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. But pastors know that physical issues and spiritual issues are often interconnected. As a Christian theologian I believe that the basis of Christian thought is the incarnation — God in the flesh. As a liturgist I ‘m aware that we worship God using our bodies — with gestures, movement, and our senses.

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 essential sacramental theology and  incarnational spirituality.  In this article I give an account 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 surgery in 2006 and chemotherapy for nearly a year following. I say “return to the body” because, like most people, in my younger life I did pay more attention to my body. For some it has been through athletics. For me it was through public performance (elementary school boys’ gymnastic show, children’s operettas, piano recitals, etc.) Even in terms of liturgy I discovered as a youth a closer sense of God’s presence through bodily gestures, postures, and senses. I describe in my recent book, Eucharistic Body (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), the importance to me of receiving the sacramental body and blood of Christ into my body when I was a young adolescent going through some body issues.  As I got older I was drawn more into intellectual pursuits and cultivated the mind at the expense of the body. Since my cancer experience in 2006-2007 I have returned to a focus on the body through yoga,  the theology of the body, phenomenology, and the arts.

When I was invited to teach a course in liturgy in the Performing Arts Faculty of Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Java, Indonesia in 2014, I brought all this together in a course that explored liturgical and paraliturgical rites from the perspective of the body’s engagement in them. I figured that performing arts students use their bodies to communicate. The course became a book: Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).   My thanks to Danny Salim, then dean of the Performing Arts Faculty, for extending the invitation to teach and allowing me to use yoga as a way of getting the students into their bodies, with the proviso that I explain it to the students since they may have heard sermons advising Christians not to do yoga. (See “Frank Answers About ‘Christian Yoga'”)

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 worship and devotion. Viewing liturgy and worship from the perspective of the participating body is not something we are used to doing, especially as Western Christians. We have focused on worshiping God with our minds, largely ignoring what we are doing with the rest of our body (other than when we are physically moving). I say “the rest of our body” because I have subscribed to the view of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (1945) that we don’t just have a body, we are a body, and we relate to the world through our senses and motoricity.

Neuroscience has increasingly demonstrated that the mind is part of the body, not a separate entity. In their seminal work Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 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 and is often objectified along with the rest of material reality.

I have since discovered 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 (pp. 274-78) in Embodied Liturgy, and in the order in which he lists them!

  1. The body as biological organism. The body must first be seen as a physical entity, a flesh-and-blood creature, living in the world. I actually began my first chapter with a review of the body’s physiological structure and biochemical composition and engaged the students in a meditative scan of their anatomical bodies. Throughout the book I kept returning to the body’s biological reality in its impact on rituals. Chapter 6 A is about what we eat — fasting and feasting. Chapter 7, “Youthful Bodies, Healthy Bodies”,  deals youth rites related to Baptism and the church’s ministry of healing. Chapter 8, “Sexual Bodies, Dead bodies”, deals with rites of marriage and burial. In this chapter I discuss the biological relationship between sex and death in Section A and I described the process of the body’s decomposition at death at the beginning of Section B. Also, in Chapter 4 I discuss Eugene d’Aquili’s work on the neurological basis of ritualization and in Chapter 10 Daniel Levitin’s work on the relationship between the brain and different kinds of music. The brain is, of course, a bodily organ.
  2. The ecological body. The body is an organism within nature and functions in interaction with its natural environment. In chapter 2 I discuss the impact of natural rhythms on the circadian rhythms of the body (e.g. day and night, light and darkness). These rhythms form the basis of the daily prayer offices, especially morning and evening prayer. I led the students in a yoga sequence in which they enacted in their bodies the experience of following the course of a day from waking and being active to sleeping and resting and waking again.
  3. The phenomenological body. This is the body as we actually experience it. I dealt with this in Chapter 3, “Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies”, which concerns rites of initiation and ministerial vestments. This chapter deals with the experiences of being both naked and clothed before the Lord. Chapter 6, Section B, “Penitential Bodies, Celebrating Bodies”, deals with the sensations of corporal penitence like flagellant processions and festivals that engage the lower body like carnival.  I included a discussion in Chapter 3 of the yoga subtle body (the nadi and chakra system), with a related yoga practice, as a possible entrance into experiencing our psycho-physicality.
  4. The social body. Our body is both constrained and liberated by our social interactions. I dealt with this in Chapter 4, “Ritual and Play,” 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 deal with these cultural realities throughout much of the book, but especially the body in cultural expressions in Chapter 9 (art and architecture), Chapter 10 (music), and Chapter 11 (dance and movement). Chapter 12 deals with liturgical performance and how the body is used in six different liturgical styles (Byzantine/Oriental, Catholic Traditional,  Liturgical Renewal, Protestant Aesthetic, Protestant Revival/Seeker, and Pentecostal/Praise and Worship).

