Understanding the role that exercise ought to play in a Christian’s vocation requires a clear understanding of what exercise is: Is it a form of work or of play? In this paper, I argue that although exercise evokes play in a number of ways, it is principally a form of work because it is extrinsically motivated. After briefly describing how exercise can be a redemptive form of work, I go on to identify some challenges to faithful engagement with exercise in contemporary fitness culture, claiming that exercise can be easily co-opted by the technologi-cal ethos of modernity because it provides a free time activity that improves productivity, enables consumption, and enacts control. I end by putting forth receptive exercise as an alternative and gesturing toward the horizon of redeemed physicality. Andrew Borror is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen and the Theology, Medicine, & Culture Research Fellow at Duke Divinity School.
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an action plan to combat what it has called “a global public health problem”: physical inactivity.1World-wide obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975, and the WHO estimates that 60-85% of people in the world now live sedentary lives.2 Partly in response to the obesity epidemic, more people than ever are exercising at fitness centers during their leisure time. The global health club industry has grown steadily in recent decades and now generates more than 80 billion USD per year.3
The rise of contemporary fitness culture has raised a number of questions for Christians about whether and how to engage in exercise. Addressing these questions requires a robust anthropology as well as clarity regarding the nature of exercise. Is it a form of work, as the colloquial term ‘working out’ implies, or is it a leisure activity belonging to the domain of recreation and play? In what follows, I will argue that although exercise evokes play in a number of ways, it is principally a form of work because it is extrinsically motivated. In accordance with Roberta Sassatelli, I will claim that in contemporary fitness culture, exercise often takes the form of ‘serious playfulness’ in which a serious kind of work—modification of one’s body—is carried out in a lighthearted and playful manner.4
After briefly describing how exercise, as work, can serve a positive purpose in one’s vocation, I will go on to identify some challenges to faithful engagement with exercise in contemporary fitness culture. To do this, I will differentiate between two postures toward both work and play: a technological posture and a posture of receptivity. A technological posture seeks to control creation in a manner that disregards the givenness of created reality and the possibility of divine action within it, focusing instead on material efficiency. By contrast, a posture of receptivity is marked by attunement to the gift of creation, the command of God, and the claim of concrete neighbors upon us. Exercise, I will claim, can be easily co-opted by the technological ethos of modernity because it provides a free time activity that improves productivity, enables consumption, and enacts control. As an alternative to technological exercise, I will advocate for receptive exercise that is informed by an ethic of creatureliness, ending with a gesture toward the eschatological horizon of redeemed physicality.
To begin, I will briefly examine two forms of human activity from a theological perspective: work and play. My purpose here is not to offer a comprehensive account of either, but simply to point out key features that will be pertinent to my argument.5
In broad terms, work refers to productive activity. It indicates the performance of tasks with exertion in order to accomplish an intended goal. Work implies activity and toil with a social function or practical purpose, such as the production of utilitarian goods or capital.6 Thus, work is always directed at an end outside of itself. Work is essential to life. Without it, the formation and preservation of communities would be impossible. Through work, people do remarkable things: they produce food, build habitations, make art, and develop culture.
Theologically speaking, work is central to the human vocation.In Genesis 2, we read that Adam is placed in the garden to “till it and keep it.”7 Since work precedes the Fall, it cannot be considered solely a punishment or curse. Although it becomes toilsome in the wake of the Fall, work itself is—or at least can be—good.8 Work can be a means of cultivating creation and governing it in accordance with God’s will. In short, work can enable people to serve God by serving others. Better yet, each person can become a vessel through whom God works in the world. Humans can participate—in a certain, limited sense—in the divine act of creation and redemption, reflecting the infinite agency of God through diverse, finite actions.9 Humans are not only called to work, however; they are also invited to play.
A strict definition of play is somewhat elusive because we often know what play is through familiarity with it as a phenomenon rather than through apprehension of it as a theoretical concept.10 Play, like much of life, is more easily described than defined. One of the most widely referenced descriptions of play comes from Johan Huizinga’s seminal work, Homo Ludens:
Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life and being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.11
Huizinga here identifies three features of play worth noting: First, play is a free activity.12 As soon as it is forced, play ceases. One could say that play is ‘unnecessary’ in the sense that it is noncompulsory; it is not required for survival. In fact, play is only possible when there is a surfeit of energy that does not need to be put toward useful ends. That being said, play seems to be of great importance in most societies. Play is like friendship in the way that C. S. Lewis describes it: “it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”13 Both statistics and lived experiences reveal that playful activities are paramount for individual and corporate well-being.14 So, although play is ‘unnecessary’ it is not ‘unessential.’15 Like worship, play is of extraordinary value, even though it does not produce any practical advantages in the currency of the workaday world. Play is a paradox: unnecessary and meaningful, useless and useful.16
Second, play takes place ‘outside life’ in a domain entirely separate from one’s workaday existence. This is particularly true of games, which often have their own rules, spatial boundaries, and relation to time. Being a world unto itself, play offers participants a chance to challenge themselves and test their limits. This challenge can forge a sense of belonging to others, particularly when members are on the same team in a game.
Third—and crucially—a distinguishing feature of play is that it is intrinsically rewarding. While work aims at an extrinsic goal, play is autotelic: the point of playing is to play. This is why play is hindered when participants become overly competitive and decide to cheat, or when their primary motivation is an extrinsic reward (such as financial gain or fame).17 Although play is autotelic, it can and does have numerous consequences. In his book, The Christian at Play, Robert Johnston names five byproducts of play: “(1) a continuing sense of delight or joy, (2) an affirmation of one’s united self, (3) the creation of common bonds with one’s world, (4) the emancipation of one’s spirit so that it moves outward toward the sacred, and (5) the relativization of one’s workaday world.”18 Johnston’s observations highlight the noteworthy connection between play and delight. Play beckons joy and opens up a gateway to encounter the divine. The joy which play produces cannot be manufactured, but rather—like a good night’s sleep—one must surrender in order to experience it. While play can certainly be organized, sought out, and entered into, the marrow of play is pure gift.
