For the past four years I have been engaged in the research and writing of a thesis that was the final requirement for my Master of Christian Studies degree from Regent College in Vancouver, BC. The title of my thesis rather sums up the topic and main concern: “This is My Body: Responding to the Sexual Objectification of Women through a Theology of the Body.” It should come as no surprise to learn, then, that I’m very passionate about two issues: women’s rights and human embodiment. Embodiment might not seem to be an issue, as such, but in my experience, human beings—especially 21st Century North American human beings—have very conflicted relationships with our bodies.
Women feel it more acutely: images of the female body are everywhere and used to sell a mind-boggling number of products. Men, however, are increasingly being targeted by beauty advertising as well, as the recent Hugh Laurie L’Oreal campaign rather painfully demonstrates. At the same time, North America is (apparently) suffering from an “obesity epidemic” in which bodies are being targeted as the loci of a frantic and pervasive nervousness about health—private and public—and longevity. North Americans aren’t really sure what to do about death. We try to put it off by “doing the right things” whether that means “eating right” or “exercising enough.” If we are not embracing this asceticism aimed at avoiding the unnameable inevitability of death, then we are instead ignoring our bodies, using them as tools of hedonistic self-indulgence: eating, drinking, smoking, or f…well, you get the picture.
Death isn’t going anywhere, of course, so we are forced to deal with it eventually. How North Americans imagine death is also fascinating. Both religious and non-religious people attempt to envision so-called spiritual life-after-death. Popular television deals all the time with questions of what happens after we die, with entire programs dedicated to exploring that undiscovered country, or at least the passenger lounge before one truly departs for it. Can a troubled “soul” “cross-over” or will s/he need help? Is there a place—possibly called heaven—where we go when we die or do we just cease to exist? Do we all go to the same place, or are some of us punished for our misdeeds, and what misdeed is bad enough to warrant such a punishment? Can we achieve “higher levels” of consciousness and “evolve” to a point where we won’t need physical bodies anymore?
North American culture is deeply, richly steeped in a philosophical tradition called dualism. Very basically, it is the belief that human beings are made up of a body and a soul/spirit/mind which animates the body. In most cases, the belief also tends to be that the soul/spirit/mind is the “true person” and that the body is simply a vehicle that the “true person” roams about in. This leaves the body in a precarious position. Do we love it or hate it? Should we rebuild it if it doesn’t look the way we would like? Should we ensure that we maintain it as carefully as possible so that it doesn’t break down on us? Does it really matter what I do with my body since it isn’t really me at all?
Christians often buy into this dualism as well, accepting a tradition that first began to creep into Christianity in the days of the Greeks. Read the epistles of Paul the wrong way and you end up with something close to dualism (i.e. my soul is the best part of me so I can’t wait to die and go to heaven and have no icky, sinful body to contend with). In my experience, this is a very common error. I’ve made it myself in the past, considering the soul to be the only part of me that was made in the image of God. As I’ve journeyed through my theological degree and been led by the Holy Spirit, however, I’ve come to a different understanding, and that understanding is expressed in my thesis.
Human bodies are made in the image of God. I don’t know exactly what this means except to make sure that you know I don’t believe that God look anything like us (except Jesus, of course, who has a human body!). My logic goes like this: without bodies, we would make pretty crappy servants of God. God created a real, physical world filled with an inexpressible diversity of life, and we are a part of that real, physical world. In fact, God charges us with a task: the care of that world. We can’t care for God’s world without real, physical bodies. Nothing I’ve read in the Bible suggests that God created human souls and then decided they needed flesh-suits. Whether you take Genesis literally or not, it seems pretty clear that God created/caused-the-evolution-of flesh-beings and then made them come alive mentally in a way not shared by the other animals. In other words, our bodies make us who we are in at least as fundamental a way as our souls—whatever they might be, exactly.
So if we are Christians, I think we need to take our bodies seriously, not treating them with cruelty or disdain nor abusing them with pleasure-seeking. When we learn to accept our own bodies as gifts of God, then I think we need to learn to accept the bodies of others as such as well. If all bodies are good gifts, then it is deeply disrespectful to treat any body as nothing but a manipulatable, sellable object.
Expect more words about bodies on this blog, then, since it is a topic which I am passionate about, and one about which I have spent a lot of time in thought.