“Nice Body”

Early last week I visited a class, leading students in an exploration of so-called “gnostic” writings from the second century.

One enjoyable thing about discussing these documents is that they prompt Christians to consider both what it means to bear authentic witness to the gospel and why gnostic teachings remain attractive to people. Because the gnostic worldview tended to view the human body as imprisoning the soul in ignorance, the class’s discussion turned toward a theology of corporeality, what it means for us to be embodied creations.

Christians, in my experience, often react uneasily to embodiment. Too many speak of bodies as things we have, as opposed to what we are. Longstanding interpretations of selected New Testament passages have, lamentably, wrongly construed language of “denial” and “flesh” as a warrant for despising bodily existence. But the Bible speaks emphatically and positively about such an existence–in both the present and future. Even with our physiological fragilities and corruptibilities, bodies are integral to the idea of human beings being made in God’s image. And so Paul can write of longing for “the redemption of our bodies” in Romans 8:23. Learn to like embodiment; you’re going to be living with it for some time.

Of course, all this needs nuance when Christians articulate a theological basis for celebrating and caring for human bodies. The pursuit of physical health and wellness, although a good thing, hardly equates to holiness. Bodies break. They become commodified. They enslave. They starve. They generate great suffering. They need fixing. But they nevertheless remain a locus where grace is received and shared.

In related news, the President of the United States also recently vetoed legislation that would prohibit American agents from using waterboarding and other techniques of wreaking havoc on human bodies. Do Christians have any response?