Johnson insists that all five of these meanings of the body must be held together. The body is not just a biological machine and it is not just a cultural construct. It is all five of these meanings. In this article I explore further this proposal of the multiple meanings of the body.

Note on The Vitruvian Man

The image above this article is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” from ca. 1487 that appeared in one of his notebooks. I chose it because it represents several meanings of the body. It brings together Leonardo’s interests as a scientist as well as an artist. 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.

Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” has also been a constant inspiration to artists striving to express the beauty as well as the geometrical proportion of the human body. The following artistic rendering of the Vitruvian Man subtly demonstrates the square and the circle. This is a self-portrait by the Chilean artist Claudio Bravo painted in 1970. One of the signature features of Bravo’s paintings is the presence of packages and their wrappers. Perhaps it suggests removing the cultural wrappings to present the body as it naturally is.

The subtitle of Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body is “Aesthetics of Human Understanding.” He includes chapters on art and music. This is because art gives us a sense of the meaning of things that is not available in our everyday affairs. Although we sometimes enjoy the arts as forms of entertainment, visual and sonic arts also communicate meaning — including meanings about the body — without words. The meanings conveyed by art are non-conceptual and embodied.  Claudio Bravo’s self-rendering as a Vitruvian Man is not a proposition that appeals to our thinking mind; it is an evocation or impression summoning a visceral response.

Gender Issues

Neither Johnson nor I dealt with gender issues.  This is because gender was largely irrelevant to our projects.  Gender does affect language and Johnson devoted a lot of attention to metaphor, especially with George Lakoff in Metaphors We Live By  (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980).  In their work Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate that metaphors are ways we structure our reasoning and our everyday language on the basis of our actual sensorimotor experiences. Those experiences of life in society and culture might make some metaphorical uses gender-specific.  But that wasn’t the philosophic issue Lakoff and Johnson were pursuing. My project was to explore the use of the body in liturgical and paraliturgical rites; I was not dealing with texts (the usual theater of liturgical gender wars) that accompany liturgical gestures, postures, and movement.  Some rituals are gender-specific. But, for example, that boys might have a male equivalent of the Mexican Quinceanera, or that girls might participate in the Greek Orthodox diving for the cross, I will leave for those cultures to sort out.

However, I did introduce the yoga (Tantric) subtle body as a way of experiencing the body as something more than a biological machine. It allows us to sample the phenomenological body — the body as we experience it. The yoga subtle body invites us to consider the male-female duality/union that contributes to the gendering of the psychological body.  The streams of energy called nadis (ida, pingala) that flow from each side of the brain (left/right) to the perineum along the central channel (sushumna) represent the lunar/solar, feminine/masculine energies of the human body.  In most mythologies and archetypal psychology, the feminine aspect (lunar principle/left brain) is interested in intuition, harmony, connection, and relationships; the masculine aspect (solar principle/right brain) is interested in literalism and linearity. Not all women fully identify with the feminine principle, and not all men identify with the masculine principle.  According to this yoga map of the body we all have elements of the feminine and masculine within us and undoubtedly lean toward one or the other in varying degrees.

While I did not deal with gender issues in Embodied Liturgy, I did deal with the sexual differences of women’s bodies in relation to pregnancy. I referenced Theresa Berger’s experience of pregnancy in which she brought the waters of the womb and the waters of the font into intimate contact (pp. 188-89); also the need for post-natal care of women in relation to the old rite of the churching of women (pp. 207-12). Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993) pointed out the important biological as well as social and cultural differences between male and female bodies.  Irigaray holds that no phenomenology of the body will be satisfactory that doesn’t recognize the unique fundamental biological differences and unique experiences women live in their bodies.

