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Embodied Theology

2011 August 19

Earlier this summer I attended a church service where the pastor, a man struggling with what appears to be his final bout with cancer, preached about the hope that Jesus promises to those who trust in him. After describing the returning Jesus brandishing a sword and dripping with the blood of all our vanquished enemies, he invited the audience to share what they saw as the hope that this Jesus promises. The responses ranged from no cancer, to no pain, to no worries about paying the bills, to the promise of an upgraded body – all of course in heaven someday after we die. The congregation was encouraged to find contentment in the present from the possibility of realizing these promises someday. Our souls are what matter; the body just has to endure until our souls reach heaven. No mention of help with how to pay this month’s rent or what it means for a cancer-ridden body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, just the spiritual promise that someday all will be well.

That sort of denial of the created world in favor of escaping it all someday was difficult to hear, but it wasn’t surprising. As much as a few more moderate evangelicals attempt to deny that such “pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die” theology is still around, it still shapes the faith experience of the typical evangelical church most Sundays. What has surprised me recently is hearing similar dualism preached in churches that would never self-identity as being anywhere near such evangelicals theologically. But despite having disparate views on the Bible, justification, and inclusiveness, the outcome of such dualism in those churches is the same – a disparaging of the body and elevation of the soul. Be the roots a shallow neo-Gnosticism or popular Buddhism or simply a theology that starts with the Fall instead of creation, what get preached is that we are not our bodies.

It’s a way of viewing the world that makes that bumper sticker, “We are spiritual beings having a physical experience,” so popular. What gets valued is not the actions of faith – caring for others, studying the word, serving the poor, tending to creation, feeding the hungry – but finding spiritual contentment deep down in one’s soul. While evangelicals admit that life now is messed-up and so look forward to escaping it all someday, progressive dualists want to escape it now through meditating, unplugging, and letting-go of any obligation to help build a better world.

And therein lies the problem. When faith is all about a dualistic escapism, it sadly allows no room for mercy. Evangelicals often mock calls to work to save the environment or end extreme poverty because this world is not our home and is all going to burn anyway. Progressive dualists similarly mock calls to work for justice as imposing unnecessary shoulds upon them that get in the way of them being present with their souls. Both forms of denying our embodiment in this world provide convenient excuses for ignoring the needs of others as individuals are allowed to focus solely on their own personal spiritual needs. It’s easier to opt out of loving one’s neighbor when one’s theology is built around such a hierarchical view of creation that not only divides our body and souls, but privileges the one over the other. And with such views held by those in power, the bodies of the marginalized (women, the poor, the racially other, the queer, the old, the disabled) continue to be oppressed and ignored by those whose theologies assume they aren’t worth being bothered about.

These are theologies that I can’t reconcile with the way of Christ. With the story of a God who, challenging the dualist religious assumptions of the time, became flesh and dwelled among us. Who broke bread, healed bodies, and suffered on the cross. Who says he despises our religious gatherings if all we do is pray and worship and neglect caring for the bodies of the hungry and the oppressed. I have to affirm creation in its wholeness – undivided body and soul included. My theology is embodied because spirituality encompasses all creation, not just the parts I happen to prefer. I think Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel phased it best as she described what it means to live out this embodied theology –

Disembodiment is lovelessness. Insecurity, coldness, power and weariness are hidden behind abstraction. A theology of embodiment mistrusts all self-made fantasies of the beyond which are engaged in at the expense of the healing of people here and the realization of the kingdom of God on this earth. It is committed to a this-worldly expectation which here already looks for full, complete life, for wide spaces for women and men, and from this work derives the hope that nothing can separate us from the life and love of God.


13 Responses leave one →
  1. August 19, 2011

    I can’t understand that dualism- as human beings we experience life, everything we know through our bodies, through our five senses, though interacting with the world around us. To neatly separate spiritual well-being and ‘wordly’ well-being into two separate things doesn’t make much sense. Surely a child crying in pain from abuse or neglect is as much a spiritual issue as it is a ‘worldly’ issue? To conservative Christians ‘escapist’ theologies are seen as long-term, concerned with the eternal, while ’embodied’ theologies are seen as short-term and transient, only concerned with the here and now- yet I find ’embodied’ theologies to be so much more representative of Christ’s message, to see that eternity starts in the here and now.

    That said, if the pastor in question was struggling with what appears to be terminal cancer- surely we can afford him the opportunity to dwell on a hope of a life beyond this where he will no longer have to struggle with the enormous pain and suffering he must go through. Surely it is natural for many dying of cancer to feel less connected with their dying bodies- or wish to be disconnected from them- who are we to deny that experience?

    While you may see it as ‘escapist’, perhaps he’s at the point where he draws strength for living this life by looking beyond, rather than at a grim present which he is powerless to change. We all cope in different ways, and I know people going through terrible, trying times who have been greatly comforted by ‘looking beyond’, by resting in the hope that Christ is in control of what we are not. I understand you prefer a Christianity that is uncomfortable and challenging- but at different points in our lives, we all need comfort. Some people prefer to watch ‘The Sound of Music’ than ‘Dancer in the Dark’. That doesn’t mean they’re escapist, preferring to see the world as it is not and shutting their eyes and ears to what is, but that’s how some people draw hope and optimism that allows them to confront the world.
    We shouldn’t judge those who go to church to be comforted. Why should we assume they only need to be challenged out of their comfortable lives? Perhaps their lives aren’t as comfortable as we think they are. Perhaps it is through that comfort that they might feel more equipped to go out into the world to embody Christ’s message of radical love.

