body, liturgy, Philosophy

Frank Answers About the Meaning(s) of the Body

Those who have followed my blog have undoubtedly noticed that many articles deal with the body. Some even explore the naked body. This may not be what one expects from a pastor, theologian, and liturgist. It’s an interest (one might say an obsession) that has engaged me ever since my cancer treatment in 2006-07.  Members of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston , who accompanied me through my year of chemotherapy, know that such themes as our life in the body and our hope in the resurrection of the body found their way in many sermons in my last several years as their pastor. A number of the early Frank-Answers are updated versions of questions and Frank Answers first posted on the Immanuel Lutheran Church web site.  So I was already writing about these issues before I began in this blog.

My writings on this blog and in my recent books have been moving toward an emerging philosophy of the body, and a philosophic basis for liturgical theology and practice. This philosophy reinforces orthodox Christianity’s essentially incarnational and sacramental theology and spirituality.  In this article I pause my “Frank-Answers” for a while and give an accounting of this journey.

I won’t rehearse here in detail my own “return to the body” as a result of my experience of colon cancer and chemotherapy and my need to pay more attention to my body. I say “return” because in my younger life I did pay more attention to my body, mostly through performance (e.g. elementary school boys’ gymnastic show in 7th and 8th grades, children’s operettas, Singing Boys of Buffalo chorus, playing in piano recitals, leading the high school orchestra in the national anthem, etc.) Even in terms of liturgy I found as a youth a closer sense of God’s presence through bodily gestures, postures, and senses. But from college on I was drawn more into intellectual pursuits and cultivated the mind at the expense of the body. Since my cancer experience ten years ago I have returned to a focus on the body through yoga,  ritual studies, the theology of the body, phenomenology, and embodied mind theory.

This all eventuated in the course I taught at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Java, Indonesia in 2015 and the book based on the course, Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).  I am grateful to Danny Salim, former dean of the faculty of performing arts, for inviting me to offer a course in Christian liturgy to his students. Without that invitation and the course I prepared, the book would not have been written. Because I was teaching students in a performing arts faculty rather than theology, I was emboldened to teach Christian liturgy from the perspective of the body’s engagement in it. I am also grateful to Danny’s brother, Emil Salim, professor of philosophy at Jakarta Presbyterian Seminary, for introducing me to the philosophy associated with embodied mind theory. I had to become a quick study. I was grateful to Danny for giving me permission to introduce yoga to the Indonesian students in the course as a way of getting them into their bodies.

Since this was a new departure for me the course and the book was a gathering of raw material for the project of teaching liturgy from the perspective of the body in worship. I culled the repertoire of liturgical and paraliturgical rites to demonstrate the body’s essential engagement in them. Viewing liturgy and worship from the perspective of the participating body is not something we are used to doing, especially as Western Christians. We focus on worshiping God with our minds, largely ignoring what we are doing with the rest of our body (other when when we are physically uncomfortable). I say “the rest of our body” because I have subscribed to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his successors that we don’t just have a body, we are a body. Neuroscience has increasingly demonstrated that the mind is part of the body, not a separate entity. I included a reference in the first chapter of my book to the seminal work of Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999). The authors provide reasons from embodied mind theory for rejecting the Cartesian mind-body dualism in which the body is given lesser place to a disembodied mind. (See also the important study of Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994].)

I have since discover Mark Johnson’s later work, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Johnson explores the meaning(s) of the body from the perspectives of feeling, sciences of mind, and art and music, demonstrating by these examples that “meaning is more than words and deeper than concepts.” The meaning of the body, and what that suggests for our apprehension of reality, cannot be derived just from an analysis of literary texts. I was pleased to see that I unknowingly followed Johnson’s schema of the body’s several meanings in the chapters of my book, and in the order in which he lists them!

