Giving Up Descartes for Lent

When asked what Christianity is, many of us are inclined to list off a host of essential doctrines. Christians are the sort of people who believe in the Virgin birth, the Incarnation, that the cross and resurrection somehow atones for us, etc. Christianity is chock full of important beliefs, no doubt, and as a historical theologian, I am the last person to deny the significance of doctrine. But the idea that we are principally defined by the content or even the act of our beliefs is erroneous. In fact, it is downright Cartesian, and undermines what Christians thought and experienced long before the early modern period.

In what follows I hope to first unmask our Cartesian assumptions and to rework our self understanding as embodied, loving beings so that we can see that embodied practices like Lent are so significant. Second, having become convinced of the importance of our bodies and a Christian anthropology, I want to show that the three pillars of Lent—fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—take on new significance in corresponding to and healing the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3. 

Descartes and the “Thinking Thing”

René Descartes was a philosopher and mathematician born towards the end of the 16th century in France. However, he did a lot of his intellectual work in the Netherlands, which was at this time a haven for free-thinkers of all sorts. Descartes came to be racked with doubt about the possibility of certainty and became especially dubious over sense experience and the body’s ability to detect truth. As a consequence, Descartes set out to find something about which he could be absolutely certain. This may seem futile to modern readers, who are inclined to believe Descartes’s anthropology without buying into his philosophical method. Surely I can know that I am sitting at a computer reading this. But Descartes means to show you that you do not, in fact, know this. Your senses tell you this, but the question arises: how do you know that you are not being deceived?[1] Your position in front of a computer only appears obvious to you because you have yet to ascend the heights of pure philosophy and realize that maybe you are wrong about everything. What Descartes comes to realize is that for which he is most famous, i.e. his phrase: cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Descartes fleshes this out in a response to one of his reader’s objections to his Discourse:

It therefore remains that, if we do not have any such certainty, it applies only to things clearly perceived by the intellect . . . for instance, that while I am thinking, I exist.[2]

There are myriad philosophical implications to be derived from Descartes’s first principle, but our concern is with the way that Descartes’s thought has become common sense with regard to anthropology. There are many Christians who will tell you that you are merely a spirit in a body. If you doubt this, do a Google image search for the phrase “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” You will be treated to a variety of Pinterest-worthy images with the quote, attributed to C.S. Lewis, which are plastered all over social media and Christian blogs. The problem is that Lewis never said any such thing. I suspect he would have found it odd that so many of his readers think he did. It not only flies in the face of Lewis’s own writings[3], but is squarely opposed to the anthropology of orthodox Christianity, which understands the human being to be both body and soul, as the starting point of reconciliation between divinity and matter, expressed especially well in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.[4] That one can find this sentiment all over the internet shows that many find the quote ostensibly from Lewis and that it resonates with their own beliefs about the nature of the human person.

A particularly helpful book to find one’s way out of the Cartesian “person-as-thinker” maze is James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. Smith argues that Christianity has swallowed the Cartesian bait just as much as the secular world and thinks of Christians principally as thinkers, remaining blind to the various “cultural liturgies” (e.g. in the marketplace) that shape us precisely not as “thinking things,” but “loving things.” Facebook knows you are not principally a thinker, but a lover, and capitalizes on that in order to keep you on its page with targeted ads and such. Recently, an important scholar in my field liked one of my tweets and I celebrated audibly. The likes on my tweets have literally no value beyond the fleeting experience, the quick hit of dopamine that comes with digital kudos. Both Facebook and Twitter know this and neither are foolish enough to try to appeal to me on the intellectual level, spelling out their plan for me in rational terms. They know that I would be far less inclined to use them if I began to think about them, so they keep me fixed with my desires, not my mind. The Church, on the other hand, continues to try to provide a cognitive diet to a body that yearns for experiential comestibles.