  2. August 20, 2011

    Embracing a dualism that makes the body secondary and even disreputable allows the careless Christian to treat the body poorly, rather, to disregard the discipline needed to maintain the body. Fasting, self-restraint, exercise, moderate use of food and drink – are all spiritual disciplines to enhance the body, which is a gift from God. We all think God’s gifts are precious, and that should include seeing our “perfection” – wholeness – as a body/spirit. I will link to this post on my blog, runningwave. I’m sure my readers will appreciate it.

  3. August 20, 2011

    I think ‘new creation’ ideas are starting to become a bit more realized. I’ve heard some good discussions in church settings regarding the importance of the body and the present earth. I really hope Christians really see the importance of an eschatology that embraces a restored earth and not just escaping it.

  4. August 20, 2011

    My favorite itinerant Bible teacher has taught us that this Gnostic heresy (spirit-good; body-bad) has been a dandelion in the lawn of Christianity since the first century. It promises all the benefits of heaven without any of the work to bring it down to earth. It promises all the blessings while ignoring that we are called to “be a blessing” to all — to all people and to all of creation. Thank you, Julie. I wish we all could find a way to scream this message louder. But maybe that is not the answer. Maybe we can’t kill the weed. Maybe we just need to thicken the lawn.

  5. August 21, 2011

    the effects of this heresy are far reaching…our sexual ethic, the way we limit salvation to an unrooted, other-wordly phenomenon with little implication here and now, how we teach women to see themselves (and men to see women)…

    great thoughts.

  6. August 22, 2011

    How is hope for a new body an expression of contempt for embodiment? Why would that hope be the result of dualism? Couldn’t it just as easily be compatible with materialism? Living with cancer is an awful, if not demonic experience where a disease literally destroys our bodies from the inside. On you reasoning, it seems that asking for healing would be just as wrong as it seeks to “escape” this world of decay and death, and avoid the virtue of living in the Spirit with a cancer-ridden body. This kind of outlook doesn’t lead to love of neighbor anymore than hoping for resurrected body would; it only entails a severe form of asceticism that forbids any hope of future well-being.

  7. August 22, 2011

    So you listen to a sermon from a dying man pining for God’s healing in eternity, and this reminds me of how angry you are at the aggregation of Christians who allegedly don’t care about the environment because it’s all going to burn.

    Isn’t that sort of like watching the Twin Towers collapse, and getting revved up over lesbians in New York City? Ideology aside, what is the material difference?

  8. Ted Voth Jr permalink
    August 22, 2011

    Ms Clawson;

    I’m interested; you write:

    ‘With the story of a God who, challenging the dualist religious assumptions of the time, became flesh and dwelled among us. Who broke bread, healed bodies, and suffered on the cross.’

    I notice you stop just short of the essential truth of Christianity:

    You don’t say: ‘Who died on that cross, was buried, and rose again in a new physical body.’

    Physical life, what N T Wright, one of the modern chief advocates of embodied theology, calls ‘trans-physical life,’ if I remember correctly.

    Did you just forget the Resurrection, or do you deny it?

    • August 24, 2011

      Hmmm… why does this comment feel so much like a “gotcha question”? Did you bother to investigate to find out what Julie believes about the Resurrection (if so, you might have found this post, for instance, or the fact that we’re both big fans of NT Wright and his views on the subject), or did you just assume that, because she didn’t happen to mention it in that one sentence, she must not believe in it?

  9. August 24, 2011

    Mr Voth,

    And yet, it is true that when Christ rose, He had a physical body- different physical body, but it was still physical. He still liked eating.

    It is important we never forget the resurrection and the redemption that it brought; what I really appreciated in Ms Clawson’s article was the reminder of what Christ has redeemed: everything. If Christ’s victory is complete, it is a victory over fallen nature too.

    That doesn’t mean Christians won’t get cancer or suffer physically, but it means that Christ will redeem creation, and that we are not polishing the brass on a sinking ship. I really appreciated that reminder.


  10. September 2, 2011

    I wonder if I had some of this in mind when I named my blog
    As for the clever “spiritual being having a physical experience”. . .
    . . . Paul said that what is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal. But both are real, created by God, and very good. The denial of that is the neo-gnosticism you are deploring.
    Much of the Law dealt with physical reality. (Although the Ten Commandments include both). I think a lot of the secular dualism has to do with antinomianism rather than a firm belief in a spiritual reality. If the spiritual is ineffable, no one can criticize my behavior! It is a form of control: I make my own “reality” therefore I can claim I’m free (while really a slave of my passions and delusions.) Some evangelicals swallow this; many are more likely, though, to swallow legalism: I am accepted because I control my body in such and such away (usually by avoiding sexual sins, drinking, gambling.)
    Thanks for your thought provoking blog, and for reading this, if you do;-)
    It often seems that sojonet columnists DON’T read the comments, as they almost never reply (in the case of Jim Wallis, not “almost” but “never”)

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