It’s not that this idea of embodiment is new to Wesleyans; it’s just not typically on our theological top-10 discussion list.
That is, unless you listen closely to comments like the following:
“I stayed awake all last night studying for that Hebrew exam.”
“Sabbath. Who has time for Sabbath??”
“All I’ve eaten today is sugar and carbs. I craved them all morning.”
“I am so stressed. I just can’t sleep.”
“Why am I so angry lately?”
“I have too many committee assignments. I don’t have time to think about formation.”
“I’m so tired; I have to drag myself out of bed every day.”
“I can’t imagine a morning class without at least three cups of coffee…maybe four.”
“Self-care?? I’ll add it to my list of things to do.”
Ever hear comments such as these? Ever say it yourself? I have. All of these, and many more, speak to a practical theology of the body. You know, now that I think about it, I was wrong about that top 10 list—this might be the most common theological discussion these days.
Here’s one of the most prominent messages across recent years – we have very busy bodies!! When we characterize our lives, the relentless pace of life inevitably comes up. Theologically speaking, busyness tends to make us into “functional dualists.” We don’t profess conscious allegiance to Gnostic claims that the spirit is good and the body is bad, but in the rush of life—in the busyness—it so easy to sacrifice body for functional purposes. As Paul describes in I Cor. 13:3, I may “give up my body to be burned” for reasons that really have nothing to do with love at all. I can’t think of a bigger deal for those of us who call ourselves Wesleyans—those of us who put love at the hub of our theology.
Modern neuroscience tells us that love starts with our bodies. Largely emotional, our bodies from moment to moment either prime us to love or prime us to avoid love. Sure, our will and our reason play significant roles in the process, but it all appears to start physically. Love builds from the body up. Sanctification is embodied or it is nothing at all.
What does that mean practically?
It means that in every human encounter, we are either making room for love or making room for something other than love. And we usually don’t even know it. Unless we are intentional, we are often unaware of the significance of each relational moment. For example, when I set my groceries on the conveyor belt and look into the eyes of that other human being who begins to scan my dog food cans, we might make small talk, or the whole interaction might be largely non-verbal, but in that moment we are sharing an involuntary physical body to physical body experience. There is an embodied conversation that might go unnoticed!
Medical researchers (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000) describe human physiology as “an open loop arrangement” (p. 85). Our bodies are made to “sync up,” and it has nothing to do with choice. If humans are in relational context, they are changing one another. When I interact with the cashier at Kroger for only a brief (some might say, inconsequential) moment in the course of my day, we exchange “regulatory information” that alters our hormone levels, cardiovascular processes, sleep rhythms, immune functions and more. Something profound and mysterious is occurring. My bodily state is transmitted to my unknown relational partner, even as his bodily state is transmitted to me. And here’s what’s scary to a Western culture of rugged individualists—we can’t stop our bodies from doing what God designed them to do. None of us are complete on our own. Each has open loops that only somebody else can complete. Medical researchers tell us that it is in “syncing up” that we have the chance to create “a stable, properly balanced pair of organisms.”
And in this mysterious moment, in every single relational engagement, our “syncing up” bears an amazing likeness to the indwelling of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our bodies—in this creaturely “life together” dance—image our Triune God. It’s only an icon; it’s not the same as the perichoretic dance of the three divine persons, but it is an enfleshed image of loving communion in human form.
Is it any wonder why love is such a big deal to God? More than simply a romantic sentiment or a worthy ideal, embodied holy love is fundamental and practical for life together. To put it in basic terms, if we are not embodying holy love from moment to moment, we are embodying something else, such as busyness. If we are not transmitting to our relational partner the conditions for love, we are transmitting something that might actually make it harder to love. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with being busy, but the real question is whether love is what people feel from us as we hurry from task to task. On those days when we intentionally or unintentionally choose productivity and efficiency over love, maybe we should carry signs with Surgeon General notices: At this moment I may literally be dangerous to your health. Why? Because in that moment it’s really not about you or even us, it’s usually about me managing some fear-driven process.
What’s the result of paying attention to this physical reality in each relational moment? We are training for the kind of oneness that Jesus prayed for in John 17:20: “that we all may all be one, as the Father and the Son are one.” If we are good enough stewards of our bodies, then our bodies seem to be designed to lead us into this oneness. We are connected through our bodies in ways that quite literally unite us into the larger Body of Christ.
We are all made for “one flesh” relating that is more than just sexual. The “one flesh” mystery of marital sexuality is indeed profound and cannot be underestimated in Christian theology. But, the mystery is even greater than we acknowledge. This “one flesh” mystery transcends male or female, single or married, color or creed. We are in communion with one another in ways that make love more than a nice gesture. It is essential to our very survival. It’s God’s original design and it’s even more relevant in our fallen world. Male or female, married or single, we are all practicing to be one body. We are all called to be one body. And God never calls us without providing what we need to answer his call. It starts with our bodies. Such knowledge is too wonderful. As Psalm 139 affirms, “We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Steve Stratton is a first-time contributor to the Soul Care Collective. Thanks!