In this paper, Elizabeth Lewis Hall presents an integrative understanding of the human body, drawing on theology and the social sciences to answer the question, “What is the body for?” Radical dualist influences on culture and on Christianity have negatively affected experiences of embodiment. The social sciences are used to examine the structure of embodiment for clues regarding its function, and Scripture is used to explore God’s purposes for creating the body. Finally, implications of pursuing the right purposes for our bodies are explored in the areas of body enhancement, relating to others, and spiritual formation. Ms. Hall is Associate Professor at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University.
Christianity has had an ambivalent relationship with the human body. This ambivalence has existed in spite of biblical affirmations of the body. The Old Testament reveals a view of the person as a functional unity between body and soul.1 New Testament writers aggressively combated Gnostic attacks on the body, affirming Old Testament teachings on the goodness of God’s creation, and developing teachings on our eternal embodied state in the resurrection. However, in spite of these efforts, this ambivalence regarding embodiment continues to permeate Christian theology and practice. To quote Luke Timothy Johnson,[Christianity’s] repulsion of [Gnosticism] did not make it immune from a virus of suspicion toward the body that has been profound, pervasive, and permanent. Deeply influenced by the Greek moral tradition, from the second century forward, Christian theologians insisted on a strict hierarchical distinction between spirit and body.2
Such thinking has presented obstacles to constructing a sound theology of embodiment that would inform our experience of embodiment.
This failure to embrace fully our status as incarnated creatures has also left us vulnerable to alternate messages about our bodies—messages that, like Gnosticism and Cartesian dualism, are founded on a strict division between matter and spirit, and the denigration of the body. The influence of dualism can be seen in contemporary evangelical culture and theology. It has showed up in many of our translations of the New Testament, in which Paul’s use of the Greek word sarx is translated into the English as “flesh.” While some usages of this word do in fact refer to the physical body (Romans 2:28 for example), most refer to the sinful nature as it is played out in our embodied self. But, through guilt by association, and perhaps influenced by our own dualistic interpretations, this use of “flesh” contributes to the impression that the body is inherently sinful.3
Dualism is also evident in other, less formal ways. For example, theologically we emphasize going to heaven rather than looking forward to the true culmination of Christ’s work in the resurrection of the body. We categorize sins, so that sins of the body such as sexual immorality are seen as more serious than non-physical sins such as gossip and envy. We talk about “saving souls” as if it were not the whole embodied person participating in salvation. This undercurrent of dualism limits the extent to which contemporary evangelical culture can help us in understanding our embodiment. In fact, these messages often serve to confuse us even more. This is particularly unfortunate since of all religions, ours is very much a “religion of the flesh.” In David Smith’s words, “The Christian faith begins with the belief that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,’ and it rises to a crescendo with the affirmation, ‘We believe in the resurrection of the body.’”4
The intent of this paper is to contribute to an integrative understanding of the body, drawing on theology and the social sciences to answer the question, “What is the body for?” Knowing what something is for is essential in using it in the best way possible. Conversely, not knowing what something is for can make it difficult to utilize it well. An anecdote may help in making this point. A friend in graduate school collected “things.” Specifically, he would find objects that qualified as “things” because their function was unknown. He kept them in a shoebox, which was filled with little metal or plastic objects that at some point someone had crafted with some purpose in mind—but that purpose had been lost, and they were now curiosities, collectibles, interesting but useless. Similarly, we appear to use our bodies as “things”—as objects with no known purpose.
This illustration highlights the notion that there are essentially two ways of exploring what something is “for.” We can examine its form, pattern, or structure for clues as to function; knowing its function is one way of knowing what it is for. Alternatively, if someone made it, we can find out what purpose the person had in mind in designing the object. The two methods are not exclusionary, but complementary. We would expect that form follows purpose; the form or pattern of something will reflect its overall purpose. Both of these methods will be used in the discussion that follows. Theology and the social sciences complement each other in this way: theology provides answers to the intended functioning or purpose of the creation of humans (and of their bodies) by telling us what they were created for, while the social sciences focus on description by documenting in detail the actual functioning of the body. Bringing both of these answers together can provide us with a more complete understanding of what the body is for.
