Scapegoating the Body

I recently completed what I think is my 10th year of catechizing 6th-graders in Wednesday Night Sunday School. I love teaching, but I like to also sit down and have someone else be the teacher, especially if they really have something to teach. My classes are on Wednesday nights at the same time RCIA; and on Thursdays the parish offers lectures on assorted topics of interest to Catholics such as the Reformation, the Divine Comedy, and Islam. Both RCIA and the Thursday night series are led by our Director of Christian Formation, T.J. Nielsen, who, like Goldilocks’ porridge, is just right: brisk, informed, funny, comment-and-question oriented, and not too Powerpointy.

But during the Catechetical year, having taught on Wednesday I don’t wanna go back out on Thursday; so I attended only one of T.J.’s presentations before May, and two more since then. My loss. I may try harder next year.

When I hear anyone speak live about religion-philosophy-culture-society, it’s usually from the pulpit on Sunday or a lectern during the week. I’m always catechetically assessing the moment-by-moment content of what I hear: do I cover that in class? If so, is this new content I can merge with what I already do? If I don’t cover it, should I? How much time would it take? How would I teach it to kids? That sort of thing. It’s affirming that most of what I hear from pulpit or lectern overlaps and harmonizes with lots of class content and thought-process, although the pitch is different. And even if there’s no direct lesson plan application of some memorable bit, inevitably some child will ask an off-the-wall question; and pow, I deliver an answer I mooched from someone else years ago.

So refining kids’ content through exposure to adult thinking is second nature. But over the last couple of weeks of being in T.J.’s class, I heard questions and comments coming from adults that I had already heard at least once from kids. And of course my 6th-grade answers were different from adult-type answers. So I felt constrained to strip the kiddie-approach out of anything I said before I commented. But still: meaningful adult content lay within children’s catechesis, content that wasn’t likely to emerge in an adult-only learning environment.

Last night’s parish lecture on the Catholic Worldview included discussion of a human being comprising a unity of a body and a soul. T.J. mentioned Manicheans and Gnostics, who align the Soul with light and the good; and the Body with darkness and evil.

A woman asked why Christian heretics such as the Cathars would reinvent those old ideas- after all, Genesis observes that everything was good. Now, kids don’t ask questions about Cathars or Gnostics. But kids ask questions about how our bodies and souls go together; and discuss why people don’t like to apologize or accept blame; why sin is bad; its effects; why bad things happen.

In class, Body and Soul is a theme that runs all the way from Genesis through the Mass. There was a good, kid-type answer to that woman’s question, but I had to think about it. After the lecture was over and people were chatting, I asked her if I could respond to her question especially with reference to the Genesis bit. She said sure.

I crouched down so I could touch the floor, and this is what I told her:

You’re right that Genesis says everything God made was good. That means even stuff like rocks. It was all good ’cause everything that comes from God is good unless something messes it up. But Adam and Eve sinned, and God said to Adam, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, You shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you.’

You may already know adama is Hebrew for earth, ground, dirt. So Adam was made from Adama and God’s breath (I pretend to scoop up dirt, breathe into it, and mold it), and he was good. Now Mr. Dirt has sinned. But Adam’s sin doesn’t just affect Adam the man; Mr. Dirt’s sin also curses the dirt, the adama (I angrily smack the floor), because they are connected. Adam sins, and all Creation pays for it.

Now nobody wants to think their sins have such repercussions; but I think when I sin, it may have some bad effect centuries or light years from here, like throwing a sin-rock into clean, calm water. I don’t know how far the bad ripples will go, but I expect to be appalled when I find out.

If God showed me right now all the bad I’ve caused, it’d probably kill me or at least drive me insane. And being prideful, I look for an easy way around that Matterhorn of guilt – you know, I’m not as bad as Hitler, or my prodigal brother, or Judas. Or my sins are just on me, so no biggie to get God’s pro-forma forgiveness.

I expect everybody looks for that sort of out: one that lets us keep most of our pride intact. So people take advantage of a major consequence of sin: death. See, death separates the body and soul, and the body belongs to the visible, physical world, which we already know is a mess: famine, plague, tornadoes, tigers, yuck! It was a mess before I got here!

So that must be the problem: our souls, our invisible real selves are good and pure, and not morally responsible for being stuck in these lousy sin-prone bodies. This heresy simply scapegoats the Body, in order that the Soul may get a pass. A convenient construct, but a false one. A human being is singular, even if we can imperfectly perceive different aspects of that singularity. We’re a bit like Jesus in that respect: Jesus comprises God/Man/Body/Soul all at once. But Jesus is singular; prying him apart is heretical. Likewise the Trinity: the three-ness is singular. Prying them apart is heretical.

The whole person sins. There’s no Gnostic spiritual better-half with an eternal get-out-jail-free card. That’s why there will be a Resurrection of the Dead before the Final Judgement: the whole person is good or bad, so the whole person will be judged. Ouch.

That’s why that heresy remains popular. And it’s why the Catholic Church is always clear about why it truly is heretical: the only out is true repentance, and the sacrifice of one’s pride.

Ouch again.

Copyright 2014, Christian LeBlanc

Christian LeBlanc

Christian LeBlanc

Christian LeBlanc is a revert whose pre-Vatican II childhood was spent in South Louisiana, where he marinated in a Catholic universe and acquired a Catholic imagination. During his middle school years in South Carolina, Christian was catechized under the benevolent dictatorship of Sister Mary Alphonsus, who frequently admonished him using the nickname "Little Pagan." After four years of teaching Adult Ed and RCIA, he returned to Sr. Alphonsus' old classroom to teach Catechism himself. Married to Janet, the LeBlancs have five children and two grandsons. Christian and Janet belong to St. Mary's Parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Christian also posts at Amazing Catechists and his blog, Smaller Manhattans. He is the author of The Bible Tells Me So: A Year of Catechizing Directly from Scripture.

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