  1. The body as biological organism. I actually began the first chapter with with a review of the body’s biochemistry and a scan of the physiological body, and throughout the book I kept returning to the body’s biological reality, for example, in “Youthful Bodies, Healthy Bodies” (chapter 6,  which deals youth rites of initiation and passage and the church’s ministry of healing) and “Sexual Bodies, Dead bodies” (chapter 7, which deals with rites of marriage and burial).
  2. The ecological body. The body functions in interaction with its environment. It is part of the biosphere. In chapter two I discussed the impact of natural rhythms on the circadian rhythms of the body (e.g. day and night, light and darkness), forming the basis of the daily prayer offices.
  3. The phenomenological body. This is the body as we feel it. I dealt with this in connection with the “Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies” (chapter 3), which deals with rites of initiation and ministerial vesture; and practices of fasting and feasting, corporal penitence and carnival  (chapter 6).
  4. The social body. Our body is both constrained and liberated in our social interactions. I dealt with this in chapter 4 in terms of Mary Douglas’ schema of grid and group and Johan Huizinga’s exploration of play. Chapter 5, “Sacrifices and Meals,” also deals with the social body since sharing the meat of the sacrifices and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are communal events.
  5. The cultural body. Our bodies are also constituted by cultural artifacts, institutions, and forms of expression. I dealt with these cultural realities throughout much of the book, ending with art and architecture (in chapter 9), music (chapter 10), and dance and movement (chapter 11).

Within my reflections on the body I have given attention to the naked body. Nakedness/nudity provides one aspect of the body’s meaning, and it is a far more important meaning than we have generally considered.  On the one hand nakedness suggests innocence, truth (“baring all”), and vulnerability. On the other hand the naked body can be the subject of humiliation, shame, and punishment. Adam and Eve were attempting to hide their guilt from God when they grabbed some fig leaves in an attempt to cover their nakedness. They compounded their sin by being ashamed of what God had created good.

Nakedness since “the fall” cannot stand alone; it needs to be considered in juxtaposition with clothing. Clothing provides both modesty and warmth, but dressing the body also provides for festivity and personal identity. The antithesis naked/clothed is a rich symbolism in many religions.  Rites of initiation often include nakedness followed by being clothed in special garments. Chapter 3 in my book is titled “Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies.” The first part deals especially with circumcision and the ancient church’s practice of naked Baptism. The second part deals with being vested in the white baptismal robe (alb) and in priestly vestments. We are properly naked before the Lord, and dressed before the Lord in the vestments God provides. I added an after thought at the end of chapter 3 about the value of wearing one’s “Sunday best” for worship. What we wear impacts the body and what impacts the body impacts the mind. The following painting by the 15th century Flemish Master of St. Giles of the Baptism of King Clovis of the Franks in 411 shows both the ancient Christian practice of naked baptism and the richness of the ministerial vestments (anachronistically late medieval vestments).

In terms of Mark Johnson’s schema, both nakedness and clothing are determined by biology, climate, phenomenology, society and culture. We are, of course, born naked from the womb and are immediately wrapped in blankets. We are more or less naked or more or less clothed depending on the climate conditions in which we live. Phenomenologically, we have stored in our bodies sensations of being both naked and clothed.  We remember feeling the warmth of the sun and the cooling effects of a breeze on our skin on a hot summer day and also being bundled in warm outer clothing on a cold winter day. Socially, the degree of allowable public nudity and appropriate clothing are prescribed by the social context and kind of group we are with. Semi-nakedness is allowed on the beach but not in a restaurant off the boardwalk. Culture determines the style of clothing and body ornaments we wear. In my culture I wear pants and a shirt, and maybe a coat, but not a long robe.

Grant Woods’ American Gothic

The juxtaposition of nakedness/clothing is important in the gospel stories of Jesus. Since writing Embodied Liturgy I have discovered the published doctoral dissertation of Vietnamese theologian Dan Le, The Naked Christ: An Atonement Model for a Body Obsessed Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012). I wish I had known of it before I finished writing my book.  He proposes the naked, suffering Christ on the cross as the answer to a body-obsessed culture—obsessed with commercial images of glamorous perfect bodies that most of us desire but cannot attain so that we are always disappointed with our bodies. It is interesting that Professor Le and I have independently discovered the antithesis of nakedness/clothing in the Bible, theology, and liturgy.