In the following sections, first I will elucidate implicit messages about the purpose of our bodies that are received from contemporary culture as well as some consequences of pursuing those messages. Second, I will briefly explore insights from the social sciences regarding the functions of our body. Third, I will draw out the purpose of the body from biblical sources with a focus on the telos that is articulated in Paul’s writings in the New Testament. Finally, I will explore some implications of pursuing the right telos for our bodies.
Contemporary Culture and the Purpose of the Body
There is a great deal of evidence from sociology, psychology, and anthropology which suggests that our experience of our body is always interpreted and mediated through the meanings provided by the social and cultural context.5 In other words, we learn to think of our bodies and interact with them according to norms given us by our culture.6 As many of these socializing forces are implicit and communicated nonverbally, we are seldom aware of them and may even assume that the ways we interact with our bodies are biologically driven and immutable. Variations on the dualism theme have been strong cultural influences that have, in fact, shaped our experiences of our bodies. More specifically, dualism is embedded in both modern and postmodern ways of living out our embodiment.
The Modern Body
Enlightenment-driven, modern assumptions about the body influence one distinct way of living out our embodiment, in which the emphasis is on the mind controlling the body, with rational processes invoked to discipline and minimize the body.7 However, because “mind over matter” is not the way our embodiment is supposed to work, the ultimate inability of the mind to control emotions and passions leads in this form of embodiment to a deep suspicion of the body and its related functions.
The modernistic influences on this model of embodiment are also seen in the emphasis on radical individualism, which leads to the loss of the sense of identity that is obtained by being part of a social group. Our bodies are not used to connect us with others, but as firm boundaries between others and ourselves. This distancing happens as the relationally-based functions of the body—perception, emotion, sexuality, and implacement—are minimized and denied, crippling our ability torelate.8 Simultaneously, the need for relationships is minimized and the ideal of the autonomous individual is elevated. Even a person’s relationship with God is seen purely as an individual relationship, with a loss of emphasis on our embodiment being experienced within the larger body of Christ. In fact, dependency on others is perceived as a failure in relationship to God.
What are bodies “for” in this type of embodiment? The implicit telos here is a negative one: there is no ultimate purpose for the body. The body is to be gotten rid of, or at least minimized and controlled. A secondary telos may be the purposes for which we control the body: physical health, beauty, and performance, as in dance or athletic activity. It is easy to see links here with secular Cartesian dualism and ascetic versions of Gnosticism.
It is important to note that self-control or self-discipline involving the body is not the problem in and of itself. These practices can be problematic, however, when they arise out of rejection of or disdain for the body and a sense of superiority of the mind, and when they are practiced in order to minimize bodily experiences. Exercise can be a way of beating the body by ignoring its cues, or it can be way of learning cooperation with the body. Meditation can be done to distance oneself from all bodily desires, or to assist in feeling more in tune with bodily processes. Superficially identical practices can be practiced out of widely disparate motivations, leading to important differences in the phenomenological experience of the practitioner.
The Postmodern Body
In more recent times, the disciplined, cognitively focused bodies of early modernity are accompanied increasingly by sensuality in a variation of embodiment that I am calling “the postmodern body.”9 This body is characterized by sensuality and indulgence of the senses, and by direct assaults on the limitations of embodiment through technology.
The failure of modern forms of embodiment to achieve human flourishing, its erosion of moral norms for social engagement, and the breakdown in social relationships and consequent fragmentation of the self (which depends on relationships) resulting from its radical individualism, have led to shifts in embodiment. Specifically, the pursuit of sensuality and pleasure has emerged as a reaction to modernity. However, this pursuit occurs in a way that continues to see the body as phenomenologically distinct from personhood.
Messages from our consumerist culture present the body as a commodity to be consumed and heighten bodily appetites on the part of the consumer. At the same time that bodily appetites are emphasized, the consequences of indulging these appetites are minimized. Responding to all aspects of embodiment is seen as an imperative, whether this be engaging in sexual behavior or acting out on feelings, but the destructive consequences of unthinking indulgence to our embodied relational lives is ignored.
