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From the Spring 2005 and Summer 2009 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Spirituality of the Body

by Dennis P. Hollinger, Ph.D.
President and Professor of Christian Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary


This article has been adapted from Dennis’ new book , Head, Heart and Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion
and Action (InterVarsity Press).

t may seem unusual to speak of a spirituality of the body. After all, many Christians have believed that spirituality is being free from the body and its impulses. The spiritual life is understood as saying yes to the Spirit’s work in our spirit and saying no to the “flesh,” which is often perceived to be related to the human body. Moreover, our body often gives us fits. We are not sure what to do with its urges, failures, and pain. Thus, many perceive the human body to be an enemy of true spirituality.
   But true spirituality is not a disembodied faith. We live within the body God has given to us, and God calls us to lives of holiness and spirituality within and through our bodies.

Role of the Body in Christianity

  The starting point for a spirituality of the body is to understand its role in Christian theology. Some theologians have suggested that Christianity is the most physical or material religion in the world. By this they do not mean a love of money or a fixation on material things. Rather, in contrast to many religions and philosophies that find the body and material reality to be problematic, biblical faith strongly affirms the material world, including the human body. Christian spirituality is not a freedom from the body, but a freedom within the body. Spiritual maturity comes not by negating our physical dimension, but by harnessing its capacities and impulses for the glory of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
   The significance of the body and material reality is grounded in several biblical doctrines. First, a theology of creation incorporates a strong affirmation of the material world with God’s pronouncement of its goodness (Gen. 1). Genesis 2:9 notes that “out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” When God created humans in his image, “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27), clearly implying that the biological and physiological side of life is significant. After God made this physical world and embodied humans, he looked at all he had made and pronounced it “very good.”
   Second, the body is affirmed in the incarnation: God taking on human flesh in his Son, Jesus Christ. That “the word became flesh and lived among” (Jn. 1:14) is a clear sign that the body in and of itself is not evil. Some early Christians had problems with the incarnation, believing that the physical realm is so evil that God could never take up residence in a real physical body. This view, called docetism, said that Jesus only appeared to have a material body. The Church condemned this view as heresy, declaring that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. All of this means that if God can come in a human body, it is evidence that the body itself is not our primary spiritual foe. Rather, the incarnation is a model for our own lives.
   Whenever we act within the world we do so in our bodies; we can never act apart from them. Our interaction with other people and the world in which God has placed us is always in and through our physical existence.

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