Now that I have briefly described work and play, how ought we categorize exercise?
By way of definition, exercise is intense physical activity—an increase in energy expenditure performed for the maintenance or improvement of physical fitness. In this paper, I am primarily concerned with activities which commonly take place in the contemporary gymnasium: cardiovascular training (such as treadmills or stationary bikes), weight training, and group fitness classes (such as aerobics or spin).19 At first glance, these activities appear to be work. ‘Working out’ involves exerting oneself in pursuit of extrinsic rewards (such as better health or a more attractive physique). For many, exercise certainly feels like work—even drudgery.20 The unpleasant sensation that accompanies exercise is the topic of much discussion and one of the key deterrents for participation in exercise.21 Many people exercise because they know it is good for their health or because they want to improve their appearance, not because they enjoy it. In such instances, exercise is clearly a form of work.
But can exercise not also be a form of play? Regular gym-goers, such as Bonnie—a middle-aged woman from Florence, Italy—seem to think so: “It’s a bit like playing here [at the gym]: it’s the fact that it’s like a game which is enjoyable, which gives you energy… and some people to meet. We don’t have that many opportunities to play, apart from in here!”22 Bonnie’s experience is not uncommon, particularly in fitness centers with group classes like Zumba®, Pilates, or spin. Furthermore, regular gym-goers often develop a fondness for exercise as they acquire familiarity and proficiency, suggesting that exercise may become more playful over time.
Indeed, the modern gymnasium resembles play in a number of ways. Working out is self-motivated for most people and, like play, it is only possible when there is a surfeit of energy. Gym life is also ‘outside’ of normal life. To enter the gym is to enter into another world, with its own social code and boundaries of time and space.23 The world of the gym offers challenges to overcome, inviting its inhabitants to test their limits, as in a game. Working out also produces some of the same effects as play, such as the alleviation of stress and the formation of community. Exercise releases endorphins, creating play-like experiences of well-being ranging from calm to euphoria, and exercisers often work out together, forming collectives based on common fitness goals.24 These collectives seem to fit Huizinga’s description of the social groupings formed through play, which “stress their difference from the common world by disguise or some other means.”25 Health enthusiasts frequently form cliques, differentiating themselves from their sedentary counterparts with particular habits and fashions.26
Although these by-products of exercise resemble play, one could argue that, in many instances, exercise serves as a substitute for play—a mechanism to achieve the benefits of play without having to “waste” time playing. Rather than taking a break from work to decompress, one can regulate stress levels through exercise. Rather than forming social bonds through playing a silly game, one can form the same bonds while still doing something productive. So, although exercise contains vestiges of play on the surface—with its entertaining atmosphere, bounded domain, ability to reduce stress, and tendency to promote friendships—at a deeper level, something different may be transpiring.
Roberta Sassatelli assesses the seemingly playful character of exercise in her 2010 ethnography of the gym. In a chapter describing the emotional ethos of fitness culture, she observes that although exercise often has an air of playfulness, upon closer examination, play and exercise are direct opposites. She writes: “Play is a domain of non-serious seriousness….Exercise, by contrast, is a domain of serious playfulness.”27 That is to say, play takes seriously things which are, in reality, inconsequential, whereas exercise treats things that are in fact serious with an air of frivolity. When playing a game, for instance, players often abide by certain rules, attempting to accomplish an objective that has no serious consequences outside of the game (such as shooting a ball through a hoop).28 By contrast, exercise is an endeavor that has serious, real-life implications, but in the gym, it is routinely carried out in a lighthearted and entertaining manner.29
What takes place at the gym is serious, first and foremost, because it directly impacts one’s health. Health and well-being are intrinsically linked to human flourishing and, in the flattened world of modernity, increasingly associated with a form of secular salvation.30 In addition, fitness culture carries and is carried along by weighty (and often oppressive) bodily ideals. Since these ideals are connected to people’s senses of self-worth and self-image—and the body is a means of displaying that image—the body serves as clothing for the identity.31 The shape of the body and its ability to perform certain tasks ostensibly reflect deeper realties about a person, such as their level of self-control or their social status. Even a refusal to care for the body says something about who a person is and what they value. The gym, therefore, is a facility where identity construction takes place.32
Despite the weightiness of fitness activities, the environment of the gym is often lighthearted and fun. Sassatelli claims this is partially due to superficial social interaction and mindless entertainment; but more importantly, she argues, the gym’s emotional structure features a peculiar combination of asceticism and hedonism (that is, discipline and fun) that codes “engrossment in self-discipline” as a form of pleasure that “is perceived as personal commitment, realisation, and freedom.”33 In other words, the ‘fun’ that exercisers have in the gym comes from the self-satisfaction of disciplining themselves, demonstrating their commitment, and realizing their ascetic goals. Thus, the primary reward which makes exercise pleasurable—a disciplined body—is an external one. Sassatelli writes:
[Gyms] allow preparatory activities through which bodies may acquire attributes that are positively valued in other, often decisive, social occasions. Keep-fit exercise is not, in the final analysis, an end in itself: clients’ efforts are justified as they produce embodied qualities that appear as external incentives to the activity’s progress.34
Although exercise is entertaining in some ways, people rarely go to the gym just to play. Rather, they go with a goal in mind: to achieve a certain body type, to lose weight, or to reduce their health risks. This suggests that exercise, although it contains vestiges of play, is principally a form of work.
