The role of the body in Christianity
Dr. Michael Horton, an American theologian, wrote that genuine Christianity is an “earthy religion.” And, indeed, if we examine writings of its early period, as well as contemporary theology and liturgy, we find affirmations of the human body and its natural and holistic unity with soul and mind.
But some evangelists, like best-selling American author, Dr. Neil T. Anderson, argue that the world and the flesh are enemies of Christian sanctification. Similarly, in 2010, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sparked a media frenzy by writing that “the embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion. “To our shame,” he added, “this confusion reaches into the Church.”
Thankfully, some theologians disagree. Winn Collier, a pastor at All Souls in Charlottesville, Virginia, for instance, admits that he has the “flexibility of a cast iron skillet,” in his article “Yoga and a Christianity for the body,“ but rejects the belief that we are to discover the divine only “by meditating on God’s revelation in the scriptures.” The gospel rests on the Incarnation,” he says. “God came in human form to eat with us, laugh with us–to physically die and physically rise from the dead for us.” As a result, “Jesus,” he says, “is Lord of both body and soul.” Moreover, the body and our senses allow us a relationship with the divine, as does a sacramental theology of communion and baptism, he says. “They are physical,” he adds.
Such controversies encourage contemporary Christians to evaluate the role of the body in practice and theology. But, these discussions are rooted in history–debates about the dualistic division of body and spirit reach back to the time of Plato, as do related issues of social morality. Hebrew tradition, however, stressed that the body and soul are both essential entities and create a psychosomatic union, as well as an image of God.
Similarly, some scholars like Nadine Quehl, who holds an M.A. from the University of Calgary, remind us that Jesus referred to his own body as a “temple,” and later the apostle Paul also wrote that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit within.” Like Collier, she also states that Jesus alluded to the vital role of the body at the Last Supper when he established the new covenant and blessed bread and wine as his own sacred body and blood.
It is not surprising, then, that organizations have been founded to maintain the body and put Christian beliefs into practice. Perhaps the most recognized is the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA or Y). Its objective is to develop a healthy “body, mind and spirit.” Founded in London, England in 1844, the YMCA has since become a worldwide influence with more than 58 million beneficiaries. The Galt YMCA was formed in 1856. Meetings were held at Trinity Anglican Church. In 1996, the Chaplin Family YMCA opened on Hespeler Rd., with major expansions occurring in 2005.
Still, some still argue that Christianity offers a world view that preaches a contemptuous attitude toward the body and a dismissal of its pleasures as sinful and impure. Michel Onfray, for instance, in his book In Defence of Atheism: the Case against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, states that “Paul’s pen drips ad nauseam a hatred…a permanent mistrust for things of the body.”
Even Peter Harris, a PhD candidate at Trinity Theological Seminary in the U.S., who refutes Onfray in his article “Is Christianity a body-hating world view?” concedes that within historical Christianity we also see such extreme views and an “asceticism founded on a hatred and suspicion of the body.” It was regarded in the high and late Middle Ages as “sin’s instrument and therefore had to be rigorously tamed to defeat temptation,” he writes. The most common methods of accomplishing this were self-flagellation, fasting and sleep deprivation, he continues.
Quehl, however, argues that Paul’s writings were misunderstood by these extreme ascetics and were “wrongly used to support contempt for the body and puritan and ascetic theories.” There were complications in the translations of the words “flesh” and “spirit” in his letters, she explains.
Furthermore, some ascetics like the early desert mothers and fathers “teach us to pay attention to our body and care for it, to quiet ourselves, to ponder God with our full attentive selves,” writes Collier. Citing the debate of the practice of yoga, he continues, “if yoga offers us holistic ways to be healthier (as God intended us to be) and more in tune with our physical presence (that then allows us to be more in tune with God’s presence), we should simply say, ‘thank you’.”
Similarly, Quehl traces the origins of systematic thought in the writings of the Church Fathers and applauds their theologies of the body. And while she admits that Saint Augustine of Hippo “is often blamed for centuries of repression and contempt for the body,” she and scholar Margaret R. Miles trace how his thought moved from a belief in the superiority of the soul to affirming the whole person. “For example, Augustine begins to refer to the body as ‘spouse’ of the soul in contrast to his earlier metaphors of the body as ‘snare’ or ‘cage’,” she writes.
Even so, it is doubtful that Augustine would condone the contemporary fitness practice of Christian pole dancing. “God gives us these bodies, and they are supposed to be our temples and we are supposed to take care of them,” said U.S. instructor Crystal Dean. Dean leads a small, but devoted group of women who apparently don’t see “any incongruity in gyrating suggestively to Matt Redman’s worship music,’’ writes Matthew Lee Anderson in his article “God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Body.”
Indeed, dancing has had a contentious history in the Christian Church. In 1975, the Vatican issued the Dance in the Liturgy document which is fuzzy at times in its declarations. It notes, however, that there are some cultures in which dance reflects a religious character, but that the same view could not be applied in Western culture. “Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses,” it says. It would, it continues, inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized elements and celebrate worldly places and situations.
But other churches disagree, such as the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago which bases its Liturgical Dance Ministry on passages from Scripture: “Praise Him with the Timbrel and Dance” (Psalm 150:4), “A time to Dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) and “Turn for me my Mourning into Dancing” (Lamentations 5:15). Therefore LDM, a group of more than 100 children, teens and adults, uses ballet, tap, modern, jazz, hip hop and stepping to preach the Gospel.
In the secular world, choreographer David Earle, who co-founded the Toronto Dance Theatre and founded the Guelph-based Dance Theatre David Earle, often creates an intersection between spirit and carnal desire–the sacred and the profane. He is interested in ancient rituals and has created a number of liturgical and religious works, including the celebrated Sacra Conversazione, danced to the Mozart Requiem.
I, too, had the privilege of honoring God in movement and liturgical dance one Christmas Eve at St. James Cathedral in Toronto. For though we may be formed of the dust of the earth, I believe our bodies bear the image of God and are God’s valuable creation: their features and functions are a wonder and a marvel, a source of worship and lamentation.Tags: children, Christian Church, Christmas Eve, Church Fathers, Crystal Dean, Dance Ecclesiastes, Guelph-based Dance Theatre David Earle, Hespeler Rd, Holy Spirit, Liturgical Dance Ministry, London, Matt Redman, Matthew Lee Anderson, Michel Onfray, Middle Ages, Mozart Requiem, Toronto Dance Theatre, Trinity Anglican Church, Trinity Theological Seminary, Young Men