What does it mean for humans to be embodied, to exist not as a ‘brains on a stick’, but as persons with bodies who think, eat, laugh and breathe? How can we flourish as embodied people? Is embodiment a hindrance or a gift?
These are questions that we cannot ignore. We cannot escape the fact that we exist as embodied creatures. The question of what it means to be embodied, therefore, is the question of what it means to be us; it is the question of how we live in the world.
So what is embodiment?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives a good working definition I think when he says “A human being is a human body. A human being does not ‘have’ a body – or ‘have’ a soul; instead a human being ‘is’ body and soul.” Embodiment is the idea that we are not just a body, which happens to have a mind/soul, or a mind/soul which happens to have a body, but that these things are inseparably what a person is.
Within our culture are a wide variety of reactions and responses to the fact that we are embodied.
One prominent idea is that our ‘internal self’ is what we truly are, and that our bodies are merely the shell for our consciousness; therefore the body can be, or in the view of some, must be shaped and changed to reflect this inner reality. In this view our bodies are like putty, which can be moulded to reflect what we discover within us. Our bodies are a means to self-expression, not an essential part of who we are.
Another view, is that the purpose of our bodies is as a ‘pleasure factory’. In this view our bodies are seen as a means to pleasurable experience, and our purpose is seen as extracting every ounce of sensory delight out of them before they fail us finally, at our death. The body is to be expended for the sake of pleasure.
My suspicion, however, is that most people in our culture, including many Christians, have simply never considered what it means to embodied, or what it’s purpose (if there is one) might be. They live somewhere in the foggy waters of uncertainty, simply trying to get through or make the best of what we call existence. This was the category I was in for a long time (and still fall into at times).
Then I got IBS, a chronic illness, which placed directly in front of me the idea that I am a person who has a body, a body that is unequivocally part of ‘me’. I discovered that as my physical health ebbed and flowed, my mental health would do similarly. I felt pain that made me think hard about things, and pain that meant I couldn’t think about anything else. Effectively, embodiment became inescapably something I had to consider, and as a Christian, something I had to wrestle with the Lord about.
And so it is here that I want to offer up some preliminary thoughts on what it means to be embodied, and to flourish as someone who is embodied, from the perspective of a Christian, who has just begun to think these things through. It is my hope that it might help more of us to think through what it means to be embodied, and therefore flourish as God’s creatures in his world.
Firstly, embodiment is deliberate. This perhaps seems too obvious to be worth mentioning, but it is something we can easily forget. In the opening book of the Bible, Genesis, the creation of man is described in this way- ‘then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.’ (Genesis 2:7). God deliberately creates man with a body. He takes dust from the earth and forms him. There is a fleshly, earthy physicality about this that we cannot ignore. As Kelly Kapic writes, “Our existence occurs not as beings who drop out of the sky but rise from the dust”. In Psalm 139, the Psalmist writes ‘For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.’ God purposed that humans should be embodied, and so we are.
Secondly, embodiment is good. God sees Adam and Eve and declares them, and the rest of his creation, ‘very good’. God has made us to be embodied creatures out of his goodness, kindness and perfect wisdom. The givenness of our bodies is a good gift to be received with thanksgiving.
Thirdly, embodiment is relational. We exist as bodies which can relate to others. In their finitude and limitedness, our bodies direct us outwards towards ‘the other’, into relationship with other humans. Bonhoeffer says “In their bodily nature human beings are related to the earth and to other bodies, they are there for others and are dependent upon others.” Embodiment directs us into relationship with others.
Fourthly, embodiment is for eternity. While the scriptures do suggest that when Christians die their spirit goes to be with the Lord, this is the not the final destination of the Christian: it is a temporary state. The final goal is the return of Jesus, who will bring about the resurrection of the dead, to an eternal embodied existence, of which our current bodies are a shell. Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes the hope of the Christian in this way – ‘we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.’ The book of 1 Corinthians puts it like this – ‘For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.’ Our souls will not be whisked off to an ethereal eternity. We will be embodied forever.
Therefore, embodiment is a good gift of God, one which we will share in for all eternity.
But this is not how we often seem to experience embodiment.
We know that in our bodies we feel pain, in our bodies we sense the space where the person we loved used to sit, in our bodies we cry and groan. We often blame these things on the fact that we are embodied. However, the problem isn’t that we are embodied. The problem is that the presence of sin in the world causes the good gift of embodiment to be at times painful and difficult for us.
As a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience God does two things which affect our embodiment.
He pronounces curses upon creation and humanity, meaning that work feels like toil, that pain and death enter into the lives of humanity, and that even childbearing shall prove difficult. This doesn’t negate the goodness of embodiment, but it does mean that our experience of embodiment in this life will be marked with sadness alongside joy and pain in the midst of pleasure.
The other thing which God does is to clothe Adam and Eve in the skins of animals, to hide their nakedness. Genesis 3:21 puts it like this- ‘And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.’ When Adam and Eve rebel, they begin to feel the nakedness of their embodiment. They feel shame for their body. And so the Lord in his kindness clothes them with the bloody skins of animals, that their shame might be covered, and so that they would be able to live with an embodiment tainted by sin.
