Monday, February 28, 2005

Our Bodies, Our Selves

I’ve been thinking about the deep divisions within the church and the culture over sexuality, and I believe much of it comes down to the way we understand ourselves as embodied creatures. We become what we practice; if we practice honoring our bodies we will become those people “shaped by the conviction that the body is sacred, that it is holy, that it is worthy of blessing and care,” to borrow Stephanie Paulsell’s words. There are precious few places in our culture that share such a conviction. For in our culture, bodies are honored insofar as the match an idealized beauty, strength, sexuality.

The church and the culture fracture over images of bodies.

Of course, within the church we ought to remember that Jesus looked beyond these surface considerations, and calls us to do so as well. Of course, we don’t do that very well, no matter what side of the divides we fall on. We also too often forget that Jesus said it’s not what goes into a person but rather what comes out that matters spiritually. There’s deep importance to that insight for it reminds us that Jesus is always more concerned with depth than with surface, with how faith is lived out in the world rather than with ritual observances of binding dietary rules and the like.

On the other hand, the computer programmers’ watchword – garbage in, garbage out – is a good caution for the spiritual practice of honoring the body. Not only does what we consume by way of food, drink and pharmaceuticals have obvious affects on our bodily health, but what we take in by way of the culture has equally significant effects, even if they are often less obvious and more difficult to trace. Here you can imagine a picture of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, and add to it a long list of porneia, to use the New Testament word that in our age should remind us not only of the various hypersexualized pieces-of-bodies commodified by our media-saturated world but also of the violated bodies-in-pieces of its crude and pervasive violence.

You see, truly honoring the body with fidelity and chastity – to use two words hotly contested in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – is a profoundly counter-cultural practice, because it reminds us that we are beautifully made in the image of a loving Creator. Honoring the body reminds us that each and every body – no matter age or gender or sexuality or appearance or sickness or health or size or status – each and every body is fearfully and wonderfully made. Honoring the body, then, turns us toward the Creator and away from images and ideologies that would devalue and devour our bodies.

As with so much in Christian practice and theology, we will understand this better if we learn if from those who are poor; in this case, poor in body. I shared a meal last week at the L’Arche community in the District. L’Arche is a global movement begun in France about 40 years ago by Jean Vanier. L’Arch communities create homes for people with severe mental and, often, physical disabilities, who live with their helpers in community. Last week, toward the end of the evening, Andrew, a young man who does not speak beyond grunts, took me by the hand and led me around making sure that I had met each member of the community, as we had gathered after dinners in a couple of houses in Adams-Morgan. Andrew has dancing, smiling eyes, and his grip on my hand conveyed an incredibly deep hospitality.

Sometimes, Andrew has trouble walking. He had a bruise on his chin where he had hit his face in a recent fall. Tuesday evening I was deeply moved by the community director’s simple question: can you imagine what it would be like if falling down were a regular part of your life?

That reminded me that some people know they have a body because it hurts.

A few years back, Jean Vanier spoke at Harvard, and he said,

Many people know they have a head because they have learned that two and two are four. They know that they have hands because they can cook eggs and do other things. Many know they have a sexuality because they have experienced strong emotions. But what they do not always know is that they have a well deep inside of them. If that well is tapped, springs of life and of tenderness flow forth. It has to be revealed in each person that these waters are there and that they can rise up from each one of us and flow over people, giving them life and a new hope.

I’m still not sure I know what fidelity and chastity really mean, or if the progressive church can really receive any gift from these words that have done such great damage to so many over the past decade in our denomination. But if there is a gift there to be discovered, I believe it has something to do with the way that honoring our embodied selves can tap that well and allow life and tenderness and love and faithfulness and wholeness and holiness to flow in and through our lives and our communities.

Stephanie Paulsell, “Honoring the Sexual Body” (delivered Nov. 5, 2004; 5.

Fidelity and chastity are words inserted into the church’s constitution (G-6.0106b) as part of an effort to bar the ordination of gays and lesbians. Fidelity, or faithfulness, is clearly a concern of scripture and Christian thought throughout its history. Chastity, on the other hand, is not. The idea is more clearly associated with Victorian sexual morality than with scripture or historic Christian thought.

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (New York: Paulist Press, 1992) 27-28.