Christian Flesh
Paul J. Griffiths




FLESH IS ORDINARILY CLOTHED, and the wearing of clothes is an intimate fleshly matter. Clothing touches the skin on the inside, and on the outside separates flesh from world. Wearing clothes is tactile first and last, and therefore fundamentally a matter of and for the flesh. Are there meretricious modes of dress for Christians, clothing that speaks against Christian flesh, whether by way of idolatry or scandal? Are there clothes that glorify that flesh, and its LORD to whom it is cleaved? Is there a Christian grammar of thought about clothes, and a Christian habitus with respect to the wearing of them? To answer these questions, clothing needs first to be related to nakedness (4.1), and then to baptism (4.2), in which there is found something like properly Christian clothing. There are clothes for other liturgical occasions, too (4.4), and these have Christian significance. But most clothing is adiaphorous for Christians (4.3), and this is evident and important in the way that Christian flesh approaches the distinguishing of males from females by conventions of dress (4.5), as it also is in its approach to those modes of dress that produce scandal (4.6).

4.1   Clothing and Nakedness

Flesh’s porous boundary is its skin. It’s by way of skin that flesh contacts bodies and touches other flesh. Ordinarily, human skin is covered, in whole or in part, with something other than itself, something human-made. These coverings are clothes. Clothes need not be next to the skin; they can be layered one over another—the coat that covers the jacket that covers the shirt are all clothes, even if only the shirt is next to the skin. And not everything that covers the skin is clothing. Coverings that immobilize the wearer by providing a carapace (tanning beds; full-body scanners; sleeping bags) fail to be clothes, no matter how close to the skin they may be. Clothes, skin-close, permit their wearers to move through the world even while shielding them from direct contact with that world and from fleshly caresses. Most humans spend most of their waking hours at least partly clothed.

What, more exactly, is clothing for? Four overlapping purposes are easily distinguishable.

First, clothes protect. What they protect against may be independent of human agency. That’s usually the case with weather: clothes protect flesh against cold, heat, rain, snow, wind, sun, and so on. Sometimes, too, clothes protect against direct human aggression (bulletproof vests), or dangers produced as side effects of human agency (smog masks). And sometimes they protect the flesh of those doing kinds of work that would otherwise injure flesh (welders’ goggles; gardeners’ gloves). Clothes, in all these cases, protect the flesh’s fragility. Death or injury might be the result of the absence of protective clothing.

Second, clothes enhance fleshly powers: the racing swimmer’s suit reduces the drag of her unclothed flesh; the hiker’s boots permit walking long distances on rough ground; the hunter’s night-vision goggles allow slaughter in the dark. All these count as clothes: they cover some part of the skin while still permitting mobility, and they make it possible for the flesh to do something otherwise impossible or difficult.

Third, clothes badge their wearers: they identify their wearers as being of a kind, serving a function, or participating in a kind of activity. Clothing that protects or enhances may also badge (workers’ protective clothes badge them as persons doing that kind of work); but most sartorial badges do not immediately protect the flesh from a threat, or enhance its performance. Rather, they serve to communicate something about their wearers. Priests, vested, consecrate the host and elevate it before the congregation; police, uniformed, make an arrest; doctors, white-coated, probe, palpate, consult, and prescribe. The clothes these people wear, uniforms in these cases, badge them for their work. Uniforms do other things as well—inspire fear or lust or gratitude, for example—but they do at least this.

Sartorial badging also communicates age and sex and status. All human cultures have more or less strongly marked local sartorial indicators for these things, and evident contravention of them (a dhoti-wearing woman in Delhi; a skirt-wearing man in Chicago) typically causes at least tension and sometimes violence. The poor and the rich are also typically badged sartorially, as are the young and the old, and contravention of these local norms, too, often makes what might otherwise be smooth social interactions noticeably more sticky. Panhandling while wearing what look locally like the clothes of the rich, for example, would do this.

Sartorial badging doesn’t travel well; what’s immediately recognizable as having a particular sartorial meaning in one place may elsewhere communicate nothing but puzzlement, or something contradictory to what its meaning was at home. What sartorial badging communicates is also largely tacit: even those who can read the local badges with ease, precision, and subtlety are unlikely to be able to say what meanings they’re giving to the badges they see, even when, as is usually the case, those meanings are rich, permitting complex and friction-free social interactions. Sartorial badges are effective local communicators, but they don’t easily lend themselves to removal from the tacit sphere, and that, in large part, is why they don’t travel well.

Fourth, clothes are ornaments. They are put on to please those who wear them and to delight or impress or manipulate others. This is clear enough in the case of the ear stud, the necklace, and the ring; but it’s also the case when clothes enhance or occlude particular features of the flesh. The heel of a shoe can increase apparent height; the cut of a shirt can decrease apparent girth; the padding of a jacket can emphasize shoulder breadth; the bias of a dress can focus attention on the breasts or the hips.

These four—protection, enhancement, badging, and ornament—are the principal purposes of clothing. There is no clean separation among them. Many sartorial ensembles serve most of these purposes at once: the football player’s on-field uniform protects, enhances, badges, and ornaments all at once, as does the office worker’s suit and the day laborer’s work gear. But some ensembles or particular pieces of clothing serve mostly one or another of these purposes. Few people wear goggles against snow glare because they think they look good in them; and fewer wear filigreed silver earrings for protection of the flesh against damage.

Human flesh may also be naked, unclothed. All human flesh, once it ceases to live symbiotically within the flesh of its mother, enters the world naked—usually to be clothed by others almost at once. And for most humans past the age of five or so, some clothes are worn during the majority of waking hours. This distinguishes human creatures from almost all (perhaps all) others. But there are always also interludes of nakedness, some embraced willingly (for bathing, for the exchange of caresses, for medical examination and healing, for athletic performance, for comfort, to provide pleasure to a lover or to oneself), some undertaken, willingly or not, as part of a commercial exchange (prostitution, striptease, as an object to be represented in paint or photograph or film), and some forced (the infant’s dressings and undressings, the stripping and parading of a victim for humiliation, the undressing of flesh so that it may be tortured, the preparation of an unconscious patient for surgery). Some interludes of nakedness may include all these elements.

