The body beautiful
Nothing is more central to the life of faith than the relationship between body and spirit. Jacquie Lambert discovers a whole pantheon of idols – and suggests how we might get rid of them
Our relationship with our body is complex and confusing, which is hardly surprising considering its significance in our lives. The notion of ‘body’ as idolatrous in today’s thinking – whether it be regarding sexuality, addictions, sports worship, gluttony, perfectionism or any number of other issues – is also not surprising and not without precedent.
In fact, I wonder whether the body has ever been anything but an ‘idol’ in one form or another. The vehicle that brings to each of us life, joy, pain, ecstasy and death could hardly escape being loaded with conjecture, hope and suspicion. It is our most intimate relationship and perhaps our most neglected and misunderstood.
Pick up a magazine, visit a gym, turn on the television, watch an international sports event or just walk down the street: the body as idol is everywhere. There is a phenomenal wealth of diet programmes, gyms, exercise gurus, cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, promiscuity, drug, food and other addictions. We are all familiar with the secular problem – but what about the role of the church?
The church and the body
Indeed has the church been complicit in the creation of this contemporary cult of the body it so vocally condemns? Has it focused so much on body ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ over the centuries that it has helped objectify the body and accord it the power it possesses today? Society has reacted against this, and in society we are recognising the body as powerful and wonderful, not as the demon we were once led to believe. But without the steadying hand of the Spirit alongside this awareness, we face the very real danger of body addictions; seeking wholeness and salvation in increasingly destructive and essentially empty pursuits.
Body idolatry is not limited to the individual or the secular. What is a dominant issue for personhood will inevitably be a dominant issue for religion as well. The relationship between the church and our body is therefore equally complex and reveals a mixed and rocky history.
What makes something an idol is the priority you give it in your thinking and life. What makes it a false idol is the belief, conscious or otherwise, that it possesses the power to save or damn you in some way when, in fact, it doesn’t. A false idol becomes such through undeserved deification but also through undeserved demonising. Both paths afford it undue power.
Touched by the hand of God
In a world where people feel they have little control over many aspects of their lives, manipulating their bodies for pleasure or power offers a tantalising means of escape. Yet hasn’t it always been so? It is a seductive trap and one we have fallen into for centuries. This is because within the falseness of body idolatry lurks a mysterious grain of truth.
Our bodies are the vehicle for all our emotions including how we experience love, even the love of God.
Through our bodies we can be opened up to God’s touch. How many have felt a visceral reaction to music that has brought them to their knees? Or have seen God in their newborn’s eyes? Or found conversion through illness and suffering? And what of the profound spiritual experiences of the mystics so often described in the language of sexual ecstasy?
Through our bodies we can ‘meet’ with God and partner the divine in our journey on earth. Little surprise then that we can lapse into idolatry, seeing the body as either salvation or demon in itself. Although secular body idolatry seeks false ecstasy and escape through the body, it is only led that way by the very real possibility that exists in alignment with the spirit. And not even the church has always got it right.
Idolatry puts the object of desire/fear in the centre of our daily concerns. Historical emphasis on the pitfalls of the flesh has fuelled the very idolatry the church sought to condemn. Extreme manipulation of the body through fasting, strenuous pilgrimages, flagellation, chastity, martyrdom and torture existed within the church just as their opposite equivalents exist in secular society.
I am placing no judgment on this, merely illustrating that we cannot separate our bodies from our life and faith journeys. The more we try to do so, either as a society or religion, by objectifying them for worship or singling them out for defamation and abuse; the more power we afford them. But held within the safety of a compassionate spiritual container, the body can be received and valued as mystery and gift rather than trivialised or demonised.
The body within the context of faith
But as a faith, have we Christians shot ourselves in the foot on this one? We are an incarnational religion, which I believe means that our most formative experiences of God may be found in our own flesh. Yet we have always struggled to accept that Jesus was ‘fully human’ in that uncomfortable sense of the word, as if it contaminated him somehow. Fully human means fully alive, fully feeling, fully passionate, eating, drinking, sleeping, farting – the whole kit and caboodle. It’s messy, risky and real. That’s life and don’t we know it. And that is the mystery. God in flesh. Not perfect flesh (or he wouldn’t have been fully human) – but this flesh, our flesh.
However, unlike Jesus, we are not God in flesh. We are human and distinctly limited in any other dimension. Our bodies are not the enemy our lack of love and fear of uncertainty are. Because our bodies are the seat of such intense emotion, we desperately want to get it right; the church wants to get it right. Fear of the body and its passions has fed a proliferation of debates and doctrinal legalisms attempting to categorise bodily sin.
We would like everything to do with our bodies to be clear cut and simple. It’s not – so let’s get over it. We are allowed to make mistakes, in fact we are expected to. But the truth is, we have as little access to ‘absolute truth’ in this arena as we do in all others.
What do our bodies tell us about God?
Our bodies didn’t come with instruction manuals, nor did the Scriptures provide a coherent equivalent, and I for one am not keen on accepting one created by committee. I’d rather try and work it out with the manufacturer Herself and stand accountable at the end.
Our Christian mandate is not rigid legalism, but is to best witness God’s inclusive love and compassion in this world. That is an ‘idol’ worthy of reverence. Focus on getting our love ‘right’ and all other decisions including those on the body will tag along for the ride. So perhaps rather than asking what God says about our body, we should be asking what our bodies say about God. Instead of legalising on individual body choices, we should be focusing on the relational love that informs those decisions. Nurturing unconditional and compassionate relational love is, I believe, far more pertinent than moralising on the body details. God is in the details, not us.
But unfortunately the public face of the Catholic Church has too often been dominated by its debates, treatises and pronouncements on body issues: sexuality, contraception, fertility, chastity, women and so on. In fact the debate on women in priesthood may exemplify an idolatry that places body form above all other spiritual considerations even a personal calling.
It is a public face I am not terribly comfortable with. Where are the issues of justice, poverty, oppression, hunger and war that we should be better remembered for? I’m not saying there hasn’t been study and comment on these issues, only that they seem to have carried less impact in defining us as a church. Even Pope John Paul’s writings toward a Theology of the Body too often seems to be little more than a soft regurgitation of old dogmatisms.
But there is hope, even from our history. Origen, a third century theologian not exactly renowned for his liberal thoughts on the body, still saw each human spirit as being allotted a particular physical constitution chosen by God as sparring partner. He believed that each body adjusted to the particular needs of the soul so that each person’s relationship with their body had its own particular faith story and was vital to the working out of their relationship with God. In this framework, our bodies are seen as integral to our spiritual development, collected lovingly back into the fold. There is wisdom here if we listen carefully, and it could lead us to be a light to the secular instead of a reflection of it.
The ‘Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ and is still becoming flesh to this day. We need to heal the spirit/body split that as a church we have conspired to create, and once again discover God in the very mix; rediscovering compassion above dualism, prejudice and fear; our body resacralised as a daily bridge rather than a distant temple; God not as objective indifference but passionate intimacy. Until we can do that, idolatry of the body will remain an obstacle to growth both in secular consciousness and Christian understanding, with the church as much a part of the problem as we are today.