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The Theology of the Body

Why a holistic faith needs to include the physical.

In February of 2011, Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” announced her vision for a race characterized by “no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.” We were familiar with her style, but the manifesto of “Mother Monster” that starts the song provides a mythic creation narrative that gives her doctrine of radical self-acceptance a cosmic dimension.

A few months earlier, Tim Ferriss released his latest best-selling self-help book, The 4-Hour Body. If Gaga’s message is self-acceptance, Ferriss offers radical self-transformation, suggesting a litany of tools to “hack” our bodies. We may have been “born this way” with respect to need for sleep and exercise, but that’s a trivial limitation hacking can overcome. For example, the book promises to help you “sleep two hours a day and feel fully rested.”

Such are the contradictory cultural doctrines of the body. From one corner, we are encouraged to accept our bodies just as they are. From the other, we are told to remold our bodies through the force of our will with the help of our supplements.

The good news Christianity offers the world must also be good news for human bodies.

It’s easy to reject both narratives, as they both have fundamental flaws. By and large, evangelicals have done just that. Yet the more difficult and important task is to articulate “a more excellent way” of living in the human body, a way that does not provide a blanket acceptance of desires because they are “natural” or treat our body as playdough in the hands of a self-creator. The Good News Christianity offers the world must also be good news for human bodies. Given the massive confusion both inside and outside the Church over the meaning and role of the human body, pastors and leaders have a special responsibility to describe the way the Gospel shapes our bodies.

In other words, a “theology of the body” is an indispensable aspect of our theological reflection as Christian leaders. That evangelicals have not worked out a holistic theological understanding of the body is something of a scandal. After all, the center of our message to the world is that God accomplished our salvation by taking on a human body, dying and rising again in the same body. And the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit animates our actual, physical bodies with the same power that enabled Christ to rise again (Romans 8:11).

The story is an affirmation of the body’s fundamental goodness. And it answers the two questions with which a theological account of the body is most concerned. For one, the Cross defines the shape that goodness takes in a fallen world. Gaga’s doctrine of boundless acceptance ignores the fallenness of creation and the need for the redemption and transformation of our bodily desires in Christ. What’s more, it provides a power of bodily transformation that is different than the anxious self-sculpting of Tim Ferriss.

Sports, the arts, our work—seeing the body in light of God’s redemption and empowering grace simultaneously affirms each realm while establishing limits around them. Our bodies allow us to run and climb mountains and build, but for those joys to be permanent, we must recognize the body is “for the Lord,” a “living sacrifice” meant to be a sign of God’s love in the world.

Embracing limitations is a distinctive struggle for Christian leaders. We are pushed to work harder and do more. Yet discerning how bodies work can help us embrace those limitations as gifts from God for our own good. No amount of body hacking or practice, for instance, would have made my skinny, somewhat clumsy body into one suited for professional sports. The promise we can “be whatever we want to be” is a useful story to motivate the young, but our maturity depends upon acknowledging the genuine biological limitations built into the fabric of creation. One of those limitations is sleep, a practice our culture either binges on or neglects. A theological understanding of the body helps us see how our rest is enfolded into our faithful obedience to God, and will empower us as leaders to model a balanced, healthy life.

At the same time, a theology of the body grounds an alternate set of practices that are forms of presenting the members of the body as “instruments of righteousness,” as Paul exhorts the Romans to do in Romans 6. Such practices have been given the name “spiritual disciplines.” But we might also call them the “embodied disciplines,” for they are ways of opening our lives to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines—prayer, fasting, silence, reading the Bible, etc.—orient our bodies toward God, exposing how our normal practices have formed us in ways counter to the Gospel and reshaping our bodies so we can walk more closely in Jesus’ steps.

Consider fasting. One reason we should occasionally abstain from eating is to present our stomachs to God, that we are empowered in such a way that our belly is not our god (Philippians 3:19). Or in prayer, we might hold our hands out as a way of presenting our arms and hands to God for His service. One visiting pastor in our church recently knelt as he prayed for the service, modeling for us the pose we shall someday all take before the throne (Philippians 2:10). Such postures are not for the purposes of sculpting our bodies, a la Tim Ferriss. Instead, they allow the love of God to retrain our bodies not for our own pleasure but that we might love others as He loved us.

At its core, a “theology of the body” shows how the love of Christ poured out into our hearts extends through the whole of our earthen vessels, enabling and empowering us to give ourselves to others as He gave Himself for us. Going more deeply into how the Gospel shapes our bodies will help you—and those you lead—cut through the confusion about how our embodied lives should look, and clear away false paths to that destination. We won’t arrive at the “boundless freedom” of Gaga, but by acknowledging our bodies belong to the God who made us, we will discover a more excellent way to follow Jesus on it.

This article originally appeared in the Dec/Jan 2012 issue of Neue magazine.

Talk About It

Evangelicals have often limited conversations regarding a theology of the body to sexuality—and the dos and don’ts surrounding that. What are some ways you have incorporated the physical into your faith?

3 Comments

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Clement_W commented…

The Human Body is not designed only for sexuality. The Human Body is the most beautifully designed mechanism for everything. The sexuality is a part and parcel of this beauty. The Song of Songs is probably not a favourite among most Christians.

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Bill Donaghy commented…

Matthew, thank you for sharing this wholistic vision of the human person. I believe we do live in such a fractured society, where the body and soul are seen as warring opposites. But we are in fact a harmony of matter and spirit, soul and body, created and redeemed by God. And "We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await...the redemption of our body" (Rom 8:23). Please consider visiting our site, dedicated to the work of teaching this truth at www.theologyofthebody.com, or www.TOBinstitute.org

Thank you for your insights,
Bill

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Andrew Acherman commented…

It is erroneous to consider the soul and body as anything other than one. The importance of the body in Christian life is that Jesus example is that of God becoming one of us and demonstrating with Jesus' life and resurrection a way to be reconciled to God. The body is part of the complete mechanism of who we are as individuals and part of how we respond to God. This means that we are to be in all things holy; set apart for the glory of God. We were made this way to paraphrase Lady Gaga.

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