At the same time, new technologies allow for a restructuring of human embodiment by directly assaulting the limitations connected to having a body. Parts of bodies that deviate from some cultural ideal can be altered. Signs of aging can be“fixed.” Technological advances in the medical sciences allow us to transcend our physical limitations, so that the fantasy of the “bionic man” or the “bionic woman”is starting to become reality. Christianity Today columnist Andy Crouch writes:
Based on our growing knowledge of the human genetic code, we are on the threshold of not only curing disease but of redefining “normal.” Parents already are pressuring doctors to prescribe human-growth hormones for slightly shorter-than-average—but perfectly healthy—children. Within a few years athletes will have access to undetectable genetic therapies that boost the production of muscle tissue. By the end of the century, parents may well be able to engineer not only their descendants’ height and hair color, but longevity and intelligence as well.10
These technologies allow individuals to have the means to exert a great deal of control over their bodies, but they no longer know what bodies are for and consequently are not in a position to make good moral choices regarding their bodies. If the modern body parallels the ascetic mode of dualism, the postmodern body is lived out of the self-indulgent libertine strain of Gnosticism. When who we are is reduced to what we look like, then our energy is tied up in presenting ourselves in certain ways, rather than in developing who we are in our totality.
What are bodies for in this postmodern paradigm? Thomas Csordas sees the goal as “a marketable self.” The resulting body is “a performing self of appearance, display, and impression management.”11 Arguably, this type of embodiment is more marked in women, whose bodies indeed are marketed and consumed in our culture. One study looked directly at what women’s bodies are perceived to be for, with the provocative title, “Breasts are for Men: Media, Masculinity Ideologies, and Men’s Beliefs About Women’s Bodies.”12 These researchers found that men who endorsed a traditional masculinity ideology characterized women’s bodies as sexual objects built for male pleasure and showed discomfort with other functions of women’s bodies, such as breastfeeding and childbirth.
Consequences of Dualistic Experiences of the Body
There is a growing body of psychological research on the effects of dualistic forms of embodiment in women. Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts developed self-objectification theory to articulate what it is like to live as a woman in a sexually objectifying culture. In their words, a woman is often “treated as a body (or collection of body parts) valued predominantly for its use to (or consumption by) others.”13 This objectification occurs so pervasively that people begin to accept and internalize the idea that women should be valued for what their bodies look like rather than who they are. When women themselves internalize that view and apply it to their own bodies, it is termed self-objectification. A recent Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt for women allowed women to self-proclaim their objectification, with the slogan imprinted on the front, “Who needs brains when you have these?”
The end result is that for many women, how they look takes precedence over almost everything else. Many women are willing to engage in highly uncomfortable fashion for the sake of appearance, to subject their bodies to unpleasant, intrusive, and sometimes dangerous interventions to enhance their attractiveness, and to allow appearance concerns to occupy large amounts of time and energy.
This self-objectification has many consequences. Fredrickson and Roberts cite a great deal of research suggesting that, on average, women are less in tune than men with their internal bodily states such as hunger, blood sugar levels, and sexual arousal, and this body of evidence has grown in the decade since their groundbreaking article. Two mechanisms may contribute to this decrease in self-awareness. Socialization is an influence, as women respond to messages about the thin ideal through restrained eating, and learn to ignore their internal hunger cues.This process of internalizing social ideals occurs in adolescence for most women, and research shows that this internalization is increasingly occurring as early as elementary school. The second mechanism that contributes to a decrease in self-awareness is a decrease in the availability of attentional resources. Self-monitoring of the body and its appearance in the eyes of others may simply use the available attentional resources that could be used in the observation of internal states. Research supports the existence of this mechanism, showing that greater mental resources are consumed by women displaying higher levels of self-objectification.14
This disconnect with the body has other important consequences as well. Women who self-objectify cannot perform some tasks effectively. One study, disguised as a marketing study, had women put on either swimsuits or sweaters, then do math problems for a supposedly unrelated study.15 The women in swimsuits could not do math as well as the women in sweaters. Other studies have similarly shown a decrease in functioning with high levels of self-objectification. There are far-reaching implications of this in terms of the achievements and success of women in our society.
