Thoughts on Body Theology

October 29, 2008

The term “body theology” is traditionally used to refer to body image and sexuality; however, I believe a true body theology is much more holistic, involving not only what we look like but who we are as human beings and what we do with our bodies. I believe body theology is based on the incarnation of Christ: God took on flesh, not merely the appearance of flesh; God lived and suffered and died—and rose again!—in the actual, fleshly sense. A systematic development of body theology should, thus, begin with John 1 in conjunction with Genesis 1-2 as a basis for identity–always with the underlying principle belief that our bodies were made good and, though corrupted by the fall, have been redeemed through Christ. Healthy body theology allows us to realize our true identity in Christ, against the lies that can be perpetuated through culture, and be empowered to enter into the redemption Christ offers both for our bodies and how we use them in the world (which will also empower us to redeem culture as we grow in knowledge and discernment).

As I was reading on Saturday for a class, I was suddenly struck by this question: is body theology foundational? Is this concept–the way I define and understand it–part of the rock bed of the Christian faith? If Christ is the cornerstone, is Christ set in body theology? It’s an interesting question, and a necessary one if I ever want to publish the concept for real. So I started thinking: just how much of the Christian faith is wrapped up in my definition of body theology? Sexuality, community, media literacy, service. What else? Should sexuality be its own category, or should it fall under something broader like “physicality?” We must understand ourselves as physical/sexual/worthy beings before we can engage in healthy community, media literacy, and service. Everything flows from the identity source. Sexuality simply must be dealt with first because it is the biggest and deepest lie; it is the lens that must change first or it will color all the other areas. It’s true that identity can only be discovered in community, but the wrong messages have already been internalized. Before we can change the community, we have to exchange God’s truth for these lies about our bodies in order to engage in community rightly, culture rightly, and service rightly.

It makes me think of The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand was right in a sense: altruism is born out of and perpetuated by personal lack of worth. Nevertheless, individualism without community is not the ultimate end of humanity; rather, individualism is tyranny of oneself over others. Do nothing out of vain conceit, Paul writes convictingly. I think my professor was right when he said last week that the marker of adulthood is the consistent choice to put community’s good above one’s own desires. So what Paul is saying to the church, then, is: grow up! Stop putting self above community. Now one can only do so in a healthy way when one’s self concept is already healthy (love others as you love yourself!), not instead of dealing with one’s own self. This is why a balanced, godly concept of (what Nelson calls) the “bodyself” is so important. Dying to self is a choice, not a coping mechanism; and the dying is for the purpose of Christ, not for other people. When one dies to self and lives again in Christ, then one’s self concept, body image, etc. are rightly oriented and centered out of a deep conviction of who one is in Christ.

I think, to answer my question, that Christ of necessity must be set in body theology precisely because God entered the world in human form–as a body! Christ cannot be set in any theoretical or spiritual foundation because that negates the very meaning and purpose of the incarnation: God incarnate; God dwelling among us in the flesh! That is the foundation of body theology. Our bodies matter because God used BODY to create us, to relate to us, and to redeem us. Thus, of course Christ is set in body theology, and of course body theology is foundational. It is our human response to the incarnation of Christ to accept ourselves as the holistic bodyselves we were created to be–with a right theology of bodily sexuality, bodily community, bodily cultural discernment, and bodily service. Because God is relational and we are the image of God, our ability to physically procreate is the most foundational part of our humanity because procreation is what God is all about: God created humanity in order to extend relationship beyond the Godhead. And since we need both male and female together to be the image of God, what more perfect expression of humanity and imago Dei is there than the creation of new life? Thus, because we image God by being procreative, our sexuality is foundational to body theology.