I Think, Therefore I Am Whatever I Think I Am: From Rene Descartes’ Dictum to Obama’s Bathroom Policy
Christopher West May 24, 2016
Anybody remember the old Kinks song “Lola”? I was in my early teens the first time I heard it and this line leaped out at me: “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls / It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world…” Well, the mixed up and muddled up is now the law of the land.
The U.S. Bishops have weighed in on President Obama's new nationally imposed policy which treats "a student's gender identity as the student's sex." They rightly call the decree "deeply disturbing." "(It) fails to address a number of important concerns and contradicts a basic understanding of human formation so well expressed by Pope Francis: that 'the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created' (Amoris Laetitia, no. 285)," the bishops wrote in their May 16 statement. The resulting "bathroom wars" issue — referring to the use of public school restrooms according to whatever gender one identifies with — is dominating headlines. One of the best commentaries I’ve seen on these “bathroom wars” is from Pete Jermann. He not only offers great insights on the craziness of what’s happening in our world with the eclipse of real sexuality, he also offers an insightful presentation of how Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body offers the only real antidote. Jermann wrote May 16 in Crisis Magazine:
In her statement suing North Carolina, [Attorney General Loretta] Lynch accused the state of “legislating identity and [insisting] that a person pretend to be something they are not.” If George Orwell were alive he would feel himself eclipsed by the double-speak genius of Ms. Lynch. 1984 has nothing on the U.S. Department of Justice. The power of the federal government now stands behind the concept that a man who considers himself a woman contains no pretense while a state that considers a man, as well, a man, is engaged in the act of pretending by asserting that what one sees is what one sees. According to Ms. Lynch it is not the eye of the viewer that determines the object seen but the object dictating how it must be seen. In other words, there is no objective reality to our identification as male or female. The federal government has officially declared our material bodies immaterial. This is more than nonsense. This is a direct attack on what it means to be human.
How did we get to the point that material bodies are immaterial, gender is a state of mind, and matter doesn’t matter? Philosophically, it was only a matter of time before Rene Descartes’ dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” played itself out logically as “I think, therefore I am whatever I think I am.”
As John Paul II wrote in 1994, the repercussions of Rene Descartes’ philosophy poses “an immense threat to life: not only to the life of individuals but also to that of civilization itself” (Letter to Families 21). He summarized this Cartesian crisis as follows:
The philosopher who formulated the principle…“I think, therefore I am”, also gave the modern concept of man its distinctive dualistic character. It is typical of rationalism to make a radical contrast in man between spirit and body, between body and spirit. But man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit…. The separation of spirit and body in man has led to a growing tendency to consider the human body, not in accordance with the categories of its specific likeness to God, but rather on the basis of its similarity to all the other bodies present in the world of nature, bodies which man uses as raw material in his efforts to produce goods for consumption. But everyone can immediately realize what enormous dangers lurk behind the application of such criteria to man. When the human body…comes to be used as raw material…we will inevitably arrive at a dreadful ethical defeat. (ibid 19)
The ancient heresy of Manichaeism – the idea that the spirit is the “real us” and the body is just an impersonal (and essentially evil) shell – has once again reared its ugly head, entering the modern mind (including that of many Christians) like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. John Paul continues:
Within a similar anthropological perspective, the human family is facing the challenge of a new Manichaeism, in which body and spirit are put in radical opposition; the body does not receive life from the spirit, and the spirit does not give life to the body. Man thus ceases to live as a person and a subject. Regardless of all intentions and declarations to the contrary, he becomes merely an object. This neo-Manichaean culture has led, for example, to human sexuality being regarded more as an area for manipulation and exploitation than as the basis of that primordial wonder which led Adam on the morning of creation to exclaim before Eve: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). This same wonder is echoed in the words of the Song of Solomon: “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song 4:9). How far removed are some modern ideas from the profound understanding of masculinity and femininity found in divine revelation! Revelation leads us to discover in human sexuality a treasure proper to the person, who finds true fulfillment in [marriage and] the family but who can likewise express his profound calling in virginity and in celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. (ibid)
The above paragraphs offer both a precise diagnosis of what ails the modern world, and a prescription for what alone can heal it. In short, the reason the modern world is ailing “is that our society has broken away from the full truth about …what man and woman really are as persons. Thus it cannot adequately comprehend the real meaning of the gift of persons in marriage, responsible love at the service of fatherhood and motherhood, and the true grandeur of procreation” (ibid 20).
Working all of this in reverse, we discover the only cure for what ails the modern world. We must recover a sense of primordial wonder at the divinely inspired beauty of the human body. We must come to recognize in the human body the revelation of the human person whose dignity demands he never be used or manipulated. We must rediscover the treasure of human sexuality as a stupendous sign of the divine image in man, and as an invitation to human freedom to live this divine image through the sincere gift of one’s life in marriage or in celibacy for the kingdom. And we do all of the above precisely by pondering “the profound understanding of masculinity and femininity found in divine revelation.” This is precisely what John Paul II’s TOB is.
It’s no exaggeration to say the future of civilization depends on rediscovering the true meaning of our bodies and our sexuality.
Christopher West is a lecturer, best-selling writer and author of multiple audio and video programs which have made him the world’s most recognized teacher of John Paul II’s "Theology of the Body." He is founder and president of The Cor Project, a global membership and outreach organization. His latest book is Pope Francis to Go: Bite-Sized Morsels from The Joy of the Gospel.
THE THEOLOGY OF THE BODY is a bold, compelling, Christian response to the sexual revolution that is transforming lives and renewing relationships around the globe and across denominational lines. Written by the late Pope John Paul II, the TOB offers an in-depth biblical exploration of the meaning of our creation as male and female in the divine image that not only paves the way for lasting renewal of marriage and family life, but, as one of the most captivating articulations of Christian anthropology ever developed, enables everyone to rediscover “the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life” (TOB 46:6).
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