Even when flesh returns to body in death, the dialectic of divesting and vesting typically continues: the corpse may be stripped and washed and anointed, then to be reclothed for display or burial or burning. The rhythm of dressing and undressing provides one of the ordering principles of a human life, and it is an extraordinarily complex one. Sartorial rhythms and choices provoke more human ingenuity and take more human energy than almost any others; they are rivalled only by the ingenuity and energy given to gastronomic and sexual rhythms and choices.

If clothes protect, enhance, badge, and ornament flesh, nakedness leaves it unprotected, unenhanced, unbadged, and without ornament—or at least with only those ornaments and badges wrought upon or within its fabric (surgical implants, piercings, tattoos, circumcisions). Nakedness therefore removes most signs of status, most ornamentation, and all protection against ordinary fleshly fragility. It leaves the marks of sex and age, and with them something of the flesh’s history—scars, wrinkles, discolorations. Public nakedness exposes what’s ordinarily hidden and removes what’s ordinarily seen. Solitary nakedness does too, and this explains why some people prefer not to be naked even when alone, or sedulously avoid looking at themselves even when they are naked alone and without need for protection against immediate dangers; but public nakedness adds a level of danger and unease because it makes flesh available to the unpredictable gaze (and perhaps touch) of others, and because it largely removes control over appearance and presentation. This is made worse when public nakedness is involuntary. For an adult to be stripped unwillingly is a kind of torture; unknowingly to be seen naked by others is to be made subject to uninvited gazes. In both cases, control is removed, danger intensified, and embarrassment (in the milder cases) and terror (in the more extreme ones) the likely and proper responses.

There are similar, though much more complex, difficulties with the making of images of nakedness, whether in words, photographs, paintings, or film. Even when consent is given for the making of such images, there’s loss of control over the situations in which, and the persons by whom, the images are used. And without consent, if images of nakedness are made without knowledge or under compulsion, then the same difficulties are present, but now added to and exacerbated by ignorance or compulsion.

The dangerous vulnerability of naked flesh also explains why offering it to another can be such a powerful gift. Willingly undressing for someone else is an offer of oneself largely unprotected, unbadged, and unornamented. It ordinarily requires trust that the gift will be received appropriately: without violence, ridicule, or other kinds of blindness to what’s being offered. Even if the stripping is done for pay, or with medical attention in mind, or because local habits make it unremarkable in a particular context (beaches in southern Europe; saunas and steam rooms; massage tables; nudist preserves), some modicum of trust is needed. When trust is present, and especially when undressing is reciprocal and two naked bodies of flesh face one another and exchange caresses, a depth of intimacy results that is possible only because nakedness has the protective artifice of clothing as its complement.

4.2   Clothing and Baptism

What difference does flesh becoming Jesus-cleaved in baptism make to the use of clothes, and to the rhythm of divesting and vesting by which most human lives are marked? Is Christian flesh related differently to its own nakedness, and to the nakedness of others, by its Jesus-cleaving?

Christian flesh is ordinarily clothed; nakedness is not its norm. The Jesus-cleaved, like most humans, cleave also to clothes, covering their flesh with silks and leathers and cottons and linens. Mostly, Christian flesh is intimately touched by these things, and there has been, in the long tradition, a marked Christian suspicion of nakedness and a tendency to contrast Christian attitudes to this matter with pagan ones. Pagans, those not formed by explicit knowledge of and response to the LORD, the god of Abraham and Jesus, are more likely to be at ease with nakedness—at the baths, in the bedroom, in the arena, at the beach, outdoors when weather permits—than are Christians; they are more likely, too, to want to represent nakedness—in sculpture, painting, film, photograph, and words—than Christians are. It’s rare to find nakedness depicted within the precincts of a Christian church; and rare (though perhaps less than it was) to find Christians among the practitioners and advocates of public nakedness. And there is almost no tradition, among Christians, of representing the natal or resurrected flesh of Jesus unclothed. The exceptions (and even in these cases his flesh is rarely shown completely naked) are, significantly, mostly found in representations of Jesus’s baptism, death on the cross, and taking down therefrom for burial.

Baptism shows something important about the relation of nakedness to Christian flesh. It’s the rite that both shows and effects the cleaving of pagan (or Jewish) flesh to the flesh of Jesus, and nakedness is proper to it. That is, baptizands ideally undergo their baptisms naked in order to show that they are being baptized as flesh, in the flesh, and that it is exactly their flesh that is transfigured by being cleaved to Jesus. Naked pagan flesh (a different account is needed for the baptisms of Jews) descends into the chaos-waters of the baptismal font; the LORD moves upon the surface of those waters as the triune name is invoked, in recapitulation of the LORD’s movement upon the waters in creation; pagan flesh is transfigured in those waters by cleaving to Jesus; and when it ascends from the waters, in recapitulation of its birth from its mother, it is at once clothed in a white baptismal garment, which is an actual piece of clothing worn next to the skin, as well as an element of the sacrament by means of which the newly baptized’s cleansing from sin and cleaving to Jesus is shown and effected. The rhythm of the rite moves from undressing (the removal of clothes from pagan flesh) to redressing (the putting on of the baptismal garment).

Most Christian baptisms, now, don’t require, and most don’t involve, the nakedness of those being baptized. When a baptizand is naked it’s almost always an infant. Christians are uneasy about nakedness, especially the nakedness of adults, even in baptism. But something is lost by that uneasiness. Clothed baptizands are still baptized, still washed from sin, still cleaved to Jesus. The efficacy of the rite does not depend on nakedness. But the nakedness of baptizands, together with their subsequent dressing, shows and participates in what’s happening to them with a clarity and force that is seriously obstructed by clothing. Pagan natal flesh’s coming to be is necessarily without clothes; Christian natal flesh’s cleaving to Jesus is obscured by them, even if not made impossible.

