Theology of Embodiment

puzzle pieces

We know from the latest research and our own experience that healing requires our whole physical, spiritual, emotional selves. Why should we expect anything different from how we relate to and understand the God who created us? Here, Jennifer McGrath writes about how a recent puzzle session led her to wonder about a theology of embodiment, about how we might learn about and connect with God through our physical bodies, not just our cognitive reasoning.

I was recently doing a puzzle with my friend’s two-year-old daughter, Cora. It went something like this:

Cora: “Denny, do you wannadoa puzzle wif me?”

Me: “Sure!”

Cora: [proceeds to pour the puzzle pieces out on the brightly colored rug and falls on her knees in front of them]

Me: [sits down begins putting together large pieces from the 20-piece “Life on Earth” puzzle of different animals]

Cora: [forcefully tries to jam together incorrect pieces in the puzzle]

Me: “I think this one is the brown owl’s body. Can you find the owl’s head?”

Cora: “Oh ‘hewe’ it is!” [she squeals emphatically while picking up a tan piece with a deer head on it]

Me: “That is pretty close, but I think that one is the deer head. Can you find the deer body for that piece?”

Cora: “ya” [she states confidently as she begins to put the deer head on the white rabbit’s body]

Me: [grins at how adorable she is, and struggle to not jump in immediately and help her]

Cora: “Denny, can I sit in your wap?”

Me: “Sure!”

Cora: [plops herself down in my lap. She gently pushes her back against my stomach and chest to snuggle in as she nestles her head under my chin]

Me: [rests my chin on her head. I take a deep breath to smell her sweet head]

Cora: “Denny, can you tickle me?”

Me: [begins to tickle Cora as we both giggle and smile]

I saw the joy and delight Cora had, not in getting the pieces correctly, but in spending time with me. It made me start to think: What if we approached theology this way? What if we engaged theology in a way that was embodied as much as it is logical? For most of my life I have thought that my theology and my doctrine were what made me a good Christian. I was taught knowing the “right” answers when asked were what made God proud of me. I lived with a long pressure of getting it right, but in this moment with Cora I felt invited by the kindness of God to ponder whether or not the Lord is ALREADY proud of me and isn’t solely concerned with me “getting it right.”

God invites us to more than just figuring out the puzzle and answering the questions correctly. We are beckoned into a relationship with the One who so desires our hearts and our lives that He humbled himself to a body, to temptation, to crucifixion and death. We are invited to richly revel in the glory of spending time with our Creator. This invitation does not negate theology, understanding, or seeking truth, but it opens the door for us to incorporate all of our senses, not just our mind, in theology. In I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel writes, “To believe with all the senses does not mean going off into a world alien to theology. It means engaging in a theology and again making the sensuality hidden in it capable of being seen, heard, touched.” Our pursuit of and time with God is meant to be as much like snuggles, tickle fights, and wrestling matches as it is like figuring out puzzles. We are invited to live in such a way that engages Truth as embodied beings, not just floating heads.

God invites us to more than just figuring out the puzzle and answering the questions correctly.

For a long time our predominant Christian traditions have been influenced by logical, linear, more “masculine” ways of thinking. There is much to learn from the efforts that have been given by these voices and pursuits, and these are still worthy ways of studying the Scripture. As we wrestle with what it means to be created in the image of God as male AND female, then we must also engage Scripture in a way that honors intuition, imagination, senses, and a more “feminine” way of study. Trauma research is showing us more and more that to heal and grow from our adverse experiences we must not only think about and rationalize them cognitively, but we must limbically and viscerally experience and engage the emotions and sensations that arise from memories of trauma. We must feel into the particularity of our bodies through stories in order to recover from traumatic experiences. If we are created with stories and bodies that require engagement of the senses to learn, heal, and grow—why should theology and relation to God be any different?

When is the last time you let the words in the Bible touch you? When is the last time you meditated on the sounds, smells, and feelings that the men and women of Scripture experienced? How do you feel and experience your own body as you read about the experiences of the bodies and lives of those found in the Word? We can learn a great deal by exegesis. I myself spent nearly a year in South Africa doing nothing but inductive Bible study 12 hours a day, and I am forever grateful for that foundation that I gained in understanding the historical implications and significance in Scripture. Logical modalities of Scripture study are invaluable—and so is an embodied theology. When I meditate on eternity being written in our hearts and displayed in all creation, I am left imagining a God that is wildly hilarious, deeply tender, and ferociously strong. As much as I want to know about this God—I want to know this God. I want to experience this God. I want to feel the Creator’s heartbeat as much as I want to understand it. I want to feel where I can press my back against to find comfort, softness, and stillness.

What if we spent as much time experiencing, noticing, and being grateful for God’s gifts to our senses as we spent talking about theology? I believe that as we engage a theology of embodiment we open ourselves up for the world to see and experience the flesh and the blood that Jesus has imparted to each of us, male and female, and to continue on in an incarnational way of living that represents the life of Jesus Christ.