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 the study of the body from the angles of several disciplines is an interest that has engaged me ever since my cancer treatment in 2006-07.

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 and chemotherapy and my need to pay more attention to my body. I say “return” 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, conducting the high school orchestra in the national anthem, 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 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.

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 uncomfortable). I say “the rest of our body” because I have subscribed to the view of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and phenomenologists who propose 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 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 listed in Chapter 12 in my book, 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 the first chapter with a review of the body’s anatomical structure and biochemical composition and engaged the students in a meditative scan of their physiological bodies. Throughout the book I kept returning to the body’s biological reality, for example, in Chapter 6, “Youthful Bodies, Healthy Bodies” (which deals youth rites of initiation and passage and the church’s ministry of healing).  In Chapter 7, “Sexual Bodies, Dead bodies” (which deals with rites of marriage and burial), I discussed the biological relationship between sex and death in Section A and at the beginning of Section B I described the process of the body’s decomposition at death and the impact of this physical reality on funeral rites. Also, since the brain is part of the biological body, in Chapter 4 I discussed 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, with its implications for choosing worship chants, hymns, and songs.
  2. The ecological body. The body functions in interaction with its natural environment. In chapter 2 I discussed the impact of natural rhythms on the circadian rhythms of the body (e.g. day and night, light and darkness). This forms the basis of the daily prayer offices, especially morning and evening prayer. I led the students in a yoga sequence in which they enacted bodily the course of a day from waking and being active to sleeping and resting, moving from standing poses to floor poses—-and then back to standing poses to begin the next day.
  3. The phenomenological body. This is the body as we experience it. I dealt with this in Chapter 3, “Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies” (which deals with rites of initiation and ministerial vesture); and in Chapter 6, “Penitential Bodies, Celebrating Bodies (which deals with practices of fasting and feasting, corporal penitence like flagellant processions and festivals like carnival).  I included in Chapter 3 a section on the yoga subtle body (the nadi and chakra system), with a related practice, as a possible entrance into 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 dealt 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.

But I wonder if Johnson has provided for a cosmological meaning of the body within his five dimensions. The body derives meaning and purpose within a worldview. This is seen especially in our understanding of 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 now in the face of the body’s inevitable death?  Sexuality and death are constants in human history. They are related biologically and cosmologically, which is why I treated marriage and funeral rites together in Chapter 7. Sex and death have been regarded as cosmic realities, especially in Indian philosophy (e.g. Tantra), 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.  Nevertheless, in his massive History of Sex  Michel Foucault certainly deals with the meaning of the body in a philosophical way and sees sex and death fused together. (I note that there is no entry on “sex” in Johnson’s index or a reference to the work of Michel Foucault in his bibliography. )

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?

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.  Nakedness/enclothed 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 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 antithesis naked/clothed 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 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. How does what we wear in the liturgy affect our sense of what we are doing, and even who we are before God, when we perform our liturgies or devotions?

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 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 juxtaposition 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. 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.  But these experiences will 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. 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.  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. Our sexualized bodies are regarded as the source of evil and sin and must be hidden.

Some Renaissance artists, 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 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. (See “Frank Answers About the Body—God’s and Ours”)

The antithesis 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 a century later Christ’s genitals were covered with an improbable bronze cloth.

Also, on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel the genitals of a naked Christ the Judge 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 (signifying their old way of life) and went naked into the font to be immersed (a ritual drowning or dying) and emerging from the watery tomb were clothed in a new white tunic (signifying their new life in Christ).

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).

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—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.

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. Our bodies as well as our souls are sanctified and we are one with Christ physically as well as spiritually. Our repertoire of rituals sanctify bodily life in our sleeping and waking, 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.

Communing an infant in the Ethiopian 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.  In both inward and outward directions I feel connected ever more deeply with God and the world.

I appeal to the philosophy in the flesh as the basis of embodied liturgy.  Continuing 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 (from the moment of birth), and the movement of bodies in the assembly.  It is not unimportant to focus on texts as liturgists have mostly done, but the liturgical texts, especially psalmody, hymnody, and litanies, developed primarily to cover the movement of bodies in the assembly. And to call the liturgical assembly “the body of Christ” should not be 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.

Finally, in our current social and political context we may need to ask whether the members of the assembly of faith in Christ Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament, and set in motion in the liturgy, are able to interact bodily with one another in ways that are not available in the society outside the assembly’s space. I’m thinking in terms of such gestures of touch as the greeting of peace and the laying on of hands in acts of blessing and healing.

So I sum 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.

Pastor Frank Senn

Note: 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. It brings together Leonard’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. The Viruvian Man has 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 artist Claudio Bravo painted in 1970. One of the signature features of this Chilean artist who has worked in Spain and New York City and lived in Morocco, is the presence of packages and their wrappers.

Not surprisingly, there have also been numerous renditions of the Vitruvian Woman, such as this one by American Nat Krate (1918-2013), with accompanying commentary on the human form.



  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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