Exercise as Good Work
As a form of work, exercise can be a profitable activity that contributes to human flourishing. The health benefits of physical activity are well known. Regular exercise can improve one’s mood, sleep quality, and energy levels, as well as reduce one’s stress, anxiety and chronic disease risk.35 While research suggests that the healthiest communities are those in which people do not ‘exercise’ per se, but merely live physically active lifestyles, the reality is that few people in the modern West live such lifestyles.36 In a world filled with automobiles and computer screens, intentional exercise may be a necessary corrective for inactivity.37 The human body is made to move, and without regular physical activity, its capacity to move well declines.
The health incentives of exercise warrant consideration for Christians, who are called to be faithful custodians of their bodies. To be sure, Christianity has a complex history with regard to care for the body. Much confusion has arisen from the apostle Paul’s use of the word ‘flesh,’ which, at a glance, seems to minimize the importance of bodily existence.38 This misreading of Paul, however, has been discredited by numerous scholars, including Joel Shuman, who summarizes the consensus: “For Paul the body remains as part of God’s good creation and the theater of God’s redemptive activity. It is the way the body is lived that leads him to speak critically of the flesh.”39 On the whole, the Christian tradition has proclaimed the essential goodness of material creation, and particularly, of the body.40 Consequently, Christians have repeatedly expressed interest in and even encouraged the pursuit of bodily health and well-being.41
Caring for the physical body through exercise can be considered part of the human vocation, insofar as it entails tending to creation, nurturing it, and cultivating its flourishing.42 A healthy body enables Christians to do the things they are called to do—to love God and to serve their neighbors—unencumbered by illness, lethargy, or pain. Exercise can be a form of positive work in a variety of vocational contexts, from the cardiac patient who survives due to an exercise intervention to the single parent who is more able to cope with the demands of life with the aid of a daily run. The specific amount of exercise that is appropriate for a Christian will depend on that individual’s vocation in the broadest sense, which includes not only a career but the totality of God’s call on a human life.
Having taken into consideration some of the ways that exercise can be a redemptive form of work, I now wish to name some temptations to which it is susceptible, particularly in the modern gymnasium. In the following sections, I will draw a distinction between two postures toward work and play: a technological posture and a posture of receptivity. After describing these two dispositions and their impacts on both work and play, I will caution that certain forms of exercise are prone to generate a technological posture because they advance the ideals of production, consumption, and control.
The Technological Posture
In Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, Brian Brock scrutinizes the technological ethos of contemporary society.He describes technology as “a way of perceiving all things in terms of objectifiability, material efficiency and manipulability.”43Technology, Brock says, “is a human mode of thought that, in rejecting any role for divine action, comes to approach all things and relationships as susceptible to human ordering and management.”44 In other words, technology is a way of life that is marked by a posture of control and an inattentiveness to divine action. It seeks to reorder created reality—which is perceived as a neutral substrate—according to humans’ wills.
The impetus to control is, in many instances, commendable; humans often want to control the world to make it better. However, it is dangerous to assume that by controlling things we will inevitably make them better, or that we even have a clear understanding of what ‘better’ means in particular situations. While a technological posture undoubtedly has benefits when it comes to material comforts and quality of life, inherent within it is an inclination to view dependence and limitations as weaknesses or potentially solvable problems rather than constitu-tive features of human life. Moreover, the technological ethos of modernity is founded on a voluntaristic anthropology that cultivates a blindness to being—aninattentiveness to God and the claim of others upon us.45 The result is a world governed by the arbitration of individuated human wills that is well-controlled, but that distorts both work and play.46
Toil: Technological Work
In the working world, a technological posture encourages competition and overwork, while simultaneously hollowing out work’s meaning. The result is significant confusion about the place of work in modern life. The connection between one’s work and one’s vocation has been severed for many laborers due to increasing specialization and abstraction.47 Nonetheless, the technological ethos fosters a penchant for overwork because it highly esteems productivity and efficiency.48 Hard work is part of the American dream, and millions of Americans work long hours in hopes of being ‘successful’—a word which is now readily associated with career achievement.49 The infatuation with work and ‘success’ is often just as prevalent within Christian subculture as it is in broader society.50 Indeed, as Max Weber has famously argued, it is in large part a by-productof Protestant reformations.51
Regardless of origins, the reality is that many people in the modern West are inclined to feel guilty when they devote time to an activity that is not productive in some way—be it the generation of capital, the acquisition of material goods, the assumption of power, or a timely investment in self-improvement.52 In short, work productivity is the measure of the technological age. The ramifications of this are not limited to work, however, as technological reverberations echo into the realm of play.53
Amusement: Technological Play
Play is diminished in a technological age not primarily because people play less often—which may also be the case—but because their play is less genuine. This is true in two ways. First, much of modern ‘play’ is principally a form of dissipation or amusement. Amusement is a type of mindless entertainment marked by apathy—a “checking out” or evacuation of attention. In the modern world, it often takes the form of passive consumption, as people watch televised programs or scroll through curated social media feeds. Such activities provide a necessary reprieve from the toils of labor, but they lack the praiseworthiness and joy which accompany authentic leisure because they foster disengagement from reality.54
Second, the technological impetus to overwork places play, in the words of Johnston, “under the tyranny of a work mentality.”55 Genuine play or leisure is thus replaced by ‘productive’ play; that is, play which is legitimized by its workplace utility.56 Rejuvenating weekends, for instance, are depicted as the secret ingredient for professional success, and businesses justify relaxation programs because they improve productivity and reduce health costs.57 Such forms of play make true leisure nearly impossible by instrumentalizing it for the sake of something else: namely, work.58
While true leisure may refresh us for work, that is not its primary aim.59 Leisure is about entering God’s sabbath rest and delighting in His good gifts.60 Delight or joy is not peripheral to this condition, but its very backbone. The joy of leisure is not found by escaping or disengaging from creation, but by receiving it as a gift. In an essay titled In Tune with the World, Pieper claims that “joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves”; it is the realization that “everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist.”61 Leisure, for Pieper, entails an affirmation of reality—a “steeping oneself in the whole of creation”—accompanied by a response of praise, thanksgiving, and joy.62
Such a description suggests that leisure refers less to a list of activities than it does a mode of being in the world—a way of engaging with created reality.63 This condition of the soul, I will claim below, is marked by a posture of receptivity and informed by an ethic of creatureliness.
