Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Theology of the Body

As I continue to listen to the headlines and watch as the discussion rages about things like antibody testing, vaccines, contact tracing, and the like, one of the things that strikes me is that we are missing, as a people, a sound theology of the body. 

On one side of the discussion, we have those who are willing to do anything to their bodies that they are told to do. They are convinced that science is always the answer and that whatever science decides is good for the body must be. They are lining up for testing, begging for experimental treatments, trying to get on lists to be among the first to receive a vaccine. Whatever the world says to give the body, they want it. Their body is the system they use to function within the world, and they will do whatever is deemed necessary to keep it functioning for them.

On the other side of the discussion, we have those who want nothing to do with what the world says about the body. They refuse to give up their personal blood product for testing, unsure of what will be done with the information afterward. They don't want experimental treatment if they get sick because there's no benefit yet shown to the body. They oppose vaccination because they don't trust it (for any number of reasons). Their body is their own, and they aren't about to let anyone else have it.

Neither of these responses is typically grounded in a good theology of the body. These ideas have more to do with what we believe about who we are - and who our world is - than what God believes about us and our world. 

And actually, both of these responses rest on the same piece of bad information - information that comes out of an idea called dualism, which basically means that we have a body, but we are not a body. Our body is a tool that we use to interact with the world in which we live, but God has created us not as a body, but a soul. The physical body is just the housing for our soul. And we make a lot of decisions about what to do with our bodies, even in normal times, based on this idea - that our body is just a thing that we have, but it is not particularly essential to who we are.

So for the first crowd, the body is just a thing that we have. And therefore, it is justifiable to take exceptional care of it according to the standards the world sets of best practices. We can do anything we want to our bodies without jeopardizing our souls, so even if something doesn't work out exactly the way we want to, it's okay. It's just a body. We're willing to do whatever because this body is just a thing. We treat it the way we would a treasured possession, but a possession nonetheless - polishing, shining, repairing, restoring, keeping it in pristine condition, but at the end of the day, it's just a body. Like a car that we park in the garage, always full of gas and ready to go at a moment's notice. 

For the second crowd, it's the same. This body is just a thing that we have, but it's our thing. We try to protect it at all costs because it's ours. Not because we necessarily place any particular value on it, but because we don't want to create a system whereby the world is comfortable taking anything it wants from us whenever it wants it. We hold onto our bodies the way we hold onto our money or our houses or our cars or our childhood blanket. It's ours. 

But dualism is a lie. Our bodies are not things. They are not temporary shells into which our souls have been placed that have little-to-no impact on who we actually are. They are not burdens to bear; they are blessings from God. 

In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth. And then He bent down into the dust and formed a body. And then He breathed a life into that body and gave it a spirit and a soul (two different things, by the way, but maybe we'll look at that later). 

And your body is uniquely you. It's not interchangeable with any other body. You couldn't take you and put you in some other shell and still be who you are, and you can't take your body and give it to anyone else. 

We have amazing medical technology these days, and we are doing absolutely fascinating things with the body. We can take the heart of a dying man and put it in the chest of a man desperate to live and watch it start beating again. That's pretty cool. But what we can't do is convince the desperate man that the new heart is his. He has to take medication for the rest of his life to keep his body from rejecting a heart that was not part of his design. His body forever recognizes that heart as not his, even though its beating is literally what is sustaining him. But it's not his. It never was. It's the dying man's, and it always will be. 

We can take a rotting body found deep in the woods, dead for longer than any of us want to smell, and we can test it down to its core and discover whose body it was. It is marked with their being. Through and through, it is theirs, and we can trace it back to them. You can't do that with any other possession that we have. You can't do that with our laptop or our car or whatever - we have to have paperwork to prove ownership, a trail to follow to track that down. But a body, a body tells you exactly who it belongs to by the nature of what it is. That's incredible. 

And so we can't say that our body is "just" a shell. That it's some random case that our soul lives in until we don't need it any more. That it's a thing that we have. Your body is indelibly yours. It is part of your creation. God made it specifically you. And that means that as we think about things like tests and treatments and vaccinations and tracing and whatever else, we have to think about our bodies as essential parts of our being. We have to realize that this flesh is not ours; it's who we are. It's God's gift to us, part of the very fabric knit together in our mother's womb. Our bodies are...holy. They're sacred. 

The question is then: how do we treat them as such?

(More on this tomorrow.) 

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