Shame and the Body

A couple of years ago I mentioned the following story in a blog entry:
When I first moved into the house where I now live (it was August of 1997, by the way, for those of you with a prurient interest in the boring details of my existence) my neighbor noticed that we got up en famille on Sundays and went out. She asked me what was up, and I told her we were Catholics and were off to Mass.

"Catholic! You must love guilt, then!" she said with a smile, then went back to mowing her lawn.

The view of Catholic moral theology here expressed has the remarkable, if unsurprising in this day and age, property of being both banal and widely shared. The idea appears to be that Catholics live their lives as slaves to some set of Divine Command moral rules that are inscribed upon their hearts like prison tats on burly forearms, and infractions of these rules inspire in their benighted adherents spasms of fear borne of a superstitious belief in places of eternal flame. The old joke, based upon the instructions one once found on shampoo bottles, went "Sin; confess; repeat", but what seems to strike most outsiders about Catholic life is a perceived emphasis on sin--especially of the sexual kind--that drives the people in the pews to distraction.
I went on to remark, in that particular post, that in reality the Christian view of sexuality and the human body is far more salutary than the limited, and delimiting, view of contemporary secular society, in which we are reduced to a bundle of drives and desires. On the view I defended, following God's commandments with respect to sexual morality is not something that constrains us, but rather it sets us free in a way that the pagan cannot readily comprehend. I think that this freedom is the more obscure to the pagans because of their strange view of the nature of the Christian theology of the body. Is it really true that the Christian view of sexuality is all about guilt and shame? I would say no, but even many Catholics seem to view the matter rather differently, and that is perplexing.

I am thinking about this now because just today I received notice of a rather interesting-looking book recently out from the University of Pennsylvania Press. The book is Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects by Virginia Burrus, professor of early Church history at Drew University. She appears to work often in the field of sexuality, as her other books have titles like Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguing Passion at the Limits of Discipline, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, "Begotten, Not Made": Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity (I would love to hear Mike Liccione's opinion of that one!) and the like. Sex and gender studies is not an area in which I have any significant expertise to speak of, so I cannot pronounce on the scholarly quality of these tomes, other than to note that there are rather a lot of them for such a young scholar and they get good reviews, so I assume that she knows what she's doing. The book would not have come to my attention at all were it not for my subscription to Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews, which sense out email notifications of new book reviews as they come in. Saving Shame was reviews for BMCR by Walter Roberts, a visiting assistant professor of history at Ashland University here in Ohio. According to Roberts's review
Essentially, Burrus challenges the traditional thesis that in its early development, Christianity replaced public shame with private guilt as a model of social control and communal identity. Her rebuttal is that shame, rather than disappearing and being replaced by guilt, was transformed from a public to a private force in Christianity and then back to a public phenomenon that becomes the basis for both personal salvation and the conversion of non-believers. This was a very gradual
transformation that began with Apostolic ideas of shame, the body, and salvation, which attempted to reconcile the public role of shame with the private notion of personal salvation. The basic idea that the human body served as a conduit between public shame and personal salvation was introduced in Apostolic literature and was then transferred to the phenomenon of martyrdom, which in turn influenced the Christological debates of the second to fourth centuries. From there, these ideas were incorporated into the ascetic movements of late antiquity, where they
culminated in notions of grace and salvation, which contained elements of both shame and guilt, that were passed on to Medieval and later Christian thought. In many ways this is an intensely personal book for Burrus, and she also tries to link the modern culture that seems to embrace shame as a method of social protest with the ascetic movements of the ancient and late antique Greco-Roman world.
I think it would be interesting to read this book along with selections from early Church Fathers and, of course, JPII's Theology of the Body. My intuition is that the thesis, as interesting and remarkable as it sounds, will prove to be underdetermined by the data, but that, I suspect, is not uncommon as theses about historical trends go. Apparently, the really interesting stuff comes in the third chapter. Roberts again:
Chapter three presents one of Burrus's more novel arguments, tying developments of Christology and martyrdom into the burgeoning ascetic movements of the late antique period. Traditional interpretations of late antique ascetic movements put the emphasis on subjecting the body to abjection in order to be free of the body and to transcend to the spiritual world in imitation of Christ. Using her interesting
interpretations of John's teleology of the logos and the subsequent appearance of John's thought in the Christological debates of the second to fourth centuries, Burrus reexamines the underlying attitude of fourth to seventh century Christian ascetic ideology regarding the role of the body in salvation. She argues that
embracing physical, human existence is a key to becoming closer to God and salvation. By acknowledging the inherent shame and weakness of the human condition, we are forced to confront and ultimately transcend our limitations in this form. In addition, in keeping with the imagery of spectacle that she has cultivated throughout the book, the body and our struggle with it becomes a stage for showing our devotion to God and our disdain for the temptations of this world.
I wonder whether "shame" and "guilt" are really the right categories in this context, though of the two I suppose "shame" is closer to the mark than "guilt". What is "shame", exactly, in a Christian context? In classical virtue theory shame is an emotional response, but Aristotle points out that modesty, properly speaking, is not a virtue, even though it is praised (Nicomachean Ethics 2.7 1108a30-36). The reason he says that it is not a virtue is simply because of the fact that it is merely an emotional response, not a state of character that can be governed by reason, and so even though it can come in more or less moderate degrees we do not call it a virtue. In this sort of a context the Christian account of shame has got to build something further into the matrix if it is to fill the role assigned to it in this book, and I wonder where, exactly, that building got done (if, indeed, it did get done). I suspect that there is some interesting work still to be done in this area.


Foxfier said…
From my readings in Christian vs Muslim theory, guild is when you know you did wrong, even if no-one else knowns (IE, it's private shame); shame is when someone else thinks you've(or yours has) done wrong. (No matter if you actually have or not--it's the perception that matters.)
Anonymous said…
Great post & blog!

Popular Posts