

Given the sense of original solitude, the ‘knowledge’ gained from eating of the forbidden tree is fundamentally not that each of them- male and female- are a body, and that each is his own self. For man’s experience of solitude, while not good, was nevertheless his first understanding of himself in relation to the world; that is, he was alone among all other living things. This sense of solitude is constituent of his nature, but is consummated in the original unity into which he awakes as male and female. Even though his experience as male or female becomes the essential meaning of his body as it is realized in any man or woman, the experience of solitude is nevertheless an experience which marks his nature.

This being the case, the relation in unity between male and female as marked by the reciprocal openness to the other is the defining characteristic of original nakedness. The boundary of shame is thus crossed not because that relationship changes ontologically, but rather because of

a radical change in meaning of the original nakedness of the woman before the man and of the man before the woman… This change directly concerns the experience of the meaning of one’s own body before the Creator and creatures… In particular, this change…concerns directly… the relation between man and woman, between femininity and masculinity. (TOB 11.5)

But what is this change in meaning which brings about a different and diminished relation? JP II understands it as the experience of

fear in the face of the ”second I” (thus, for example, woman before man), and this is substantially fear of one’s own “I.” (TOB 12.1)

In our own experience of shame, we feel this fear in relation to others, both on this fundamental level and on more mundane and trivial levels. We see in each other person a potential threat, another “I’ which threatens to crowd out our own, yet the simultaneous experience is that it is the very other “I’s’ which so threaten us which are indispensable for affirming our own sense and worth as an “I.” The threshold of shame is thus crossed in each of us, for we all sense this fear both in respect to our relations with others and in relation to our own solitude.

JP II sees the concept of original nakedness as expressing a positive vision of humanity in its primordial nature. The ‘lack’ of shame is not a defect that was remedied by the ‘knowledge’ from the tree of good and evil, but was rather in itself a fullness of being. In essence, original nakedness expresses man’s completeness in himself and in relation, in which the reciprocal relation of male and female is not only unhindered by shame but is actually fulfilled and consummated in the freedom of relation. This freedom and fullness thus speaks to man’s original conception of himself as a body and as in relation to bodies, a true and proper understanding of himself.

This understanding began with the experience of original solitude, in which man finds himself alone and has the sense of “non-identification” (TOB 12.3) with the rest of living things. This solitude, while it ever remains a part of him, gives way to original unity when he awakes to find himself male and female, two reciprocal ways of incarnating man as a body:

[This] discovery is the direct and visible source of experience that effectively establishes their unity in humanity. For this reason, it is not difficult to understand that nakedness corresponds to that fullness of consciousness of the meaning of the body that comes from the typical perception of the senses. (TOB 12.3)

While the senses give us a concrete perception of what JP II calls “exterior” reality, in which we palpably recognize both our nature as an ‘I’ in relation to the world, the experience of nakedness also carries with it an interior expression of being an “I:”

In this way, the human body acquires a completely new meaning, which one cannot place on the same level as the remaining “exterior” perception of the world. In fact, it expresses the person in his or her ontological and essential concreteness, which is something more than “individual,” and thus expresses the human, personal “I,” which grounds its “exterior” perception from within. (TOB 12.4)

The upshot of this is that our sense of being an “I” among other “I’s” is predicated on an interior perception of oneself, both as constituted in original solitude, but also as found within original unity. The very essence of being a body as male or female highlights both oneself as an “I” but also as an “I” who is meant for unity with another “I,” a reciprocity that is written into each of us as male or female. Our very bodies point to the “communion of persons” which marks humanity in its deepest essence. The body, as JP II argues, “manifests” man, and thus each of our individual experiences as being man as male or female allows us to “communicate” with each other as persons, precisely because of the manifestation of the “I” as a body.

Original nakedness thus points to the fullness of the communion of persons, in which each “I” fully expresses itself and reciprocally communicates itself to the other. While it may seem paradoxical, it is in the fullness of this reciprocal communication that each “I” can most fully realize itself, for in original nakedness man is not marked by shame but rather by the uninhibited expression of himself in relation to the other.

In such a relationship, the words “they did not feel shame” can only signify (in sensu obliquo [in an indirect sense]) an original depth in affirming what is inherent in the person, that is, what is “visibly” feminine and masculine, through which the “personal intimacy” of reciprocal communication is constituted in all its radical simplicity and purity. (TOB 12.5)

It is only with the experience of shame that man becomes less of an “I,” in which he feels fear not only in the face of other “I’s” but even in the face of himself. Rather than purity and simplicity, man is left with a mess of himself, for that which is deepest in him is set against itself, so that solitude longs for unity, but unity shrinks in fear of solitude. The feeling and experience of shame becomes the deciding factor, and once the boundary is crossed man loses the order and purity which is meant to mark the nature of man. Nakedness thus points to man at peace with himself and with others, content in the knowledge of himself as an “I” in relation to the other. This nakedness thus brings solitude and unity into harmony, and allows the fullness of man’s experience as a body to realize and synthesize itself completely in the experience of man as male and female in the reciprocity of masculinity and femininity.

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Jason Watson

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