Embodied Theology | Sojourners

Embodied Theology


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 gets 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, in her book I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment, 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.

portrait-julie-clawsonJulie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.