Women who self-objectify also demonstrate increased levels of shame, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and sexual dysfunction. So self-objectification theory, which marvelously operationalizes postmodern embodiment, demonstrates that seeing our body as being primarily for the sexual consumption of others has many negative consequences. The reverse is also true: when people have more positive goals for the body, the consequences are better. For example, a study of middle-aged women found that women who stated that they exercised primarily for appearance-related purposes exercised significantly less than women who exercised for non-appearance related reasons, such as feeling good, enjoyment, or being with others.16
Actual Functioning: The View from the Social Sciences
Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed forty-five years ago that, “the body is our general medium for having a world;”17 it is our interface for interacting with the world around us, including other people. We are discovering in recent years just how true this is. Recent developments in a number of independent fields, including developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience, are converging and pointing to the essentially relational nature of our embodiment.18
For instance, our physical body accommodates to the social environment, “learning” how to relate to others (much as we learn bodily how to ride a bicycle), and enabling us to communicate complex messages nonverbally.19 When we fail to assimilate adaptively to the social environment, because of biological deficiencies (as in autism) or because of dysfunctional social environments (as in anorexia), we learn to use our bodies in ways that protect us—and simultaneously disengage us—from others.
Our physical bodies also help us understand the actions, sensations, and emotions of others. When we see others performing an action with their bodies, the same motor circuits are activated in our own brains via “mirror neurons,” and we may even tense and move our muscles as the other person is doing.20 This mirror matching system also helps us understand the sensations and emotions of others. Nonverbal behavior is the primary way in which emotion is communicated.21 We assess the intentions and emotions of others by allowing nonverbal cues from others to resonate with our embodied emotions.22 So having a sense of our own bodily responses is crucial to understanding and empathizing with others.23 When we are unaware of our bodily experiences, miscommunication can occur and our emotional connections with others are compromised.
Our hormones also seem to be in the service of relationality. A complex system of hormones acts to enable us to form and sustain attachments to others. For example, sexual intercourse triggers a woman to release oxytocin, which stimulates her brain to become emotionally attached.24 Oxytocin is also released during birth and during breastfeeding, and facilitates the mother’s attachment to the new baby.25 And oxytocin plays a central role in allowing us to infer the internal states of others through reading their facial expressions.26
Not only does our embodiment facilitate relationships; our bodies, and specifically our brains, are dependent on others in order to develop normally. We are born genetically programmed to connect with caregivers, and the interactions (specifically experiences of emotion-regulating attunement) with those caregivers directly shape the organization of the brain structures that mediate social and emotional functioning.27 How we deal with emotions, the capacity for reflective behavior, the capacity to understand and care about others, and communication are all influenced by these early relational experiences. Children without specific kinds of interactions have underdeveloped brain circuits, which make them susceptible to the stressors of life, and lead to increased vulnerability to depression, social isolation, and other negative outcomes.28
These findings exemplify how our bodily existence is exquisitely geared to facilitate relationships, as well as the interdependency of our bodies on relationships for normal functioning. When individuals experience separation from their bodies, when they are unaware of bodily states, when their bodies are not used to connect to others, life is impoverished and psychopathology often results. So what is the body for? From the perspective of psychology, and after exploring its form and functions, it would seem that our embodied functions are in the service of relationships. Our body is built for relationships.
Intended Functioning: The View from Theology
We turn now to theology for answers to what the body is for. Bodily-based images are prevalent throughout Scripture. While the Bible mentions bodies in many different contexts, in the writings of Paul it takes on major theological significance. In fact, theologian John Robinson claimed that
the concept of the body forms the keystone of Paul’s theology. In its closely interconnected meanings, the word [soma] knits together all his great themes. It is from the body of sin and death that we are delivered; it is through the body of Christ on the Cross that we are saved; it is into His body the Church that we are incorporated; it is by His body in the Eucharist that this Community is sustained; it is in our body that its new life has to be manifested; it is to a resurrection of this body to the likeness of His glorious body that we are destined.29
The rich resources of Christian theology provide answers regarding the purpose of the body. We are told throughout Scripture that creation exists for God’s glory (Isa. 43:4-7, Eph. 1:11-12, Rev. 4:11). In other words creation, and humans as part of that creation, exist to show who God is in all His glory. Theologian Louis Berkhof states that God created “not to receive glory, but to manifest His inherent glory in the works of His hands.”30 Each part of creation evidences in some particular way who God is. And as image-bearers, humans have the capacity to show who God is even more distinctly. The Westminster Catechism has it right in stating, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” As part of the creation of people, Christian theology also holds that God produced our bodies; He created us as embodied creatures and for certain purposes that our embodiment serves. He called this creation “very good”—our embodiment is part of His good creation. So what is the purpose of our bodies?
