The great foundational poem of religious naturalism is Walt Whitman's I Sing the Body Electric. Not for the first time, of course, but for the first time with a modern voice, a poet sings of the material soul. How long we labored in the Judeo-Christian West with a distrust of the body, seeing in it something verminous and corruptible. How long we dreamed of flying free of the blood and visera and foul excretions -- the immaterial soul like a whiff of luminous vapor, ascending.
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws and jaw hinges...All those centuries that we lived in cloaks of flesh that dissolved with disease into oozing pustules and suppurating sores. Limbs thinned and belly bloated with hunger. Eyes that ran dark with effluents. Diarrhea.
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean...Bleeding, leeching, trepanation. The mortal danger of childbirth. The paralyzing pain of cancer. Toothache, nearly continuous. Who would choose to go back to the days before the advent of modern medical science, when the only thing that made physical existence bearable was the dream of leaving bone and sinew behind?
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,The gifts of modern medicine, sanitation engineering, agronomy. And with them, for the first time in history, the body rises up and claims its own, dispels the phantasm of the immaterial soul -- and sings.
The thin red jellies within you and me...
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!
(This post originally appeared in August 2007.)