Matthew Lee Anderson explains why Pat Robertson’s recent comments about marriage and Alzheimer’s reveals a deeper problem with the Christian understanding of the body:
The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is very real, but the fragmentation of the self that the inability to remember precipitates does not entail, as Robertson put it, that a “person is gone” or that Alzheimer’s is a “walking death.” While the debate over what constitutes a “person” is (and will be!) ongoing, as people who believe in an incarnate God, we should be wary of separating the person from the body in the way Robertson does. We are something more than minds that are floating free in the ethereal and insubstantial regions of space.
The point has significant ramifications for our marriages, for the union we enjoy is of two persons and for their mutual well-being. “With my body I thee worship,” reads the old version of the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer (a prayer book that guides the liturgy of Anglican worshippers), a line that is as lovely as any in the English language. My wife didn’t let us say it in our wedding service for fear that it would confuse people, and I understand why. But it highlights the totality of the sacrifice that marriage requires, and points toward the body as the sign and symbol of my love.
Yet the sacrifice of my body is consummated in my affection and care for my wife’s. The love we have in marriage may not be exhausted by our concern for our spouse’s body, but it certainly includes their bodies—and not just their brains, either. The body is “the place of our personal presence in the world,” as Gilbert Meilander puts it, and the delight we have for the other’s presence is necessarily a delight of its manifestation in the body. The erosion of memory that Alzheimer’s causes makes this sense of presence less stable, but to suggest it can accomplish the final dissolution of the person is to ascribe to it a power that not even death has. For there is, within the Kingdom, a love that is even stronger than death.