anthropocentrism, body of Christ, liberation, race

Body as a Theological Category

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.


8 thoughts on “Body as a Theological Category

  1. Great post. You’re absolutely right about the need for a theology of the body. This should, of course, be a theology of the cross and resurrection — the cross as the proper service of the body, and the resurrection as the proper glorification of the body.

    One thing you didn’t mention, though, is how a theology of the body must involve a theology of sexuality. These things are intimately connected, and both have to be addressed together.

  2. You’re definitely right, it should be about the cross and resurrection. Sexuality should be included as well, it was hinted at a little, but should play a larger role. However, race here in the post isn’t particularly the subject itself as I see it. Race, among a myriad of other things — if not everything — is what the category of body can address. I’m first trying to lay a foundation for something so easily looked over.

  3. Glad to have found your blog – looks very interesting.

    I agree that this notion of the body as a theological category is – despite (or perhaps because of) a lot of trendy rhetoric – a very underexplored theme in contemporary thought.

    I also appreciate the emphasis on race – definitely one of the keys to a theological analysis of the ways bodily identity is constructed in global capitalism. Is this what you’ll be working on at Marquette? With Steve Long?

    I look forward to reading more!


  4. I’ll be doing political theology at Marquette, so it’ll be something like this. More along an ecclesial re-understanding through the interruptive Jesus, but body will definitely play a key part in that.

    Also, I can’t help but talk about issues like race, gender, etc. My gradschool marked me that way.

    Anyways, glad you liked it.

  5. Halden says:

    I think there’s been something of a return towards a theology of the body in recent works, sometimes to the point a sort of tired belaboring of the language of body/materiality (sometimes Tripp York’s The Purple Crown can feel that way). I worry that sometimes our new fascination with embodiment can become another form of abstraction.

    That said, I of course agree with this post and share the same thoughts. Fundamentally the church is a site, a space within which bodies are rescripted and reordered in a non-hegemonic, pneumatic way. This applies as much to race as to gender, and shows the necessity of a radical ecclesiology.

  6. Halden says:

    Re: my first paragraph, to put it another way, we can’t just talk about “body” or “embodiment”, but rather must talk about and be in proximity to actual bodies for our theologizing about this issue to have any meaning of intelligibility.

  7. Yes, I very much agree. And it is unfortunate when embodiment is far too abstracted. It ought to be immediately practical. It canbe just as bad as the rich talking of the poor, or the white church talking about how not racist they are. Ultimately, for a theology of body to work, it must be lived.

  8. Nancey Murphy published an essay in 2006, gingerly suggesting a biblically sound nonreductive physicalist orientation. From her perspective, embodiment is certainly more concrete than a nebulous dualist theory.

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