This difference is because Christian flesh comes into being by way of the transfiguration of already existing pagan or Jewish flesh, while pagan natal flesh comes into being where, before, there was only sperm and egg, separate and seeking to join. Baptism, which brings Jesus-cleaved flesh into being, does not do so by destroying the pagan flesh on which it works. The LORD does not proceed by erasure: Abram isn’t destroyed and replaced by Abraham, and neither is Saul by Paul; the natal flesh of Jesus is not destroyed by death and then replaced by new flesh in his resurrection, but (with the prolepsis of the transfiguration in mind, 2.3) transfigured into it. The same is true of the relation between pagan natal flesh and baptized flesh. There is, nonetheless, a profound change. Baptized flesh’s cleavings are fundamentally different from those of natal flesh, and this difference is occluded by baptizing clothed flesh. When that is done, when the baptizand is clothed, the transfigured flesh, now cleaved to Jesus, typically retires from the ecclesial scene to a private place, there either to disrobe and put on the white baptismal garment marking its transfiguration or, worse, to put the baptismal garment on over the clothes worn before and during baptism. In both cases, the scene is changed and the other members of the body that the baptizand has now joined are left behind. When clothes are changed, the act of doing so speaks strongly against—misrepresents—what has just taken place: something (the pagan flesh’s clothes) has not been transfigured by the baptismal bath, and must therefore be removed before the new clothes can be put on. The work of baptism is, in this scenario, completed extra-baptismally. And if the baptismal garment is put on over the pagan clothes, then something interposes between transfigured flesh and the flesh of Christ to which it has been cleaved by baptism. In these ways, clothed baptisms occlude or contradict what’s happening. That is not to say that such baptisms fail as baptisms. Their validity and efficacy is given by the use of water and the triune name. But it is to say that the form of the rite when the baptizand is clothed speaks against what the rite accomplishes.

Baptism suggests nakedness as a prelude to Jesus-cleaving; and once flesh is so cleaved, its clothing in a white garment shows what happens to it. Those clothes are used again when Christian flesh returns to body in death: it belongs properly and ideally to the funerary rite to drape the casket or the body or both in white as reminder of what the flesh that died and became body was, and to underscore the hope of what it will be again, at the resurrection. These white garments are the paradigmatic Christian clothing, and their use is restricted to the beginning of the Christian life and the transitus between this life and that of the world to come.

These white garments are the only fully and properly Christian clothes. If there is a Christian uniform, this is it. It’s a peculiar one. It’s meant to be worn only at the beginning of the Christian life here below, in baptism; and at its end, in burial. After death, Christian flesh has no need of clothes: in the resurrection there are none, as there also weren’t in the garden before the Fall. None of the purposes served by clothes have purchase in heaven, and this is especially true of the purpose served by the white garment. All resurrected heavenly flesh is beyond possibility of sin, and therefore also beyond need for sartorial marking of sinlessness. The Christian uniform is therefore temporary and occasional. It badges, as clothes often do; but not for the world. The white garment finds its place only within the Church, among those likewise Jesus-cleaved; it sends no message to the pagans. Once the white garment has been put off, Christian flesh is, and ought to be, save for some exceptions for scandal (4.6), sartorially indistinguishable from pagan flesh. Local sartorial conventions, whatever they are, are wholly adoptable by Christian flesh; and where there are Christian uniforms worn for badging or protection in the pagan world, a sartorial mistake has been made.

4.3   Clothing and Convention

In the world of the trope, clothes—their putting on and taking off—are of considerable importance in the Christian tradition. The Christian, for example, is said to be one who puts on and wears Jesus, whether at baptism or more generally, and so, by only a small extension of thought, one who can properly be said to wear Jesus, to wear the LORD as a garment. In the third chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, quicumque enim in Christum baptizati estis Christum induistis—whoever’s baptized in Christ has put on Christ. He writes immediately after this that in Christ there’s no Jew or Greek, no slave or free person, and no man and woman. All these are one in Christ, and that can be expressed by saying that all are identically clothed with Jesus. Christians wear Jesus like a garment because, or just as, they are cleaved to him. Both tropes (cleaving and wearing) suggest fleshly intimacy: clothes are next to the skin, typically, and cleaving is a metaphor of union (3.1). But these tropes have nothing directly to do with actual clothes, and the relevance they have to those is indirect.

The depictions of Adam’s and Eve’s nakedness and clothing in the garden are more direct, and perhaps more productive for thinking about Christian clothes. At the end of the second chapter of Genesis, after Adam, The Man, has named the animals and failed to find among them any who might remedy his solitude (non est bonum esse hominem solum), and after the LORD has made Eve, The Woman, for The Man exactly as that remedy, “they—Adam and Eve—were naked (nudi) and didn’t blush (non erubescebant).” Shortly, they eat the forbidden fruit, come to see that they are indeed naked (cumque cognovissent esse se nudes), and at once make aprons (perizomata) from the leaves of the fig tree—coverings for at least their genitals, which have now become pudenda, things to be ashamed of. Their eyes have been opened, and they can now see something they didn’t see before they ate. What they see is that their flesh is naked, and it is this seeing that causes blushes: they are now differently related to and differently perceptive of what their flesh is and how it might be implicated with the flesh of others.

The LORD discovers what has happened and curses, variously, Adam, Eve, and the serpent, and then, “the LORD God made garments of skin (tunicas pelliceas) for Adam and Eve, and put them on them (induit eos).” The verb for the putting on of clothes is the same here as the one used in Galatians. No further mention is made of the fig-leaf aprons, nor of the garments of skin. The couple go from being naked and unashamed to being doubly clothed, once by themselves, out of shame, and once by the LORD, perhaps as punishment, or at least as a mark of their new condition. The context certainly suggests something like this: the leather garments are made and given immediately after the curses.

