Dismemberment and Integrity
Dismemberment and Integrity

Dismemberment and Integrity

Toward a sacrificial understanding of wholeness.

September 18 th 2018
Appears in Fall 2018

Nicolai Gogol begins and ends his 1835 short story “Nevsky Prospekt” with descriptions of St. Petersburg’s famous central avenue. Before dawn, the street is “clean-swept” from the debris left by the tread of the previous day’s feet and boots and slippers. At daybreak, peasants and beggars appear. Later, shopkeepers open their stores and the street teems with a frenzy of clerks, teachers, governesses and children, actors, musicians, secretary after secretary rushing to their offices.

Nevsky Prospekt hits its peak in the evening, and Gogol’s prose speeds up to mimic the swirl of traffic. The narrator no longer sees human forms, but disconnected parts flowing in and out of his vision. There are “side-whiskers, tucked with extraordinary and amazing art under the necktie, velvety whiskers, satiny whiskers, black as sable or coal, but, alas, belonging only to the foreign office.” And mustaches, “wondrous mustaches, which no pen or brush is able to portray; mustaches to which the better part of a lifetime is devoted—object of long vigils by day and by night; mustaches on which exquisite perfumes and scents have been poured, and which have been anointed with all the most rare and precious sorts of pomades, mustaches which are wrapped overnight in fine vellum, mustaches which are subject to the most touching affection of their possessors and are the envy of passers-by.”

Differentiated conceptions of integrity threaten to erode integrity, as it is stretched to cover a uniquely modern social topography.

Colorful hats, dresses, shawls surge up and down the street, as if a “whole sea of butterflies” descended to process through the city. Ladies’ sleeves “resemble two airborne balloons,” so that the women seem ready to float away and are kept earthbound by the grip of their escorts. Here on the Nevsky, you meet “that singular smile.” Men and women break up into their most fashionable pieces—their whiskers and mustaches and hairstyles, smiles, bits of clothing.

Marshall Berman, who discusses Gogol’s story at length in All That Is Solid Melts into Air, says that Gogol “seems to be inventing the twentieth century out of his own head.” William Everdell observes in his wonderful The First Moderns that the modernisms of the early twentieth century broke with the nineteenth-century assumption of continuity, physical, social, psychological.

Atomists in physics and chemistry discovered that matter itself is discontinuous; the ether evaporated; statistical and probabilist descriptions of reality replaced deterministic ones; insoluble aporia were exhumed from under the foundations of the once-stable edifices of mathematics and logic.

Artists rendered this fragmentation in paint and prose. Painters invented pointillism and cubism and countless other styles, the very proliferation of isms a symptom of fragmentation. Joyce followed the example of Gogol, and Eisenstein’s montages translated Gogol’s fractured phantasmagoria into film. Following Hume and Kant, philosophers wondered whether we could know anything beyond the disparate phenomena that flit in and out of consciousness.

Others may have felt it before, but Gogol was among the first to tell us that modernity induces an experience of dismemberment.

Humpty-Dumpty Modernity

The purported causes of modern fragmentation are nearly as numerous as the analysts who enumerate them. Philosophically inclined critics point to the Cartesian mind-body dualism, which split human experience into mentality and spatial extension. For Marxists, the initial breach was the mechanization of labour that turned the worker into a cog, alienated from responsibility for, and profit from, the finished product. Brad Gregory finds the roots of this segmentation in the splintering of the Western church after the Reformation, and Charles Taylor too sees the Reformation as a crucial moment in the “Great Disembedding” that dislodged social from cosmic order and freed individuals from the constraints of tradition.

Modernity has witnessed an unprecedented differentiation of social life, which produces what Georg Lukacs called a “pluralization of action-guiding values.” We’re expected to be ruthlessly self-interested in the market; patriotic seekers of the common good in the voting booth; devout and prayerful at church; gentle and sentimental at home, that haven in the heartless world.

Fragmentation characterizes modernity at every level. The body of Christ is dis-membered into national churches and, eventually, into denominational appendages, each boasting of its not-needing the others. Economic life is conceived of as a realm of competition rather than mutual service, and political order has to accommodate the new condition of religious pluralism.

As Gogol hinted, individuals experience modernity as dismemberment. We disintegrate in social space, encouraged to become multilingual, speaking and acting by the norms of each sub-society we enter. We cannot remain consistent in time because the pace of technical and social change demands continual updating. Obsolescence crouches at the door.