A Posture of Receptivity
A posture of receptivity nourishes an alertness to the reality that life, with all of its wondrous joys, is a gift to be received. “One of the fundamental human experiences,” says Pieper, “is the realization that the truly great and uplifting things in life come about not without our own efforts but nevertheless not through those efforts. Rather, we will obtain them only if we can accept them as free gifts.”64 This is one way of framing the task of ethics: learning how to faithfully receive life as a gift. Receiving life as a gift is not easy, but the beauty of grace is that even one’s ability to do so is itself a gift. Receiving physical creation as a gift is perhaps most easily realized through leisure.
Leisure: Receptive Play
By way of its connection to joy and delight, play provides a foretaste of our eschatological hope and a simultaneous remembrance of primordial delight. Through play, Pieper says, “everyday things unexpectedly take on the freshness of Eden.”65 This freshness fosters thankfulness, along with a sensitivity to and curiosity about creation. Whereas amusement prompts dissociation from creation, receptive play nurtures the enjoyment of created reality through joyful attunement to the present moment. The levity produced by play also spills over into one’s work, making it more meaningful and reflective. As Johnston puts it: “Play relativizes our ‘over-seriousness’ toward life, filling us with a spirit of joy and delight that carries over into all aspects of our existence.”66 Play helps us take ourselves a little less seriously and recall that our efforts are ultimately chasing after the wind.67
Vocation: Receptive Work
Accepting the givenness of creation liberates work to be pursued from a place of freedom—that is, working from rather than for an identity. As Brock writes, summarizing Karl Barth:
Good work is communally attuned, reflective, and playful because it does not conceive itself as enacting self-salvation. Instead, it finds its meaning solely in following and witnessing to the work of God…because it is founded on God’s love for humanity and creation, [it] is attentive to the richness of that creation and to the speaking God who draws us into his reconciling service to humanity.68
When work is founded on God’s love, it becomes responsive, outwardly focused and undefined by outcomes. A responsive existence is not about control or achievement but about faithful reaction: learning to live in a world that God loves—in a world we did not choose and we cannot control, but can merely influence. Reflective work is free because it is informed by an ethic of creatureliness; meaning, it conceives of finitude and dependence not as obstacles to be overcome, but as essential characteristics of human existence.69 That is not to say that all limits are to be unquestionably accepted, but it is to suggest that humans are designed to glorify God in their creatureliness, not despite it or in opposition to it.70 This ethic of creatureliness harmonizes with a posture of receptivity, enabling Christians to work and play while nested within God’s sabbath rest. It empowers believers to work from a place of freedom and to play from the bedrock of joy.
In sum, a technological posture yields a simultaneous hollowing out of and infatuation with work, along with the diminishment of leisure, which becomes supplanted by amusement or productive play. By contrast, a posture of receptivity liberates humans to engage in reflective work and delightful leisure. To conclude, I wish to caution against three temptations to which exercise is prone in the modern technological ethos—an ethos that is bent on producing, consuming, and controlling71 Exercising at the gym, I will claim, has the potential to intensify all three of these compulsions because it is a productive free-time activity directed at controlling the body that enables and enacts consumption.
Exercise is prone to amplify the technological compulsion to be productive because it is a voluntary activity directed at self-improvement. Activities aimed at self-improvement are inevitably legitimized by their contributions to efficiency and productivity. Case in point: A Harvard Business Review article from 2014 titled “Regular Exercise is Part of Your Job” makes the argument that physical activity is crucial for work productivity. The author insists that exercise is an “investment in improving your performance” and a way of “ensuring that the hours you put in have value.”72 Such assertions assume a certain level of productivity guilt and seek to legitimize exercise as a productive free time activity. Now, thanks to 24-hour fitness centers, one can invest in self-improvement at all hours of the day.
Self-improvement is not bad. In fact, it is unavoidable and, in many circumstances, commendable. Nonetheless, it is a form of work that is predisposed to the cravings of a technological society, which include not only the ability to produce, but also the capacity to consume.
Exercise is capable of contributing to the technological penchant for consumption in a dual sense. First, exercise enables literal consumption by enlarging one’s capacity to consume food. While eating is not the only form of consumption, over-eating is certainly one of the most widespread and contemptible forms in affluent societies. At its worst, exercise can be used as a control mechanism for gluttony. Second, the serious playfulness which takes place in the gym occasions consumptive amusement. Gym facilities often contain an abundance of television screens and audio players—many of which are incorporated into the fitness machines themselves—that are meant to amuse exercisers, either preventing boredorm or distracting them from the pains of exertion.73 These entertainment mechanisms are a poor substitute for genuine leisure because they lack the deep-seated joys of play, being instead forms of dissipation that cultivate inattention.
The use of diversionary entertainment is often unobjectionable, but Christians ought to be wary of absent-mindedness in the gym given the number of consequential activities taking place (the negotiation of bodily ideals, the formation of identity, and so on). Serious playfulness may be helpful for overcoming the woes of physical exercise, but it can go wrong when it deflects attention away from what is truly happening in the gym, which is often wrought with vices, vanities, and vainglories.74 A particular temptation that can easily be concealed in this manner is the desire to control the body technologically.