Smith sees the way forward for the Church in a recovery of St. Augustine’s understanding of the human person as one who navigates the world by way of love. After all, if one knows a quote from Augustine’s massive oeuvre, it is typically the line from the opening of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we rest in you.”[5] What is the defining feature of the human person in Augustine’s line if not the heart rather than the head? Thus against the “person-as-thinker” model, Smith gives us the Augustinian model, which “begins from our nature as intentional beings who first and foremost (and ultimately) intend the world in the mode of love.”[6] Neither Smith nor Augustine intend to discount the necessity of the mind and the place of reason in the Christian life. Rather, they present to us a more dynamic understanding of the human being that takes into account our embodied experience, and this understanding is precisely what needs to be recovered if Lent is going to make sense.

Christian Worship and Embodiment

If Christianity has been taught to us in a Cartesian mode wherein we seek first to construct Christian worldviews in order to combat non-Christian worldviews, the embodied practices of Christianity will begin to make less sense because they do not serve the cognitive purposes all that well. We will find our Christian practices disintegrate, only to be replaced with procedures better suited to the cognitive understanding of the person. Yet, Christianity is inherently designed for lovers, even if it fails in the execution. When people come to me with struggles about the faith, I ask first if they are praying, going to Mass, doing works of mercy, and the rest. Why? Not because I am dismissive of their intellectual questions, since I am happy to both answer questions and provide the titles to books I think will be helpful. I simply realize that Christianity is not merely reading books and solving intellectual problems. An authentic faith begins with an encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. That is an experience. The faith continues in the embodied practices of the Church, especially the sacraments and the liturgical structure of the liturgical year.

That Christianity is meant for lovers is made especially obvious by the Mass. If it were meant for the Cartesian person, then the Mass would be a giant failure because it ceases to teach new information fairly quickly, especially for those who attend more than once a week. The Mass is repetitive by design and its structure and prayers are easily learned. In my experience, preaching in the Catholic Church is mostly bad and rarely teaches anything more than, “It’s good to be good and nice to be nice.” If I am showing up to Mass to learn new information, I am generally going to be disappointed. This disappointment fuels an entire industry of popular Catholic literature, which seeks to fill in the catechetical gaps. But what if Mass is meant first and foremost for embodied lovers?

What if the daily repetition of the Mass were meant to form habits that teach us something that is not articulated, but experienced and known in deeper ways? What if our daily genuflections towards the Blessed Sacrament engender in us a love for the Eucharist that no book can teach us? What if the sign of the cross we make with holy water finally reminds us in our bodies of our baptism and its promises? What if our rosary is worn out because we have petitioned the Mother of God to pray for us so many times since we have come to know her love just as we have learned our own mother’s love? I tell my own mother that I love her every time we talk on the phone, without failure. This is a habit. This is a ritual. Do I love her less thereby, because it is not spontaneous or something novel every time? Of course not. I love her all the more—so much so that it is ingrained in my very being when I speak to her. I cannot help but say, “I love you” now that it is part of my habit. This kind of habituated love seems to be the exact goal of the liturgical monotony of Catholicism, both in daily Mass and the recurring liturgical seasons.

Those who understand themselves as embodied lovers, as those who desire, will see in Lent a period in which to purify and reorient desires towards greater things. The Cartesian will have a hard time seeing how abstaining from beer or sweets over 40 days does anything useful since it fails to register at the cognitive level. The only thing I seem to know is that I miss beer. And how many Catholics are convinced that Lent is an interval of time in which one gives up, for example, chocolate and becomes a terror to everyone around them? Too many.

The logic of that sort of liturgical season is hard to discern, unless one conceives of God as a monster who thrives off of an annual increase in human misery. For the Augustinian, Lent is a season for evaluating your loves and reorienting them towards the highest good of all: God. But this is not done by being high-minded or trying to muscle your way to loving God above all else. The Church realizes that progress in the Christian life is far more akin to good scotch, taken in sips, than terrible domestic beer, drunk down in gulps. These “sips,” so to speak, are the tiny actions we undertake in Lent in order to create in ourselves habits so that we become accustomed to doing the good and right things.