We’ve broken into pieces and can’t put ourselves back together again.

It’s no surprise, then, that dismembered moderns long for shalom, wholeness and completeness, and this has made “integrity” a watchword for resistance movements within the modern age. Jacques Maritain proposed a humanisme integral that treated human beings as body-spirit wholes, participants in the common goods of society. In some variations, Catholic “integralism” has sought to reintegrate church and state in a fresh form of Christendom.

Many of the integralist movements of modernity, however, have not returned to traditional religions. As Taylor emphasizes, our secular age is spiritually creative, throwing up multiple programs to overcome the “malaise of modernity.” In his twenty-second letter on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller claims that “the aesthetic alone is a whole in itself, as it combines in itself all the conditions of its origin and of its continued existence.” Only in aesthetic experience do we know harmony, since only in art “do we feel ourselves snatched outside time,” allowing us to express our humanity “with a purity and integrity as though it had not yet experienced any detriment from the influence of external forces.” Aesthetic experience will, Schiller and many others have hoped, reassemble the dismembered body, individual and social.

Integrity Among the Philosophers

Contemporary philosophers often treat integrity not as a uniquely modern challenge but as a problem inherent in human existence. Integrity is variously defined as self-consistency, self-integration, self-constitution, sometimes as the determination to be “true to one’s self.” Integrity is tested by temptation: A person of integrity remains resolute regardless of the seductions to deviate from a guiding categorical imperative. It’s tested by opposition: A man or woman of integrity is willing to suffer rather than abandon their self-commitments. At the limit, the martyr is the paradigm of integrity.

Purely formal conceptions of integrity quickly run aground. Surely we want to head off the opinion of Walter (John Goodman) in the Big Lebowski: “Say what you will about National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” And it seems oxymoronic to say that one can display integrity by rigorous commitment to spineless cowardice. Finally, there’s the problem identified by a character toward the end of Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco: “What if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it better, in that case, not to be true to ‘thine own self’?” Formal concepts are empty, leading Bernard Williams to the conclusion that integrity doesn’t count as a virtue because it doesn’t motivate or enable a person to act in desirable ways. We expect martyrs to cling to something serious and recognizably good.

At the same time, we do recognize at least a perverse form of integrity in people we consider morally reprehensible, and this has led some philosophers to disaggregate integrity. “Personal” integrity is constancy in fundamental commitments or higher desires, whatever they may be. Before we ascribe “moral” integrity, though, we have to pass judgment on the substance of one’s commitments and desires.

The realms of integrity can proliferate: Artists must be devoted to their work, intellectuals and academics to the pursuit of truth, politicians to transparency and dedication to the public good. Differentiated conceptions of this sort threaten to erode integrity, as it is stretched to cover a uniquely modern social topography. Is artistic integrity at all related to moral or personal integrity? Doesn’t the personal wantonness of a politician have some connection with his politics? In this way, philosophical analyses of integrity circle back to the sociological concerns with which we started: Does dismembered modern society advance or undermine the possibility of a life of integrity?

Walk This Way

In the Bible, integrity is a substantive concept. Defending himself to Abraham, Abimelech links “integrity” (Hebrew, tom) to the motivations and desires of his heart, and “innocence” to the works of his hands (Genesis 20:5). In its fully developed form, “integrity” is a covenantal concept. David shows “integrity of heart” (1 Kings 9:4), because he is persistently, personally loyal to Yahweh, responsive to the word of his master.

A related term, tamiym, describes the physical perfection required for sacrificial animals and priests (Leviticus 1:3, 5; 21:16–24; 22:21). A male descendant of Aaron with missing or dysfunctional organs (blind) or deformities (withered limb, hunchback) was not permitted to approach the altar. An animal with similar defects could not be turned to smoke.

Transposed into an ethical key, tamiym describes the character of a man or woman who is permitted to enter the presence of Yahweh. David asks Yahweh (Psalm 15; cf. Psalm 24), “who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill?” And he answers:

He who walks with integrity [tamiym], and works righteousness,

And speaks truth in his heart.

He does not slander with his tongue,

Nor does evil to his neighbor,

Nor takes up a reproach against his friend;

In whose eyes a reprobate is despised,

At the centre of this vision of peace is an offering that promises reintegration on the far side of dismemberment.

