Friday, September 12, 2008

A Theology of the Body

"From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." Ephesians 4:16

For about two years I have considered writing a series of stories that deal with illnesses and the body. I use this term with hesitation and hope that at some point a better name will come to mind, as a key set of teachings from Pope John Paul II is called the Theology of the Body (and you can read more about it here). While the issues he discussed are more focused on matters of love and marriage, the notion of body permeates his thoughts. His message to the world is far more important than my own reflections, but nonetheless my mind is also drawn to the body from a different angle.

For those of you who do not know me so well, my work has involved considering the body on a genetic level, with a hope that our findings would shed light on why we have various illnesses, so that one day they may be better treated. In studying biology for the past 12 years, I am in many ways fulfilling my childhood wish of understanding what goes wrong when people we love get sick.

Thinking of the verse quoted at the top of this post, it is clear to me that the things which wound the Church as the Body of Christ may be better understood if we better understand what goes wrong in a physical body plagued by various diseases.

So here is the outline for these stories. Each chapter would begin with a real (or realistic) story about someone with a well-known disease. Starting with how one's life is affected by that disease, the story would progress to the level of organs, and then cells, and in some cases understanding what some molecules do to cause illness (without being fully reductionistic, of course). What I think emerges from such reflection is a clearer sense of the problems that we face not only as humans, but as members of one body in Christ.

Just as examples, consider these very brief descriptions, and you will begin to see if it wasn't obvious already that there are many parallels between the physical and spiritual bodies that we either have or comprise.

The caveat I would place on this analogy is that, especially as a Catholic, I would never say that the illnesses that the Body of Christ will suffer will actually cause death (Matthew 16). But that we would be very sick is not out of bounds with Church teaching. At the end of the day, I think each of the following illnesses (and more) characterizes various problems that we as Christians have in our life as one body.

1) Neurodegenerative diseases-the body loses an ability to either communicate to various parts, or parts of the storehouse of memories become destroyed or inaccessible to the body as a whole.
2) Cancer-one part of the body grows beyond its normal bounds, eventually invading other territories and damaging those invaded areas.
3) Heart-related illnesses-the body cannot bring nourishment to all locations for many reasons.
4) Immune deficiencies-the body cannot defend against harmful agents.
5) Autoimmunity-the body decides to attack what is not a harmful agent.
6) Malnutrition-the body is lacking in some factor that is needed for health.
7) Obesity-the body has an overabundance of some factor that is needed for health.
8) Liver and Kidney diseases-the body cannot filter and rid itself of waste properly.
9) Digestive issues-the body cannot process the nutrition that it receives.
10) Allergy-the body reacts to things that do not cause illness as though they do cause illness.

Well, 10 is a round number, but I hope you get a glimpse of what I am considering, and would like to know if this interests you. A friend of mine said that there are so few people who are interested in both biology and theology that the double filter will exclude 99.9% of the population. I think that illness is so ubiquitous that this criticism does not apply, but maybe I'm wrong.


foldreformer said...

I disagree with your friend...the book would be like "A Shepard looks at Psalm 23" for biologist. Catered to a Christian community and written for the average person, I think they would eat it up!

Tim A. Troutman said...

It sounds incredibly interesting to me. I would say just go easy on the medical jargon for us laymen.