In one passage in particular, Paul deals directly with this question. I Corinthians 6:13 could not be clearer: “The body … is … for the Lord.” In fact, throughout I Corinthians 6:13-20, this statement is the basic argument against sinning with the body, or in our terms, using the body for purposes other than its rightful ones.31
Evangelical theologian Gordon Fee says of this passage,
It should forever lay to rest the implicit dualism of so much that has been passed off as Christian, where the body is rejected, subdued, or insulated because it is of no significance for—or is even a hindrance to—“real salvation,” which has to do with the “soul.”32
I Corinthians 6:13-20 presents three relational word pictures to help explain how our body is “for the Lord”: our body as a body part of Christ, our body as a dwelling for the Spirit, and our body as a slave to Christ.
In the following paragraphs each of these word pictures will be explored in order to understand their implifications for embodiment. “For the Lord” means our body is joined to Christ. Just as our understanding of our bodies is shaped by our cultural surroundings, Paul’s understanding of bodies was also shaped by his culture. Consequently, understanding how he might have thought about bodies clarifies the meaning of this passage. While to us, the physical body and the collective body of believers are two separate things, united perhaps only by the metaphorical use of “body” to refer to the collective group, in Paul’s time there was a more direct perceived relationship between the two. In the worldview of ancient Jews there was a symbolic correspondence between society and the physical body.33 The body represents the larger system. So the meanings that bodily experiences have are also seen at the collective level, in the “body of the Messiah”—and vice versa. Any consideration of the individual body also has a social dimension. In this passage Paul switches often between the singular and the plural use of “body” and “bodies,” sometimes making it difficult to know whether he is talking about individual bodies, or the collective Body of Christ. In fact, he is probably referring to both, drawing parallels, seeing one as a symbol of the other, and drawing implications that are relevant for both types of bodies. This is evident in the present passage.
Here, our bodies are called “members of the Messiah,” or put another way, “the limbs and organs of Christ.”34 This idea of individuals actually being body parts of Christ is discussed later on, in I Corinthians 12, with an emphasis on the relatedness of the members of the community of Christ,35 “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. Forwe were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body.”36 In I Corinthians 6, the idea is that the individual believer’s body is a body part of Christ, emphasizing his or her responsibility to Christ. After all, Christ has authority over how His body parts are to be used. This way of phrasing it—as a body part—seems shocking and crude, and would have been so to his early readers as well.37
What does it mean that our bodies are parts of Christ’s body? One perhaps obvious implication is that if the body part is torn off, it will damage or destroy the entity to which it belongs. This potential damage to Christ and His body brings great weight to the decisions we make regarding what we do with our bodies. Another implication is that what we do with our bodies matters. In fact, this is the emphasis of this passage. It is not just what we do with our internal “soul” that matters; it is not just our heart; it is not just a private matter between a person and the Lord; but one’s body also counts. What I do in the public domain, in the interpersonal and social domain, in what is visible and concrete, is extremely important. It may be that Paul here was emphasizing the body’s behavior intentionally in order to argue against the Gnostic dualistic ideas that influenced the Corinthians.38
This idea of being a body part of Christ is also tied here by Paul to the resurrection. The work of redemption includes the whole person, including the body. Christ’s own resurrection brought His own body into the realm of eternity. Since we will follow Him in the resurrection, our own bodies are also destined for eternity. We are to live with our bodies in the here-and-now in ways that are compatible with our body’s ultimate destiny.39 And our resurrection is tied to Christ’s resurrection—the resurrection is one way in which we are tied to Christ. So the concept of being connected to Christ in the resurrection emphasizes the same point as being connected to Christ as a body part. As Fee says,
The body of the believer is for [italics in original] the Lord because through Christ’s resurrection God has set in motion the reality of our own resurrection. This means that the believer’s physical body is to be understood as “joined” to Christ’s own “body that was raised from the dead.”40
We now turn to the second word picture used by Paul to depict the relationship of the body to the Lord. “For the Lord” means the body is a dwelling place for his Spirit. Earlier in I Corinthians 3:16, Paul had established the holiness of the Body as a group of believers: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” Returning to the body passage in chapter 6, that same analogy of the temple of the Holy Spirit is applied to the body of the individual believer, with its implications of holiness and sacredness. The word translated “temple” refers to the inner sanctuary or shrine, where the deity of a temple was thought to dwell.41 Like the group Body of Christ, the physical body is expected to be a sacred place of God’s presence.