But who honors those who fear the Lord;

He swears to his own hurt and does not change;

He does not put out his money at interest,

Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things will never be shaken. (NASB)

Integrity characterizes a “walk,” a way of life, not merely this or that isolated action. One’s integrity is rooted in a truthful heart, honest internal dialogue, but expresses itself in a loyal use of his tongue and charitable treatment of his neighbour. His hates and loves are aligned with Yahweh’s. He is not ruled by calculations of cost and benefit: He is willing to suffer harm in fulfilling his commitments, and rejects a benefit that would blind him to injustice. Men and women of integrity are fit for self-sacrifice.

Yet all of this is too neat, and, as Damian Cox and his co-authors insist in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “one should not confuse integrity with neatness.”

Existentially, it’s too neat because human beings have always lived in the anguish of being stretched and torn by legitimate but opposing obligations, not to mention the apparently overwhelming force of temptation. This experience takes particular, perhaps especially intense, forms in modernity. When the world pulls us into pieces, it’s false comfort (perhaps false consciousness) to issue exhortations on the order of, “Hold yourself together.”

Biblically too, it’s too neat. Biblical characters experience radical change. The junctures are often marked by name changes that signify God’s gift of a new identity and life-trajectory. Abram couldn’t rightly refuse to leave his father’s house or offer his son on the grounds that such commands conflicted with his prior commitments; disintegration was precisely what Yahweh called him to. It would not be integrity for Saul to continue persecuting after the Damascus road; it would have been a culpable deafness to the Lord’s call. Once Saul becomes Paul, he must live up to his new name. Even Jesus, true man of integrity, comes to the Father’s holy hill by the way of the cross.

This messiness is ritualized at the sanctuary. Only tamiym animals were acceptable on the altar, but they weren’t offered in their tamiym state. Before they could ascend as a soothing aroma and Yahweh’s bread, they had to be slaughtered, dismembered, and burned. An animal with a stunted leg was unacceptable; but as soon as the animal was handed to the priest, its perfect limbs were cut apart.

A concept of integrity that simply bypasses personal and social dismemberment won’t do. We need a sacrificial conception of integrity. The Levitical system offers up just such a conception when it introduces the shelem, the peace offering, the offering of wholeness or completeness.

The Peace Offering as Paradigm

The book of Leviticus introduces an array of offerings that did not exist before the exodus. Cain and Abel brought gifts (Hebrew, minchah, “tribute offering”), and after the flood Noah offered “burnt offerings” (Hebrew, ‘olah, “ascension offering”). Patriarchs never presented what Leviticus calls “sin offerings” or “trespass offerings.” They occasionally ate sacrificial meals (Genesis 31:54; 46:1), but the “peace offering” isn’t mentioned until Israel arrives at Sinai (Exodus 20:24; 24:5).

All offerings were meals. Yahweh alone “consumed” the flesh of an ascension offering, eating from the altar, his table. The peace offering was unique because non-priests (even non-Israelites) were allowed to eat portions of it. Sharing a meal with Yahweh signified and sealed the harmony between Yahweh and the worshipper. It was a ritual of peace, fittingly denominated as a shelem, an enacted symbol of the harmony, wholeness, and completeness of human life. It was a celebration of shalom.

Creation comes to be through a rhythm of dismemberment and reintegration.

The introduction of the shelem at Sinai is a clue that peace is the goal of the exodus. God brings Israel from Egypt so that they can “sacrifice” to him in the wilderness (Exodus 3:18; 5:3–17; 8:8; zevach, “sacrifice,” is a synonym for the shelem).

Leviticus is the book of peace. The shelem is the structural climax of several sections of Leviticus. The first three chapters form a unit that moves from the ascension offering (Leviticus 1) to the tribute offering (Leviticus 2) to the peace offering (Leviticus 3), a literary recapitulation of Israel’s ascent from the grave of Egypt, with plunder, to celebrate a festival of peace at the mountain.

After chapter 16, Leviticus turns from sacrifice and purity in the sanctuary to the demands of holiness in the land. Yet shelem and its cognates continue to play a programmatic role. In the wilderness camp, all butchering is sacred butchering; every animal must be slaughtered as a “sacrifice,” that is, as a shelem (Leviticus 17:1–9). Every meal with meat is a festival of peace.

