The Danger of a Disembodied Theology

angelsThe Christian faith is an embodied faith. That is to say, we cannot reduce Christianity to a mere spiritual reality with no ramifications for, nor involvement in, our earthliness. If Christians are often concerned about the reduction of their faith to a sort of naturalism that confines it within the boundaries of natural reality, we ought also be concerned about the reduction of our faith to a kind of supernaturalism that removes it from the realm of our earthly experience. There is a great danger in a disembodied theology.

A disembodied theology may be understood as one that is more platonic or gnostic in its understanding of the relationship between body and spirit. In such a conception the body is viewed as a prison, and the material world as an evil distraction. To be truly spiritual, then, we must transcend the physical and material. This disembodied theology will lead some to disregard stewardship of the body, to dismiss the implications of their faith for the mundane responsibilities of life, to overlook the significance of engagement with the world around us. A disembodied theology because the epitome of an irrelevant theology.

A disembodied theology has nothing to say about what I do with my body. It is such a view that must have been at the heart of the teachers misleading the Corinthians. It seems that some teachers had been implying that the Corinthians could engage in sexual immorality since these were just activities done with the body, nothing more. Paul responds to these false teachers by quoting their famous saying and reevaluating their meaning. He writes:

12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:12-20)

Paul gives several pressing reasons why the body matters in this passage: (1) God made the body for His glory, (2) Jesus was raised in the body, (3) our bodies are united to Christ as members of His body, (4) the Holy Spirit dwells in the body of the believer. What we do with our bodies either honors or demeans the glory of God and of Christ.

You cannot, then, indulge in bodily sin (sexual or otherwise) and assume that this has no bearing on your spirituality. Over indulgence in food, abuse of alcohol or drugs, intentional harming of the body (cutting, anorexia, etc.), sexual immorality all these and more are issues of worship and spirituality. They cannot be reduced to physical/material matters that have no bearing on the faith. Our faith is an embodied faith.

A disembodied theology also sees no relationship between their faith and the mundane responsibilities of life. The idea of “Sunday Christians” certainly comes from this sort of theological perspective. There’s our faith, and then there’s the rest of our lives – some believe. Christ calls us, however, to take up our cross and follow Him daily (Matt. 16:24). Everything about our lives has a spiritual component to it: our finances (Heb. 13:5; 1 Tim. 6:10; 2 Cor. 9:7), our sexuality (1 Cor. 6:20), our marriages (1 Peter 3:7; Eph. 5:22-33), our work (Col. 3:23-24), and even our eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). You cannot separate your faith from the rest of your life.

Finally, a disembodied theology will never engage with the world around it. A disembodied theology views the material world as evil, something to be resisted and avoided, if not outright condemned. But our God created this world, pronounced it very good, and sent His very Son to inhabit it and redeem it. The creation, incarnation, resurrection, and recreation all testify to the value God places on this earthly existence. Jesus in His earthly life attended weddings, drank wine, ate bread and fish, fed others, utilized trees and dirt to illustrate points, called His people sheep, and bore a cross. He interacted with governments, architecture, and agriculture. He spoke with politicians, priests, and prostitutes. He ate meals, rested, and read texts. He was an earthly savior, not merely a heavenly one. The same is true of His followers. They are meant to engage the world around them, to live in the world even as they attempt to live beyond it (John 17:15-19). The truth is we can never truly and consistently live a disembodied faith because we are ourselves real embodied people. So James K.A. Smith observes:

Our essential embodiment will keep interrupting our Platonic desire to do away with the body, will keep insinuating itself into our dualistic discourses to remind us that the triune God of creation traffics in ashes and dust, blood and bodies, fish and bread. And he pronounces all of it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). (Desiring the Kingdom, 141)

We can never escape our embodiment, nor the embodiment of our faith. But to try spells disaster for our relevance to and interaction with the world.

Christ’s incarnation is our example. Just as He came to us, so He sends us out (John 17:18). An embodied theology is essential to the Christian faith. Anything less is dangerous to us and irrelevant to others.

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