Following the rise of modern technology, Western culture developed a more controlling posture toward material creation than it had throughout antiquity. The writings of thinkers like Francis Bacon spawned an instrumental view of the world, in which creation (i.e., ‘nature’) became increasingly viewed as law-governed, mechanistic, and neutral regarding ends.75 In the wake of the Enlightenment and the philosophical legacy of Cartesian dualism, this instrumental view of nature extended to the body, which came to be perceived as a morally neutral substrate that is separate from the ‘self.’76 This framework in which the body is viewed instrumentally took on institutional flesh in entities like modern medicine and the contemporary gymnasium, which only served to further its establishment.77
Fitness centers are particularly susceptible to cultivating an instrumental, controlling posture toward the body for three reasons. First, the sole purpose of the gym is to alter the body. Thus, gym culture often treats the body as an object of manipulation in both its rhetoric and practice. The body is construed as a machine to be optimized and the gym as a venue to maintain or improve its ‘parts.’78 A second reason is that fitness culture encourages—and in some cases, even requires—frequent measurement of the body. Workout machines are rife with metrics that quantify the body’s movements and calculate its efficiency, and many exercise programs measure the body to monitor participants’ progress. Third and finally, exercise works! Many bodily features are markedly malleable and exercise regimens can drastically influence the shape, size, and capacities of the body.
While manipulating the body is not immoral, regarding it as a machine can be morally dangerous. The machine metaphor is useful to an extent, but it misunderstands what the body is for.79 The body does not exist for maximal horsepower, efficiency, or beauty. According to the Christian witness, it exists for love, for presence to others, and responsiveness to God. Similarly, excessive measurement of the body can be morally dangerous when it distorts our perception of human movement by making energy expenditure the primary criterion for physical activity. Burning 500 calories on a hike is profoundly different than burning 500 calories on an elliptical trainer. Yet, many of us prefer working out at the gym because it is more conducive to achieving a satisfactory workout. This is another way of saying that the gym is more conducive to control: regulated, predictable, and efficient.
To say that Christians ought to rebuff control is not to say that they should disengage from exercise or avoid altering the body in any way. It is to say that their engagements ought to express a fitting response to the givenness of the body, seeking to influence it in a manner that bears witness to the truth of what the body is.
Responding to the Givenness of the Body
Earlier, I argued that the body is a gift to be received.80 But what does receiving the body look like in practice, when it comes exercise? A full exposition of the meaning of embodiment is well beyond the scope of this paper. Moreover, there is no universal prescription for faithful engagement with exercise (i.e., “Do this and your approach to exercise will be virtuous”).81 Faithfulness will inevitably take expression in multifarious forms, depending on the context and contours of a given life. Nonetheless, it is possible to offer some brief illustrations that elucidate the contrast between a technological and a receptive posture.
A technological posture is epitomized by the obsessive body builder who has made their body into a project, spending hours in the gym sculpting every single muscle—perhaps even acting against the health of their body—in order to achieve a chiseled physique. This is an extreme example, but a similar impulse can manifest in more subtle ways. In my own life, it has emerged as the excessive prioritization of exercise. There are times when I have squeezed in a workout at the expense of community fellowship, silence before God, or the flexibility of schedule required to love others when it is inconvenient. My experience is not necessarily that of others, but it does, I hope, illumine how a technological approach to the body is not always flagrant or malicious. When I choose to over-prioritize exercise, it is often because I am insecure about my body, wishing to influence it and approximate a cultural ideal. This is not an egotistical manipulation of the body so much as an anxious response to oppressive cultural mores. Thus, the call to reject controlling the body is actually an invitation into freedom—an invitation to cease striving, to receive the body as a gift and offer it back as a response to God.
Receptive exercise requires listening to the body—with all of its glories, aches, and pains—and giving it adequate rest and activity. This is perhaps most easily practiced in functional or holistic forms of fitness which emphasize bodily awareness.82 But it is also possible in a fitness center, so long as one learns to recognize the body for what it is. While certain activities and environments may lend themselves to a technological posture, it remains a posture. People with sedentary vocations may find working out in the gym to be a profitable way of faithfully attending to the body. Conversely, avoiding the gym will not automatically prevent one from falling prey to the narratives that wish to instrumentalize the body or make fitness a greater part of one’s identity than is warranted. One could start biking to work and incorporating more physical movement into their daily routine while still treating the body as an instrument or valuing too highly the perceptions of others.83
Making judgments about the kind and amount of exercise that is warranted for a given person on a given day is no easy task. It requires the critical questioning of one’s motivations as well as communal discernment about one’s vocational call. Is one exercising out of bodily insecurity and a misplaced sense of one’s identity? Or is a person, grounded in Christ, seeking to respond to the God-given claims placed upon their life?
The key to exercising with a posture of receptivity is attentiveness: to the body, to one’s neighbors and to God. Receptive exercise is performed as a response to the command of God and the claim of concrete neighbors upon us. Whatever effects it has on the body, it is enacted as an embodiment of God’s love that is directed toward communion and fellowship with others and with oneself.84 In cases like my own, responding to God faithfully may demand a less regimented exercise schedule. Those of us who are prone to over-exercise or to exercise for the wrong reasons may need to fast from fitness or pursue it in more communal settings. Engaging in activities alongside of others can bring into view the abilities and limitations of our bodies without inciting us to obsess over them or loathe them.85
Conversely, in other cases, receptive exercise may demand more rigorous physical discipline. Those who are prone to neglect the body out of laziness or indifference may need to take more seriously the call to respect human life.86 Others may find themselves compelled to exercise more, not because of any moral failure, but due to their circumstances. A sedentary, desk-job worker with type two diabetes and a person whose neurological illness can be kept at bay through physical activity provide such examples. It is reasonable to think that hypothetical persons like these may be prompted to exercise as a redemptive form of work.
