Charlie's Blog: The Cult of the Body


The Cult of the Body

 If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships.
CCC 2289

I have a certain admiration for smokers. They disregard the sermons from their doctors and family members and the Surgeon General's warning on every pack of smokes they buy, and they light up. Certainly, smoking is bad for your health. But those smokers know something that many of us have forgotten. It was the one bit of wisdom John Maynard Keynes actually possessed which is that in the long run we are all dead.

It is not my intention to promote smoking or cigars and whiskey as good things. But the mentality behind those things is a good thing because they refute what the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to as the "cult of the body." This cult of the body has its roots in ancient Greek culture that placed a heavy emphasis on physical prowess and perfection. You can see this emphasis in the statuary from that time.

It is difficult to find this Greek perfection in reality as even the most sculpted of athletes today retain flaws whether they are crooked teeth, acne scars, or what have you. Plus, they all get old which brings the sags and the wrinkles that time inflicts. Yet, these imperfections do not keep people from pursuing this perfection and the vanity of it all by spending countless hours at the gym, adhering to strict calorie restricted diets, wearing expensive clothes and make up, taking botox injections, and going under the knife for cosmetic surgery.

Now, health and fitness are good things because they enable us to function and do things in service to others and also take care of ourselves. We shouldn't abuse our bodies with drugs and alcohol and other risky behaviors that are detrimental to health and well being. But we shouldn't worship our bodies in vanity. If you want to know what this looks like, visit one of those fancy gyms with the chrome weights and the mirrors on the wall. The mirrors are a clear indicator of the cult of the body. Gym rats will say that the mirrors are for checking proper form until you see how much time they spend just flexing in front of those mirrors with their shirts off in admiration of their muscles.

In antiquity, you see a rejection of the Greek cult of the body with the rise of Roman culture. To look at Roman statuary in contrast to Greek statuary, you see the Romans sculpted their heroes as they actually looked. The statues include wrinkles and scars and male pattern baldness. There is an ugliness to them but also a certain manliness to them as well. The Romans were certainly not metrosexuals.

The mean between the extremes of worship and abuse would be care for the body. This means bathing, brushing your teeth, getting adequate rest. eating healthy food, taking exercise, and the usual things we know promote the proper function of our bodies. It also means not abusing tobacco and alcohol. It's hard to serve others with cirrhosis of the liver or coughing up a lung.

The cult of the body manifests itself in vanity. The number one issue for these body cultists would be aging. They go out of their way to diminish or hide wrinkles. They worry about gray hair or losing teeth. But this is aging which happens to everyone. Trying to fight this starts to look very pathetic especially when it comes to the extremes of plastic surgery. There is dignity in wearing the face that God and time have given you.

Fitness is another area of body worship especially people who spend extra hours trying to burn off that last bit of stubborn belly fat. Who cares? Then, you have men who lose their minds when they lose their hair. They feel compelled to fix this calamity with various drugs and rugs.

Finally, we have people who think they can cheat death and achieve immortality. I recommend a vegan diet for health and longevity but even vegans die. Our bodies are destined for the grave, and the best we can do in this regard is to postpone that date with death. But death comes to us all. In between, we are going to endure diseases, injuries, scars, and aging. This should not cause us the slightest bit of grief.

I don't know if the superfit hot bodies at the gym or the guy with his cigars and whiskey have it right, but my gut tells me that the cigar man comes closer to the correct mindset than the guy with the washboard abs. The fitness fanatic hopes to achieve immortality by simply not dying. But seeing a bunch of middle aged Catholic guys smoking cigars and pipes might seem decadent and unhealthy, but that smoke testifies to hope in the resurrection. We all die, but we should look to the time when we live again. When that time comes, we may elect to keep some of the scars and wrinkles we've earned in this life.