American artist Nat Krate painted the Vitruvian Woman.

Sexual Body/Dead Body

Within his five dimensions of the body Johnson did not discuss the meanings the body received from a worldview, particularly the role of sex and views of the afterlife. Is sex just the expression of inner needs lodged within an individual body or is it the energy of the universe pulsing through the body and not intended just for the isolated body alone?  How do we live in our body here and now in the face of the body’s inevitable death?  Sexuality and death are constants in human history since, biologically, sex is related to procreation.  The death of the mother and/or the child in childbirth was a common occurrence before modern medicine. (A number of other species experience death after copulation [the male] or after laying eggs [the female].) In modern times, the AIDS epidemic added to the fateful relationship between sex and death. French social theorist Michel Foucault said that the death instinct pervades all sexual activity. In The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1978, 1990), p. 156, he referred to orgasms as “little deaths.”  The Faustian pact is “to exchange all of life for sex itself.” (There is no entry on “sex” in Johnson’s index or a reference to the work of Michel Foucault in his bibliography. )

But sex and death are related cosmologically as well as biologically, which is why I treated marriage and funeral rites together in Chapter 7.  Sex and death have been regarded as cosmic realities that transcend biology, environment, personal experience, social conventions, and cultural expressions. Marriage and funeral rites express respectively creation myths and eschatological hopes that are perhaps more related to a theology of the body than to philosophy.

Engraving “Death and the Indecent Pair” by Hans Sebald Beham (1529).  The Latin inscription reminds these lovers that “Death is the end of all things.” How does that stark reality impact the vitality of bodily life as we live it in our present lives?

Honor/Shame Issues

The body has been the site of both honor and shame. In the Bible male and female 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. Their shame went immediately to their genitals, where they most intimately express their relationship to each other, which they tried to cover 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 provide both for their modesty and for warmth and comfort in the cold, hard world outside of the paradise garden.  As a consequence nudity came to be associated with sin and shame in the Christian tradition. As we became an enclothed society with less and less instances of public nakedness in the modern West, nudity has become exclusively associated with sex. Sex itself has been viewed negatively except for the act of procreation. Our sexualized bodies are regarded as the source of evil and sin and must be hidden.

Adam and Eve Ashamed  by James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)

Some Renaissance artists, however, most famously Michelangelo, painted the primal couple leaving paradise still nude in his creation scenes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps as an artist who idealized the human body he believed that there is a residual honor to the body even after the fall. Also, a theological argument could be made that since an animal sacrifice would be needed to have skins with which to make garments for Adam and Eve, that had to be done outside of paradise.

Christians believe that Christ, the new Adam, bore not just our sin but also our shame on the cross. In part this is because hanging naked in public is 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. (See “Frank Answers About the Body—God’s and Ours”)

Naked/Clothed Issues

Within my reflections on the body I have given attention to the naked body because that is how we feel our bodies most directly if we live in a clothed society.  The dialectic of nakedness/enclothed provides another 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 of eating the forbidden fruit by being ashamed of what God had created good. By covering their “private parts” they also demonstrated an alienation from God, from each other, and from the natural world.

Since “the fall” nakedness cannot stand alone; it needs to be considered in juxtaposition with clothing. Clothing provides both modesty and warmth, but dressing the body also provides a way of expressing festivity and personal identity. There is a new field of enclothed cognition that studies the impact of clothing on the wearer’s self-identity.

The dialectic nakedness/enclothed is a rich symbolism in many religions.  Rites of initiation often include nakedness followed by being clothed in special garments. We have not given enough attention to the experience and meaning of either the naked body or the clothed body.  This is a very important aspect of rites of initiation. In Chapter 3 in my book, the Section A deals especially with circumcision and the ancient church’s practice of naked Baptism. The Section B 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. What we wear in the liturgy affects our sense of what we are doing, and even who we are before God.

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 in daily life depending on the climate and environmental 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. 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 dialectic of nakedness/enclothed 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. He is also certain that Jesus’ genitals were not covered by a loin cloth on the cross. It is interesting that Professor Le and I have independently discovered the dialectic of nakedness/enclothed in the Bible, in theology, and in liturgy.