Paul now moves to a final word picture. “For the Lord” means Christ owns the body. In I Corinthians 6:20, we read, “for you were bought with a price.” “Being purchased implies transference of ownership from one master or ‘lord’ to another.”42 Christ’s purchase of us out of slavery to sin means that we now belong to Him. We—and our bodies—belong to Christ. As New Testament scholar David Garland says, “God now has the title deed to their bodies.”43 This change of ownership does not leave any room for serving the purposes of other masters. Our body is now intended to fulfill the purpose of its master, Christ.
Paul concludes the passage, elaborating on what it means for our body to be for the Lord, by giving a bottom-line exhortation: “Glorify God in your bodies.” All the images Paul has evoked— of being a part of Christ’s body, of being joined with Christ through the resurrection, of having an indwelling spirit, of being slave to a master—emphasize relationships. Being connected in deeply meaningful ways with the godhead fleshes out the concept of “our body is for the Lord.” And this has implications for our relationships with others. When we recognize these truths about our body, it alters fundamentally the relationships that we have toward our own bodies and each other’s bodies. In Paul’s words, these relationships should “glorify God.” What does this mean? To glorify God means to show his glory; to show his glory means to demonstrate his presence and power. In showing God’s presence and power through our bodies, we are following Jesus’ example in the incarnation. As Johnson states,
That the entire point of the incarnation is that the human body of Jesus was capable of bearing and revealing the power and presence of God somatikos [“in the flesh”] need scarcely be argued. The words of John’s prologue remain the classic text, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw his glory… the glory as of the only-begotten of the father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).44
So the incarnation demonstrates clearly that the human body can reveal God, His presence and power. In fact, in saying that our telos is in being “for the Lord,” the conclusion for how we are to live our embodied lives is that we must do it in a way that our bodily actions and interactions with others reveal God, and that they show who He is in His power, glory, and strength.
Interestingly, this passage in I Corinthians also presents an alternative telos for the body that may sound familiar. It is implied in the popular Corinthian quote that Paul repeats in verse 13: “Food is meant for the stomach, the stomach for food.” In this particular context, the implication for our bodies is that the telos of our bodies is sexual pleasure, or perhaps more broadly, physical pleasure. This hedonism should remind us of the libertarian version of Gnosticism, which is so prevalent in our contemporary culture. Of course, Paul rejects this telos. It is wrong because it treats the body merely as a body, instead of recognizing its holy status as being “for the Lord.” Promiscuity is wrong not because it involves pleasure but because it pursues physical pleasure apart from, and in violation of, showing who God is.
In addition, when Paul says that this is the only sin “against your own body,” through the negative example, he gives us a glimpse into Christ’s purposes for His body. Sexual sin, of the many sins that could be said to be “against the body,” such as gluttony or drunkenness or suicide, is the only one that directly violates the relational function of the body.45 The body’s sexuality is intended to be an instrument of the most intimate and committed relationality; sexual sins radically violate the body’s intended purpose.
Discussion and Implications
The social sciences and theology converge in their understanding of the purpose of the body: it is for relationships and furthermore, its relational functions are primarily about showing God’s glory. All of its capacities are beautifully crafted to facilitate this relational goal. This understanding of the purpose of the body has implications in a number of aspects of our embodied life. For example, they affect our decision-making around sexuality, our use of possessions,46 our views of pain and suffering, as well as of pleasure,47 our understanding of our connection with the earth, our views of our emotions, our dealing with aging, and so forth. In this section, the implications for three areas will be explored: decision-making about the enhancement of our bodies, engaging in relationships in God-glorifying ways, and the practice of spiritual disciplines.
