Being a Body, Owing Grace
In The Gay Science Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that the history of western philosophy is only an interpretation of, indeed a misunderstanding of, the body. Mormonism implicitly responds by offering an opportunity for thinking about the body, especially the human body, differently.
It is difficult to decide whether Mormons are monists or pluralists. We don't believe that there is another metaphysical existence beyond or fundamental to the spatio-physical one, but it may be that there is more than one basic kind of entity. In any case, it's all bodies and their relations. To be a person is to be a body. That is why sexual difference is so important to LDS theology: if I am my body, then sexuality is inextricably part of who I am.
But Latter-day Saints are hardly the only Christians to think that the body is theologically important. The Gospel of John begins with the announcement that the "Word became flesh" (Jn. 1:14), not "became like flesh," but "became flesh." At the heart of the Christian message is the otherwise ridiculous claim that God became a human being. Paul saw Christ's incarnation, with his death and subsequent resurrection, as the stumbling block that offended the sensibilities of both the Jews and the Romans (1 Cor. 1:22-24). It remains a stumbling block.
Yet in spite of the rational difficulty of the claim, the embodiment of Jesus Christ was so important to early Christianity that it was at the crux of the arguments at the first Council of Nicaea: the reality of his embodiment was central to the Council's identification of Jesus as God.
It is odd, therefore, that at times (though not always) Christianity has taken more from some of its Greek predecessors than it has from the Bible and the early Church Fathers, teaching that the body is to be despised or at best finally overcome and done away with.
Mormonism takes seriously the claim that I am my body, though it is useful to make the distinction that Michel Henry makes between flesh and body: the body is something inert, merely physico-chemical, an object of reflection. In contrast, flesh is the living body, that which senses itself and things in its world. Using Henry's distinction, "I am my flesh" would be accurate, but "I am my body" would not be.
Since the body is an object of reflection, flesh objectified for whatever purposes, flesh is fundamental to body. Flesh comes first. That means that there is no radical opposition between mind and matter, the intelligible and sensible, the spiritual and material, etc. To be a person is to be enfleshed in a world with other persons and with things. It is to be a sensing, responding, thinking body.
For Mormons, having flesh was different at different times in our lives, before and after mortality. Eternally we have been something we call intelligence, a form of life but not an immaterial form of life. At some point God made that intelligence into spirit, another form of material life. We find ourselves now in this world, yet another form of material life into which we were brought by mortal parents. And we will move into newer forms of enfleshed existence in the future. We have existed forever in some form or another and will continue to exist forever. Every form of our existence has been and will be fleshly, and every form of flesh except the first is given to us by someone else. Each form of existence has sensed itself and other things in its world, feeling pleasure and pain, being touched and touching. In short, our existence has always been an existence in relation with other fleshly beings, brought about by other fleshly beings.
Though not part of LDS doctrine, notice an implication of the doctrine: we ought to understand flesh as that which is first of all affected and only secondarily that which creates effects in other persons and objects. At each stage of having flesh, I am given the world by other persons and things. I am not its creator. My world comes to me, of course, from God. But it also comes to me from the people who taught and teach me, and from the objects with which I cannot but interact. I smell and hear and taste and am touched before I reach out or listen or sample or touch. Being affected makes my response possible and necessary. It grounds my world.
Thus we must think about the body in terms of grace: to be embodied is unavoidably to receive grace, both the grace of God and the grace of others. That grace received requires our response in kind. Grace gives my flesh its world; I owe that world my grace. Incarnation, that of Jesus Christ as well as our own, is at the heart of the Golden Rule and all other moral and religious teachings. To deny grace, whether conceptually or through sin, is to deny my own flesh.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.