This story is full of clothes, and of interpretive possibility. The commentators, Jewish and Christian, have not held back. Some structural features of the account, reproduced and elaborated by many of the commentators, are clear enough, and suggestive for the question about vesting and divesting Christian flesh. One, fundamental, is that nakedness, the flesh uncovered by clothes, belongs to the order of creation. Adam and Eve, as they were made and before their fall, were not clothed, and not only were they not abashed by this state of things, but the LORD, their maker, took it to be valde bonum, very good, as good as it could be. It’s common for commentators to suggest that nudus doesn’t mean only or merely the absence of garments, but rather the clothing of the flesh in light as a sign of its unimpaired intimacy with its maker and, correspondingly, of its status as very good, and even blessed. But even if this line is followed, the clothing affirmed of prelapsarian human flesh is metaphorical. Eve and Adam, until the fig leaves, are without coverings made by human hands, and it’s only coverings of that kind that count as nonmetaphorical clothes. Even the leather garments aren’t clothes, properly speaking, because they’re made and given by the LORD. That the garments of skin are unusual in this sense—unusual exactly in not being clothes—is recognized by the majority of commentators, Jewish and Christian, who understand them to be the garments of mortality—skin as representative of flesh tending toward body—and the LORD’s gift of them to Adam and Eve (and all of us) as the promised gift of death. This reading makes it possible to say that the LORD’s promise of death to the couple if they eat the forbidden fruit, a promise denied by the serpent, is fulfilled, in the sense that they become mortal rather than that they at once fall dead. The reading even makes it possible to gloss a feature of the Latin text, which reads, in the case of both promise and denial, morte morieris, literally, “you will die with death,” by saying that the death of which they’ll die (mors-morte) is mortality, and that the future tense of the verb (morior-morieris) indicates exactly that they won’t die yet but, rather, have now become mortal. Their garments of skin, then, are their own skin, now mortal. This is one more instance of clothing as trope, rather than clothing as actual clothes.

It’s possible also to read the text as being about actual clothes, actual leather tunics made by the LORD as gift and protection for those about to be expelled from Eden into a world where they’ll need all the protection they can get. There are some useful avenues of thought suggested by this reading, but it is less capable of accounting for the particulars of the text in which it’s found—specifically the morte morieris phrase—and gives less credit to the difference between garments made by the LORD and garments made by humans, the latter being clothes properly speaking.

One purpose of clothing for Christians, the Genesis story may suggest, is to remedy shame—literally, in the story’s language, to spare blushes. For humans, and perhaps especially for men and women, to be naked in one another’s sight, this suggests, is an occasion for shame that clothing can protect against. Baptism reverses this. Fallen and shameful flesh is drowned in that bath, and the clothing it needs when it emerges isn’t a remedy for shame—what is there about human flesh cleaved to Jesus’s flesh, human flesh now wearing Jesus, that could produce shame?—but instead a celebration of rebirth and an anticipation of final resurrection. Christian naked flesh, in this reading, is now once again valde bonum, very good, and neither the relations between the sexes nor anything else requires clothing. Nakedness glorifies the LORD, and protective clothes are meretricious. Concordant with this line of thinking is the speculation that Christian resurrected flesh, heavenly flesh, will necessarily be naked. Its garments of skin will have been taken from it—certainly so, if these are understood to represent mortality—and its fig leaves, along with all other artifacts, will be no more. Flesh then will once again be clothed in light, which is another way of saying naked (and radiant), though the garments of light it will then receive are immeasurably better than those with which Adam and Eve were clothed before the Fall, and that is because they are an element of the world’s heavenly fulfilment, which is—it is axiomatic for Christian thought to say—an improvement upon the unfallen state of things in Eden.

—But does this mean that Christians are fornicating, acting meretriciously, whether idolatrously or scandalously, whenever they wear clothes now, after baptism but before the general resurrection? Does it mean that Christian flesh not only doesn’t need clothes, but performatively contradicts what it is, what it has become in baptism, when it covers itself with them? Should Christians now go naked as a matter of course?

—No. Christians aren’t gymnosophists, even though the thought that they should be has occasionally surfaced within the tradition, and for something like the pattern of reasoning just sketched. What it does mean is that Christians have been liberated from the tyranny of clothes. Clothes, for them, are, like language and food, necessities for a while (as there won’t be clothes in heaven, so also there won’t be language or food), but necessities whose local norms bear approximately the same relation to Christian flesh as the norms of particular local languages bear to the word of the LORD given in the canon of Scripture. The relation in question is one of conventional necessity: Christian flesh must be covered, the LORD’s word must be spoken, clothes are necessary for the one and languages for the other, both clothes and languages are locally normed, and so Christians adopt the sartorial and linguistic norms of the places in which they find themselves while recognizing that those norms have, and can have, no more than local purchase. They have, and can have, nothing essential to do with the fabric of the Christian life. That women wear skirts is a local fact like in kind to the fact that the French language genders its nouns. If Christians live where women wear skirts or where French is what’s spoken, then Christian women will wear skirts and speak French. They won’t, however, or oughtn’t, think that wearing skirts has anything to do with the fact that their flesh is Christian, Jesus-cleaved, any more than they will, or ought to, think that their gendering of nouns has anything to do with the word of the LORD.

This position removes burdens. Those who hold it are freed from the thought that any mode of dress can, ipso facto, simply by its form, speak against, or for, the fact of Christian flesh. A woman might wear pants as well as skirts; a man might wear skirts as well as pants; either might wear anything local norms prescribe for the other, and yet be as well situated with respect to the Jesus-cleaved nature of their flesh as if they abided by local norms on these matters. There’s freedom in the reverse direction as well: local norms about clothing, again in this just like local norms about speech and writing, are often gorgeously complex. The French subjunctive and the difference between a single-vented and a double-vented jacket are phenomena with their own peculiar beauty. Christians who see that these things are what they are—local beauties—can embrace them as such without idolatry and become connoisseurs of clothes or of speech without contravening who they are.