The Pillars of Lent and the Fall

Why do we struggle to do the good even when we know what we ought to do (cf. Rom 7:15-20)? The best place to find the answer is in on the first pages of the Bible: in the first three chapters of the book of Genesis, wherein we find the narrative of humanity’s creation and fall into sin. There we find that God created Adam and Eve in perfect harmony. This harmony was along three dimensions. These dimensions were all individually damaged by the fall as narrated in Genesis 3. That is to say, when Adam and Eve were created,

  1. they enjoyed unadulterated communion with God,
  2. a rightly ordered and harmonious relationship with each other,
  3. and they knew and loved the rest of God’s creation without exploitative desire

When we think of the fall we tend to think about the first dimension, our relationship with God, as having been damaged. This is true enough, but is clearly not the whole story, for Adam and Eve’s relationship between themselves was also damaged. One only needs to look at Adam’s statement in Genesis 3:12 to see that Adam did not mind throwing his bride under the proverbial bus when God questioned them and this, no doubt, created a rift between the spouses. God’s curse on Eve likewise signals that a relationship that could have been lived in harmony will now be fraught with domination. Similarly, the relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed with the rest of creation is ruined in the Fall and the easy farming life Adam could have enjoyed was no more. Rather, God tells Adam that the earth will no longer cooperate with his efforts (Gen 3:17). To Noah, later in Genesis, God says that the animals who were once Adam’s friends will fear and dread human beings (Gen 9:2).

My contention here is that the Church, in her wisdom, has implicitly recognized these broken dimensions and has given us the liturgical season of Lent in which we are taught, in our bodies, to form habits. Secondly, these habits, correspond to these three broken dimensions of our existence: our relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation, such that we work by God’s grace to restore the order of creation.[7]

a) Fasting

Fasting is the most obvious and universally-practiced aspect of Lent and typically is done by giving up some food or drink, though many also give up different conveniences and distractions of modern life instead or in addition to abstaining from foods. Despite its popularity, fasting is also almost universally misunderstood. If God is not, as we have said, besotted with our 40 days of misery, what exactly does fasting from certain foods or practices accomplish? Christianity has long meditated on the significance of fasting and I cannot hope to articulate all the wisdom here, but I will relay two points. First, the sacrifice of giving up food—in antiquity this was typically the more expensive fare, such as meat and wine—means that one has more money to give to the poor, plain, and simple. I will discuss this more below with almsgiving. Secondly, we must understand that sacrifice understood in Christianity is not mere destruction, but conformity with the divine. As Joseph Ratzinger says,

True surrender to God looks very different. It consists—according to the Fathers in fidelity to the biblical thought—in the union of man and creation with God. Belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction or non-being: it is rather a way of being.[8]

This way of being is precisely what the embodied practices of Lent are supposed to generate in us. We are meant to be people who are desirous of and expecting the kingdom. As Alexander Schmemann says, fasting is about softening our hearts and teaching us to anticipate (to physically and then spiritually thirst and hunger for) the kingdom of God.[9] When we remove these physical loves from our lives, we experience a pang, a longing. But this immediately should raise the question in my mind, “Why am I missing this thing?” Perhaps one is fasting from something that is an overall negative in their life and should be cut out entirely. Perhaps one is fasting from something good for the sake of a greater good. Either way, the embodied experience of the absence is meant to raise within one a consciousness of something else, namely God’s presence in their life. Because you are, as a human being, both spirit and matter, and because the two have a relationship in your very person, the physiological hunger can spark the spiritual hunger. 