The Crucifixion by 19th century German artist Max Klinger

The dialectic nakedness/enclothed 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, then 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 a century later Christ’s genitals were covered with an improbable bronze cloth undoubtedly intending to suggest the burial linen falling off his rising body. The following images show the model for the original as well as covered original.

The Political Body

How we present our bodies is not only a social construct, it is also a political coercion. Foucault holds that the body and its behavior are “constituted” by social norms and political coercive practices. In The History of Sexuality he shows ways in which society has acted to repress and control sexuality, often through its political structures. The Catholic Church exercised control of sex through its practices of penance (the confessional). Societies punished those who engaged in deviant sex like homosexuals or women (seldom men) who committed adultery.  Over the last several centuries, science joined forces with social authorities to repress childhood masturbation, treat female “hysteria”, and categorize perverse forms of sexual behavior (fetishes) and design psychiatric treatments for them. Political authorities have enacted laws that provide financial incentives for procreation (like tax benefits).

Since I discussed the naked/enclothed body, I should note that the amount of public nakedness and appropriate clothing have not only been a matter of social approval and cultural expression; these public presentations of the body have been enforced by law. It is usually illegal and subject to fines to expose one’s genitals (and sometimes nipples) in public.  Since we in the West have lived in a clothed society, expressions of protest have involved public nakedness. One thinks of Francis of Assisi removing all his clothing and standing naked before the bishop of Gubbio and his father and the merchant class to renounce wealth.

Scene of Francis of Assisi nude before the townspeople in the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

One thinks of the anti-war rock musical Hair (1969) in which the actors created a scandal by appearing naked on stage.

Australian artist Michael James O’Hanlon prepared a variation on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”  which bears this dedication: “We swear by the southern cross to stand by each other and fight to defend our liberties 1854-2008″. O’Hanlon imposed a nude male model on the 5-pointed Australian Eureka flag. This flag was used as the symbol of rebellion by gold miners at the Eureka Stockade in 1854 and has since been adopted as a symbol of anti-establishment movements in Australia. The importance of this flag in O’Hanlon’s work is indicated by the fact that he signs his paintings Eurekaartist. O’Hanlon promotes queer art and has encountered censorship in his exhibititions. Perhaps the picture suggests the artist striving for freedom of expression.

In all three of these examples the body is used as a site of protest. Portrayals of the nude body of Christ in art has also been scandalous. Church authorities have attempted to suppress representations of the nude Christ. 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. Candidates shed their old clothing (signifying their old way of life) and went naked into the font to be immersed (a ritual drowning or dying). Emerging from the watery tomb they were clothed in a new white tunic (signifying their new life in Christ). Cyril of Jerusalem told the newly baptized in late fourth century Jerusalem, “you stood naked in the sight of all and you were not ashamed. You truly mirrored our first created parent Adam, who stood naked in Paradise and was not ashamed.”

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 when baptisms do not take place in the relative seclusion of a baptistery).

The Interpersonal Body

Baptism reminds us that liturgy is a corporate work. Our bodies relate to other bodies in the assembly, especially through touch, and acquire a more than personal meaning. Merleau-Ponty spoke of the intersubjectivity of the body as it surges even from its emergence from the womb to connect subject-to-subject with other bodies and the world into which one is born. Our intersubjective body connects with others through motoricity and sensation. We are attracted to others when we see what they are doing and we feel a connection with it. This is how community happens.

Liturgically we experience connection by giving and receiving touch in such rites as baptism, confirmation, healing, foot washing, and sharing the peace. In these acts of connection through mutual touch we move from the personal body to what Buddhist teacher of meditation Reginald A. Ray, PhD inTouching Enlightenment (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008, 2014) called “the interpersonal body”. The interpersonal body is a deeper layer of the personal body. It can be awakened by connecting body-to-body with other humans but also other sentient beings.

Moreover, in connecting bodily with others we learn more about our own bodies. This is certainly the case in bodily connections between spouses who get to know each other’s bodily self intimately and experience the interpersonal body in their sexual relations. The perfect interpersonal body is created through coitus when “the two become one flesh.”

