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Is Body Theology Foundational?

Is body theology foundational? Is this concept–the way I define and understand it–part of the rock bed of the Christian faith? If Christ is the cornerstone, then is Christ set in body theology?

As I began developing my concept of body theology a few years ago, I was presented with this question and began to ask myself just how much of the Christian faith is wrapped up in my definition of body theology.  I came up with four categories: sexuality/physicality, community, media literacy, and service.  The more I studied and explored the concept of body theology and the messages of our culture, the more convinced I became that we must first understand ourselves as physical/sexual/worthy beings before we can engage in healthy community, media literacy, and service because everything flows from the core issue of where our identity lies. 

Our identity is the source from which we conceptualize everything we believe, from which we make choices to act or react, and through which we relate to God, ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

The issue of sexuality/physicality must be dealt with first because it is the biggest and deepest lie; it is the lens that must change first or it will color the way we understand all the other issues. While it is true that identity can only be discovered in community, in many cases unhealthy messages about our identity have already been internalized and are, thus, already being perpetuated in our communities. Before we can change the community identity, we have to exchange God’s truth for these lies about our bodies.  Only then can we engage in community, culture, and service in a healthy way.

So, is body theology foundational?  Christ of necessity must be set in body theology precisely because God entered the world in human form–as a body! Christ cannot be set solely in any theoretical or spiritual foundation because that negates the very meaning and purpose of the incarnation: God incarnate; God dwelling among us in the flesh!

This is the foundation of body theology: our bodies matter because God used BODY to create us, to relate to us, and to redeem us.

In this context we find our true identity in Christ.  It is our human response to the incarnation of Christ to accept ourselves as the holistic bodyselves we were created to be.  Only then, through this identity in Christ, can we begin to develop a healthy theology of bodily sexuality, bodily community, bodily cultural discernment, and bodily service.

7 Thoughts on the Incarnation

One of my favorite things about the Christmas season is the tendency for people to return to a focus on the Incarnation, the act of God becoming flesh.  Throughout the rest of the year, it is easy to forget the very tangible physicality of Jesus and put too much emphasis on the spiritual side.  Now, I think the intangible side of our lives is incredibly important (see my spirituality blog here), but we are left floating in space without the solidity of body theology to help ground us.  So, here are some great thoughts on the Incarnation I’ve run across during the last few weeks.  Let’s try to keep these insights close by as we journey into 2012 together.  Enjoy!

#1 Jan Johnson – December 2011 Wisbits
The incarnation of God in humanity (advent) reveals the beauty and humility of our God who likes to just plain be with us.

#2 Steve Knight – Incarnational or Missional?
The idea of incarnation is central to the missional shift in the Church and in Christianity. “The risk of incarnation,” as Palmer puts it, is one very beautiful (and biblical) way of describing the invitation we have been given — to join God in the renewal of all things, to participate in the dream of God, to be a part of what God is doing in the world.

#3 Bruce Epperly – Parenting the Divine: A Christmas Mediation
As an early Christian leader proclaimed, the glory of God is a person fully alive. In the incarnation, God was fully alive in the call and response which enlivened Mary, Joseph, and their wee child. They responded to God’s unexpected movements in their lives – bringing forth wonders that pushed them beyond their comfort zones to become partners in God’s holy adventure. They became fully alive, contributing to the unique divine presence in Jesus, by their responses to their angelic visitors.

#4 Ron Cole – Christmas…a revolution birthed in pain
But in the midst, if you really listen humanity groans…for something to be birthed beyond anything we can imagine. Revolutions are birthed in the midst of pain. Jesus’ birth is about the birth of a revolution. It is about a revolution to re-write the narative that would finally recaputure the imagination of humanity.

#5 Chaplain Mike – David Lose on “The Absurdity of Christmas”
He then chronicles several reasons why people find it hard to believe the Christmas story. First, the four Gospels themselves don’t set forth a unified, consistent account of Jesus’ birth. But beyond that sort of Enlightenment style criticism of the text, earlier skeptics found the concept of Incarnation fantastic, even unseemly. As far back as the second century, gnostics like Marcion found Jesus’ full humanity a difficult concept to square with their idea of God. Apologists like Tertullian responded by saying things like, “You repudiate such veneration of nature, do you, but how were you born?” In other words, if God is put off by such things as the messy birth of a baby, what makes us think he cares about real people at all?

#6 Bruce Epperly – Mary, Joseph and Mysticism
God is not aloof, but present in cells, souls, and communities. A one-dimensional faith – defining everything according the tenets of the modern world view – robs life of beauty, wonder, and amazement. The incarnation raises all life to revelation; each moment – even tragic moments – as a potential theophany. Sleepers awake! God is with us!

#7 Chaplain Mike – Frederick Beuchner: “Christmas Itself Is by Grace”
The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Jim Wallis on Christmas and the Incarnation

As we draw closer to the 25th, let’s wait with joyful expectation for the “celebration of the Incarnation.”

