Cultural And Religious Perspectives

Scholarly and popular thought alike have typically assumed that the human body is a fixed, material entity subject to the empirical rules of biological science. Such a body exists prior to the mutability and flux of cultural change and diversity, and is characterized by unchangeable inner necessities. Beginning with the historical work of Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias, the anthropology of Pierre Bourdieu, and phenomenological philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Jonas, Max Scheler, and Gabriel Marcel, however, scholarship in the social sciences and humanities has begun to challenge this notion. Late twentieth-century commentators argue that the body can no longer be considered as a fact of nature, but is instead "an entirely problematic notion" (Vernant, p. 20); that "the body has a history" insofar as it behaves in new ways at particular historical moments (Bynum, 1989, p. 171); that the body should be understood not as a constant amidst flux but as an epitome of that flux (Frank); and that "the universalized natural body is the gold standard of hegemonic social discourse" (Haraway, 1990, p. 146).

This scholarly perspective—that the body has a history, and is not only a biological entity but also a cultural phenomenon—goes hand in hand with the increasing number and complexity of bioethical issues in contemporary society, many of which have strong religious overtones. Some decades ago the only such issue arose in cases where religious and biomedical priorities conflicted in the treatment of illness. Within the majority population, various groups such as Christian Scientists, some Pentecostal Christians, and members of small fundamentalist sects occasionally have created controversy by refusing medical treatment on the grounds that faith in medicine undermined faith in God, in other words, that since healing should occur only at the will and discretion of the deity, human medicine was presumptuous upon divine prerogative. This was especially problematic when young children suffered and were kept from medical treatment by their parents. In Native American communities it has been, and occasionally remains, the practice for ill people to seek biomedical treatment only after having exhausted the resources of their spiritually based traditional medical systems. This occasionally results in the discovery of serious illness such as cancer or tuberculosis at a very advanced stage, and creates a dilemma for healthcare personnel who are supportive of indigenous traditions yet concerned that their patients also receive timely biomedical treatment.

More recently, the number of bioethical issues with religious overtones has multiplied. The legality of and right of access by women to abortion have been defined not only as issues of civil rights and feminist politics, but also as religious and moral issues. Surrogate motherhood and donorship of sperm and eggs raise ethical dilemmas regarding the biological, legal, and spiritual connections between parent and child. There is also concern about the apparently godlike ability of biotechnology to determine the genetic makeup of the human species; some see this approaching with the increasing sophistication of genetic engineering and the massive Human Genome Project, which will catalogue all possible human genetic characteristics. At the other end of the life course, the problems of euthanasia, technological prolongation of vital functions by means of life-support machines, and physician-assisted death raise moral and spiritual questions about the prerogative to end the life of oneself or of another. Legal and ethical acceptance of the definition of death as "brain death" has particular significance in that the brain dead individual's other organs are still viable for transplantation to other persons. In the United States the bioethical dilemma is whether the brain-dead person can morally be considered dead until all other vital functions have ceased, or whether removing those organs constitutes killing the patient. In Japan an added dilemma is that a person's spiritual destiny as a deceased ancestor depends in part on maintaining an intact physical body.

Each of these issues has to do with religion, not only because religions often define them as within their moral purview, but also because at a more profound level, each taps a concern that is at the very core of religious thought and practice: the problem of what it means to be human. More precisely, the problem is the nature of human persons, of what it means to have and be a body, of life and death, and of the spiritual destiny of humankind. In the succeeding sections of this entry these issues are placed in the context of recent thought about the cultural and historical nature of the human body, about religious conceptualizations of the body, and about religious practices that focus on the body.

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