body, books, spirituality

Frank Answers About the Body in Protestant Spirituality

Question: Congratulations on editing a second volume of Protestant Spiritual Traditions. It will be useful as a textbook in spirituality courses along with the first volume. Could you explain why you added a lengthy essay on “The Body in Protestant Spirituality” to volumes that deal primarily with denominational spiritual practices?

Answer: Thank you for your affirmation of this project. I hope these two volumes together will be used in courses in Protestant spirituality in colleges and seminaries. Volume 1 (a reprint of the original book published by Paulist Press in 1986) includes Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican, Puritan, Pietist, and Methodist spiritualities. The new Volume 2 includes Baptist, Quaker, Evangelical, and Pentecostal spiritualities, and East Asian Protestant spiritual practices. But, as you note, I added to Volume 2 a lengthy essay on “The Body in Protestant Spirituality.”

I didn’t originally plan to add this essay on “The Body” to a book that was otherwise dealing with denominational spiritual traditions. A couple authors I had invited to submit essays on other spiritual traditions didn’t produce. I was thinking of providing some kind of summary essay for the two volumes to tie them together. As I read through the essays it seemed to me that some important Protestant spiritual practices had not received the emphasis they deserved because they transcend denominational traditions. The Reformation’s emphasis on the vocation of marriage is one and the emphasis on public health and personal fitness was another. These focused on the body which has become a new interest in spirituality generally. Spirituality had tended to focus more on the soul than on the body. The desires of the flesh, even a focus on the needs of our bodily life, have been regarded as detrimental to the purity of the soul.

More recently, however, it has been recognized that social activism is complementary to the contemplative life, not opposed to it. The Protestant pietists, for example, devoted themselves to Bible reading and prayer but also to social projects. Embodied mind theory has shown that the mind is dependent on sensorimotor information supplied to the brain and the nervous system. As a liturgist I have long taught, and experienced in my own life, that religious ritual uses the body’s senses and physical gestures and postures to enable receptivity to the divine presence and to facilitate response to the encounter with God. The way to the soul or the mind is through the body. In fact, the human is an inseparable trinity of mind, body, and soul created in the image of a Trinitarian God.

Korean young man kneeling (a posture of humility) in morning prayer

No religion and no Christian denomination is without ritual acts, from the simplist to the most elaborate. No religion and no Christian denomination is without the use of the body in spiritual practices of worship, prayer, fasting, feasting, and service to others. My effort in the essay on “The Body in Protestant Spiritual” was to identify the contributions of Protestantism to a body-based spirituality. It turned out that the list became quite long. But it was not miscellaneous, because one practice led directly to the next. Some of these items become self-evident upon reflection; others are surprises.

These contributions begin with an emphasis on marriage and family as a way of living the Christian life in opposition to the emphasis on virginity and celibacy in the ancient and medieval church. This implies embracing sex and sexuality as a divine gift rather than renouncing it as a drag on the soul. The union of man and woman is the Creator’s design “In the beginning” (Genesis 1, 2). The family rather than the cloister became the center of spiritual life for Protestants. Arguably this was Protestantism’s greatest social revolution. It has sometimes been said that the family or household became the new cloister in the sense that it replaced the monastery as the center of Protestant prayer life. Prayers at meals, in the morning upon getting up, and at night before retiring were included in catechisms and prymers.

Martin and Katarina von Bora Luther’s home –the former Black Cloister where Luther had lived as an Augustinian friar.

There were consequences of the assault on celibacy that I felt compelled to follow to show further contributions of Protestantism to spirituality and culture. As monasteries emptied out and closed, Luther advocated using their endowments to fund town common chests to end begging and address the needs of the hungry poor. Other reformers followed Luther’s lead in providing civic charity rather than individual almsgiving for the hungry poor, including Zwingli in Zurich, Bucer in Strassburg, and Calvin in Geneva.

Empty monastic buildings were turned into hospitals and orphanages, such as those in Geneva and Halle (the amazing work of pietist leader August Hermann Francke). Protestant ministries addressed the issues of bodily health and intellectual development as well as the salvation of souls. The Halle Orphanage provided German schools for common children (in contrast with the more elite Latin schools), and taught science as well as the humanities.

Francke’s Halle Orphanage

The Halle Foundation also became the first Protestant source for the recruitment of foreign missionaries. Halle sent missionaries to India and North America. The strategy of Protestant global missions from the start was to address issues of body, mind, and soul. Medical missionaries and school teachers accompanied evangelistic work. Probably the most famous of Protestant medical missionaries was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who founded a hospital in Lambarene, Gabon to “atone” for the sins of European colonialism.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer with patients at his hospital in Gabon.

At home in Europe and America the inner mission movement addressed unhealthy social conditions in industrialized cities. Evangelicals were in the forefront of the abolitionist movement, the end of child labor, prison reform, and social services. This was the context for the establishment of the deaconess communities whose sisters provided health and social services to the physically isolated. Many deaconesses took up nursing. Florence Nightingale, who trained in the deaconess community at Kaiserswerth in Germany, developed standards for the modern nursing profession on the basis of her work with wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

Florence Nightingale in an Army hospital during the Crimean War

Global missionaries were dying from tropical diseases and inner mission work in dirty industrial cities required fit ministers. The physical culture movement in the early 19th century, fathered by Friedrich Jahn in Prussia and Pehr-Henrik Ling in Sweden (both of whom had theology degrees), aimed to provide bodies fit for mission and ministry through gymnastics and exercise. These pioneers also provided the basis for modern physical education in schools and in physical training in the military (e.g. calisthenics). One might say that Protestantism’s emphasis on fit and healthy bodies became its own kind of asceticism.