There’s a further implication. It is that clothing itself, any covering of the flesh, has, with baptism, lost its deep necessity. It’s on the way to abolition, and so there can be nothing in principle against nakedness for Christians. Christian flesh has, ideally, no shame, just as Christian life is, ideally, free from fear, and so when nakedness offers itself as a local norm (in the sauna, at the beach, with the beloved) Christians have no reasons to refuse it other than whatever local ones are in play. There is, in brief, no specifically Christian habit of clothing or nakedness, in just the same way that there is no specifically Christian habit of language. These things are all, for Christians, adiaphorous: Paul’s motto, omnia mihi licent, applies to modes of dress (and nakedness) as much as to modes of eating and drinking, and that’s why, typically, what Christian flesh does about clothes is just what the locals do, whatever that is. But Paul also writes sed non omnia expediunt—but not everything’s useful or appropriate, and that motto, too, can find application here, and in so doing provide some exceptions to the general principle that clothes (and nakedness) are adiaphorous for Christians.

4.4   Liturgical Clothes

The first exception has to do with badging, other than the fundamental and transient badge of the baptismal white garment. Christianity has been prolific in attending to and producing sartorial badges of states and habits of life. This is most especially true of the priestly state, which is deeply sartorially marked for both Jews and Christians. But it is true also of other states: diaconal, episcopal, and vowed, whether as religious or as married. The sartorial marking of baptism has already been noted. It’s true, too, of some particular functions and associations, even when these are not themselves states of life. The Knights of Columbus are sartorially marked in these ways, as are, for example, many of the sodalities and confraternities dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The scapular is among the more common items of clothing used for such marking. Many Christians, therefore, both are and want to be marked sartorially as Jesus-cleaved; these badgings may extend to the indication of particular functions within the community or the world and of particular, specialized, habits of relating to the LORD.

For example: in the twenty-eighth chapter of Exodus a detailed description is given of the clothes to be made for Aaron and his brothers. These are priestly clothes, clothes for sacerdotes, and, the text says, faciesque vestes sanctas Aaron fratri tuo in gloriam et decorem—you shall make holy clothes for Aaron, your brother, for glory and for beauty. The prescription that follows is precise and exhaustive, and it uses again the expression “for glory and for beauty.” The clothes of the Aaronic priesthood make those who wear them glorious and beautiful, not because of properties intrinsic to the clothes (the clothes are nothing but thread and fabric and dye and polished metal, however gorgeous), but because the clothes badge them by the LORD’s command as set apart for a peculiar intimacy with the LORD and a peculiar work for the community of the elect. The clothing of the Christian priesthood is the same: it glorifies and beautifies those who wear it, and by doing this marks them for the peculiar work of preaching the word and celebrating the sacraments. Vestments are to priestly flesh—flesh sacramentally set apart for priestly work—in one important respect as the white baptismal garment is to baptized flesh: that is, the clothes in both cases show and participate in the condition of those clothed in it, in the one case that of being Jesus-cleaved, and in the other that of standing as Jesus to the people, which itself requires being Jesus-cleaved. Priestly and baptismal garments are unlike in many other ways, not least in the fact that the former are put on and off frequently, whereas the latter are put on and off only once, at baptism, not to be put on again until death.

It isn’t that priestly vestments or baptismal garments make those who wear them saintly. They don’t remove the possibility of sin for the baptized; and they don’t make priests, even while they’re doing what priests do, incapable of deep, even mortal, sin. The same, mutatis mutandis, applies to baptismal garments. But what priestly garments do, in addition to badging and participating in the sacramental tranformation of the flesh of those who wear them, is adorn their wearers for the LORD, make them beautiful for the LORD’s kiss and embrace. Clothes adorn ordinarily, by local convention and for local purposes; those adornments are adiaphorous for Christian flesh—to be indulged in or not, as local norms and particular needs dictate. But these baptismal and priestly adornments are not adiaphorous because they are gifts returned to the LORD who prescribes them, gifts that, when returned, make the returner beautiful and glorious, as the text from Exodus specifically says. The LORD’s embrace of the baptized is in part prepared for and returned sartorially; similarly for the LORD’s embrace of the priest. Sartorial badging for office in this gift-return sense isn’t required for Christians (omnia mihi licent, after all), but its principled and complete rejection would not be appropriate (non omnia expediunt).

4.5   Male and Female Clothes

The second exception to the general claim that clothes (and nakedness) are adiaphorous for Christians is shown in aphoristic form by the texts already mentioned from the third chapter of Galatians.

Whoever’s been baptized in Christ has put on Christ (Christum induistis): there’s neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (omnes enim vos unus estis in Christo Iesu).

The connection of thought is important here. It’s because the baptized have put on Jesus and, therefore, have become cleaved to him, that they’re all one—and this oneness is specified by the denial of the matched pairs Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female. These matched pairs are not in every respect the same. The Jew/Greek and slave/free pairs are, in the text, negated in neither/nor form, while the male/female pair is negated in not/and form. This is in part because Paul here echoes the text of Genesis (“male and female he created them”), but it also shows that the male/female pair is rooted in creation as the slave/free and Jew/Greek dichotomies are not. However they’re construed, though, oneness removes the dualities in the (metaphorical) sense that Christians aren’t clothed with them, haven’t put them on (induere), in any final or deep sense. Christians are, finally and deeply, clothed with Jesus, and that clothing overcomes—puts off—any and all other clothes. The text is not best read to mean that there are, after baptism, no Christian males and no Christian females, no Christian Jews and no Christian pagans (a gloss on “Greek”), and no Christian slaves or non-slaves. The male-female distinction continues within the Church, without abolition, and even, most Christian thinkers have speculatively concluded, into the general resurrection (Augustine is decisive on this for the Latin-using West, and rightly so)—and this is true even if it’s difficult to find a compelling specification of what, exactly, constitutes the difference between men and women (fleshly form? chromosomes? genes? procreative functions?—none of these will quite do). The Jew-pagan distinction also continues within the Church in the sense that Jews can be, and are, cleaved to Christ by baptism, just as non-Jews can and are, and that the difference between Jews and pagans isn’t abolished by baptism, even if it is transfigured by it. The slave-free distinction is different: slavery indicates a local and contingent relation, and the Church has come to see what Paul did not, which is that it can and should be abolished prior to the end, and need not, therefore, continue to mark the Church’s body in the same way that the other distinctions do. The male/female and Jew/Greek distinctions remain, then, but now transfigured. Those whose flesh is Jesus-cleaved are distinguished in the ways indicated by those matched pairs only in a preliminary way. The distinctions do not go all the way down: the only (metaphorical) clothing that does is Jesus. Those clothes can’t be put off, and they provide a unity deeper than any distinction, sartorial or other.

