A New Ordering of the Body of Thought

We can trace three psychological types in the New Testament, which correspond to three psychoanalytic descriptions, in which the coordinates between the mind and the body are determinative of alternative perceptions of reality.  What might be called the inside out person is completely subject to the valuation of cultural norms, such that there is no interior conflict or alternative awareness, at least at a conscious level (here we encounter the most common type and the most frightening possibilities). The second type is someone who begins to question the order of things (the cultural norms, the symbolic order, the law) but the struggle with these norms is still determinative, as there seems to be no way forward or no escape. The third type has not exactly escaped appearances or phenomena arising from the symbolic or cultural order, but there is a turn to an alternative order of experience.  Deploying the work of the philosopher Michel Henry, it is this third type that I want to explore in depth, but a description of the first two orders of experience will indicate the way the third order of experience is constituted.

The inside out person, the individual who knows who she is based on the scale of values afforded by complete identity with the law or the symbolic order, is at one level the most transparent and the most dangerous. Paul, during the phase in which he is arresting and presumably aiding in killing Christians, is transparent in his identity. He describes this phase of his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free in which he regarded himself “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). Paul has a clear conscience.  No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. By reason of his birth, his descent from Benjamin, his linguistic and cultural identity as a Hebrew, Paul considered himself faultless and head and shoulders above his peers. His status as a Jew is his identity. This is an inside out world, as we understand this Paul by the outward markers of the law and his Jewishness. Inside out characters must be the most predominant: the Adolph Eichmanns of the world, willing to find their identity in the bureaucracy, the law, the legal proceedings, making sure the trains to the death camps are running on time. Their ambitions, hopes, and desires, are determined completely by the particular symbolic world in which they find themselves. Perhaps we all come to age as petty bureaucrats, presuming the order of things and the scale of values are those set out by the social order.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis this type is dubbed masculine, not because it necessarily pertains to gender, but because of complete identification with societal authority or the father figures of a particular cultural order. As Paul describes this type, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (Romans 7:1 DBH translation). Paul will identify this type, according to his own experience, as ignorant of their own actions and an incapacity to discern evil. There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.” [1] The problem is, the flesh marked by the law, has become a principle unto itself.

The second type of subject questions the cultural symbolic order but this questioning and challenging become definitive of this individual. Paul devotes most of chapter 7 of Romans to describing this individual, continually tossed about by their orientation or disorientation to the law. While this person is perhaps a step-up morally and spiritually from the first type, this psychologically tormented individual is consumed with their personal struggles. Sometimes these folks bring a breath of fresh air into our lives with their willingness to challenge all the norms but ultimately, they are exhausting as we realize there is no end to this pursuit of freedom against the law.

 Ironically, in kicking over the traces, shedding all the shackles of culture, this person is oriented to a transgressive questioning of the law, but it is still the law that defines them. This radicalized freedom might express itself philosophically, politically, socially, or as is most often the case, sexually (e.g. democratic revolutions including the American Revolution in which freedom is enshrined as an end in itself, in Marxist and communist revolutionary movements, and in the gender revolution of the moment). The possibility of reconstructing, from scratch, what it means to be human unleashes a plague of possibility. Beyond good and evil, unchained from the worlds sun, not only describes a philosophical realization but a nearly unbearable psychology and a new form of personality or personality disorder. The two most common psychological disorders might be traced to this agonistic questioning. Where obsessional neurosis is structured around the question of existence (think here of the Cartesian cogito in attempting to establish being through thought), hysteria is structured around human sexuality: “Am I a man or a woman?” or “What is a woman?”

The problem of the first two subjects is that their life is defined by the symbolic order. This order might be associated with law, culture, normative values, or simply language. The problem is how to suspend this order so that a person’s life is not spent in service to an artificial construct. Slavery, bondage, deception, and exodus, redemption, and truth, are the motifs under which the Bible poses the problem and solution. The passage is described as new birth, recreation, adoption into a new family, or citizenship in an alternative kingdom. At its most radical it is depicted as an exchange of one cosmic order for another or one sort of body (the body of death) for another (the body of Christ). The movement is not away from embodiment but towards a different sort of body, constituting a different sort of world. 

The way that Paul pictures this as happening in both Colossians and Ephesians is in and through Christ’s flesh. “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body” (Col. 1:22) “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). The enmity with the symbolic order is taken up in the sickness of the self that is definitive of the human disease. To state the reversal of this state most succinctly, the Life that is God (as opposed to death under the law), revealed in and as Christ, is communicated to us through the incarnation, in which we can become participants (through the body of Christ). At a basic level, this is to give absolute significance to embodiment. Where the human body is written over with the law, it appears as a medium for the true significance of the symbolic order.  But the body is not a medium but a source of significance in itself, and this distinguishes it radically (substantially) from other things (which are lent their significance symbolically in language).

As Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.” It is because there are human bodies that there is a world of communication and it is by my body that I belong to this world. But there is a profound sense in which we are dispossessed of ourselves, of our bodies, as the flesh becomes symbolic of something else. The first two sorts of subject inhabit a world controlled by the flesh and the desires of the flesh, not because they occupy their bodies, but because the flesh is written over with a significance in which it takes on an alien principle. Paul describes it as giving rise to hostility as it pits the self against the self, the self against God, and the self against others. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” speaks of an objectifying and distancing from the center of life. There is a sense in which we are restored to ourselves, to our own bodies, without interference, only through the incarnation of Christ. That is, we become incarnate (peace is restored, the dividing wall of hostility is broken down) as we become as he was, incarnate, truly inhabiting our bodies, and this is definitive of true life.

The philosopher Michel Henry begins with the realization that experience of life, pure subjective experience from within, contains the only direct phenomenological access to life. Life reveals itself in itself through the flesh. Everything else presents itself from a distance and poses a gap between the perceiver and the perceived. In his exposition of the Word become flesh in John, Henry points out that if this is the way the Word becomes human, then relationship with God is to be had in and through the flesh. The flesh is not an obstacle but is the locus of our identity with God.[2] This explains why the Word becoming flesh is revelation (John 1:14). It is not that another body among many has appeared, but the flesh of the Word is the revelation. To say the Word became flesh is not to add something else to the Word. This is the cogito as it should be, without any gap between the subject and object of reflection, but pure revelation. There is not, as with ordinary human words, the possibility of duplicity or misrecognition. As Henry puts it, “Because the Word has become incarnate in Christ’s flesh, the identification with this flesh is the identification with the Word—to eternal Life. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.’”[3]

The danger is that we might reduce the body of Jesus by allowing a symbolic significance to reduce it to a sort of mystical writing pad. So, step one is to acknowledge the primacy of the incarnate Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story of Trinity. The mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son. There is nothing secondary, shadowy, or even analogous about Jesus. Jesus is the reality of God incarnate. Jesus is the absolute truth and an absolute morality. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from an embodied earthly realm. In turn, all human bodies are accorded their full meaning as they participate in this fullness of incarnate significance.

This reconstituted world through the flesh is determined by the incarnate Christ. This world is not a symbolic order pointing elsewhere but meaning inheres in it. There is a world where law might reign or where it has not yet been determined what one should do or can do. In Christ’s embodied life what we should do is determined and what we should not do is determined. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). What we are to do flows from the absolute which is the body of Christ. Notice that it is Christ Jesus – the incarnate Christ. His human body is the source of significant behavior. His body and our body and human embodiment is the place from which the absolute flows, not from a transcendent law, or a vague situational principle, or a symbolic order utilizing the body and the world as its medium. The body is not a tool or a medium for writing, or a megaphone for the voice, such that we are inside of it, manipulate it, and “have” it. The flesh of the body is our incorporation into the world, community, communion, and communication.

The hostility of the flesh written over by the law is undone in Christ. Living significance (as opposed to a dead letter) is restored as “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). As we inhabit his body, we are no longer divided in ourselves, from one another, and from God. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Entering this peace is synonymous with life and meaning and is a first order experience which serves as its own ground of meaning. This is a self-validating and self-evident truth and not a truth that refers elsewhere or mediates something else. This truth is without the gap between signifier (I think) and signified (I am) as the life is in this Word of truth. There is no gap in this order, as it is a Word enfleshed, a direct access to life and the realization of life as a first order experience.


[1]  Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 247-51 Lacan dubs this most common human a “pervert.” Perversion does not refer so much to abnormal sexual practices as to a structure in which the subject sides with the law in the attempt to escape its punishing effect and to partake of its surplus enjoyment. Every individual, religious or not, who presumes to sit in judgment and to punish others in the name of the law, God, Jesus, the Nation, etc. is acting out the simple formula Paul epitomizes as the sinful orientation: the law is completed or established through sin. There is a denial of sexual difference and of death in what Žižek describes as giving oneself completely over to the symbolic without regard for finitude and mortality: “Perversion can be seen as a defense against the motif of ‘death and sexuality,’ against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference.”

[2] Michel Henry, Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh (Northwestern University Press, 2015), 124.

[3] Words of Christ, 124. I am following John Behr’s exposition of Henry in, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 296 ff.

Two Concepts of Truth: Truth as the Power of Death or the Power of Life

Pilate pronounces what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “most subtle witticism of all time.” With his question, “What is truth?” Pilate “annihilated the New Testament,” according to Nietzsche.  The strong “revel in ambiguity” while the weak cannot “afford uncertainty and so demand a clear dichotomy.” The strong man must take a stand “beyond good and evil” and presumably Pilate, with his question ventures beyond mere morality and religion. The superman braves subtle shades of grey and refuses the dictates of a determinate notion of truth. Jesus, in Nietzsche’s scheme, is the subject/slave of truth – his life depends upon a determinate truth while the judge and executioner can allow for “subtleties” or “contingencies” in truth. Continue reading “Two Concepts of Truth: Truth as the Power of Death or the Power of Life”