With respect to the three dimensions of original creation and the Fall mentioned above, I believe fasting is the principal way to reorient our relationship to creation. In the world after the Fall, our experience is characterized by what Augustine calls the libido dominandi (the lust for domination). We both exploit the world as a thing not to be cared for, but a thing to be taken advantage of, as well as misunderstand how the created order points us to God, though we so often seek our ultimate happiness in the world. We are created for the good, the true, and the beautiful, but in a fallen world, we are too often willing to take the simulacrum, the fake version, the knock-off. This, of course, never satisfies, and so we get locked into a cycle of consumption, dissatisfaction, and novelty, consuming anew, being dissatisfied anew, and searching always for some other novelty. If we fast and set aside our desire to consume and dominate, we are reoriented in a spirit of love and gratitude towards the things of the earth and their Creator. But this understanding of the world comes by way of embodied practice. Even though it can be articulated rationally, it is grasped by the believer first and foremost in action.

b) Prayer

Always tied to fasting in Christian thought, but not always in Christian practice, is prayer.[10] Its benefits and purposes as understood by Christianity are too numerous to discuss here. For our purposes of reclaiming the Lenten pillars for an embodied Christianity, we can look to St. Leo the Great, who tells us that fasting removes our concern for worldly and physical things and helps us to be mindful of, and therefore prayerful for, the coming of the Kingdom of God.[11] If I am taking a break from consuming, I now have more time to pray. The Cartesian model of the person has a difficult task in trying to associate the already uninformative practice of fasting with prayer. The embodied lover can more readily see how the pang of loss of a worldly comfort might rouse one to pray. Secondly, not only does fasting make more time, but it then requires us to lean on something else, namely God, when we would have looked to an earthly pleasure to sustain, or, more accurately, distract us.

The Lenten prayer as embodied habit is meant to teach us faithfulness to God by replacing lesser concerns with the greatest concern, namely our relationship to him. The hunger pang that comes on a day of fasting ought to remind us to pray. It is an embodied practice for the Christian, who gets on her knees or lays prostrate on the floor and speaks to God. Lent thus becomes the season for training the body to respond to needs, whether physical or spiritual, in prayer. When your fasting is tied to your prayer life, the body becomes a reminder to pray, which may otherwise be an act done only spontaneously when the mind remembers and the will figures it has nothing better to do.

It is precisely the lack of spontaneity in Lent that might make prayer a habit, which otherwise would never flourish if left to the whims of a distracted will. Prayer helps reorient your loves by reminding yourself of your need for God as well as his willingness to be a generous father to you. Once more, with reference to the three dimensions of human relationships in Genesis 1 and 2 that were damaged in the Fall, prayer restores the fallen relationship we have with God. Whereas Adam and Eve failed to seek out God when a need arose and chose self-reliance instead, the one who learns to pray in Lent becomes one who habituates himself or herself to trusting God’s providential and fatherly care in what may be a precarious or at least uncomfortable situation.

c) Almsgiving

After prayer, the most neglected pillar of Lent is no doubt almsgiving. Yet this is, according to the Bible, one of the central aspects of the Christian life, in and outside of Lent. As the book of Tobit tells us, “prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness” (Tob 12.8). One of the major reasons for fasting, according to the prophet Isaiah, is precisely so that one will have more to give to the poor. Isaiah writes about fasting: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (58.7)

In other words, one of the reasons one is supposed to fast from the disordered life of chronic consumption is to be able to provide for others who do not have enough. As Gary Anderson has argued in his book titled Charity, almsgiving—the practice of giving money to those in need, which is especially tied to fasting throughout the Bible—is often thought of in the Hebrew Bible as giving not simply to those in need, but to God through them.[12] For instance, Proverbs 19.17 makes this explicit: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.”

This same idea is taken up in the New Testament. In chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ tells us that what we do the “least of these,” we do to him. Christ is so generous that he regards the poor—the least of these among us—as his very own body. They are his people, his ambassadors and representatives. What we do for them He the counts as though we did it for him. When one gives to the poor, they give, according to Matthew 25, directly to Christ.