Regardless of our proclivities, we need to question the broader cultural circumstances catalyzing the rise of contemporary fitness culture.87 While intentional exercise may be necessary and salutary in a sedentary world, it is imprudent to apply technological solutions to technological problems. As Christians, therefore, the posture with which we engage in exercise—and all of life—ought to bear witness to the freedom we have in Christ and the sanctity of the gift that is the body.
I have argued that exercise can be a salutary form of work, but that it is particularly prone to the distortions of a technological ethos because it increases one’s efficiency to produce, capacity to consume, and ability to control the body. I have endeavored to identify these snares in hopes that believers can come to greater clarity about what faithfulness might look like in their own contexts. Each of us, individually, is required to step out in faith and attend to the concrete realities we face—yet always bound to Christ and to one another. The suggestions I have offered are not moralistic injunctions, but rather invitations to live in light of the reality of where we are headed.
As Christians, we are waiting for the day when Christ will take our weak, mortal bodies and transform them into glorious bodies like his own.88 There will be a day when work and play, as we understand them, are fused into a seamless mode of existence marked by joyful receptivity. This eschatological horizon shapes our lives in the present, not by abstract principles, but via Spirit-empowered participation in the body of Christ. Without the horizon of redeemed physicality, exercise can easily become a form of technological work prone to the temptations I have described. But when God becomes “all in all,” the meaning of bodily existence will be transformed altogether.89
Such a realization empowers Christians to live in the here and now with an air of playful seriousness, reckoning with the corruptibility of our present bodies while joyfully awaiting an even more substantial, more glorious bodily existence in the life to come.90 As we wrestle with the question of exercise in a sedentary, technological age, let us do so firmly grounded in our eschatological hope. While I suspect there will be joyful bodily movement in the life to come, I doubt there will be strip-mall gyms lining the streets of gold.
Cite this article
- “NCDs | Physical Inactivity: A Global Public Health Problem,” World Health Organization,Sept. 4, 2018, https://www.who.int/ncds/prevention/physical-activity/inactivity-global-health-problem/en/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2020).
- “Obesity and Overweight,” World Health Organization, Feb. 16, 2018, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight (accessed Sept. 14, 2020) and “WHO | Physical inactivity a leading cause of disease and disability, warns WHO,” World Health Organization, Apr. 4, 2002, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/release23/en/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2020).
Christina Gough, “Health & Fitness Clubs – Statistics & Facts,” Statista, Aug. 2, 2019, https://www.statista.com/topics/1141/health-and-fitness-clubs/ (accessed Sept. 15, 2020).
Roberta Sassatelli, Fitness Culture: Gyms and the Commercialisation of Discipline and Fun (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 125.
- It is important to note that a sharp work-play dichotomy can be problematic, because work and play overlap in certain respects. Authors such as Scott Kretchmar have accordingly ar-gued for “an infinite number of possible mixtures of work-like and play-like experiences.” Scott Kretchmar, “Why Dichotomies Make It Difficult to See Games as Gifts of God” in Theology, Ethics, and Transcendence in Sports (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2010), 4. Nonetheless, there are some activities which are more work-like and others which are more play-like, and the general distinction will suit our purposes here.
- Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture trans. Alexander Dru(1948; repr., Carmel, IN: Liberty Fund, 2010), 46.
- Genesis 2:15, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
- Cf. Gen. 3:17-19.
- See Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).
See Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000). Modern philosophers, following the legacy of Descartes, have tended to posit a hyperrational epistemology, suggesting that we know strictly through our minds rather than through our bodies. Phenomenologists including Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty have pushed back on this, arguing for the centrality of embodiment and perception in how we understand the world. Through a phenomenological lens, physical activity and bodily movement are central loci for the acquisition of human knowledge—a line of inquiry that deserves further exploration.
- Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950), 13.
Elsewhere, Huizinga claims that play “is in fact freedom” (8). In other words, play enables humans to fulfill their true nature. Hence, the title of his work, homo ludens: ‘playing human.’
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960; repr., San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2017), 71.
- For statistics, see “The Encyclopedia for Play Science,” Scholarpedia, May 6, 2014, http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Encyclopedia:Play_Science (accessed Sept. 15, 2020).
- Robert Johnston has appropriately described play as “non-instrumental, yet productive.” Robert Johnston, “How Might Theology of Play Inform Theology of Sport?” in Sport and Christianity: Practices for the Twenty-First Century, eds. Matt Hoven et al. (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019).
- See Scott Kretchmar and Nick Watson, “The Paradoxical Athlete: Chesterton on Play and Work, in Sport and Christianity, eds. Hoven et al., 25.
- Bernard Suits calls one who does not try to win a game a ‘trifler;’ triflers, he says—along with cheats and ‘spoilsports’—are not true players. See Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper ( Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 44-48.
- Robert Johnston, The Christian at Play (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), 44.
- While I focus on gym culture specifically, my thesis applies more broadly to any activity aimed at the maintenance or improvement of physical fitness—even those which do not take place in a fitness facility (such as cycling or running outside).
- George Brooks et. al, Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and its Application, 4th ed. (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2004), 857.
- Tyler Schmall, “This Is Why Most Americans Don’t Exercise More,” New York Post, January 13, 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/01/13/this-is-why-most-americans-dont-exercise-more/ (accessed Sept. 15, 2020).
- Sassatelli, Fitness Culture, 124.
- Sassatelli claims that the entryways, halls, and locker rooms in gym facilities are designed to help mediate this transition. Ibid.,47.
