Toward An Adventist Theology of Health (Part 2) — On the Body

Toward An Adventist Theology of Health (Part 2) — On the Body

Written by: 
December 10, 2015

On November 15, 2015, Argentinean and worldwide soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona had a second gastric operation after his doctor warned that the 55-year-old former player is 75 kg (165 pounds) over his ideal weight. In 2005 he had already undergone gastric bypass surgery to lose weight and has since developed various complications but, above all, has uncontrollably kept gaining weight. Dr Carlos Felipe Chaux performed both of Maradona's gastric surgeries. This time doctors put an adjustable width tight apron into the stomach to further reduce its capacity. Maradona is aiming to lose 30 to 35 kilograms (66 to 77 pounds) over the next year and hopes to lose 75 kilograms in total. The medical staff insistently warned Maradona that their prescription diet must be strictly followed because lack of self-discipline in overeating might loosen the gastric bands or cause formation of a small stomach pouch that could become risky.

It is sad and puzzling to see a soccer wizard who could so magically control the ball with both feet, now failing to control his own body. But losing control of our own body is certainly not a problem unique to Maradona, even though he is an extreme example. We moderns all have a continuing and often unrecognized problem with our own bodies. But it is not self-evident that Westerners’ major problem is lack of control. There are significant cultural signs that persuasively suggest our problem could be rather the opposite. We are suffering more today, physically and psychologically, by an excessive control of our bodies. And that apparent lack of control we sense in our lives could be a sublimating “Reaction Formation” (Reaktionsbildung) – as classical psychoanalysis had already identified when talking about the more common defense mechanisms. The paradoxical issue of the body in Western culture could be then expressed this way: “we can lose control of the body we obsessively try to control too much”.

What has been the destiny of the body in this Western civilization we Adventists have so tightly bound our own destiny to? Let’s consider three distinctive cultural marks of Western civilization on the body.

1. A “disenchanted” Body

We implicitly live and act today based on this uncontested presupposition. And it can be traced back to one of the leading founders of modern thought: Rene Descartes. Previously the body incarnated a kind of irreducible mystery, due to its multiple aspects that pre-modern religion and medicine couldn't fully explain. For this reason they tried to at least partially make the distinction between superstition (unjustified mystery) and transcendence (justified mystery). Descartes and other scientists started a trend that went in the opposite direction. They tried to explain nature and humanity in more mechanistic terms. This was not all bad because one of the negative effects of a medieval world-view was that it excessively bound humanity to other-worldly realities. And even though thinkers like Descartes still maintained God was necessary, somewhere and somehow, those who came afterward began presupposing only one reality – the existential. But the final result was not only to forget the heavenly reality but also that of re-defining human reality – without any transcendence. And the lack of transcendence (a loss) was covered positively as a gain (more precision).  But the loss of one dimension can't be compensated with the radicalization of the remaining one. This double cultural move, the loss of an “external-transcendence” and that of an “internal-transcendence” were significantly facilitated by Descartes. He divided human reality in two components that he called “substances” to radically underline their detachment and autonomy: “res cogitans” and  “res extensa”. The “res extensa” (matter) defined this way was implicitly robbed of its transcendence and became purely reduced to one of its components: the measure, the quantity. Reducing matter to measurement gave a lot of precision and efficiency to human processes and also to modern medicine. But meanwhile the body, following this first Cartesian postulate, started to be viewed just as “disenchanted” flesh (“res extensa”).

2. A “governable” Body

In fact the first hidden effect, behind the increased precision in analyzing (diagnosis) and in managing (treatment) the body, was the paradoxical neutralization of the body. Here the body is reduced to one of its dimensions and by this made steerable. The body is viewed as incapable of movement or initiative. It has become paralyzed. But since the body can't stop moving, because movement is health and sickness is the lack of it, movement will henceforth be considered as external to the body. Up until then movement had been partially considered as intrinsic to the body itself. But since we couldn't re-introduce transcendence body movement was delegated to the other substance, the “res cogitans”. So Descartes’ first cultural move was radicalized by this and made worse by a second one. This one, bound to the introduction of “res cogitans” (the thinking man) is not only defined in a new way, without the necessity of his own body (“res extensa”), but becomes fully empowered. The value Descartes has erroneously taken away from the Body (“res extensa”) he gives to the thinking subject (“res cogitans”) – amplifying and unduly inflating man’s own capacity of controlling (“res cogitans”). The body has become much too dependent on the thinking subject, and the thinking subject has become a “hyper-controlling subject”.

Transposed to medical language it means that the “neurological system” with its superior prerogatives, becomes the new center of the body. This gradual, consistent medical shift is already present during the 18th century in La Mettrie's “Homme machine” (“The Machine Man”), in the 19th century with the biological and medical work of Xavier Bichat or Claude Bernard, in the 20th century’s vision of the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) and reaches its climax in the new medical definition of death. The term “brain death” doesn't appear in print until 1968, with the publication of a report by the Harvard Medical University committee entitled “A definition of Irreversible Coma”. Brain death, as concept, emerged slowly on the scene and as such substituted the classical cardiopulmonary definition. It also confirmed and gave scientific validity to Descartes’ double intuition. The Body is “death flesh” and the Brain (the upper/cortex neurological system) is the “life-giving” and “governing” new center of the individual.

3. A “mystified” Body

Meanwhile something has happened within the monolithic certainty of the controlling subject as constructed by contemporary Western medicine and culture. On one level nothing has really changed. In fact technical medicine has gone even further in the validation of this dualistic scheme and reductive strategy. But on another level, a more cultural one, the so-called post-modernity period, certainties once firm have been eroded and dismantled. And this coincides with the emergence of multiple new categories of “alternative medicines”. All these new therapeutic strategies (exotic, tolerated or heterodox medicines), even if not always convincing in their proposals, have the consistency of an implicit and radical critic to the instrumental dualism and biological reductionism of today’s medicine.

But even with the presence of this new awareness, it remains challenging to really culturally embrace holism. So the usual way of coping with the paradoxical is the mental model of dual truth. I keep trusting my life to technical medicine (ICU) but in parallel I also continue to engage in Yoga or breathing cosmic healing aromas. It is in this context that a new parallel relation to the body is born. What Foucault calls “The Care of the Self”. It's a new anthropology with strong aesthetics and mystical tones. The new religion of the body proposes an alternative and efficacious renewed worship of health, beauty and youth. Is this new “re-enchantment of the body” the same as that of pre-modern times or non-Western cultures? The answer is not easy. Historic and cultural development appears to be more cyclical than we used to think.

How has Adventism reacted to this cultural development of disenchantment, radical control and mystification of the body?  If there is a religious group that has paid courageous and undivided attention to the body it is surely Adventism. But on a deeper level, it paradoxically seems that Adventism has not corrected the “disenchantment”, “radical control” and “mystification” clauses of contemporary culture and medicine but rather reinforced them by providing a theological justification. Our voluntaristic, individualistic and rational anthropology is a clear expression of our paradoxical complicity with the main cultural presuppositions of our contemporary culture. The obsession of an absolutely coherent believer (always in control of his/her body and sexuality) and our limited anthropological holism (that pays no attention to emotions, paradoxes, or asymmetries in the understanding of our existence) – doesn't point to an alternative, but rather are the extension of modern Western culture’s presuppositions. Through an ideological and unilateral attachment to the principle of “Sola Scriptura” and the parallel inattention or disinterest in a serious socio-cultural analysis of its own identity, Adventism has not yet corrected this “Control Syndrome”, at the root of todays anthropological impasse, but is reinforcing it.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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