The early Church was not unaware of this biblical tradition and the consensus of the Fathers is that what you have, whatever it is, is a gift from God, and that to hide it away or to squander it is to take what God meant for generosity and use it for selfish means.[13] John Chrysostom, in his 20th homily on 2 Corinthians, writes:

Do you want to see his altar? Bezalel (cf. Ex. 31) did not build it, nor anyone but God Himself, and not out of stones, but out of a material so much brighter than heaven, that is, out of rational souls . . . The altar is made out of the members of Christ, and the Lord is made into the altar.

He goes on to say in the same homily:

You see this altar laying about everywhere, in the alleys and the marketplaces, and you may make sacrifices upon it all the time . . . When you see someone who is poor, understand that you see an altar.

Throughout Scriptures and into the early Church, one sees this concern for fasting and prayer coupled with the divine command to take care of the poor. In keeping with our embodied paradigm, we can see that almsgiving is to give up the fruits of our body’s labor. The Cartesian learns little more than the pain of seeing a lighter wallet, but the Augustinian sees Christ in another human being and, as Chrysostom says, offers worship to Christ through being an instrument of God’s charity. Almsgiving heals the rift between human persons wrought by the sin of Adam and Eve, which, though communal, ironically created distance between them. Almsgiving teaches us to value humans not for their utility, but as the highest of all of God’s creation. Fasting reminds one of the goodness of creation, prayer reminds one of the One from whom all creation flows, and almsgiving restores our relationship with our fellow humans.


I make the case that in order to properly grasp the intention of Lent, we first must understand ourselves principally as embodied lovers rather than as a Cartesian res cogitantes, or “thinking things.” We do think (of course, we must!). Rationality is a gift from God. But we are not first and foremost rational actors. We can, in the words of St. Paul, know the good and not do it. The Church, in her wisdom, has given us this liturgical season year after year precisely because she knows us to be lovers whose broken loves need reorienting. She gives us these embodied practices (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) to generate habits in us so that we no longer rely on spontaneous spiritual action, but mature into habituated holy people. The Church does not expect this overnight, nor even over the course of a single Lent. Each year each of us is given these forty days to journey along the path however far we are able and to take the wisdom that comes from this journey into our next year, where we will encounter this same liturgical season and, by God’s grace, continue further down the path.


[1] Descartes makes the point in his First Meditation that we often dream of our hand touching something, only to wake up and realize that our limbs were merely figments of our imagination. Why, then, do you believe your awakened self to be any more sure than your dreaming self, considering you were being duped in your sleep?

[2] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (OUP, 2008): 95.

[3] For example, read about the N.I.C.E.’s disembodied anthropology in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, the third book in his space trilogy.

[4] Two particularly beautiful treatises on this from antiquity are Gregory of Nyssa’s De Hominis Opificio (On the Making of the Human) and De Anima et Resurrectione (On the Soul and the Resurrection). In the latter, Gregory’s sister and teacher, Macrina, acknowledges that even after death, i.e. the separation of the soul from the body, the soul maintains a relationship with the particular configuration of atoms to which it belongs, thus rejecting the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. That the soul and the body are so closely wed shows that, for orthodox Christianity, the person is far more than their capacity to think.

[5] Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1.

[6] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 51.

[7] Many Roman Catholics heard on Ash Wednesday, “Repent and believe the Gospel” as ashes were imposed on their heads. As Alexander Schemann notes, repentance is not simply turning away from sin, but is a “return to the genuine order of things.” Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1990): 20.

[8] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000): 28.

[9] Schmemann, op. cit., 31.

[10] See, for instance, Acts 13.3.

[11] Leo the Great, Tractatus 19.1.

[12] Gary Anderson, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013) .

[13] See, for instance, John Chrysostom’s 48th homily on the Gospel of Matthew wherein he makes this explicit.

Featured Image: Frans Hals, Portrait of Descartes, c. 1649; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Joshua McManaway

Joshua McManaway is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at McGrath Institute for Church Life. His research covers Early and Medieval Christianity.

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