Enhancing our Bodies
As mentioned earlier, we live in an age where we have almost limitless options for “self-enhancement” of our bodies, ranging from the relatively trivial, such as coloring our hair and whitening our teeth, through different plastic surgeries, to major genetic enhancements. These become ethical issues as they are examined in light of the purposes of our bodies. So how can a consideration of a right telos for the body inform these decisions? A basic principle is that when the telos of self-enhancement interferes with or conflicts with the telos of glorifying God in our bodies through our relationships, then it should be avoided.
How might this happen? It can happen when cumulatively, our efforts at self-enhancement utilize too great an amount of resources such as time, money, and effort. When self-enhancement is prioritized and takes away from our ability to function well with others, it is detrimental. Notice that in this kind of decision-making about the body, the individual things that we spend time on might in and of themselves not be obviously wrong. But cumulatively they are, in fact, detrimental to the relational purposes of our bodies.
Sometimes, efforts at self-enhancement actually work against the God-given functions of the body. For example, breast surgery, which many women undergo in order to fit society’s ideal, makes it three times more likely that a woman trying to breastfeed will have an inadequate milk supply,48 with the implications this has for the mother’s connection with the child. Another example is the use of Botox, in which a toxin is injected into the muscles of the upper face in order to temporarily reduce or eliminate wrinkles. Botox does this by temporarily paralyzing the muscles that cause wrinkles. Why is this problematic? Psychologist and researcher Stephen Porges from the University of Illinois at Chicago has demonstrated that the non-verbal responsiveness of our upper face serves an important function in helping us connect meaningfully to others. In his words,
The muscles of the face and head influence both the expression and receptivity of social cues and can effectively reduce or increase social distance … [By] reducing the muscle tone to these muscles … positive and contingent facial expressions are diminished, the ability to extract human voice from background sounds is compromised, and the awareness of the social engagement behaviors of others may be lost.49
While he is speaking in this context of individuals with autism, his comments also have implications for the issue at hand. When we paralyze those muscles, we interfere with our body’s ability to do what it was designed for in relating to others. So in the many decisions we are faced with in self-enhancement, we should consider whether or not the proposed enhancements interfere with our intended telos.
Relating to Others
The point has been made above that our body’s functions facilitate relationships. Distortions in this process, and their resolution through engaging with the body, are evident in the following case history from my work as a clinical psychologist. As is ethically mandated, all identifying information has been omitted or changed in order to protect the identity of the young woman.
This client, a committed Christian, began therapy primarily for personal growth. The focus of therapy quickly became her difficulty in taking her own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and perceptions seriously. Her behaviors and choices were primarily reactions to the perceived needs and demands of people around her. This was reflected in a pattern of pushing the limits in her physical involvement with men, usually quite early in the relationship.
We explored her bodily experience of her physical involvement. Along with the physical pleasure, she reported several sensations. The first to emerge was a sense of disembodiment. She reported that while she was engaged in physical intimacies, she had a sense of being in the corner of the room, watching herself. As therapy progressed, another sensation appeared, one of surprise at finding herself becoming physically intimate. She seemed unaware of cues in her interactions with these young men that romantic interest and physical involvement might occur, until she was engaged in it. Along with this was her growing realization of a sense of passivity in the situation. She not only let the man initiate; she also did not experience a sense of empowerment to express her desires or to set limits.
After several months, she reported that God was making her aware of her sins against her own body. We processed her reportedly overwhelming sense of sadness at her failure to listen to her body, and consequently to care for it and honor it. Interestingly, in the following weeks, while she experienced resolution around her sexual sins, she experienced a heightened sense of conviction regarding her false self—what she articulated as “lying to others about who I am by only giving them what they want.” It appears that our attention to her body’s cues and my encouragement to put words to those bodily experiences had opened the doors for more attentiveness to other aspects of her embodiment. She was more aware of external cues from her environment; she was more aware of interpersonal cues without the need to respond automatically to them; and she was more attentive to her own experiences, including her emotions, and more committed to using those in relating genuinely to others. In short, she experienced more of a sense of oneness with her own body, and this allowed her to relate to others in healthier, more genuine ways. This brief case history demonstrates the interconnectedness of the body with relational functions, and also how paying attention to the body facilitates using it for its intended purposes.