- Endorphins have also been shown to play a role in the formation of social bonds, suggesting a link between the two effects of play in discussion. Brooks et al., Exercise Physiology, 667.
- Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 13.
- Recently, clothing companies have begun marketing ‘Athleisure’: a hybrid form of active wear that can be worn in non-athletic settings. Buyers of Athleisure are not only purchasing fashionable clothing, but expressing their determination to live an active lifestyle. See Derek Thompson, “How Athleisure Conquered Modern Fashion,” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, October 28, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/bicycle-bloomers-yoga-pants-how-sports-shaped-modern-fashion/574081/ (accessed Sept. 15, 2020).
- Sassatelli, Fitness Culture, 125 [Emphasis original].
Games are not the only form of play, but they do provide an illustrative example. For more on the distinction between games and play, see Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia (Peterborough, CA: Broadview Press, 2005).
- Sassatelli, Fitness Culture, 125.
- See Gerald McKenny, To Relieve the Human Condition (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997); and William J. Hoverd, Working Out My Salvation: The Contemporary Gym and the Promise of “Self” Transformation (Oxford, UK: Meyer & Meyer Sport, 2005).
- Joel James Shuman, Reclaiming the Body: The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Ada, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 114.
- For a related discussion in the context of enhancement technologies, see Carl Elliot, Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).
- Sassatelli, Fitness Culture, 137-138.
- See Brooks et. al, Exercise Physiology.
- Despite increases in gym participation, it remains the case that more than 80% of adults in the United States do not meet the national health and fitness guidelines. See the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, & Nutrition, “Facts & Statistics: Physical Activity,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Jan. 26, 2017, https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/resource-center/facts-and-statistics/index.html (accessed Sept. 15, 2020). See also Andrew Merle, “The Healthiest People in the World Don’t go to the Gym,” Quartz, Nov. 7, 2018, https://qz.com/quartzy/1452630/the-healthiest-people-in-the-world-dont-go-to-the-gym (accessed Sept. 13 2020).
- To make an analogy: although eating junk food and vitamins is nutritionally inferior to a well-balanced diet, it is preferable to eating junk food without vitamins.
- Cf. Romans 8:5 and Galatians 5:16-17.
- Shuman, Reclaiming the Body, 47. God mediates grace through bodies. Elsewhere, Shuman claims the incarnation demonstrates that the body is “not a cage to be escaped through death. Rather it is the very locus of God’s saving activity and the means by which divine grace is communicated to the human person.” Joel James Shuman, The Body of Compassion: Ethics, Medicine, and the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 88. For more on Paul’s use of the word ‘flesh,’ see Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 1005; and Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).
- For an early Christian defense of the goodness of embodiment, see Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies trans. John Keble(1872; repr., Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).
- See Gary B. Ferngren and Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
- For an argument that strengthening the body through exercise can be a means of cooperating with God’s redemptive purposes for creation, see Erik Dailey, The Fit Shall Inherit the Earth (Portland, ME: Pickwick Publications, 2018).
- 3Brian Brock, Christian Ethics in a Technological Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 26.
- Building on the insights of Martin Heidegger and George Grant, Brock argues that this blindness is due to “[t]he uncoupling of truth and beauty [which] renders all otherness and order vulnerable to the acid of will…We cannot “experience” the primal truth and beauty of creation if we are not open to having it change and shape us rather than only the reverse, and our instrumental view of the material systematically repudiates this openness.” Ibid.,96.
- For more, see Brock, chapter 7, “Worship, Sabbath, and Work.”
- Brock, Christian Ethics, 133. See also Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944; repr., Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).
- A 2011 literature review suggested that as many as 10% of Americans may have a “work addiction.” Steve Sussman et al. “Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority?” Evaluation & The Health Professions 34 (2011): 3–56. For more on overwork in America, see Ellen Galinsky et al., “Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much,” Families and Work Institute, 2005, https://cdn.sanity.io/files/ow8usu72/produc-tion/adba773f25d46c0b714d577bd3ab61fea450a069.pdf (accessed Apr. 1, 2021).
- Specifically, it is associated with individual career achievement, reflecting the modern tendency to neglect the social character of work. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1961), 537-545.
- See Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim (Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, 2014).
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930; repr., New York, NY: Routledge, 1992).
- A recent study found that less than half (47%) of Americans use all of their vacation days, with 21% leaving more than five unused. The top reasons given for unused vacation days (“too many projects or deadlines”; “fear returning to too much work”; and “fear not ap-pearing dedicated to their work”) suggest a certain level of productivity guilt. “No Vacation Nation”: The PTO Pressure Report, Kimble Applications, 2018, https://www.kimbleapps.com/site/wp-content/uploads/Kimble_No_Vacation_Nation_ebook_051718.pdf (accessed Apr. 1, 2021). The notion of productivity guilt is also anecdotally evidenced by the sheer number of blog posts and articles dedicated to the subject. For an example: Rebecca Knight, “Stop Feeling Guilty About Your To-Do List,” Harvard Business Review, Mar. 9, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/stop-feeling-guilty-about-your-to-do-list (accessed Apr. 1, 2021).
- Brock, summarizing Wendell Berry, writes that “The mechanization and mindlessness that produce bad work also engender play that is meaningless or joyless.” Brock, Christian Ethics, 316-317, citing Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (London, UK: Rider Books, 1990), 134.
- In this paper, I use the term ‘leisure’ to indicate play in its most genuine form.
- Johnston, The Christian at Play, 21.
- See Pieper, Leisure.
