Establishing Some Shared Language
You know when you are listening to someone speak or are reading a book and you hear words that you're familiar (or unfamiliar) with but you end up learning that they mean something different than what you thought? Well, like any good Instructor, I thought it may be helpful to begin digging into this conversation on holistic/embodied spiritual formation with some definitions.
I know definitions can be boring, but I think shared language and understanding for this conversation is super important. So, as I begin to write posts about much of what I wrote my dissertation on (with additional anecdotes and such that I didn't get to include) I want to make sure we are on the same page with some terms I will be using a lot. So here we go....
Terms & Definitions:
Below are the definitions of key terms that will assist in laying the groundwork for the content that follows. This will help provide a common understanding of words as they are used in my writing, presentations, and posts.
Disembodied: A disconnect between the body and the mind, heart, and spirit. This can be taught through cultural or religious norms or, potentially, be a result of physical, emotional, or spiritual trauma.
Embodied: Engaging the whole person—body, mind, heart, and spirit—when participating in practices and life in general. Being mindful of the whole person/self, not just the head or heart. It is a type of “coming home” or “remembering of our wholeness, and a reunion with the fullness of ourselves.”* The whole person/self then, is just that: the entire person that God has created— body, mind, and spirit, all of which are vital aspects of a person and their image-bearing nature.
*Hillary L McBride, The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection through Embodied Living (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Collins, 2021), 14.
Good: Goodness should not be confused with perfection. When I speak of being good I am using the term as a descriptor of the state of being made in, and reflecting, God’s image. Goodness is an inherent quality out of which we were made and in which we continue to live. We see this from the very beginning of the world as stated in the Creation account in Genesis.* However, this goodness does not ignore or negate the brokenness that is experienced mentally or bodily as a result of the brokenness of the world. Additionally, we often need help remembering this and bringing ourselves back to living within the goodness in which we were created. This is where spiritual formation practices come in and play an important and helpful role.
*“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...so God created humanity in God’s own image...male and female God created them.” (Gen.1:26, 27 [NRSV, adapted]). Additionally, it is not until humanity is created that God proclaims creation as “very good” in Genesis 1:31.
Spiritual Formation: The ongoing work of our lives that leads us into deeper connection with God, self, and others; helping us more fully embody the image of God in which we were created. It is the marriage of identity and activity that shapes us spiritually. This can include intentional practices, as well as formative experiences or anything else that may shape us spiritually.
Image of God: Embodying and reflecting the likeness of God (God’s qualities and character).
Why These Things Matter in Christianity
Western Christianity has become disembodied—and even more, there is a focus in many popular streams of Christian practice on depravity and a shame-based approach to bodies that prohibit persons in those communities from being able to engage in a life of faith that would even consider incorporating, let alone valuing, embodiment. (Purity culture anyone?)
For example, in an interview in 2018 Christian speaker and minister, John Piper, addressed a question from a woman struggling with body image issues. Part of his response stated,
Have you ever asked, “Instead of saying, ‘I should stop hating my body,’ maybe I should say, ‘I should start hating my body in the right way; I should start hating my body because it tempts me to sin?’” Now, this is not because it has any particular shape or disfiguration or has a certain complexion or whatever, but rather, you hate the body because it is what is making you sin against God.
John Piper, “My Body: Friend or Foe?,” Www.desiringgod.org, last modified May 17, 2018, accessed March 27, 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/my-body-friend-or-foe.
This type of theology and response combined with the Western evangelical Christian thinking displayed in congregations and higher education that place emphasis on forming heads over a holistic embodied approach to faith pulls us away from living more fully in our bodies. This is additionally encouraged through a propensity of modern culture to fall into rhythms of existence that are lived through screens and that keep us separated from our whole selves. Perhaps you, like me, have numbed out in front of a tv watching Hulu for hours on end to ignore emotional or physical experiences you didn't want to deal with. 😅
This means we often find ourselves in a state of disconnect from our whole selves, even longing for the day when our earthly bodies will be no more. Additionally, there are times in which we find ourselves, or our loved ones, living inside bodies that are riddled with disease, disability, mental illness, or other states of being that keep us from feeling whole, and so we detach from ourselves. I know this was part of my own experience at various points in my life, and I know it has been the experience of many others I know personally or have read about in my academic research. Maybe it has been your experience, too.
When we include our bodies in spiritual formation we can learn to see our bodies as gifts, which then helps us to include our whole selves more deeply as we are shaped into the persons we were created to be—beings made in the image of God.
Taking all of these things into consideration, along with my own experiences of body image, embodied practices, and the brokenness of my body, as well as hearing the stories of others’ experiences around these realities, I am compelled to ask the question, “how do embodied spiritual practices help us live in a way that actually portrays the goodness out of which we were created as beings made good and in God’s image?” And, not only ask the question of "how," but additionally then cultivate practices that help us do just that.
If this sounds intriguing to you, I hope you'll stick around and journey with me (and it will be a continual journey!). And as we go, if these stories and information sound helpful, familiar, difficult, or anything else I would love to hear from you and discuss it with you further.
Peace and health, friends. More soon.