gnosticism and the body

In order to partake of any aspect of life, one must have a body. Eating, drinking, sleeping, even thinking, requires a face, a body, a brain. Just as the body is essential to life, awareness and healthy utilization of the body is essential in living a Christian life.

Within an individual, body and soul cannot be separated out like recyclables. The two are inherently intertwined: “soul and body are inseparably bound together.” Without a soul, the body is merely a corpse without identity. As Karl Barth summarizes, a man “is bodily soul, and he is also besouled body.” Such inherent intertwining is crucial in Christian living: what we do with our bodies carries importance.

I must believe that the God of Everything held this to be true in Her first acts of creation. I believe God is loving, continually birthing every aspect of creation and naming it good. If the physical were to be despised, such a name would not have been given; if it were unimportant, the act would not have been made. In Christianity specifically, belief in Jesus demands that the body be valued, for the divine would not have entered embodiment if it had no value. All is possible with God, and She would have found another way to dispense the information necessary for salvation if it were a mere matter of information. Williams writes, summarizing Irenaeus of Lyons, “the only history to be taken seriously is bodily history, and so the redemption of humanity must be located in bodily history.”  Although this statement is meant with regards to the big history of humanity, I hold the same to be true for individual lives. Our living happens in our bodies, and our bodies carry hurts that our mind may not articulate. Redemption, then, must also be enacted in our bodies, in new ways of living that honor our bodies. “Irenaeus insists upon the continuity of God’s activity,” and so do I, in both humanity’s history and individual stories. In the scale of a single human life, such continuity begins in the promise that comes with conception: God desires this life to exist. We are not abandoned upon exiting the womb, but God’s activity and creation is ongoing throughout the individual’s life.

Our lives as Christians should reflect our devotion to embodiment. Singing, the foundation of most worship services, is a beginning to doing so, moving our experience of self down from our mind and into our vocal chords, lungs, and if we’re paying attention, the vibration of sound through our bodies. To take embodiment seriously, the church should be engaging in more physical worship activities, from yoga to acts of creation, and even including the way we read and study. As Pereira states,

“we are not impartial readers; we are people with bodies, colour, sex, age; our body works, suffers and experiences pleasure, whether we like our body or not, whether others find pleasure in it or not.”

The way we live in our bodies effects the way we read, study, and interpret scripture, which in turn should effect the the way we live in our bodies.

Gnosticism, then, is antithetical to following Jesus Christ. By denying bodily work, gnostics also deny the healing and transformative power of Jesus’ acts. The gnostic teachings miss the significance of the narrative. By “longing to escape from the temporal and the fleshly,” gnostics refuse to live into their bodies and refuse to enter the narrative of Jesus Christ.

This was originally written as part of my final exam for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to answer 3 questions in two hours.

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2 thoughts on “gnosticism and the body

  1. mshedden says:

    I’m with Barth. 🙂
    I do think the more difficult modern question is how then should we live bodily? Does the body’s nature (urges and desires) function for or against our call to holiness? Is it all one and never the other? Is there any sense in which we do battle with our bodies or natures? Can we relate at all to Paul’s line in 1 Corinthians: No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
    I have preordered Coakley’s new book, The New Asceticism, which I imagine would help here if it ever comes out.
    And since your going to be working on writing maybe it is time for you start thinking about an article for the Body Issue.

    • Yes! Those are a lot of the same questions I wrestle with. I’d love to write something for the Body Issue, but the topic feels so big that I hardly know where to begin. Let me know when you have a prompt paragraph or any additional specific thoughts.
      I’m with you in wanting Coakley’s book to come out soon. Amazon says August; hopefully they mean it.

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