We easily take our bodies for granted while they perform well.
But when your wife breaks her arm, or you need a stent inserted, or you test COVID positive and need to isolate, or your close friends and colleagues battle with terminal illnesses, or you observe your mother’s frail 100-year old body fading – all of which has happened to me since Christmas – then you find yourself on a crash course in heightened body awareness.
Our bodies are our only interface with the physical cosmos in which we live. Human beings are unique in God’s creation integrating both the spiritual and the physical realms – unlike the angelic realm on the one hand and the animal kingdom on the other. This ‘embodies’ the stewardship role we humans have, having been created in God’s image with the responsibility to care for his creation. Our bodies are part of what God designed us to be and to do, fulfilling his purposes for both humanity and creation.
Yet negative attitudes towards the body have infiltrated Christian thinking and practice ever since the desert fathers aspired to asceticism, trying to achieve holiness through physical deprivation. Granted, Paul writes that ‘those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires’. (Romans 8:5). Here the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, in opposition to the Spirit, not the actual stuff that clings to our bones.
Nancy Pearcey is among those working to recover a theology of gender, sexuality and the human body. Her book Love thy body (2018) is a clear and helpful guide through the minefield of confusing ideas. She reminds us that Jesus said sin did not come from the flesh but from the heart (Matt. 15:18,19). And she quotes C.S. Lewis’ point that matter was God’s idea, his invention, which he declared to be good. It was no use trying to be more spiritual than God, Lewis argued. He had never intended humans to be purely spiritual creatures. When Paul talks of the spiritual body, the resurrection body, he doesn’t mean something spooky or ghostly. ‘Spiritual’ is not what it is made of any more than a diesel motor is made of diesel – it’s what empowers it.
The central themes of Christian theology all affirm the physical: creation, incarnation and resurrection. Christian hope includes the restoration of all things, the liberation of created matter from the bondage to decay. While many Christians seem to be waiting to escape from this physical world, the resurrected Jesus returned with a physical body, a renewed body.
We suffer from a lot of fuzzy thinking, influenced by Greek platonic and gnostic ideas which elevate the spiritual over the material. This in turn affects our understanding of how we are to engage with our physical environment, including our own bodies – which frankly we often find rather embarrassing.
Last August, after the Pride Parade in Amsterdam, I wrote that while we might feel Pride parades display too much body, perhaps our problem in the church is too little body emphasis. Could Pride represent the unpaid bills of the church, I asked, in the same way that the New Age movement could be seen as a rebuke for the lack of spirituality in the church?
Were we not guilty in our Christian circles of embracing gnosticism, I suggested, a mind-body dualism demoting the body as evil and shameful in favour of the spiritual? Did we not lack a theology of the body and philosophy of nature? For when we forget the creation narrative in which God affirmed the goodness of the climax of his handiwork, the human body, we struggle to tell the world a better story. Those first human bodies, and ours too, were designed to tell a story of purpose, meaning and dignity in life.
A gnosticism that separates body and soul has also bred a gender ideology where feelings trump physical facts, where sexual identity has nothing to do with our human biology. If there was no design or designer, no purpose or end goal, everything was the product of chance. ‘Fate, not God, has given us this flesh’, one leading feminist concluded; ‘We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit’. Which is perfect logic… if we as humans are nothing more than ‘slime plus time’.
Join me online for a Learning Community of four Thursday evening sessions (19:30-21:00 CET) on the theology of the body based on Nancy Pearcey’s book:
- Jan 26 – purposeful or purposeless bodies?
- Feb 16 – abortion and euthanasia
- Mar 9 – schizoid sex, same-sex relations
- Mar 30 – transgenderism and social implications
Interested? Write for the link.
Till next week,