A third area where attention to our embodied nature is helpful is in considering spiritual formation. An obvious point is that all of the spiritual disciplines are done in the body and with the body. But what are they done for? What is the purpose of the disciplines? Many believers seem to practice the disciplines as away to control the body, to subordinate it to the mind, echoing the modern variety of embodiment, with its version of ascetic dualism explored earlier. In fact, Johnson calls this the “Gnostic model of spirituality.”50 In this model the goal is self-control; the mature Christian is apathetic, having subdued bodily desires and bodily emotions.51 The mature Christian has achieved distance from the body, has freed his or her soul from the body, and is freed to experience unity with God. This model of spirituality has no positive telos for the body, for its passions or emotions, or, for that matter, for the relationships that the body allows us to have.
It would seem that a more appropriate use of the spiritual disciplines is to align our bodies with God’s purpose for them. We spoke above of our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines allow us as whole, embodied people, to show God’s indwelling presence—His glory—in His temple. It allows us to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, bearing the fruit of his presence with our bodies. For example, fasting can be seen as experiencing intensely our embodiment and our need of God. When it is seen simply as a way to subordinate our bodies to our minds, it can easily lead to sin, to an attempt to live independently of God, exercising control over our own lives. This is antithetical to the attitude of humble dependence on God that fasting is intended to accomplish.
So what would a spirituality that takes seriously our embodiment look like? An embodied spirituality is one that would take seriously the emotions—not to suppress them, but to help us discover what is going on in our souls. I am not suggesting here that emotions are an infallible guide to action, or that we should always do what our emotions tell us to do. This, in fact, is reflective of postmodern ways of living out embodiment. Rather, being aware enough of our bodies to know what we are feeling is essential to living out our embodied spirituality. Our emotions are critical diagnostic indicators of what is going on inside. So when we attend to them, they contribute to our ability to make good choices. And our character is formed as we make choices that shape our soul. As Johnson says, “the choices we make form patterns, provide the basis for subsequent choices,”52 which form the self. So in practicing the prayer of silence, for example, we literally stop our bodies in a way that allows us to listen—not just to God, but to the whirling buzz of words and images and fantasies that tell us where our heart is.
Another corollary of taking the body seriously in our spiritual formation is taking relationships seriously. Our bodies allow us to connect with others, and their bodies are also crucial in nurturing our spirituality. If we take embodiment seriously, being a part of community is essential; “we do not encounter God apart from [others] but through them.”53 It is no coincidence that the body is used as a metaphor for the community of believers. So perhaps we should embrace as spiritual disciplines not only the “private” activities of contemplative prayer, fasting, solitude, and so on, but also the “public” disciplines. For example, reciting the Lord’s prayer in community is phenomenologically joining our voices with those around us, and also with the community of saints that has come before. Partaking of the Lord’s Supper in community is also a discipline. In fact, in Paul’s teachings on the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 10:17 and 11:20, partaking of the Lord’s Supper is specifically tied to our life as a community. When we participate in the embodied phenomenology of gathering in Jesus’ name, eating the same food and drink, and hearing ritual words about Christ’s body and blood being spoken, we will find that our experience of fellowship is in fact enhanced as we experience the larger Body of Christ.54 We are exhorted to not neglect meeting together—encouraging the discipline of meeting in community. And meeting in community is thoroughly embodied. We sit in hard pews, we hear our neighbor singing off-key, we are physiologically aroused by a baby crying in the background, we smell the teenager in the next row. We are assaulted by our embodiedness in community. “We are challenged to the task that Paul calls ‘discerning the body’” (I Cor. 11:29),55 which refers to recognizing that in the coming together of worshipers, we find the body of Christ. And in our busy lives, being consistent about meeting together is indeed a discipline.
In conclusion, I have argued here that our bodies have a purpose: they arecreated by God to function in facilitating relationship, for the ultimate goal of showing God to others. While the implications of this have been drawn out for several areas of embodied life, it is hoped that this exploration of the purpose of embodiment will stimulate dialogue in a way that will continue to enrich our understanding and experience of our bodies, embedded in the physical world God created.
Cite this article
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- Called “modern baroque” bodies by Mellor and Shilling.
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- Ibid., 97
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- Ibid., 37.
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