It is difficult to deal with the body in our society.  We are touchy about our bodies, usually in a negative way. We’re uncomfortable being touched, especially if it is unwanted. Americans don’t normally greet one another with hugs and kisses to the extent people do in some other societies. Boys and men don’t walk down the street with arms around each other (unless they are gay) as I have seen in southeast Asia. Many news reports in recent years have detailed widespread sexual abuse of youth by Catholic priests, sports coaches, relatives, etc. and, just recently, pervasive sexual harassment of women by men in positions of power.  The reaction to these revelations is leading to a necessary emphasis on establishing boundaries and strict control over touching one another.  These experiences contribute to the body-shame that is pervasive in our society, shame which necessarily focuses on the body because we are our bodies.

In the Bible the body is an embodiment of both honor and shame. Male and female we were created in God’s image as the crown of creation. Adam and Eve became ashamed of their bodies—of themselves—as soon they  transgressed the limits. They tried to cover their bodies with fig leaves. When our primal parents were expelled from paradise the Lord God, in an act of grace, fashioned garments from animal skins for Adam and Eve to conceal their shame and to provide for warmth and comfort in the cold, hard world outside of the paradise garden.  But this also meant that nudity came to be associated with sin and shame in the Christian tradition. Nudity has become associated only with sex, which is viewed negatively except for procreation, and our sexualized bodies are regarded as the source of evil and sin which must be hidden.

“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden” by Masaccio (ca. 1426) is a fresco in the Brancacci  Chapel. Three centuries later, Cosimo de’Medici  ordered fig leaves to be added to conceal the genitals of the figures. These were removed in the 1980s when the painting was fully restored and cleaned.  It would seem that the painting is not in line with Genesis since Adam and Eve leave the Garden naked rather than clothed in animal skins (the fig leaves would also have been erroneous). But what is the chronology, theologically considered, between God providing clothing for Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden? Certainly the drama of the event is increased by having the figures leave paradise nude. But consider that clothing wasn’t needed in paradise; it was needed in the world outside the Garden. And animals would not be sacrificed for their skins within paradise. Michelangelo’s painting of the Genesis story on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel also shows the pair leaving paradise still nude, perhaps suggesting a residual honor for the body in the fallen world.  Masaccio’s portrayal of Eve’s howling pain and Adam’s inability to face the situation is psychologically profound and artistically unprecedented.

Christians believe that Christ bore not just our sin but also our shame on the cross. In part this is because nakedness is used as a form of punishment intended to  bring shame to the victim. Roman floggings and crucifixions were done on naked bodies to inflict maximum humiliation.  There is no doubt that Jesus was crucified totally naked, according to Roman custom, but as one who was innocent he had nothing to hide. Christ also brought honor to the human body by being God incarnated in a human body and rising bodily from the dead.

Willem Dafoe as Christ in Martin Scorsese’s  film, The Last Temptation of Christ

The antithesis between nakedness/clothing is seen throughout Christ’s life. He came into the world naked and was wrapped in swaddling cloths. He was flogged naked but wrapped in a purple cloak in mockery of his purported kingship. He was crucified naked, taken down from the cross, and wrapped in a burial shroud. He left the grave naked because the grave clothes were rolled up in a corner of the tomb. We have no idea what he wore thereafter. Michelangelo carved a statue of the risen Christ naked and triumphant, but whose genitals were covered with an improbable bronze cloth a century later. Also, on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel the genitals of a naked Christ, coming again in judgment, were covered with a flimsy cloth later in the 16th century. Church officials have not been comfortable with a naked Christ. (See “Frank Answers About Nudity in Church Art.”)

However, one of the oldest icons of Christ shows his nude baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Ancient Christians practiced nude baptisms because Baptism is the sacramental means of dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6). Candidates shed their old clothing and went naked into the font and were clothed in a new white tunic when they emerged from the water.

In the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions candidates for baptism, both young children and adults, are still baptized naked (with some degree of modesty for adults).

