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Beloved dust

Man has a long history of hating the human body, but God called it ‘good’

Beloved dust

Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld (John P. Johnson/HBO)

Once upon a sunlit spot of ground, God bent down and shaped a mound of dust. The elemental particles that made up the ground were already in place, and so were the elements of a home: blue sky holding in a band of oxygen, springs of water welling up below, a sun making its stately march across the sphere. “Dust” seems an odd medium for shaping, as it doesn’t stick together. But by divine will it did; its Maker considered it beautiful, like everything else. It was a new shape, never seen before—like everything else. At the end of His work, God bent down even further and breathed life into the form.

“And man became a living being.”

Not like everything else. That breath made the vital difference, uniting biological life with soul; the immaterial that sets the material apart from every other form of animal life. But the body was equally vital, both to Creator and creation. Spirit was not new; matter was. Matter was the thing declared “very good,” and the human body housing a conscious soul was its crowning achievement.

And we’ve despised it ever since.

Ancient philosophy saw the body as an encumbrance, good for testing or training but not much else.

Ancient philosophy, both West and East, saw the body as an encumbrance, good for testing or training but not much else. In the “Phaedo” dialogue, Plato describes Socrates facing death with unshakable calm, rejoicing that he will be freed from his pathetic body at last, to revel in his immortal soul forever. In a world without air conditioning, aspirin, and supermarkets it’s understandable how learned men could come to that conclusion. But in a world with all those things and much more, learned men have come to an opposite conclusion: that the soul does not exist and the body is an accidental assemblage of nerves, cells, and impulses. Either way, it’s despised.

How? Let me count the ways. We abuse it with alcohol or drugs. We indulge it with cheap food and no exercise. We stress it with hormones and extreme workouts. We chip away at it with liposuction and skin tucks, or pierce and burn it according to current standards of beauty. In extreme cases, we mutilate it to conform to personal notions of our “true” self. We flaunt, mock, disdain, or objectify it. With the fall of that first man, the human body lost its integrity: forever after in an uneasy relationship with the mind, or consciousness, or whatever part of us that transcends it.

Two current TV series show how technology could, in time, accomplish a complete separation between body and soul. In Altered Carbon, produced by Netflix, an individual’s memories can be saved on a digital device and inserted into new bodies (organic or synthetic) when the old ones wear out. In HBO’s Westworld, lifelike robots populate an old-West replication, where humans can live out their fantasies of unrestrained violence and sex. Both series include lots of nudity in a deliberately unsexual context—whether robotic or “altered,” these bodies are mere containers for human will, whether that will is exercised within or imposed from without. They get no respect.

The technology for human-like robots or downloaded personality may not be that far off, or so we’re told. When or if that happens, nothing will seem impossible. Once we’ve mastered the material of our own bodies, what’s to stop us from mastering matter itself?

Maybe this: Think back to that cleared spot of land, that handful of scraped-up dust. In medieval times, dust was a mysterious substance, sometimes associated with the “fifth element,” or “quintessence,” that held everything together. Out of some elemental particles that would not normally hold together, God shaped a body and breathed an immortal soul into it, with the knowledge that He would one day occupy something like this.

Christ’s body would be unassuming, and not especially attractive. But His Father loved it then, as a vessel of His mercy. He loves it now, resurrected and glorified. And He will love it through all eternity, surrounded by redeemed souls in material bodies of perfect integrity. The least we can do is love our own.