Faculty View | Embodiment Matters
by Kayb Carpenter Joseph, professor of art
“I’m going to pull an all-nighter to finish this paper. I can sleep over the holidays.” “Food is just fuel. Who cares if I have a Snickers for breakfast?” “It’s just their body. It’s just on a screen. They consented.” These statements betray that we believe that our bodies don’t matter much. That they can be abused with little consequence to the other parts of the self. It’s the dominant belief in American culture and a long-held view that finds its roots in Plato and Aristotle. This dualistic view teaches us that our bodies are jetsam to the soul and our lives are improved when relieved of the burden of the body. The danger of this dualistic view, besides it being untrue, is that it easily leads to the objectification and devaluation of ourselves, others, and creation.
The body can be limiting, and that can be frustrating. We feel that its materiality, vulnerability and neediness hold us back, and we believe that this should not be the case. Yet, I have begun to see the constrained and needy body as a positive thing. When my body falters in exhaustion or illness, my pride is pruned and I am reminded that I am limited for a reason—principally, that I am not God. Our culture hates vulnerability, dependence, need. But it is in fact the heart of human flourishing, because we were created to be in need of God’s help and provision and the help and provision of others. Need and acts of self-giving love are the soil of community and connection.
While we have a fantastic theology of the body available to us in the Bible, we hear little about it beyond what the church tells us our bodies are not for. Little attention is given to what they are for. Thus, our bodies have become isolated in our culture. We have become suspicious of touch and the body communal. With great difficulty, we attempt to live out an embodied experience without an understanding of what it means to be soul enfleshed. We do not understand that Christian spirituality is not freedom from the body, but freedom within the body. That Christ’s embodiment dignifies and exemplifies this for us.
Unfortunately, the wealth and space of the West have allowed us to become too private and individualistic. This is problematic for bodies that were created for community. Embracing bodily existence is a needful tonic for us. It benefits us to bump up against the messy lives and bodies of other embodied persons—to experience people of all ages, especially the very young (who remind us how enjoyable a body is) and the very old (who show us the natural course of embodied existence and how to lean into the Lord and others when our earthly bodies fall ill and decline). It is helpful to be with healing bodies, birthing bodies, breastfeeding bodies, working bodies. They remind us of all the amazing things the body does, that the body is not lowly or disgusting because it isn’t always presented in a way that is visually appealing or most comfortable to us.
We would benefit from touching one another more, in rejoicing, mourning, worshipping, and daily greeting one another. Our entire church embraces one another in our sung benediction every week. It is the living out of the Eucharist, becoming the body of Christ. It is a physical symbol of the interconnection between people, a moment that unites and refreshes us.
Sadly, we have allowed our fear of prurient behavior, or the possible appearance of it, to kill our communal embrace. In so doing, the only touch we see displayed is on a screen and is often sexual. Our fear has caused the very thing we feared to be the only available reality. One curative is to help people reimagine the body in a positive and Christian way. This will be a healing balm in our lives and for those around us.