Pehr-Henrik Ling (1776–1839), the father of Swedish gymnastrics , who taught that physical movement promoted health of body and mind.

The physical culture movement was promoted worldwide in the evangelical Young Men’s Christian Association under its trinitarian motto of healthy minds, bodies, and spirits. The YMCA originally provided housing and Christian fellowship for young men coming into the cities looking for employment. As it began to address other temptations for single young men in urban life (bars, prostitution) it provided gyms and swimming pools and developed body-building, self-defense (boxing), swimming instruction (many urban boys died of drowning), and developed the modern games of basketball for urban gyms and volley ball for summer camps.

Superintendent Luther Halsey Gulick (center) with Physical Department students at the International YMCA Training School.

Concurrently, “Muscular Christianity” worked for more athleticism in the churches to attract men and boys to church and mission (and to downplay the perceived feminization of the churches). Muscular Christianity died out in the 1920s, but it was the precursor of men’s ministries organized in the mid-to-late 20th century. (I explore Promise Keepers that emerged and flourished in the 1990s in this essay.)

A church basketball team. Muscular Christianity believed young men could find God in the gym more than in church socials. Churches began building gyms in their facilities.

The YMCA’s focus on ideal male bodies also contributed to unspoken hospitality to gay cruising and homosexual liaisons in its facilities. The Y ceased to be a haven for homosexuals by the end of the 1960s when it became co-ed and family-oriented and other venues emerged for gay gatherings as part of the gay liberation movement. The churches, however, remained unwelcoming to homosexuals. Pentecostal pastor Troy Perry reached out to alienated gays and lesbians with a church of their own, the Metropolitan Community Church, founded in 1960. LGBTQ members are found in all churches and religions, whether they’re “out” or not. But among Christian denominations only some mainline Protestant churches have intentionally welcomed gays and lesbians, including in ordained ministry.

Gay liberation profited from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. African American spirituality can be found in Black Catholic parishes as well as in Protestant congregations. But Protestants, most notably Baptist pastor Martin Luther King, Jr., took the lead in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led the freedom marches in which marchers literally put their bodies on the line in the face of police billy clubs and fire hoses in the cause of civil rights. King welcomed clergy and laity from all churches, as well as Jews and others, to join the freedom marches.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the center with other SCLC leaders

Somewhat farther afield, I wrote about how Protestants also contributed to the revitalization of the modern postural-based Hatha Yoga through the athletic programs of the Indian YMCA and the promotion of the northern European physical culture at the Mysore Palace where T. Krishnamacharya was the head teacher of the palace yoga school. Yoga has become an international assortment of practices attracting millions of practitioners with roots in Indian spirituality. But the surprising thing is that the modern posture-based yoga taught by the Indian gurus included Ling-based Scandinavian gymnastics and body movement among its influences.

Krishnamacharya instructing boys in Mysore Palace Yoga School in the 1920s

This does not make modern postural yoga Protestant or even Christian. Yoga itself is not a religion, even though it has been used in various religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, even some forms of Islam). Many people find its teachings on the conditions necessary for meditation helpful. I have also proposed that Tantra, which departed from Brahman traditions by locating reality in the body and its functions, can be a dialogue partner with Christianity because of their incarnational spiritualities. Study of Tantra can help Western Christians overcome the Victorian separation of religion and sexuality which has made the pleasures of sex problematic. Neo-Tantra’s sexuality workshops can, in a practical way, help modern couples, Christians among them, reclaim intimacy in their marriage and thus strengthen their marriage bond.

The use of pleasure in sex has been an issue in a Christian theology of sex. Ancient church fathers like Clement of Alexandria taught that Christians should not seek desire at all. Augustine held that the libido is a consequence of the fall; the primal parents engaged in procreation without experiencing desire (concupiscence). Martin Luther argued that the sex drive is natural to human beings, that it exists by God’s intention, and that an added benefit to the divine command to “be fruitful and multiply” is the enjoyment of each other’s spousal bodies.

In a final section I note that some Protestant thinkers have embraced gaia theory in the environmental movement, which connects human bodies with Earth’s body. Inspired by the German Free Body Movement of the early 20th century, there has been an increased interest in naturism among Christians. The acceptance of one’s natural body has given a new seriousness to the stewardship of creation. We care for the Earth not because it is a practical thing to do so but because we love Earth as our mother from whose body we were created.

This is a quick glimpse of what’s included in my 70-page essay on “The Body in Protestant Spirituality” in Frank C. Senn, editor, Protestant Spiritual Traditions, Volume 2 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020). I hope you will read it for the details and enjoy the other articles as well by Nathan Nettleton (Baptist), Cherice Bock (Quaker), Todd E. Johnson and Janna Gosselin (Evangelical), Connie Au (Pentecostal), and Joung Chiul Lee (East Asian). The image above this post is of worship in the neo-Pentecostal Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, which Connie Au discusses in her essay on “Pentecostal Spirituality.”

Frank C. Senn

Korean tong-sung ki-do praying

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