What, then, for example, about local sartorial norms that distinguish male from female? These often present themselves as, first, not to be transgressed on pain of exclusion or violence; and, second, as entailed by and inseparable from the physical (and sometimes intellectual) natures of men and women. When those two families of justification for gender-specific sartorial norms are intertwined, transgression of such norms tends to be seen as transgression of an order of nature, and those who transgress as properly punishable for doing so. These are, from a Christian point of view, pagan patterns of reasoning. Jesus has overturned them, and those who have cleaved to him and are clothed with him are no longer subject to them, even when they abide by them. When Christians do abide by sartorial norms that distinguish men from women, they do so, ideally if not always actually, as if they were what they actually are, which is local conventions with local utility.

However, when such norms present themselves as something more than that, and when they seem so to be taken by most who observe them locally, then Christians may judge that abiding by them as the locals do is not simply adiaphorous. To observe local norms in this matter in such a way as to make Christian dress indistinguishable from local pagan dress would be, or might be, to support a pagan view that speaks against being Jesus-cleaved. Dressing as a man, or as a woman, in such a way that the reframing of such dressing by Jesus is ignored typically moves those who do it in the direction of, first, thinking that there is something Christian about such norms; and then, second, toward active support of pagan modes of thinking about those norms as intimate with the natures of men and women and reflective of the order of being. Much better—more coherent with being Jesus-cleaved—would be to adopt styles of dress that signal the subordination of sartorial gender marking to sartorial gender transfiguration. This could be done by mixing local norms: men could adopt some of the sartorial marks taken locally to be proper to women, and the other way around. In the early twenty-first century in North America, this might mean that men sometimes paint their nails and wear skirts, while women sometimes stop shaving their legs and wear neckties. A simple switchover, where men consistently adopt women’s local sartorial norms and women men’s, wouldn’t bring about the desired result, which is to remind Christians of what local sartorial norms are (pure conventions) and to signal to pagans something of what it means to cleave to Jesus. A simple switchover would be as likely to signal a reversed male-female identitarianism as an undercutting of just that identitarianism. Fluid mixing does better, sits closer to the effect that Jesus-cleaving has on male and female flesh, which is to subordinate its gender identity to its cleaving to Jesus and, thus, to liberate it from hard-identitarian sartorial norms on these matters.

This second exception to the generally adiaphorous character of local sartorial norms for Christians is indexical. That is, it’s a response to local situations in which sartorial norms for gender badging have become hardened and enforced by violence against or social exclusion of offenders. Not all local situations are like this, though it seems probable that most are. When Christians come to see that their locale is like this, then observing local sartorial norms without transgressive gestures (not necessarily dramatic ones) is to begin, in dress, to speak against the Jesus-cleaving of one’s flesh. Christians have often engaged in sartorial transgressions of local gender-marking norms. Most of their sartorial badges, especially those that show priestly office, but also those that show membership in religious orders, have exactly this effect: they desex those who wear them, and stand at odds with local sartorial gender badges. A male priest, when vested, is feminized (this is a traditional Protestant criticism of Catholicism; it should be embraced as accurate and as a good); and a female one masculinized (Protestant priests and ministers sometimes observe this, whether positively or critically; it, too, should be embraced as a good). And the habits of religious orders, arguably, do the same: women who dress in them are desexed, as are men. This is true even when particular offices or memberships are restricted to one sex or the other.

Catholics are tempted, when thinking about and providing norms for the clothing of religious, by the thought that clothes marking gender difference have a deeper significance than they actually do. When Catholics yield to such temptations, they’re likely to specify dramatically different sartorial norms for male and female religious. The extent to which that is done is the extent to which the Christian imagination has failed, and there’s been a move toward scandalous sartorial fornication—scandalous in the sense that a local sartorial norm has been adopted without permitting it to be transfigured by Jesus. It can hardly be a defense that local norms require sartorial gender differentiation, and that the work of the orders would be hampered if such clothes were not required. Religious orders already contravene local norms ordering procreation, property ownership and transfer, cohabitation, and so on, deeply and dramatically; sartorial contravention would do no more than add one. If male and female religious were indistinguishably dressed within their particular orders, this would be a powerful, and possible, signal of what being Jesus-cleaved does to clothes.

This Catholic failure is an instance of a more general Christian temptation to ignore the fact that local sartorial norms, whether prompted by sexual difference or by other things, are transfigured by Jesus. Christians are tempted even to the point of shunning or otherwise punishing those who don’t abide by local sartorial norms: the transvestite may be ostracized or refused participation in the Church’s sacramental life; the boy or girl who exhibits sartorial tastes and proclivities locally taken to be more appropriate to the other sex may be disciplined out of them in the name of Christianity. But in fact, Christians are liberated from sartorial markings of a hard identitarian kind, and such disciplinings, punishments, shamings, and shunnings are outflows of a mistaken construal of the grammar of the faith with respect to these questions. Dressing as though to support hard-identitarian norms comes, for Christian flesh, under the Pauline heading of what’s neither useful nor appropriate (non expedire), while dressing in such a way as to destabilize such norms is permitted (omnia mihi licent).