And so for us, we remain those whose embodiment is tainted with the curses of sin, but also those whom the Lord has graciously clothed. We are not clothed with the skins of animals, however, but with the blood of Christ, in order that we would not be ashamed by our embodiment, but instead use it in service of the one who has clothed us, as we await the day when all things are made new.
But this is hard.
I often feel as if I would do much better without this body which fails me. In an article about illness and the body, Derek Rishmawy says ‘I tend to sympathise with the gnostics most in the morning’. The gnostics were an early group heretics who despised physicality and rejected the goodness of creation. Like Derek, I tend to sympathise most with the gnostics in the morning too. Without going into unnecessary detail, the first few hours when I wake up in the morning are almost always unpleasant; I need the loo often, feel unwell, shake and often feel faint or dizzy. My body feels like a burden rather than a gift.
So what do I do with my embodiment when I feel like that? How can I let my embodiment teach me and remind me even in pain?
Here are a few things that I try to think and do, and allow others to do, with the fact of my embodiment, even in the midst of pain. I often do these thing weakly, and always imperfectly, but have found in them comfort and even joy.
One thing which I try to do when I am pain, is to let myself feel the curse in my bones, and long for the day when things are made right. When I feel pain, I am reminded inescapably of the fact that the world is broken, in bondage to decay, marred by sin and death. This is not to say that my own illness is a result of personal sin, but that the presence of pain is a reminder of the destructive nature of sin in the world. And if I allow it to, this reminds me of several things.
Firstly it reminds me of my helplessness without the creator. I am broken beyond the current boundaries of medicine. But more than this, and in more ways than just my illness, I am broken beyond the point of my fixing. I can no more cure the problems of sin in the world, and my own sin than I can raise myself from the dead. And so I am brought before the creator God – the one who has power over all that he is made, and taught to depend on him more fully.
It also reminds of the cross. Here I see the one who died in order to bear the sins of the world, the one whose death brings life. Here I see the one whose wounds guarantee my healing on that final day. And in my own experience of pain I gain some small insight into the sufferings of Jesus on my behalf.
And it reminds me that there is a day coming with no more pain or sorrow or death. The very presence of pain can remind me that things will not always be so – there will be a time when I will only know pain by its absence, and the joy that fills my body.
Another thing which I try to do is to allow myself to be touched, engaged with and cared for. My natural reaction to being ill is to pull away from people, and sometimes this is helpful and necessary. But a hug from a friend, or laughter shared when I am not well are wonderful reminders of the goodness of my embodiment, of the joy that can come from it, at a time when I am tempted to doubt it. The caring glance, the kind word, the friend who does my washing when I am tired, are all beautiful reminders of the goodness of Jesus’ body, the church, the embodied community that God creates on the earth.
A final thing that I do is to try and take joy in little aspects of my embodiment, even while others seem hard to endure. I listen to a favourite piece of music, and thank the Lord that there exists a world in which I can hear such beauty. I watch the world from the living room window, and thank the Lord that even a normal street in London is so full of wonder and life. I draw a picture or write a poem, and thank the Lord that I exist with hands that can draw and write and with a mind that can think and create. I do these things badly, sometimes through tears, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes I don’t do them at all. But when I do, I am reminded that there is joy in embodiment, even in the midst of pain.
I will finish by offering some suggestions for how all of us might flourish as those who are embodied.
We must let our embodiment remind us of the truth that we are creatures and that God is creator – when you breathe in and out, remember you are created, that he sustains you, and that even the air in your lungs is a gift from his hand.
We must attempt to let the pain that we experience as embodied creatures take us to the God who has made us – when we feel pain, instead of trying to ignore it, we should allow it to magnify our view of Christ’s sufferings (Jesus’ death upon the cross for the sins of the world), allow it to grow in us a desperate longing for the deliverance of God, allow it to help us cling to the hope that we have of a body free from death and pain. (this certainly isn’t easy)
Psalm 95:6 says ‘Come let us bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker’ – when we pray to God, at least sometimes, lets kneel before him. Let’s acknowledge with our bodies that he is our maker, and we are his creatures.
When we next drink from the cup and eat the bread in remembrance of Jesus’ death, let us savour the taste of the bread and wine, and remember that our eternity with Christ will be no less physical.
Physical contact with one another – Lets show one another love in the form of a hug, a hand on the shoulder, or even just a smile. Lets speak to one another more face to face than we do via social media. These small gestures are so meaningful because they are embodied. They recognise the other person for the embodied creature that they are, rather than simply a brain with which we interact.
Pour out your time, your energy in service of the Lord – We are given bodies to use for God’s glory. We are given energy to serve others, and the kingdom of God. We exist in time, which we do not own and cannot keep, so lets spend it wisely.
Thank God for embodiment – Thank him the feel of the bark of the tree, the smell of roses, the taste of the berry, the beauty of a sunset. Thank God that we exist in such a way that means we can enjoy these things.
And so we must acknowledge our embodiment, not living as minds on sticks, but giving ourselves, and our very bodies in service of the world and the wonderful creator God.
‘Heavenly Father, whose ways are good and kind, we thank you that we exist as embodied creatures. We thank you for the many wonders and joy that this brings. Help us to learn from our embodiment, and would it help us to look forward to the day when we are fully clothed, in New Creation bodies in which we shall praise you forever. Amen’