A Vital Sign: The Gift of Our Bodies
Our created limits are design features not design flaws.
As we saw last time, the human person—including the body—is counted among “the things that have been made” in which God has been “clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). Understood in this way, humans are not separate from the rest of creation (e.g. the external, physical world), but share in it. Conceptually, distinctions between human and nonhuman creation are warranted and even necessary (we’ll discuss this more later). In reality, and according to Scripture, creation encompasses both.
Calling the human “created” does not erase the distinct and special place of humankind in the creation. Rather, it highlights that the human person, body and soul, possesses fundamental qualities common to all created things—namely, the givenness and finitude of existence as creatures.
To be created is to have one’s existence given by God. In the beginning, God created all things (Gen 1). Speaking of Christ, the Word, Saint John writes that “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). From photons to rocks, cherubim to humans, bodies to psyches: all created things owe their existence to Another. Put simply, creatures are created by a Creator. As such, creatures cannot be self-made or self-given. Nor do they simply “emerge.” Rather: “To be something created is to be something 'endowed', above all with existence.”1 Creaturely existence is something fundamentally given—not owed, earned, or self-made.
Accordingly, limits are “baked into” the very being of creatures. While they reflect and reveal Him, creatures are distinct from the Creator and do not possess existence in the same way. God is infinite, eternal, omniscience, omnipotent, omnipresent. Creatures, even before the fall, exist as finite and embodied beings, dependent on God for their very existence. They are limited in their capacities and are unable to know all things, do all things, or be in multiple places.
The very finitude of a creature is part of the givenness—the gift—of its existence. Existence for creatures is always a miracle, whatever form it takes. Man, marble, mole, or the planet Mars: each of these possess a limited set of qualities or capacities. These limitations are not a problem or a curse. They are precisely the opposite: “The great mystery and wonder of being a creature is that the very realities that mark our human lives are all gifts…: the limits, the changes, the boundaries of nothingness that hold us in”.2
However, the modern era often obscures and spurns creaturely existence, in all its finitude and givenness. Our limitations have become blurred. Modern medicine, for all the good that it is, has intoxicated our imagination to the point of forgetting death. Search engines provide so much information that our ignorance seems erased. Social media and modern tech give us access to just about any person in any place, virtually eliminating man’s confinement to time and place.
Givenness, too, is obscured. We in the modern age are no longer forced to make do with the limitations imposed upon us by our environment, our capacities, or even our Creator—or so it seems. We have powerful tools that enable us to overcome unwanted limitations. Some of these things produce good outcomes: the healing of terminal illness or severe deformation, for example. But other methods are more sinister: gene-editing, cosmetic surgery, “gender-transition,” surrogacy, and more. Modern man can now make himself according to his own image. All this deludes modern man with the sense that his is a more spiritualized, transcendent existence—what C.S. Lewis calls the “false infinite.”3
This “false infinite” distorts the very nature and meaning of human existence. The obscuring of our creaturely existence has made it easier to conceive of ourselves as, what Ephraim Radner calls, “spiritualized entities… —‘consciousness,’ extended ‘selves’ roaming about the world, bundles of meaning and intentions, desires and wills”.4 Such self-understanding devalues the natural limits and givenness of human existence and emphasizes the seemingly infinite possibility and power of the human spirit: to be whatever one imagines oneself to be. However, these “self-understandings… have turned away from articulating the basic limits of our lives as creatures”—the very limits which constitute the “great mystery of our identity”.5 In this mystery,
the very limits of our existence which are ineluctably imposed upon us, are also that which is our bond to God. The temporal walls that hem us in are not existential limits to be transcended; rather they are our connections to God just in their limitations.6
We find in this paradox of creatureliness that our limits are not design flaws, but part of the miracle and wonder of our God-given existence.
So what does any of this have to do with the human body?
Perhaps more than any other part of the human person, our bodies reveal the finitude and givenness of our existence. From conception, we are formed in dependence on our mothers. We are born in bodies and to families who are given, not chosen. From infancy to old age, we require care from others and sustenance from outside ourselves. We must be taught knowledge and skills. We get tired and need sleep. And our bodily weaknesses must be frequently accommodated. Sober reflection finds that for all our limits and dependency it is a miracle that we are alive at all. In this way, our bodies remind us that our creaturehood – in all its givenness and finitude – is not an obstacle to be overcome, but a gift to be received.
Therefore, the proper response for the gift of our creatureliness is thanksgiving. But mankind, starting with Adam and Eve, failed to do just this. Paul writes: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). For the Apostle, sufficient knowledge of God through creation is not the problem; rather, ingratitude lies at the root of sin, which above all “destroys this sense of being ‘endowed’”.7 This ingratitude darkens the mind of man and eventually deforms him into something inhuman (Rom 1:22-32).
Despite our ingratitude, our bodies point to another body, graciously given by God, which tells of an even greater gift and more perfect gratitude: the body of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the God-man, stepped into creation, became flesh, and was born in the human form (John 1:14; Phil 2:7-8). In this, God embraces and affirms the goodness of creaturely finitude (while still remaining fully God). Christ’s embodiment not only affirms the gift of creaturely existence; it is itself a gift to mankind. Christ’s coming, more than even the creation, is the greatest gift given to man. For in the incarnation, God gives His very self. Christ, who gives His body to be broken, redeems ungrateful, distorted, fallen man so that he may once again give honor and thanks to God, thus redeeming and fulfilling man’s very reason for being (cf. Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 1). Ultimately, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection restores “to mankind the sense of receiving as gift everything there is”.8
In a world deluded with a false sense of infinitude, our bodies stand as critical witnesses to our creaturehood, and by extension, to our Creator. Our bodies help us see the blessing and gift of our own, finite existence and, indeed, all created existence. In so doing, our bodies point beyond themselves to the gracious generosity of the God who made and gives us all things and who, as Scripture tells us, has given even Himself. In seeing this, we will find reason enough for gratitude.
Jared Eckert is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and the founder of Perishable Goods.
Karol Wojtyla, Sign of Contradiction, VII.1.
Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of Human Life, 8.
C.S. Lewis, Perelandra, Ch 6.
Radner, A Time to Keep, 9.
Wojtyla, Sign of Contradiction, VII.1
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