A colleague in the theology program here at Wheaton College once told me that of all the things she teaches to our Christian students—all the heresies, misunderstandings, failed theologies they bring to college—the thing that most blows their minds is the clear scriptural teaching of the resurrection of the body.
It is not that this is a new idea to most of them. Students often vaguely know that believers will be bodily resurrected as part of a New Heaven and New Earth. Many have the images in their minds of the City of God and people worshipping the lamb; people who look like, well, people. Yet, the idea that we will have actual bodies—hormones, skin, genitals, fat cells, internal organs—is often powerfully and deeply unsettling. I recall emphasizing the resurrection of the body with a class of First Years during a conversation about race, and one of the students, a tall, powerfully-built young man with dark skin, asked bluntly, “So you mean when I get heaven, I’m going to be a big Black dude?”
Yes, and hallelujah. As far as I can tell from Scripture, in heaven you will be a big, Black dude.1
In the case of this student, there was certainly a lot going on in his effort to reconcile how a racialized, minoritized, and often stigmatized body in our world will exist in some perfect, redeemed way in the Kingdom to come. His response surely reflected the social injustice and racist cultural messages he has experienced in his body. But it is the rare person, perhaps even rarer for the Christian, who has not experienced some level of shame, anxiety, fear, or worry in relation to her or his body. For many of us, but even more for my 18 to 22-year-old students, it is difficult to imagine what it could be like to live a sinless, peaceful life of social and personal shalom in any physical body, let alone the one we see in the mirror now. Bodies so often seem to be the source of sin and brokenness, the very site of the struggle to be overcome. Consider how many Deadly Sins (sloth, lust, wrath, gluttony) seem inextricably linked to the body and its appetites. Bodies, for the most part, seem like trouble.
This struggle with our body has arguably become a norm of embodiment in many Christian circles, particularly among Protestant, Western peoples who have eschewed many rituals and material mediation in their practices of faith. “True” worship often involves closing one’s eyes, shutting out the world, and retreating into an inner-sanctum where bodies cease to exist, the visual is eliminated, and we rise to a spiritual experience, even an ‘out of body’ experience.2 In this worship ideal, all the distractions of the physical world can be stripped away.3 This is, of course, a kind of embodiment that decries the relevance of the body for Christian faithfulness, and further alienates us from an embodiment that might lead us deeper into a faithful life in Christ.
In this series of three articles, I explore how considering embodiment in our Christian milieu, what Thomas Csordas calls a “cultural phenomenology of embodiment,” can address this lack in Christian education.4 It is not a formal proposal for revising our curriculum, church practices, or personal devotional lives, but an apologia for how we might find, in an already-existing resource available at many Christian universities, the resources to begin (re)educating ourselves in our embodiment to move in more faithful directions.
Culture, Phenomenology, and Embodiment ‘in the Room’
“Embodiment” is a widely-used term these days, often used as a synonym for “having a body” or acknowledging the body in particular ways. In anthropology (and performance studies), however, embodiment refers to the cultural, social, and psychological processes by which we come to experience our body. In my midwestern, evangelical world, we often experience our bodies only as a problem, a barrier to holiness, and a burden against which we struggle. Occasionally, in a worship service, a rich moment of fellowship, a loving embrace, or the marital bed, our embodiment may be positive and beautiful (or, in the case of worship, our embodiment may be a powerful moment of transcending the body), but often these are fleeting, and even conflicted, moments of embodiment.
This anxiety and concern of the body has a long history, predating even the birth of Christ by many centuries. In the Western context, the separation of the good, perfect, and real Spirit or Form from the earthly, imperfect reflections of those Forms (i.e., bodies) is often said to originated in the dualism of Plato.5 Later, in the Hellenistic world of the early church, Gnostic sects often employed this dualism to argue for a hierarchy of mind/spirit/soul over the body. Centuries later, enlightenment philosophies from Descartes, Kant, and Hegel would build out this elevation of the Spirit (or Reason or Mind) and bequeath our modern, Western world a bias toward the mind and an idealism that reigns in much of our theology and education today. There is little doubt that when our students reflect what Abigail Favale called “Evangelical Gnosticism,” they are not intentionally rejecting biblical teaching.6 They are expressing a powerful, long-standing cultural assumption that bodies, fundamentally, are bad.
