In an earlier age, that question would have been answered with a conviction that we are a temporal manifestation of a spiritual reality, finding our beginning and end in a sovereign Creator who fashioned us and set us loose in the playground of his designs on history.
These days, our techno-scientific consumerism sees our bodies as flawed and demanding machines designed primarily to bring us pleasure. These are machines which are constantly needing, desiring, wanting, and craving. These are machines over which we have only a limited degree of control, though technology is determined to give us ever more power and options.
These are machines that we can customize, accessorize, tune-up and reprogram. By eating organically and avoiding chemicals, by slavish devotion to fitness regimens, with surgical sculpting and artificial parts replacements, with holistic living and just the right sort of spiritual centering, we believe we can maximize our bodily pleasures while prolonging this all-too-short experience in embodiment.
Christian theology starts with the proposition that the eternal God took on a human body, a fact celebrated every Christmas. Despite this remarkable claim at the heart of our faith, Evangelicals have been remarkably incurious about what it means to live as embodied creatures, just as Christ did. Instead, we are prone to fast-forward to the cross, to redemption, and to the promised future hope of eternity. But between the birth of Jesus and his death were some 33 years in which he lived and breathed, ate and slept, pondered and planned, spoke and listened, desired and longed, hurt and bled.
Matthew Lee Anderson is convinced that we cannot fully live the Christian faith without a rich and well-considered theology of what it means to have bodies. His recent book, Earthen Vessels: Why our bodies matter to our faith (Bethany House, 2011), is a much-needed examination of how being human is meant to temper and shape a life of faith.
Anderson has written a new article at Christianity Today dealing with some related themes. In God has a wonderful plan for your body, he considers Evangelical attitudes towards sex, fitness and yoga by comparing them to Pope John Paul II’s acclaimed Theology of the Body. Evangelicals need not embrace all of Roman Catholic theology to benefit from John Paul’s excellent insights into human sexuality, which he sees as an experience of selfless serving and giving motivated by love, the archetype of which is found in God’s work in creation and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
I’ll have more to say about Anderson’s book when I’ve finished reading it. (I’m currently on chapter six where he shares his thoughts about the spiritual significance of tattoos and body piercings — about the only thing missing from Earthen Vessels is a discussion of dental hygiene. <g>)
Let me encourage you to read Matthew Anderson’s new article in Christianity Today. Anderson is making a good start at correcting a neglected area of Evangelical theology. Our bodily existence and experiences are interwoven with our faith, and our experience of faith is shaped by our humanity. It’s good for us to consider what it means to be human and how God intends us to live out a transcendent and transformative faith while bound to and limited by these earthen vessels.