“When incarnation figures in the basic theological premises of faith, the body’s complicated implication in divinity cannot be wholly spiritualized or wholly denied. Put another way, the body–bodies–always return to disrupt theological attempts at containment.” – Beyond Monotheism by Laurel Schneider
Bodies cause most theologians to tremble.* Systematic theology books ignore the subject of bodies altogether; instead, emphasize subjects such as christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. These books demonstrate the stagnation of doctrines because bodies cannot be contained. They are ever changing, moving, losing and gaining cells, dying, breathing, crying, bleeding, and being birthed. No essence can be found here.
Nonetheless, philosophers and theologians love to discuss human nature. The idea that somehow every human in the world has the same essence behind/beyond the body, that every human can be reduced to one thing. Chiefly, Protestant theologians cast human nature into the abyss of total depravity. In other words, humanity cannot do anything good unless it is the Divine through them who does it; albeit, crickets chirp on body discourse. Now there is nothing new or interesting here, yet when it comes to social legislation, Conservative Christians demand sovereignty over health care and birth control, essentially women’s bodies. This cannot be re-worked until we start to have a theological discourse on bodies.
Moving to the biblical, the most important events we hear about in church concerning Jesus is those moments when he is silent. During Christmastime, we call Jesus king and lord, yet he can’t affirm or deny these titles because he can’t yet speak! Jesus, as a baby, cried, pooped, and was breastfed. There is nothing miraculous about this child, but we place such high attributes on this tiny one.
The next event we find Jesus is on the cross. With Jesus’ cross, we add massive theological depth to his experience. In total, out of all the Gospels, there are only seven statements made by Jesus while on the cross. We ignore his dying and bleeding body for atonement theories. This is true whether one adores the moral influence theory or the penal substitution theory. Jesus endured and died in extreme suffering and all we can do is essentialize the event.
During Christmas week, I came home and attended my parents’ non-denominational Pentecostal church. I was saddened that the Christmas message of Jesus in a manger was overshadowed by a theological understanding of the cross. For example, the pastor would pray “Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son to be born for us. He would soon grow up and die on a cross for our sins. In Christ’s name, Amen.” These theological assumptions reduce Jesus’ life to one thing, death on a cross. Similarly, one of my favorite artists, Williams Blake, seemed to have thought the same thing when he painted Nativity.
Bodies are dangerous to theological discourse and often ignored. My own body has been through the effects of lyme’s disease and gallbladder removal. No longer does my body fit into any kind of theological discourse because it does not have all of its parts. In Catholic Theology, Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is more of a moral commentary on the body in social life, rather than something that addresses bodies. Bodies rupture theological and moral essences, and all for the better.
Let’s disrupt theological discourse from its binaries, contained essences, and Platonism for a contextual, radical, non-binary, and pro-love theology.
Won’t you join me?
*Queer and LGBTQQII+ theologians have embraced bodies in their fullness. One text I recommend, if you want to learn more about this subject, is Controversies in Body Theology edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood. Any book from the Controversies series is wonderful and contains succinct, well-researched material.