One of my former students, Liuan Chen Huska, wrote about this in a book addressing her own experience of chronic pain and a kind of betrayal by her body. Her whole book is a brilliant cultural phenomenology of the body, but she opens with an experience from her undergraduate days at Wheaton that underscores the experience well. She recalls seeing, at one of the student-led, voluntary worship services held on campus, of a group of women bringing dance into a worship service. At a subsequent event, these same women were no longer in the aisles, but hidden from view, instructed to dance behind a black curtain. Huska remembers this as a powerful lesson about bodies, particularly women’s bodies, and how the culture sought to shape her own embodiment.
We have bodies, but we’d rather not see them. We want to worship God, but we prefer to do so without the ‘distractions’ that our bodies pose. We are the body of Christ, yet we hide those bodies that make us feel uncomfortable, pained, aroused, or threatened, rather than deal with our messy feelings in community.7
Thanks be to God, the church is not without resources to address this, and many thinkers have addressed this very concern in Christian higher education. Calvin University philosopher James K.A. Smith has written several well-received books on the importance of practices—physical, bodily action—for Christian education and spiritual formation.8 Drawing on the wisdom of Augustine, in conversation with such contemporary thinkers as anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Smith has argued at-length for balancing an education of the mind with an education of the body. Inculcating habits (creating a habitus), in which our actions shape our minds and direct our hearts towards the truths of the world and the Truth of God, is as important as reading the arguments, the well-drawn histories, and engaging the intellectual discourses that often form the vast majority of what we consider the proper content of a Christian education.
One of the projects in which Smith answers the question of how we bring our bodies into Christian education came in the form of an edited book, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning. There, Smith and his co-editor (David L. Smith) present a collection of essays in which faculty in various disciplines at Christian institutions attempt to bring physical, formative practices into the classroom. Faculty write about their attempts to bring eating, praying, singing, vows of silence, and even pilgrimage into classroom settings.9 The collection is well-worth reading, and many of these efforts were quite successful, but it prompted me to think about where formative practices already exist in Christian education. That is, while bringing physical practices into the classroom have value (I consistently do this myself these days), we can also ask if there is a part of the curriculum in which expert guides in this sort of bodily practice already bring knowledge of and through the body into conversation with faith and mind.
In part 2 of this series, I explore a place already present in many Christian institutions where this is happening. I have studied, through the anthropological means of participant-observation and ethnographic research, a site where embodiment takes a very different form than what is most common in our evangelical institutions of higher education. The cultural phenomenology of embodiment, in my own experience and the testimony of others, reveals that there are resources within our communities that can re-form our embodiment away from the alienation, dualism, and isolation we often experience, towards one of shalom. We need only find our way to the theater.
- Of course, he wouldn’t be “Black” in the sociological sense, as this is a category constructed entirely for political and economic purposes of oppression. But, given the depictions of “every tribe, tongue, nation, and people” in such passages such as the oft-cited Revelation 7:9, it does seem that differences in physical type, skin-tone, and other distinctions on which we often base our current categories of “race” would exist in the New Heaven and New Earth.
- I might qualify this as white, evangelical worship, although I see many of my Latinx, AAPI, and other BIPOC students also embracing this paradigm of “good” worship. At the same time, it is worth under scoring; this is a worship experience that is undeniably a part of a specific Christian tradition.
- Consider the lyrics of the popular worship song “The Heart of Worship,” by Matt Redman. The opening lines, “When the music fades/and all is stripped away/and is simply come,” suggests a purity of worship that involves a kind of spiritual transcendence. It’s not explicitly anti-body, but the message seems clear. Real worship is individual and transcendent. The rest is all distraction.
- See Csordas, Thomas J. Embodiment and Experience : The Existential Ground of Culture and Self (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
- See Robinson, Howard. ‘Dualism’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2020 (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/dualism/
- Favale, Abigail Rine. ‘Evangelical Gnosticism’. First Things 283 (May 2018): 13–15.
- Huska, Liuan. Hurting Yet Whole: Reconciling Body and Spirit in Chronic Pain and Illness. Downders Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2020), 20
- See, for example, Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). Also, Smith, James K. A. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2016).
- Smith, David I., and James K. Smith A, eds. Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2011).