Right Theory: Mystical bodies, part 2 – The Mystical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of Anti-Christ

In my last post I discussed the incorporative nature of the new electronic media and the impending rise of the Global Person, and presented a quote from Marshall McLuhan’s 1969 Playboy interview in which he offhandedly relates the concept of “Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media” (262) to the Mystical Body of Christ. In order to proceed, I must clarify the latter concept, which I can’t assume is familiar to most readers.

The Mystical Body of Christ, for Catholics, is the Church understood as a single corporate entity stretching from our material realm, through Purgatory, to Heaven. At baptism, we are incorporated into the Mystical Body. The Head of the Mystical Body is Jesus Christ, and the Soul of the Mystical Body is the Holy Spirit. The Mystical Body on Earth is the Church Militant; the Mystical Body in Purgatory is the Church Suffering or Church Expectant; and the Mystical Body in Heaven is the Church Triumphant. The members of these three parts of the Church form the Communion of Saints within the Mystical Body. Communication between the parts of the Mystical Body occurs primarily through the sacraments and the medium of prayer. Communication within the Church Militant (the Mystical Body on Earth), however, makes use of all the usual “earthly” forms of media we have at our disposal. The Mystical Body inhabits our media, through channels that may have nothing to do with specifically Catholic communications, reaching out through the wires, cables, and airwaves to incorporate any who open their hearts to Jesus Christ.

The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), in his 1935 book The Mystical Body of Christ, describes the Mystical Body with an eloquence far greater than I can hope to muster:

“The plan of the Incarnation was based upon the communication of the Divine through the human, the invisible through the visible, and the eternal through the temporal. It was, in a certain sense, the foundation of a Sacramental universe in which material things would be used as channels for the spiritual. The footprints of the Eternal Galilean were soon to fade from the sands of the seashore and the dust of Jerusalem’s streets; even the beautiful body which He took from His mother would be so tortured by men as to lose all its comeliness before assuming that glorified state in which men could no longer touch it. But though He knew He was soon to leave, He would not be an Architect who lays a foundation and then disappears, nor a Teacher who ceases to teach, nor a King who ceases to govern, nor a Priest who ceases to sanctify. He would be with men even to the consummation of the world. In order that this union might be effective, He said that He would assume a new body which should not indeed be like the physical body which He assumed from the Blessed Virgin, but another body, a kingdom, a social unit, a spiritual corporation of regenerate souls, a new humanity, a new race” (33-34).

Later in the same work he explains that the Mystical Body is part of the yet larger Mystical Person of Christ:

“Christ and His Mystical Body make but one Mystical Person. A Mystical Person has a double existence: one in Himself as Head of the Mystical Body, and the other in the Body of the faithful who receive His Life. Inasmuch as He exists in Himself, He is a single Person; but inasmuch as He subsists mystically in His members, He fills the role of Personality. Thus united to us, Christ shares His Life by a kind of ‘communication of idioms’ somewhat akin to that which is established between his two natures” (67-68).

If, as I suggested in my last post, electronic media has made possible the creation of the Global Person, it has also made possible (even if seemingly unlikely) the rapid and totally immersive incorporation of all humanity into the Mystical Person of Christ. The way forward for any Christian is clear: if we are to become part of a Mystical Body of a Mystical Person, it should have Christ as its Head. I can’t say for sure whether McLuhan saw electronic media as a potential path to salvation, but the quotation from his Playboy interview shows he understood that the incorporative nature of electronic media is at least analogous to the spiritually incorporative nature of the Mystical Body of Christ. There is also, as I noted in an earlier post, strong evidence that underneath his non-moral exterior McLuhan was, as Mark Krupnick asserts, “a belated modernist who was hoping that the new science might be used to reverse the effects of Gutenberg technology, thereby restoring us to the unified oral world of the Catholic Middle Ages” (113).

If McLuhan’s thoughts on the use of electronic media for spiritual advancement are ambiguous, his concerns regarding its potential for spiritual degradation are less so. In the same Playboy interview, on the topic of the eventual impact of technological development, McLuhan remarks, “There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism. The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ—Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born” (268). In a similar vein, in a 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain, McLuhan writes, “Electronic information environments being utterly ethereal fosters the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. After all, the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer” (72). McLuhan seems to be pointing to two possible outcomes of the further development of incorporative electronic media: the extension of the Mystical Body of Christ, or the development of the Mystical Body of Anti-Christ.

Sheen also writes of the Mystical Body of Anti-Christ in an oft-quoted (on the Internet) passage from his 1948 book Communism and the Conscience of the West, using language that McLuhan echoes in his letter to Maritain. Speaking not of the electronic media but of a new political order, Sheen states, “He [the Anti-Christ or Devil] will set up a counterchurch which will be the ape of the Church, because he, the Devil, is the ape of God. It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content. It will be a mystical body of the Antichrist that will in all externals resemble the mystical body of Christ” (24-25?).

In my next post, I will take a closer look at this great Ape of God, the Mystical Body of Anti-Christ: where It dwells in our media environment, how It functions, and how Its battle with Christ is conducted.

Works Cited:

Krupnick, Mark. “Marshall McLuhan Revisited: Media Guru as Catholic Modernist.” Rev. of Marshall McLuhan, Escape into Understanding: A Biography, by W. Terrence Gordon. Modernism/modernity 5.3 (1998): 107-22.

McLuhan, Marshall. Letter to Jacques Maritain, 6 May 1969, from Toronto. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999. 70-73.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Playboy Interview – A candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media.” Rpt. From Playboy (March 1969). Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1995. 233-69.

Sheen, Fulton J. Communism and the Conscience of the West. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril Company, 1948. Note: I do not have a copy of this book, so I am trusting the accuracy of the many Internet sites that quote from it. I have no reason, however, to believe that the passage I have quoted is inaccurate.

Sheen, Fulton J. The Mystical Body of Christ. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935.