There is, finally, the “so what?” question. What does this mean for us? It means that the body has a place of honor in Christianity. Elaine Pagels, the noted authority on ancient gnosticism, admits that “orthodox tradition implicitly affirms bodily experience as the central fact of human life. What one does physically—one eats and drinks, engages in sexual life or avoids it, saves one’s life or gives it up—all are vital elements in one’s religious development.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels [New York: Random House, 1979], 101.)  Gnostics of all ages, ancient or modern, have a profound distrust of the body and the material world. American religion, as Harold Bloom so perceptively saw, is pervasively gnostic. (Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992]).  Gnostics distrust nature, history, historical institutions, sacraments, and the body itself and seek an escape from all of them.

Gnosticism is not a religion in itself but a cultural attitude. At the end of my book I called attention to perennial temptation of Christians to succumb to the gnostic mindset.  Gnostic spiritualism undermines salvation by rejecting the very sources of salvation—the incarnation of the Word in human flesh, the death of the Son of God on the cross, and his triumph over death in resurrection of the body.  Resurrection itself implies that the material world, and the human body itself, is salvageable in a new creation. The resurrected body will be a glorified body, but nevertheless a body, such as we see in the resurrection stories of the risen Jesus.

My project of promoting embodied liturgy is intrinsically anti-gnostic because ritual by its very nature uses material things, engages human bodies in the use of these things, and is dependent on times and occasions and routine. Sacramental rituals like Baptism and Holy Communion use material elements like water and oil, bread and wine as means of grace by which God connects us with bodily. In my recent book, Eucharistic Body (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), I reflect on what it means that we receive into our bodies (and biochemistry) bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. Our repertoire of rituals sanctify bodily life in sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, having sex and procreating, healing the body when it is sick, and imbuing it with dignity when it is dead.

Communing an infant in the Orthodox Church

In a sense this has been the project of my life as a liturgist. In my yoga practice I go ever deeper into my own body and in embodied liturgy I employ my senses and engage in movement that connects me with the surrounding world—and in both inward and outward directions I feel connected ever more deeply with God.  But I am no longer a leader of ritual worship, so by means of my books and articles and other provocations I must encourage worship leaders/liturgists to pay attention to their bodies and to the bodies of worshipers.

I don’t expect to make a contribution to the philosophy or even the theology of the body, but I appeal to both as the basis of embodied liturgy.  Continuing this journey I expect to explore further, for example, the dynamics of bodily movement—the movement of God toward humanity in word and sacrament, movement that engages us with our surrounding environment (from the moment of birth), and the movement of bodies in the assembly.  Can the assembly of faith in Christ Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament and set in motion in the liturgy, interact bodily with one another in ways that are not available in the society outside the assembly’s space?

So I sum up in this article the thought and work of my mature years and indicate where I am moving. A massive “return to the body” has been taking place in philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and the arts and hopefully theology and liturgy will catch up.

This will be my last new Frank-Answers for a while because I must get on with other projects. I thank you for following my blog and, as always, I invite your comments on this and other articles.

Pastor Frank Senn

Note: The image above this article is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” from ca. 1487 that appeared in one of his notebooks. The drawing includes notes from the writings of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, who described the human body as the source of proportion in classical architecture. Da Vinci made notes on the anatomical proportions of the body, for example, noting that the span of both outstretched arms is equal to the body’s height. He also demonstrated the geometrical difficulty of placing a square in a circle. The center of the body in the circle is the navel; the center of the body in the square is the pelvis.


  1. C. Kelly

    Brother, I am really enjoying your mature and challenging thoughts on this and other topics. Thank you for sharing them. Not sure I’m totally agreed on the use of yoga, and a little uncertain on how I should regard such “meat offered to idols” when I KNOW it was idolatrous in ages past. I do appreciate the level of work you have put into explaining it, though. Still reading, learning, praying and growing, body and mind.

    I would greatly love to correspond on these thoughts.
    BTW, I lived and studied in Evanston myself for some years.

    • Frank Senn

      Thank you for your comment, C. Kelly. I take your allusion to “meat sacrificed to idols” to be comparing that pagan practice with the pagan origins of yoga. If that is your concern I recommend you read “Frank Answers About Christians Practicing Yoga” and see if that makes the practice more acceptable. Yoga itself is not a religion. It is an ancient and evolving practice for uniting body and mind that has been practiced over the centuries by devotees of several religions.

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