Jacquelyn Smith, “14 Things Successful People Do On Weekends,” Forbes Magazine, Feb. 22, 2013, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/02/22/14-things-successful-people-do-on-weekends/#7e0dff173f76 (accessed Sept. 16, 2020); Michelle Burke, “The Power of Play at Work,” HuffPost, Sept. 14, 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-power-of-play-at-work_b_12011462? (accessed Sept. 16, 2020); Zev Suissa, “Five Studies Show Mindfulness Improves Presenteeism, Reduces Stress, and Associated Health Costs,” PR Newswire, Sept. 19, 2019, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/five-studies-show-mindfulness-improves-presenteeism-reduces-stress-and-associated-health-costs-300921807.html (accessed Sept. 16, 2020).
- Aristotle makes a similar distinction (that is, between amusement vs. leisure) and argument. See Nicomachean Ethics, 10.6, §6as well as his Politics, 8.3, §1337b.
- “Leisure,” Pieper says, “is an altogether different matter; it is no longer on the same plane; it runs at right angles to work.” Pieper, Leisure, 49.
- Cf. Gen. 2:2-3; Heb. 4:9-11
- Josef Pieper, In Tune With the World (1963; repr., South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 23, 26 [Emphasis original]. A chief enactment of this affirmation, which Pieper describes as a spirit of ‘festivity,’ is the Christian eucharistia.
- Pieper, Leisure, 47.
- The notion that leisure is not merely a list of activities is widely recognized in the field of leisure studies. See, for instance, Work and Leisure ed. by John Haworth and Anthony Veal (London, UK: Routledge, 2005).
- Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990), 25.
- Pieper, In Tune With the World, 39.
- Johnston, The Christian at Play, 48.
- Cf. Ecclesiastes 2:22-26.
- Brock, Christian Ethics, 318-319.
It is important to note that there is a difference between finitude or dependence and sin, which is not part of God’s good creation.
- To reject this turns out to be a self-rejection—and therefore an abdication of freedom—be-cause it is a rejection of what is true about us. As former Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it: “not to recognize our creatureliness…is close to the heart of our unfreedom, since this refusal binds us to pervasive struggle.” Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 273.
- Gordon Dahl tellingly describes the dual penchants of production and consumption: “In truth, for millions of Americans…leisure has come to mean little more than an ever more furious orgy of consumption. Whatever energies are left after working are spent in pursuing pleasure with the help of an endless array of goods and services. This is ‘“virtuous materialism” par excellence. It offers men [sic] the choice of either working themselves to death or consuming themselves to death—or both.” Gordon Dahl, “Time and Leisure Today,” The Christian Century, Feb. 10, 1971: 187, cited in Johnston, The Christian at Play, 11.
- Ron Friedman, “Regular Exercise is Part of Your Job,” Harvard Business Review, Oct. 3, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/10/regular-exercise-is-part-of-your-job (accessed Sept. 16, 2020).
- An idyllic example is the Expresso stationary bike, which has built-in games that allow cyclists to gather treasure coins or fight dragons while blithely getting a tremendous work-out. “Expresso Bikes – Studio Cycling, Road Racing & HIIT Gaming All in One Beautiful Bike,” Expresso by Interactive Fitness, https://expresso.com/Home (accessed Sept. 16, 2020).
- Sassatelli argues that diversionary entertainment is actually essential to the success of a gym because fun is critical for exercise adherence, but fitness cannot be purely fun, with no external payoffs. Fitness instructors and personal trainers are therefore tasked with establishing an environment that is relaxed and lighthearted but that does not undermine the purpose of exercise. To do this, they must employ diversionary tactics that downplay the severity of the gym. Sassatelli, Fitness Culture, 133.
- Francis Bacon, The New Organon and Related Writings, ed. Fulton H. Anderson (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1960
- For an extended description of this history, see Gerald McKenny, To Relieve the Human Condition (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997) and Drew Leder, “A Tale of Two Bodies: The Cartesian Corpse and the Lived Body” in The Body in Medical Thought and Practice (New York, NY: Springer, 1992).
See Brock, 334.
- 8Consider this mantra from CrossFit: “We do not use machines (other than a rower), we ARE the machines.” TTR Crossfit. “What is Crossfit?,” https://www.ttrcrossfit.com/about-us/what-is-crossfit/ (accessed Feb. 4, 2021).
For more on the limits of the machine metaphor, see Wendell Berry, “Health is Membership” in On Moral Medicine, eds. Therese Lysaught et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
- As Rowan Williams reminds us, “material things carry their fullest meaning…when they are the medium of gift, not instruments of control.”Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, 218.
- 1The task of the ethicist is not to prescribe universal moral duties or to pronounce the final outcome for every human being; it is to encourage faithful action in response to the com-mand of God. Without being hermeneutically grounded in the Word of God, ethics quickly becomes anthropocentric and moralistic, and ethical discourse tends to center around de-fining limits—as if human freedom is most fully realized in the form of absolute autonomy within certain boundaries. Such a perspective is already technological in character. See chapter 4 of Brock, Christian Ethics, as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Reinhard Krauss et al. (1949; repr., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005); and Karl Barth, Ethics trans. G. W. Bromiley (1929; repr., Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1981).
- Although, these can carry their own temptation of becoming obsessed with the body in new and more subtle ways.
- It is far too easy to self-deceptively exonerate oneself: “I am not working out to maintain a stereotypical body image. I am doing it for my health!” Such justifications are rarely sinister; more often, they are the result of inattention.
- Brock, Christian Ethics, 173-187.
- James Mumford, “Hitting the Gym”, First Things, May 2015, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/05/hitting-the-gym (accessed Feb. 4, 2021).
- Karl Barth, “The Will to Be Healthy” in On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 320-324.
Put critically, why do so many of us sit all day at our jobs and then pay money to access facilities where we devote our free time to additional, feigned manual labor? Might not a life of technological work and working out hinder us from marveling at the world we encounter as gift?
- 8Cf. Phil. 3:21.
- 9Cf. 1 Cor. 15:28.
- See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007).