What Advent Teaches Us About an Embodied Theology
The season of advent in the Christian church marks the anticipation of the incarnate God; God stepping into the vulnerability of flesh, living a human life inside a human body. The Christian faith was born from the body of a teenage woman. This says a lot about who God is and what God thinks of us — God does not see our bodies as containers for our souls; God sees our bodies as agents of the divine.
And yet, it seems that white evangelicalism today suffers from a disembodied theology. One that prioritizes the salvation of the soul over the salvation of the body. Public theologian Ekemini Uwan says, “a disembodied savior is no savior at all.”
Pauline scripture has often been interpreted to mean that the mind is good and the flesh is sinful, and the former exhibiting control over the latter is the process of sanctification. This interpretation supports a “mind over matter” understanding of God: we’re to consider what is lovely and true and to “think on such things” without attention to what it may actually mean to embody the fruits of the spirit — not just in mind, but also in body. When we focus on disciplining our minds to overcome the limitations of our bodies, we are fractured beings. When we focus on mind and soul, at the expense of the body, we leave out a crucial part of our humanity.
Moreover, it’s given the white Christian church license to wield power over the body — both through its scriptural teachings and through its social mission in the world — a distinct component of whiteness that, as a white Christian, I believe we are called to divest ourselves of.
We see it in the white church’s inability to tackle racism, purporting a color-blind faith that says we are all loved by God but which conveniently does not respond to the ways the church has participated in the denigration of bodies of color through centuries of missional colonization and slave ownership under the guise of the “will of God.” This is a dark and complicated history, where early Western Christians colonized communities, both in the U.S. and around the world, bringing their salvation story that did not recognize the lives, bodies, and hallowed ground that already embodied the love of God.
We see it through purity culture which has perpetuated the view that women’s bodies are dangerous. It is the same theology that says women’s bodies are temptations and that women are not only responsible for their own sexual desire, but also the sexual desire of men. Mainstream culture tells women and girls that we have to meet the white, thin ideal to be attractive and successful, without challenging why those ideals exist in the first place. These oppressive attitudes toward women’s bodies shape a toxic culture of control over women’s bodies: not only through their sexuality, but also through their appearance — a constant shrinking and manipulation of the body to attain beauty and purity.
It’s the same theology that says it’s okay to bring the large crowds of bodies together under church roofs during a global pandemic, even against the warnings of health officials, because it’s in the name of Jesus and patriotism. It demonstrates, once again, the white church’s love of soul over the love of body. It is about saving others at all costs; it is about offering a top-down salvation that makes no room for cultural nuance, social context, or power imbalances, let alone scientific evidence.
How we relate to God shapes how we relate to our own body. As a white woman who grew up in the evangelical church, I am un-learning what has been a primarily disembodied approach to relating to God. I am learning to recognize my own complicity in white supremacy in the church: from engaging in mission trips that were salvific and not holistic, to benefitting from the approval of white men in leadership, to standing behind white feminist goals without the leadership of women of color.
So, if a disembodied theology prevents us from both experiencing our full humanity and expressing holistic care, what might an embodied theology look like? After all, God became incarnate, living in human flesh, experiencing the joy and suffering of what it means to engage the world through a body. I believe in a God who taught us about eternity, but who also taught us what it means to live here and now: in the muck and mess of our everyday lives. In our failing and flailing bodies. The incarnation teaches us this! An embodied theology protects the vulnerable, sacrifices for the greater good, and blesses our inherent goodness as actors of the divine.
What if anticipating Christmas is embracing an embodied theology, one that reclaims the goodness of the body in relation to our soul? Re-centering the body in our theology means our bodies are worthy not just of attention and care, but of justice and equality. What if that means that the work of Advent is also the work of divesting of white supremacy?
Bringing the kin-dom of God is our work for today and tomorrow, not just for eternity. Jesus stepped into our world, into flesh, because Jesus redeems our bodies, too: “remember my body, broken for you.”