Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
What makes us people? It is a profound question that is always more difficult to answer than we first imagine. I was speaking to a group of teenagers on the subject and they gave answers such as I have hands and feet – well, so do animals; I can follow instructions – well, so can robots. As the conversation developed, it brought to light the fact that no animal or robot draws up a pros and cons list before it makes an important decision. Decisions in terms of what to sacrifice in the short term orientated towards longer term successes. Do I want to study engineering for 4 years at university to then be able to work towards a career? Do I want to forgo engaging in the sexual culture of a night out in the pursuit of vocational future relationships? How can I centre my goals and relationships around a future that is successful in the most personal sense possible?
The solutions generally provided to the questions of ‘what makes us people’ are commonly described in terms of a mind-body dualism of consubstantial thinking, the concept that our body and consciousness are separate and independent entities. A common example of this conceptual split is the ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’ idea, the mind having one identity, the body another. In religiosity we also see this dualism arise. The spirit is seen as pure, of God and separate to the notion of the body. The body is the vessel of the sinfulness which drags us down and keeps our feet on the ground as our ethereal spirit drifts off into the heavenly realm. This can more subtly be integrated into a personal spiritual psyche, the spirit is raised into communion with God in moments, but the fleshy sinful body is reinstated once I return home and start interacting with my real, fleshy, sinful world again. This was something I really struggled with as I felt I was called to integrity and action. If the parts of me are not aligned - mind, body and spirit - then how can I pretend to stand up with integrity for something I believe in? Which part do I go with – the lustful, arrogant, sinful me or the spiritually ethereal one that becomes the antithesis of me as soon as I get anything wrong?
In my study of systems engineering at university I have come across the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning principles. When first developing the concept of AI, scientists tried to build a mind, a highly developed processing computer to mimic human thought and then output to a screen. What they produced was useless and evolved into ‘what celebrity I am most like’ algorithms. Simultaneously a group of experiments were being run with simple electric circuits, sensors and computers, to get robots to move away from sunlight (like people with fair skin might do in the summer), to move from a cold area to a warm area (you don’t stand outside on a cold winters day when you reach the door of your house) and such similar behaviour. Using the ‘body’ to think was central to these experiments and the researchers saw fast advances. They started to train robots in the idea of success and failure and to aggregate successful inputs to produce an optimum result. Very similar to how you might train a child to think and interact with the world around it. The robot could only “think” and develop an idea of growth and improvement because it had been embodied.
If we start to acknowledge this interdependence of mind and body and develop on the “I think therefore I am” idea, we move away from dualism into transubstantive theology - I am fully mind, fully body, fully spirit. These are inseparable from each other in a similar way to the Father, Son, and Spirit are individual, integrated and yet inseparable in trinitarian thinking. If I am spirit and mind embodied, then my humanity and personhood is defined by my bodily interaction, in the way that man is defined by woman and woman by man, in that one ceases to make sense without the other. Therefore, what makes me human is defined by how others interact with my body. I am my mind in the sense that my embodiment allows me to interact with the mind of my friend. To me, this made it clear to understand the idea of Jesus bearing the sin of the world - if we are interconnected in our embodiment, our identity is separate yet inseparable from the people we interact with. I am fully part of society and yet fully Ben. Jesus being God incarnate causes the weight of the world in a literal sense to be carried on his shoulders in the cross. In being fully part of our society and fully Jesus, he dignifies and invites the other members of that society (humanity) to share in his perfect embodiment (resurrection of the body). In the way we influence each other negatively and drag each other down, the weight of human sin is what Jesus takes to the cross and dignifies in his ultimate sacrifice. I find it seriously beautiful, especially when I think what we might be without it. Jesus sharing in our humanity gives our humanity in its bodied state dignity and value in a way that it could not claim to have otherwise.
The redemptive is therefore bound tightly by the incarnate nature of Jesus and consequently defined by the sacrifice of the cross. The notions are inextricable, else the whole falls apart. The definition of sacrifice is lost without being fully God and fully man in the same way my own humanity falls apart if I reduce it to mind or spirit or body. If my spirit is the good then my actions are not of use (therefore why not go murder), if my mind is only of good then my life should be in pursuit of ideas above human interaction (this is where we see genocidal ideas and supremacism) and if my biological body is all that I am, why not engage in the expedient and orient my life in a way that seeks gluttony in every which direction possible. Without incarnation, our concept of sacrifice falls apart and we reduce Jesus’ defining act into a gross reduction of what it could be. Without sacrifice, our concept of agape, of love in any sense, falls apart. If we cannot embody sacrifice, then we cannot live sacrificial love. Our relationships are doomed, our lives are animalistic, our hope is misplaced, our faith pointless. By the grace of God and the incarnate nature of Jesus we can stand confidently in opposition to this hopelessness.
This is demonstrated in the Mass, in particular the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, with Catholic theology pointing to the gifts brought up at the offertory representing us as a community within the Church. In the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood, our humanity in its integrated, physical state is raised up and our identity reaffirmed. The Church through the Eucharistic prayer becomes the body of Christ, centralising the embodiment of God through incarnation as the catalyst that raises humanity into communion with God. In my search to define who I am as a human I discovered the answers laid bare in the Eucharist, and my value as an embodied person stems from the sacrifice of Jesus. Through this realisation I become grateful that our lives as Catholics can be simplified and our concept of the depths of love redefined as we witness and partake in transubstantiation every Sunday by receiving the Eucharist.
All I can therefore truly conclude is I am defined by love – I’ll just have to remember that when I’m grumpy.