—Surely, though, there are scriptural and deeply traditional sartorial norms, some of them gender marked, prescribed for Christians. Paul seems to say that, for example, women should cover their heads in church; the Jewish community out of which Christianity came was then, and is now in its Orthodox forms, strongly committed to sartorial gender marking; and there is much in the doctrine and discipline of particular churches, including the Catholic Church, that shows commitment to the nonnegotiability and non-fluidity of sartorial gender marking.

—Yes. All that is correct. The line or argument given here would result, if taken seriously, in developments in church discipline, at least. It’s offered as a speculation, without commitment as to whether it’ll be taken up. But it’s not offered without roots in the tradition. The lines of thought sketched here plumb the depths of Christianity; gender-marked sartorial prescriptions and proscriptions belong to the shallows, as is evident from their comparatively undeveloped doctrinal basis.

—Maybe. But even if the sartorial question is like this, it can hardly be claimed that the male-female difference is. That goes deep, is rooted in the creation accounts, and is reflected in the evident morphological, chromosomal, and genetic differences between males and females. The Catholic Church, especially in the magisterial teachings of recent popes (John Paul, Benedict, Francis), appears committed to some version of male-female complementarity. Why shouldn’t these differences and complementarities find a representation in different habits of dress for men and women?

—They may. No ban on such differences is suggested here. All that’s suggested is that attending to the nature of Christian flesh as Jesus-cleaved shows a fleshly unity that undergirds and overcomes male-female differences, fleshly and other; it also shows that sartorial norms marking gender can have no more than local and conventional meaning for Christians. That’s not to say that such norms have no meaning. They can be embraced and found delightful by Christians like any other local beauties; they’re an element in the habitus of every human society. But when they’re overinterpreted, rooted in the order of things, and sanctioned by violence, Christian flesh shows what it is by sitting loose to them. It already does that by refusing sartorial gender marking in the rite of baptism, and by acknowledging that the life of the world to come to which we look forward, while still containing male and female flesh, won’t mark that difference sartorially.

4.6   Scandalous Clothes

Particular sartorial ensembles and conventions are adiaphorous for Christians, except for baptismal garments (4.2) and other liturgical clothes (4.4), which properly, though temporarily and occasionally, belong to Christian flesh. Those are positive exceptions to the general rule. A negative exception is observance of too-rigid sartorial markings of gender (4.5), which can produce scandal by appearing to endorse misprisions of what clothes are and are for. There are other exceptions to the general rule of like kind: occasions, that is, when Christian conformity to sartorial convention might be scandalous in the same way that, following Paul’s description, eating food sacrificed to idols might be (5.6). These are cases in which the extent to which Christian flesh is dressed in such a way as to encourage the imagination, whether in the one so dressed or in others seeing it so dressed, that it is an idol offering, an idolothytum, is the extent to which it repudiates its condition as Jesus-cleaved and should itself be repudiated. Those who dress themselves in this way are like those who recline in the idol temple to eat: whether or not their own imaginations are directed idol-ward by their clothes, those of others might be, and it would be better for themselves and others that they dress differently.

The principle is clear enough. Its applications are more difficult because considerable understanding of local context is needed before a particular sartorial ensemble can be judged as an idol offering (the same is true for discerning when food might so be taken, 5.6). But some instances are clear enough: the manacles and shackles clothing the flesh of slaves on an auction block to stage them for sale as chattel turn the imaginations of all participants in the scenario, even those of the slaves, idol-wards just to the extent that they understand the arrangements they’re participating in. The ornaments and garments that clothe prostitutes’ flesh in a brothel to stage them for temporary sexual purposes do the same. Dressing flesh in a uniform that badges its wearers as emissaries of a régime dedicated to slaughter does the same. And dressing in an ensemble whose very existence requires sweatshop labor does the same. This is not an exhaustive list, even for here and now. Many other instances could be offered for other times and places.

These examples share with Paul’s treatment of food offered to idols the feature that there’s nothing about the clothing—the manacles, the diaphanous robes, the epaulettes, the cheap chain-store pants—considered simply as clothing that makes it an idol offering in the order of being. No clothing can be, simpliciter, an idol offering, which is among the reasons that there is, with the exceptions noted, no properly Christian clothing and no Christian reason to renounce or adopt any sartorial ensemble. What makes these clothes such that they can move the imagination idol-wards is, first, a particular set of institutional arrangements (the slave market, the brothel, the fascist army, the sweatshop), and second, the understanding on the part of those who clothe themselves in these ways, and on the part of those who see them so clothed, of the nature of the institutional arrangements in which these clothes participate. Without such understandings, there is no movement of the imagination idol-wards, as is easy to see by imagining these sartorial ensembles represented in fiction (no one thinks the shackled actor a slave), or shown to someone ignorant of the institutional arrangements that give them meaning. But to the extent that there is understanding of those arrangements, and of the clothes that those who inhabit them wear, there is sartorial scandal. Such offerings speak against the Jesus-cleaved nature of the flesh that wears them.

Christian nakedness should be analyzed in the same way. Nakedness by itself never speaks against Christian flesh. It cannot, because the gaze at nakedness—the newly opened eye—that made Eve and Adam blush is not a Christian gaze. When Christians see naked flesh, whether that of the Jesus-cleaved or that of Jews or of pagans, they see flesh already or proleptically cleaved to Jesus. Flesh of that sort can be nothing but beautiful. There’s nothing about its exposure to the gaze that could make Christian flesh blush. All nakedness, like all clothes and all food, is not only permitted but delightful for Christian flesh; there is and can be nothing intrinsically wrong with it, as is evident from the nakedness of the baptismal bath which anticipates the nakedness of resurrected flesh. There is in principle no reason for Christian norms and practices about nakedness to differ from local pagan norms. When it’s usual in some locale for men and women, whether alone, separately, or together, to be naked, Christians have, in principle, no reason to behave otherwise.

