The Body in Theology

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The other day I was talking to a friend who attended a rather conservative seminary in Texas. I’m not sure how we got on the topic, but he mentioned that at the seminary they often spoke of a ‘material you’ and an ‘immaterial you’. This formulation of course reeked of dualism, and it made me think about more about the body and its relationships to theology. First off, the problem with this idea is that the ‘material you’ will of course be the neglected, degraded part. The ‘immaterial you’ (i.e. soul) is the eternal aspect or the self, whereas the ‘material you’ is simply the finite, fleshy, sinful part of you in which your soul is temporarily trapped. This sort of dualism only reinforces Christianity’s extreme hatred of the flesh. Christianity has always had anxiety about the body, and many a Christian heresy (e.g. Docetism) could not handle the radical news of the incarnation (i.e. enfleshment of Jesus). The body is hated, and the flesh is weak. This is not simply a Christian problem, as I recall quite humorously Muslim friends who used to feign being on their period to be able to skip out on daily prayers. Apparently, God could not handle their uncleanness. Who is it that’s uncomfortable with natural bodily processes, God or us? I think it’s fairly obvious that here man has projected his own discomfort with woman’s body, and thus shamed her by telling her that she is not welcomed in God’s presence.

Christians often evoke this idea that man was made in the image of God (imago Dei) to argue for man’s special relationship to God. Of course, when pressed on how exactly we are made in God’s image, people generally posit some eternal, immaterial element like the soul to establish the connection between God and man. Again, the body is demeaned as this wretched flesh that is certainly not god-like, and I would argue in fact is a sign of our fallenness. Fortunately, the gospels do not uphold such Christian hatred of the body. Jesus walks around dirty and sweating through Palestine touching and healing the broken, damaged, and bleeding bodies. His ministry is spent dining and feasting with others, to such an extent that he and his disciples were considered drunkards and gluttons. Christ might have had some ascetic tendencies, but he was no John the Baptist. We do not witness a man who wants to redeem the ‘immaterial you’ but the ‘material you’.

The body must be thought of as a site of redemption because theology is first and foremost about life because God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

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4 Responses to “The Body in Theology”

  1. A.J. Smith Says:

    Didn’t Nietzsche criticize Christianity as Platonism for the people? Conservative Protestants, especially, are soteriological Platonists, what with their notion that we live forever as ethereal souls in heaven, which is not even orthodox.

    These self-same Protestants seem also to have this strange aversion to natural bodily processes, especially menstruation, which is the ultimate taboo. This is odd, because Jesus is recorded to have healed a women with a menstruation problem (Mk. 5:25-34).

    In Islam, for example, a menstruating women is not allowed to touch the Koran (and in the OT Law, of course, menstruating women are considering unclean). Jesus, in contradistinction, allows a menstruating women to touch him and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

    Great post, btw.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah, I almost mentioned that point that a disembodied view of the souls in heaven is in fact not at all Christian (ie Pauline). You’re probably right about Nietzsche, but I’m not sure if I remember the exact reference.

    Yeah, I don’t think we properly understand just how offensive and radical the healing of that women would have been in 1st century Palestine. Unfortunately, it didn’t take Christianity long to lose these insights on Jesus’ care for the body, as it soon became a soure of sin. I mean I guess part of Nietzsche’s critique of Paul would probably fit in here quite nicely. Paul’s concern with the flesh and sin was what Nietzsche reviled as him turning Christianity into a priestly, weak religion.

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      Nietzsche says Christianity is “Platonism for the people” in his preface to Beyond Good and Evil (I looked it up).

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Something I meant to mention is the relevance of the stigmata and how that relates to theology’s understanding of the body. Christ’s resurrected body still bears witness to the sites of trauma that were inflicted by his crucifixion. I’m not entirely sure how to flesh (pun intended) that out, but I have always found it interesting that even the resurrected Christ is still an embodied, wounded Christ.

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