Regardless of your opinion of Fox News or what Wallis calls “civil religion,” I really like the way he describes the Incarnation as the real point of Christmas.  Here’s an excerpt:

What is Christmas? It is the celebration of the Incarnation, God’s becoming flesh — human — and entering into history in the form of a vulnerable baby born to a poor, teenage mother in a dirty animal stall. Simply amazing. That Mary was homeless at the time, a member of a people oppressed by the imperial power of an occupied country whose local political leader, Herod, was so threatened by the baby’s birth that he killed countless children in a vain attempt to destroy the Christ child, all adds compelling historical and political context to the Advent season.

The theological claim that sets Christianity apart from any other faith tradition is the Incarnation. God has come into the world to save us. God became like us to bring us back to God and show us what it means to be truly human.

That is the meaning of the Incarnation. That is the reason for the season.

In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets.

It is theologically and spiritually significant that the Incarnation came to our poorest streets. That Jesus was born poor, later announces his mission at Nazareth as “bringing good news to the poor,” and finally tells us that how we treat “the least of these” is his measure of how we treat him and how he will judge us as the Son of God, radically defines the social context and meaning of the Incarnation of God in Christ. And it clearly reveals the real meaning of Christmas.

The other explicit message of the Incarnation is that Jesus the Christ’s arrival will mean “peace on earth, good will toward men.” He is “the mighty God, the everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.” Jesus later calls on his disciples to turn the other cheek, practice humility, walk the extra mile, put away their swords, love their neighbors — and even their enemies — and says that in his kingdom, it is the peacemakers who will be called the children of God. Christ will end our warring ways, bringing reconciliation to God and to one another.

(Read the full article here.) Wallis has it right when he highlights Jesus’ emphasis on caring for the poor and being peacemakers.  This is why I believe body theology is about more than just the way we see our bodies or think about and experience our sexuality.  Jesus did not “become flesh” just to be human but to do–to redeem and bring to completion all that we as “bodyselves” were created to be and do.  Body theology is about who Jesus is, who we are as God’s family, and how we should respond because of who Jesus is and who we are.  Body theology is about both identity and activity.  Christmas is a time to remember Jesus’ identity as divine-becoming-human.  Hearing this good news, how will you respond?

Call of the Artist (concluded)

What follows is the conclusion of Part 2  that I posted an excerpt from in my previous post.

Art has a prophetic role in the Church today.[1]We must regain what we have lost—that understanding we used to have of the deep connection between artistic beauty and an experience of the holy.[2]What others can do with a paintbrush or a chisel, I can do with words.When I relate my own experiences, my own journey through uncovering lies to the healing truths that come with learning to relate to people in a way that does not exploit or ignore my “bodyself,”[3] I give voice to those around me who journey similarly—wading through lies, searching for truth.It feels very selfish to invite others to walk with me on a very personal journey that includes criticism of a tradition that I respect and love dearly, that has molded and shaped me into the kind of person I am, that has deeply embedded within me a profound sense of God’s goodness, grace, forgiveness, and mercy.But I believe that in my willingness to be thus publicly vulnerable, to open myself in that vulnerability to attack for my criticism, is a necessary part not only of the healing process but of the role of the artist—whether I am “really” an artist or not.

Art for art’s sake has its place.But there is need for artists to restore in the Church a sense of God’s holiness as expressed through beauty,[4] and beauty in the human form.[5]This is not to say that the artist has free reign to sensationalize, shock, or otherwise offend the Christian community carelessly in the name of the prophetic voice.[6]But gently, with kindness and genuine understanding, the more subtle artist is uniquely positioned to affect real change in the orientation of the spiritual life to the body, welcoming that necessary and undeniable part of ourselves into the conversation, into the experience of relating to one another and relating to God[7], and God incarnate[8]—as images of the beauty of God’s holiness.

[1] Indeed, “works of art can awaken faith, or at least the longing for faith” (Harries 132).

[2] “If a religious perspective on life is to carry conviction it has to account of the powerful spiritual impact which the arts, in all forms, have on people.Christianity needs to have a proper place both for the arts and for beauty” (Harries 2).

[3] Nelson uses this term frequently.

[4] Martin explains that if God is primary beauty and the created order is secondary beauty, then according to Jonathan Edwards’s theology of the body, it is “the work of grace that facilitates perception of that primary beauty that places the secondary beautyof the world in authentic perspective” (31).

[5] “Beauty defined in imagination,” notes Barger, is “truly transcendent of shifting cultural trends” (42).

[6] “True beauty,” Harries writes, “is inseparable from the quest for truth and those moral qualities which make for a true quest.In the world of art this means integrity” (62).

[7] Harries asserts, “The yearning aroused by experiences of beauty is a longing for God himself, for communion with his beauty” (94).Again, “we are invited to take the divine beauty into our very being through Eucharist” (98).Barger also notes this correlation, advocating that “ritual connects the body with spirituality” (183).

[8] Nelson writes, “In a culture that does not really honor matter but cheapens it, in a culture that does not love the body but uses it, belief in God’s incarnation is countercultural stuff” (195).

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