Cultural mores affect how we connect with each other socially in instances of touch. Our culturally formed sense of freedom or constraint in how we touch one another has liturgical consequences. Americans are not as free with interacting bodily with one another as people in other societies. For example, there is still resistance to sharing the greeting of peace with one another in the assembly by handshake or hug. Yet I saw men and boys walking down the street in southeast Asia hand-in-hand or with arms around each other. We have become touchy about touch because of widespread experiences of sexual abuse and harassment in our society. This has a negative impact on practicing healthy forms of mutual touch which we all need.

Bodily connections can be experienced in massage. I included some passages about massage in my book.  Regular massage has therapeutic benefits. It’s good to have a regular massage therapist who knows one’s body. But experiencing different modalities has the advantage of varying the experience of touch and what one feels in one’s body as a result. Massage is a sensual experience in addition to a therapy. It can also be a spiritual experience.  I especially enjoyed massages in Singapore and Indonesia because of different modalities and experiences of touch connected with Asian cultures. Massage deepens awareness of the personal body. But connection is also made between the masseur and the client through the application of the masseur’s hands and arms and, in Asian massages, sometimes knees and even chest.

Given our current social context we need to ask whether the members of the assembly of faith in Christ Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament to be the body of Christ, are able to interact bodily with one another in ways that are not available in the society outside the assembly’s space. I will address this critical issue in another Frank Answer About Connection and Touch.

Father Christopher Mirabal smiles as he exchanges the sign of peace with Msgr. James McNamara during his ordination to the priesthood at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, N.Y., June 14. Father Mirabal was one of four men ordained for service in the Diocese of Rockville Centre during the Mass. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic) (June 17, 2014)

The Cosmic Body

Reginald Ray posits a still deeper layer of the body that he calls “the cosmic body”. This is what Mark Johnson called “the ecological body”.  In Ray’s teaching we access the various layers of the body — personal, interpersonal, cosmic — through meditation. Just as the interpersonal body is experienced through the connection of touch, so is the cosmic body. In fact, directly touching the earth in our skin also has the effect of recharging us because earth’s body and our bodies are magnetic fields. (This is called “Earthing”. See Frank Answers About Connecting with Earth’s Body.)

We do have a way of connecting with the earth in our liturgical practice by being barefoot. At the burning bush Moses was told to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Muslims remove their shoes outside the mosque before entering for prayer. Christians in south Asia also remove their shoes before entering their worship space. When I was invited to preach in a Mar Thoma church in Singapore I had the experience of preaching in my socks. Dancing is a major form of expression in African worship and it is done by dancing barefoot on the bare ground. Perhaps unknowingly this has the effect of recharging the dancers.

Gnostic Issues

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 — eating and drinking, engaging in sexual life or avoiding it, saving one’s life or giving it up, connecting with others through touch—are all 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, 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 the 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.

The risen Christ greets Mary Magdalene, Fra Angelico, Florence, 1440

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 routines. 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 with us bodily. In my recent book, Eucharistic Body, I reflect on what it means that we receive into our bodies (and biochemistry) bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. In the reception of the sacraments we are one with Christ physically as well as spiritually. Our repertoire of rituals sanctify bodily life in our waking and sleeping, eating and drinking, fasting and feasting, having sex and abstaining, healing the body when it is sick, and imbuing it with dignity when it is dead.

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 motor actions to connect more deeply with God, with others, and with the world of which I am a part. I appeal to the philosophy in the flesh and the theology of the body as the basis of embodied liturgy. Continuing in this journey I expect to explore further the dynamics of bodily movement—the movement of God toward humanity in word and sacrament, movement that engages us with our surrounding environment, and the movement of bodies in the assembly forming a corporate body.  To call the liturgical assembly “the body of Christ” is not just a metaphorical description; it is actual bodies brought into union with Christ in the sacraments, present to the Lord and to one another in the assembly, and sent into the world at the dismissal.

I have summed up in this article the thought and work of my mature years and indicate where I am moving (no pun intended) in my present and future projects. A massive “return to the body” has been taking place in philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and the arts in the last several decades. Hopefully theology and liturgy will catch up. We can no longer do liturgical history, liturgical theology, or liturgical praxis without recognizing the most basic fact about liturgy: it involves the bodies of worshipers, especially bodies in motion.

Pastor Frank Senn

Corpus Christi procession in Poland

 

2 Comments

  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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