Leviticus 19 details the day-to-day holiness that Yahweh demands of Israel. Israelite farmers are told to leave the corners of their fields, and dropped grain, for the poor of the land (Leviticus 19:9–10). Employers are to pay their workmen at the end of the workday (Leviticus 19:13), merchants must use just money (Leviticus 19:35–36), and judges must judge impartially, deferring neither to the poor nor to the great (Leviticus 19:15).

Leviticus 19 is a song of love, the 1 Corinthians 13, the 1 John 4, of the Torah, a detailed exposition of the second great commandment (which first appears in 19:18). Importantly, the chapter begins with a reminder of rules about the shelem (19:5–8). The shelem that was offered at the tabernacle signified the life Israel was to live in the land. Leviticus 19 is a song of peace, a detailed exposition of Yahweh’s demands for social integrity.

Leviticus 24:18, 21, uses the verb form of shelem in connection with the lex talionis. Eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth justice “makes it good,” restores balance, harmony, and wholeness. Yahweh promises that Israel will enjoy peace if they keep covenant: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out . . . I shall also grant peace in the land, so that you may lie down with no one making you tremble” (Leviticus 26:3, 6).

Leviticus is a book of peace, tracing the contours of harmony, wholeness, and completeness. At the centre of this vision of peace is an offering that promises reintegration on the far side of dismemberment.

Integrity as Gift

Leviticus thus gives us a non-neat concept of integrity. In the shelem, the dismembered animal is reintegrated by being turned to smoke. Harmony with Yahweh, and between worshippers, is achieved only as the animal is cut apart and distributed. Integrity and wholeness are found on the far side of dismemberment.

This might seem a mere practical necessity: The animal has to be cut in pieces so each participant can receive his assigned portion. But the ritual points to something more, a reality deep down things. Creation comes to be through a rhythm of dismemberment and reintegration. Yahweh separates light and darkness before harmonizing them in a daily dance. He wrenches waters upward and places a firmament to separate the waters of heaven from the waters of earth. He divides the waters again so that dry land appears. Adam is dismembered before he is introduced to the woman, with whom he will become one flesh.

Sacrifice is the basso continuo of creation and so of history, sacrifice understood not as mere dismemberment but as dismemberment-and-reintegration, death-and-transfiguration. Before Israel can be integrated into the life of God, she must be torn away from Egypt. Sacrifice is the form of new creation: Jesus dies and rises; Jesus’s company of disciples is dismembered and reintegrated; one new humanity is knit together through the cross of Jesus, who is our peace; and at the centre of the church’s liturgy, the minister takes bread and breaks it before it integrates us in a feast of peace.

I don’t intend to deny the uniqueness of modern dismemberment, nor to universalize Western modernity. The point is that no social body is eternal, and so each will, in its own way, experience the disorientation of dismemberment and, perhaps, reintegration (as, for example, the Roman world did in the fifth and sixth centuries). Even the one eternal social body, the church, can’t evade this, since she is formed by, and conforms to, her crucified Lord.

To say that dismemberment is a necessary moment in the achievement of integrity is to say that we must find our point of integration outside ourselves. We can put this more strongly: When we try to protect our given integrity, we disintegrate. The point is easier to see at an interpersonal level. We can’t achieve social harmony so long as each individual retains his integrity intact. If every household is self-sufficient, there will be no economy, no exchanges, to bind them together. Households must disintegrate to be integrated in a larger whole. Nations have to go out of themselves to become part of a community of nations.

What is true for interpersonal, inter-domestic, and international order is also true for the individual. Individuals are not, cannot be, self-sufficient entities, complete and whole in themselves. When we try to retain our individual integrity intact, we refuse the gifts that made us individuals in the first place. Our dismembered lives cohere only by grace. It is in Christ, and him alone, that things hold together.

In the shelem, the initial physical integrity of the animal gives way to a final, richer wholeness. Full integrity is an achievement, the conclusion of a process. Integrity is not preservation of the same, nor resistance to or evasion of time and change, nor shoring up the origin. Our integrity in time isn’t persistence of the past. Integrity is eschatological. By the Spirit, the Christian and the church participate now in the integrity to come. We live by faith, the present substance of an integrity not yet realized.

Peter Leithart
Peter Leithart

Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and serves as Teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He is the author, most recently, of a two-volume commentary on Revelation (T&T Clark). He and his wife Noel have ten children and eleven grandchildren.


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