But, as with clothing, there can be situations in which nakedness does speak against Christian flesh, situations in which being naked doesn’t glorify the LORD, but rather fornicates scandalously. Nakedness, too, can move the imagination idol-wards. When people are stripped naked against their will, when nakedness is an item in a commercial transaction, when nakedness is used as an instrument to manipulate and control others, when nakedness is an object of the concealed gaze—in all cases of that kind, cases in which nakedness is implicated in a pattern of practice or an institutional form in which it moves the imagination idol-wards, nakedness speaks against Christian flesh by speaking against what it is to be Jesus-cleaved.

A similar pattern of thought can be applied to the more difficult matter of the visual representation and display of nakedness. Making images of the naked flesh of an actual person, whether by drawing, painting, photography, or film, is, by itself, unproblematic for Christian flesh. What could be wrong with making an image of such flesh, Jesus-cleaved and beautiful as it is? Christian judgments that there is something wrong with making such images (and with permitting one’s own flesh to be imaged) are almost always articulated with the thought that there’s something wrong in principle with image making, a thought that has roots in the scriptural and traditional prohibitions against making images of the LORD. Those prohibitions, however, aren’t easy (for Christians) to extend to a ban on image making in general; and when this has been tried, as it was in the iconoclastic controversies of the seventh and eighth centuries, and in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth, it has always yielded theological conclusions and ecclesial practices at odds with fundamental Christian convictions, most especially those that have to do exactly with the LORD’s incarnation (enfleshment). The long tradition has been prolific in making images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, and these images, whether in the form of icons taken sacramentally to participate in the LORD’s being, or in the more diffuse sense of images usable devotionally or instructionally, have entered deeply into the life of the Church.

These images are, however, only rarely of completely naked flesh. Some approach this (Jesus on the cross; Sebastian in extremis), but most are well covered, with special attention to the sexual characteristics—the only significant exception here is images of Mary’s naked breasts being sucked by the infant Jesus, which at some periods have been an ecclesial commonplace and at others altogether absent. There is, then, a Christian wariness about liturgical or devotional use of images of unclothed flesh, and a corresponding wariness about the activity of making such images, and of permitting the flesh of actual persons to be used as models for them. That wariness continues into the present.

Why? Two patterns of thought are evident in Christian writing about making images of naked flesh and using such images. One is reasonable and entirely in accord with Christian premises; the other very much less so. The first is a realization that images of naked flesh often are idol offerings in the sense already discriminated. They easily participate in an economy of fleshly idol offerings (Aphrodite might be among the idols to whom such offerings are made; but darker and more violent gods are also possible recipients, including the voracious and violent market in pornography) and, when actual naked flesh models for the image, can place the person whose flesh is imaged into that economy exactly as an idol offering. Those whose flesh is Jesus-cleaved speak against their own flesh when they participate in such an economy, or when they inflame the imaginations of others idol-wards. This objection is reasonable. It participates in the patterns of reasoning about clothes already set out. Less reasonable, though perhaps equally widespread among Christians, is the thought that images of naked flesh are ipso facto offerings to idols. When this pattern of thought is in play it tends to lead to a generic condemnation of such images without attention to the economy to which they belong, as though they could be understood in abstraction from any such economy. This is not reasonable. Anything, including naked flesh, can in principle be imaged by Christians; that, again, is a result of the Jesus-cleaving that happens to flesh in baptism.

Christian flesh can be clothed for protection, enhancement, badging, and ornament without thereby speaking against its identity as Jesus-cleaved. It can also be naked without doing so, whether alone or in public. How Christian flesh dresses, and how often and where it is naked, are at bottom adiaphorous. Christian habits on these matters are largely given by local habits, themselves tremendously varied, which is as it should be. There is no distinctive Christian dress, and no distinctive Christian attitude to clothes or nakedness. The only exceptions are: the need to badge and ornament Christian flesh sartorially to mark and effect its initial cleaving to Jesus; the need to ornament it, occasionally, for particular intimacies with the LORD; the need to resist locally hardened and violent sartorial norms by destabilizing them; and the need to avoid dressing (or being naked) as a form of offering to idols. Abiding by local sartorial norms when they’ve become hardened, and moving imaginations idol-ward by dress or nakedness—these are fornicatory uses of clothes that speak against Christian flesh’s Jesus-cleaved-ness. Other uses glorify the LORD by appropriately dressing the flesh.

It won’t always be easy to tell when a sartorial ensemble is fornicatory. That’s because no such ensemble is so in itself, and because knowledge of the context that makes it so isn’t equally or easily available to everyone, and can be interpreted differently even when it is available. Christians disagree, therefore, often reasonably, about what constitutes sartorial fornication, and also disagree, and reasonably, about what constitutes sartorial glorification. They should not disagree, however, about the pattern of thought to be used in addressing such questions.

That sartorial ensembles can properly be characterized as idol offerings, and as complicit with rigid and violent local norms, might be taken to provide a set of dress rules for Christians: a tightly corseted set of sartorial prescriptions and proscriptions designed exactly to avoid dressing in those ways. There’s considerable evidence of this approach to dress within the long tradition. The rules of modesty governing (especially) female dress belong here. But that approach is almost always a mistake because it is almost always entwined with the thought, rebutted here, that there are dress norms that are in themselves offerings to idols. But there aren’t: omnia mihi licent. Any such rules are local, short-lived, and better observed by elegant subversion of local norms than by setting up and enforcing norms of Christian dress that distinguish Christian from pagan flesh at first blush. The liberation of Christian flesh from bondage to sartorial norms goes deep. Christian flesh has been proleptically transfigured, and this means that concern about dress has been removed altogether from the order of being and located entirely in the order of social convention and practical need. One implication of this is that local sartorial norms can be played with rather than worried about. Another, a close cousin of the first, is that Christian flesh acts in accord with its Jesus-cleaved nature when it attends playfully to the gorgeous possibilities of dress without moving imaginations idol-wards. Christian flesh has acquired possibilities of sartorial ornamentation that make even Solomon, in all his sartorial glory, seem unimaginative and underdressed.