Working it out in you(r body).

For the longest time I’ve been trying to like exercise. I remember a moment, almost 20 years ago, when I was out for a jog (at that pace, I don’t think it merited the term “run”), and I was struck with a joyous realisation that I was finally being someone who I wanted to be. But I was getting married later that summer, so the wedding-dress motivation was strong.

Fast-forward through a couple of half-marathons and four babies and I am still working at identifying as a person who runs. I don’t do it for the wedding dress, or any dress, any more. I do it for the sanity.

I’m learning more and more that I have to work out my feelings in my body, that I need to deal with stress in my body, and more generally that I just need to be a person in my body – and not a person with a body.

Too much of modern spirituality forgets about the body. Even worse, a lot of modern Christianity has taught that your body, and all creation even, is just a temporary measure until your soul can escape its “earth-suit” for disembodied bliss in a purely “spiritual” heaven. This kind of teaching is shaped more by Greek philosophy and Cartesian rationalism than by how the bible understands the human person. Both Old and New Testament’s portray the human person as a psychosomatic unity – we don’t have a body, we are a body; we don’t have a soul, we are a soul. And it all fits together in an indivisible way.

This isn’t the place to regurgitate my thesis for you, but suffice to say, all those places in the New Testament that you might be going to for an argument for body-soul dualism make more sense if you read them through the Jewish philosophical framework that Paul was writing them in – he’s not thinking in ontological terms, he’s thinking in relational and eschatological terms.*

If this is news to you, then you might be wondering: what about death? That whole stopping breathing, body going in the ground and decaying thing?! Simple answer: RESURRECTION. If you believe in body-soul dualism, then resurrection is just the icing on the afterlife cake, if you have a holistic anthropology then resurrection is the cake – and that fits more with the tenor of Scripture.

Maybe all this metaphysical, ontological stuff sounds a bit iffy to you, that’s fine. But if you think about your own lived experience as a person it’s pretty obvious that your experience as a person is always as a person in your body. And so there’s no point trying to live your spiritual life like the body isn’t part of it.

Sometimes you need to solve your problems in your body, rather than in your thinking. Yet far too often I’ve tried to solve my problems without my body.

There’s been times when it’s got to 4pm and I’m smashed, and I start questioning my whole existence – my calling, my vocation, my choice to have all these kids… what am I doing with my life? Something has to shift! I start weighing up other options, I start lamenting before the Lord. And then I realise that I haven’t had a coffee all day… Or I remember afternoon tea, that afternoon tea that never happened. “Hanger” is a real issue.

One of my favourite examples of this embodied spirituality is in Psalm 26:2, “Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind”. I’ve often prayed that thinking of how I want the deepest places of my thinking to be renewed to align with the truth – and that’s all good, but do you know where the original Hebrew locates the “mind” referred to there? It’s your kidneys. Your soul, your mind, the “real you” isn’t something separate to your body.

And that means that some truths can’t be apprehended unless they’re worked out in your body. 

The early Christians called themselves followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2). It’s a way of living. Following Jesus isn’t so much about signing up to set of beliefs (or at least it isn’t only that), as it is living a way that enters into those truths and allows them to pervade your everyday life.

I’m not talking about just legalistically carrying out a set of practices. The spiritual disciplines are supposed to be life-giving: prayer, Scripture, Sabbath, solitude, fasting, silence.

But there’s also some simpler practices to consider: How are you sleeping? Are you eating well and often? Have you exercised recently? When did you last have a good laugh, or a good cry? Do you need to soothe your self with some embodied practices like a bath, a massage, a stretching session, or some deep and slow breathing?

The embodied spiritual discipline that is seeing me through this season is exercise. Right now we are in lockdown in New Zealand because of COVID-19. We’re all staying home in our bubbles, and in lots of ways I am loving it. But juggling homeschooling 3 kids, a preschooler, and a PhD that still needs to be written is taking its toll. Yes, I’ve been praying, I’ve been practicing gratitude, but nothing beats exercise to deal with the inescapable stress.

The reason why exercise works so well was like a revelation to me when I read the first chapter of Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. (I didn’t love the rest of the book half as much as I loved the first chapter, but it might be your thing). They talk about how our bodies have developed/evolved to deal with stress in certain ways, but that modern life often works on a different system, and so stress is often not really dealt with in the ways we actually need to. They give the example of an early hunter who, when face by the stressor of a hungry lion, deals with that stress by running (cardio) or killing it and then having a party to celebrate. Even if someone else steps in to kill it for them, they still have a party/laugh/cry. Now imagine the same scenario but someone steps in and shoots the lion but then nothing else happens, there’s no resolution to the emotions. You can imagine the feeling in your body right? Heart still pounding – even though the stressor is dealt with, the stress still remains. This is what modern life is a lot like. Our stressors aren’t things that we can physically fight or run away from, and we don’t tend to party/laugh/cry it out even when we deal with the stressor.

But your body wants it.

I know it, but every time I do it, I’m surprised. And then I forget, and then I remember again. Surprise! Maybe I’m a slow learner, maybe it takes a lot to overcome my innate laziness.

Whether or not you’re now motivated to put on your running shoes, I would really encourage you to live your spiritual life more and more through your body. Practice silence and stillness, practice breath prayers, practice dancing in worship. Since we’ve been streaming church services into our own home my dance moves have gone to the next level. Is it a good level that should be repeated in a public setting? I couldn’t say. But I do know that as well as physically expressing your worship, there few things as fun as embarrassing your children with your dance moves in the privacy of your own home. Do try it.

*In Paul’s writing flesh (sarx) and spirit (pneuma) are generally not intended as ontological categories, but to designate transcendent powers which can influence a person. When reading through a Hellenistic lens we tend to interpret sarx as referring to our body (what has been called “the outer person”), and pneuma as our essential spirit, the “real me” (the “inner person”). However, as Paul teaches it sarx and pneuma are powers that can influence both the “inner person” and the “outer person”. Sarx is the power of sin and death which leads to rebellion and suffering in our present embodied lives, and “its great antagonist” is pneuma. Thus in 1 Corinthians 15:50 Paul uses “flesh and blood” to say that it is our “ordinary, corruptible, decaying human existence” that cannot enter God’s kingdom; he is not saying that our physical humanity is excluded.

For more on this, I’d first recommend N. T Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

If you wondering about how on earth a person can both be a soul and a body and you’re interested in more, I’d point you in the direction of non-reductive physicalism (or emergent monism) as an anthropology that both fits with Scripture and with science. You can say “non-reductive” about physicalism if you take into account something we call “downward causation” that is common sense really, but often forgotten.


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