Body must become a theological category. There is no way around it and I think we should not seek to get around it. In many ways, it already is a category. Embodiment and the physicality of our existence is visible in the doctrines of Creation and the Incarnation. It is also, because the incarnation is a hypostatic union, that at the very least, the fight against Arius and his followers was a fight for the recognition of embodiment. Creation is indeed good. To say it simply, body as a theological category is orthodox.
However, too often body seems of no consequence. To recognize embodiment as a base theological category is to recognize in every instance of life, that our bodies, and the bodies of those around us, play vital roles. From that recognition, theology could actually move forth on issues like race and gender to name a few.
At the Ekklesia Project’s Summer Conference a few weeks back, the topic was on race (some of the papers are available for download here). Among some people, I heard the exasperation, “How do we make time for this?” After all, work on race requires a great deal of time. Merely on the basis that to begin, new relationships must be created. And I am glad that at the very least people understood the daunting task. However, to address race cannot come from compartmentalized relationships — not that compartmentalized relationships were or are an explicit intent, but too often the differences made by culture and the more significant differences of experience seem to move race into compartments. Still, how would we address race, without striving to make more time in the day? Exist as a human being, who is by nature a body.
The key here seems to be to exist with the fact that bodies matter all the time. Even in a “white” context as a white person, the lack of people of color doesn’t mean that race isn’t staring me, or the community around, in the face; invisibility does not mean it isn’t a problem. With the rise of recognition about a problem like race, the realization of embodiment, and if liberation theology (which is at its very heart a theology of the body) is correct that economics and sexuality/gender are wrapped up together with race as well, the actual issues and questions in front of the church can be correctly addressed. Neither one can be addressed adequately without the others, and each will bring up the other. Embodiment gives us a daily way of rethinking our lives and addressing the actual problems before us because we are thinking about and addressing the very physical reality at hand.
Importantly, what the category of body is not, is not anthropocentrism. Bodies only exist — our humanity only exists — in a biosphere. To seek to elevate human embodiment outside its context is to do a very bad thing. We cannot live without air, we cannot live without food, we cannot live without the environment which God created for us (or will continue to create for us, for those of you who want to bring up the story of Satan tempting Jesus with bread). While we may maintain the Imago Dei, we cannot use that to act as if we are not integral to creation. We are in creation. We are part of creation.
Also critical about the category of body, is the yes to acknowledging division and seeking to recognize those divisions in everything we do. The divisions are condemned and we attempt to subvert them, but this can only be done after we see that the segregations are artificial groupings to begin with. Simply, to be aware of body, and therefore constructed disunion within the church, leads to the universalism inherent in the body of Christ. We can start to understand what it means that Jesus was and is for everyone, while at the same time, attempting to render true the notion that there is to be no “Jew or Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”
Body as a theological category is a rich vein that currently seems to have fallen by the wayside. In fact, I am suspicious that for divisions to exist as they do today, Christianity in the past had to discard the reality of the body in a significant way. To reclaim the body in someways, and to blaze a new path in other ways, is where the church must go. We cannot continue to address the problems as we do now, and I suspect that embodiment must play a larger role for the church to live into the reality of God’s rule.