Lia Thomas, Plato, and the Battle for the True Self
Last month, Réka György, a fifth-year swimmer for Virginia Tech, finished 17th in the qualifying race for the NCAA 500-yard freestyle National Championship. Only the top 16 swimmers enter the final round, so György was eliminated.
Under normal circumstances, she would have been disappointed. But these weren’t normal circumstances. First, it was the last meet of her college career. Second, she lost her spot to a swimmer named Lia Thomas, who—unlike György—was born a male, not a female.
Thomas went on to win the 500-yard freestyle championship, defeating 15 competitors who lacked her one key advantage: they never had male bodies, chock full of muscle-building testosterone. Had any of them used testosterone to compete, they would have been disqualified.
One must wonder whether those who fought for Title IX protections had this in mind. I doubt it. I agree with Réka György’s courageous and gracious open letter to the NCAA: bodies matter, female bodies are different, and fair competition acknowledges these differences.
But these days, it’s taboo to speak about scientific realities candidly, because the “self” no longer has much to do with human flesh and blood. The “self” is just a disembodied mind.
To make my case, consider one bit of pop wisdom: “Be true to yourself.”
Being True to Which Self?
In Olympic silver-medalist Erica Sullivan’s defense of Lia Thomas, she argued that all people should be “free to be their true selves.”
This is a hard statement to disagree with because it seems self-evident to Americans that denying your desires and sense of self is not just emotionally tormenting but morally repugnant. Denying what someone else believes to be true about his or her self is even worse.
Lia Thomas says she feels like a woman, and yet undeniably has the biology of a man. This misalignment of mind and body must be terribly painful, and I can imagine it is only exasperated by the negative and positive media attention. I feel grief for Lia Thomas, not anger.
But her situation, like the situations of many trans people, begs a profound question: Which is more fundamental—mind or body?
When we say “Be true to yourself,” do we mean “be true to your body” or “be true to your mind”? The answer is obvious: being true to yourself means expressing an internal, mental sense of self with your body. But the body has no bearing on that self. It is just clay to be conformed to our internal vision (assuming we have the discipline, financial resources, and medical know-how).
Of course, modern medicine played a tremendous role in liberating the mind from the body. The Roman emperor Nero offered a king’s ransom to anyone who could medically transition his lover from male to female, but found no one capable. Today, we cannot reconstruct fully functional sex organs, but we can create a simulacrum.
The same goes for sex. Birth control made the dream of reproductively inconsequential sex possible. No longer must people fear the swapping of sex fluids.
We use science to remove all bodily limits so that we can be true to our minds.
So am I an artifact if I believe that my body sets healthy limits? Am I antiquated if I say “be true to your bodily self” too?
Actually, no. The elevation of mental over physical is nothing new. It has an ancient pedigree. Tragically, this old way of thinking—which the earliest Christians deconstructed—has not only infected culture, it also infected the church. We will be poor physicians to a sick world until we heal our own disease.
Doing that will require a brief visit to ancient Greece.
Pagan Philosophy in American Churches
Five centuries before Jesus, the most famous disciple of Socrates, Plato, founded the Western world’s first academy. In its halls, Plato taught what is now called “Platonism.”
In the simplest terms, Platonism is the philosophy that the physical world is bad while the immaterial world is good. Everything in the physical universe corresponds to something in the immaterial universe. The physical version is deformed and the spiritual version is ideal.
Thus, the human body is the prison of the immaterial human mind (or soul). The body’s desires and urges lead the mind astray and must be subdued. Why? Because the body is not the self; the mind is. The body must be discarded for you to become your true self.
Thus, a philosopher’s goal was to escape the material world through contemplation and ascend to an ideal, immaterial, and spiritual heavenly realm. Leaving the body behind was the main goal.
You might feel a bit uncomfortable because this sounds strangely close to what you hear in a lot of churches today. Your body is bad and full of sin. But thankfully Jesus died to forgive you so that when you cast your body off, he can whisk your soul off to heaven to sit on a cloud and sing worship songs for all eternity.
Why do so many sermons sound like the teachings of a pagan philosopher who predated Jesus? There are three possibilities:
- Jesus stole his ideas from a pagan philosopher.
- A pagan philosopher somehow guessed the Biblical storyline without the Bible or a relationship with God.
- Plato’s pagan ideas infected Christianity, and it’s time to cast them aside.
The Biblical evidence, not to mention every historic Christian creed, fits option three best. Jesus was an original thinker who taught (like the Old Testament) that the body is good and would one day be resurrected—just like his!—in a physical world. Paul said his life’s aspiration was not to die and go to heaven but to experience “the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:11). The book of Revelation does not end with people floating off to heaven, but with heaven coming down to earth where people are resurrected (Rev. 20, 21).
The proper response to our culture’s mind-body split isn’t writing angry diatribes about trans issues on Twitter. It’s loudly reclaiming the Bible’s theology of the body. The church should be the place where “myself” is not just my mind, but my whole person, body included.
Our love should extend beyond mental exercises and truth-telling. We should extend acts of physical love—sharing meals, laughter, and experiences—to our trans neighbors. We should embrace acts of physical service—mowing lawns and bringing meals—when our trans neighbors are in pain or need. Especially if that pain stems from the confusion and depression that often accompanies the feelings of gender misalignment between mind and body.
What about the NCAA? Christians should only extend words of kindness to Lia Thomas, while speaking truth power: their choices harm women. Perhaps we could join our voices with those asking for a new, open category where people of any gender can compete.
But above all, remember: our hope is bodily resurrection. So don’t forget to be true to your body. It will last forever after all.
Want to learn more on this topic? Then you won’t want to miss our recent podcast episode! Hear Sam Allberry, author of “What God Has to Say about Our Bodies,” share more on why humans are more “animated flesh” than they are “imprisoned souls.”
Posted by Patrick Miller