Dogma, Abuse, and Embodied Theology

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We recently dove back into the weighty terrain of spiritual abuse, wrestling with the ways that harmful, dogmatic theology can be used to abuse and control our entire selves—body, mind, and spirit. Here, Jenny McGrath reflects on how a theology of embodiment changes how we perceive abuse and opens us to a holistic, whole-hearted, full-bodied journey of healing. Just a head’s up, though: Jenny’s engagement of our body’s response to pleasure—including the physical arousal that often occurs during sexual abuse—may be triggering for some readers.


A little over a year ago, I published an article about the Theology of Embodiment. This theology has continued to unfold for me during the last year. For most of my life I was taught explicitly and implicitly that my body, much less the pleasure of my body, was dirty. I grew up in a culture of Christianity where “purity” was praised above all else. (I must highlight this was predominantly about girls’ and women’s purity; men’s purity never seemed as much of an emphasis in youth group teachings, books, and messages that I heard.) The teachings that I received included a Sunday School lesson where my youth pastor had a handful of M&M’s. He would walk around the room handing a few M&M’s to various students in the youth group with this strong message: “These M&m’s are like your value and your worth. If you go around giving yourself sexually to other people, eventually you will have no more M&M’s (i.e., value or worth) to give to your future spouse.”

The teachings I received did not include a more nuanced, embodied, holistic picture of what sexuality, pleasure, and bodies were designed for. There were no instructions or object lessons on how to celebrate the gift of pleasure as an expression of love for self, others, and God. I learned from a young age to feel shame and guilt for excitement, curiosity, arousal, and definitely pleasure in my body. These things were “gross,” “sinful,” and “bad” (yet somehow they were magically supposed to become amazing the night of my wedding—a dichotomy that has yet to make sense in my mind or body). This lack of nuance and education did not prepare me for when I was just 14 years old and was sexually abused by a 28-year-old man. Because my body had responded to his touch, his kiss, his tongue, I immediately internalized the shame once again that my body was bad, wrong, and sinful. The purity ring on my finger did not prepare me for what to do in the midst of sexual assault. My prefrontal cortex was still very much in formation (the logistical part of our brain that isn’t fully formed until around 25 years old), so I had no way to rationalize, intellectualize, or understand this event. All I had was my physiological experience of fear and terror, but also pleasure.

The purity ring on my finger did not prepare me for what to do in the midst of sexual assault.

When we don’t leave space in the church for the nuances of sexuality, pleasure will always follow the path of least resistance. This path can flow into two diverging tributaries: one of shame and another of shamelessness. I am not condoning everything that brings pleasure to an individual, for there are instances where pleasure does not bear good fruit in the life of an individual or a community. Not everything is beneficial; however, I am suggesting that we have curiosity and kindness in the realm of pleasure. A good resource for this type of engagement with pleasure comes in Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted. This engagement is one that invites boundaries, containment, and honor. For pleasure to be loving to self and others, it must be within the realms of honor and boundaries. A theology of pleasure does not mean “anything goes” as long as it brings sensations that feel good, but it does invite celebration at the body’s automatic ability to give and receive pleasure. We need to teach our young girls and boys and their mothers and fathers that their bodies are good. Their desire is good—their sexuality is good! Yes, it is complex, at times broken, but given of God as good. Otherwise they will be clothed in blankets of shame or shamelessness, and the safest place for them to hide will be in repressions, addictions, and further abuse.

We do not have control over our autonomic nervous system; it is an involuntary response within our body. It is the system in our body that is responsible for activation/deactivation—another way to say this would be arousal and lack of arousal. Our bodies were created for pleasure. There is no other anatomical “reason” for a woman’s clitoris than to experience pleasure, and every female mammal has one! We also can experience pleasure in other ways that are not overtly sexual, and this is all part of what it means to be an erotic being. Our eroticism is not separate from who we are day-to-day. We can’t physically compartmentalize our sexuality until our wedding night—it’s just not possible!

As I have wrestled more and more with what this means for myself, I have been beckoned back to wrestle more and more with what this means for Scripture, for Jesus. For so long in my mind I wanted to de-sexualize or de-eroticize Jesus. He couldn’t feel excited or intrigued, much less aroused. I had unconsciously made him a robot in my mind. It seemed that the only “acceptable” form of sensation for him to feel was the suffering of his crucifixion and death. But our sensations do not work like that: We don’t get to pick certain sensations and not others. Our feelings, our emotions, our sensations are like a window. The more we close ourselves off to suffering, pain, depression, the more we close ourselves off to joy, happiness, and pleasure. So if Jesus was fully alive, fully embodied during his torture, then we are invited to also have curiosity about what it meant for him to be fully alive as a beautiful woman washed his feet with sensual oils and her hair. We are meant to wonder what it felt like in his body when small children were crawling on his lap, laughing with him and enjoying him. We are able to meditate on what it would be like for him to be fully alive when he ate delicious meals of herbs, wine, and various breads and meats in the elegant glow of candlelight. We would do well to take pause and reflect on the embodiment, and also the pleasure of this man who we say we want to live like. For if we only give heed to his suffering, we are missing a huge part of what his life was about.

The more we close ourselves off to suffering, pain, depression, the more we close ourselves off to joy, happiness, and pleasure.

If we only see the body as something that is to be neglected, whipped, beaten, deprived, and crucified, then we will create spiritual dogmas that will become gridlocks for sexual abuse. The reality is that, in most sexual abuse, the victim will experience some form of pleasure. Not because they wanted it to happen, but because their autonomic nervous system received and sent involuntary messages to the brain and the body that this type of touch, these words this place of touch, were meant to feel good. Our limbic system does not hold story, therefore it does not have the ability to sort through what is appropriate, consensual touch and what is abusive. This needs to be something that we can bless within ourselves, and with survivors of sexual abuse. Otherwise we will continue to drown in the shame and contempt for our bodies and the pleasure they experienced in the midst of the abuse, or we will get lost in the current of pleasure that does not respect or honor boundaries and commitment. This does not in any way condone or bless the abuse itself, but it creates nuance that makes room for the whole body to be welcomed into the process of recovery.

We may be well acquainted with the suffering of abuse, but how do we suffer the pleasure of abuse? How do we suffer the pleasure of pleasure? How does our own pleasure invite us into a greater understanding and experience of Scripture, of Jesus, of this thing we call life? How, then, does this theology of pleasure begin to impact the way we live and emulate the life of Christ?

These are all theoretical questions for me at this point, but just as no two bodies are the same, I believe this theological lens will create a richer, fuller, and more dynamic embodied theology that is not one-size-fits-all. We will begin to hear what Scripture looks like from bodies of color, bodies that have various sexual orientations, bodies from marginalized people groups. When we foster a theology of embodiment, we can start to see more spectrum and diversity in how we understand Scripture, and therefore how we understand ourselves. That is a theology that begins to make me curious, and even excited! It is a theology that invites us to bring along all of who we are and doesn’t require us to leave our skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability levels, or cultural heritage at the door. May we continue to step more and more into what it means to be a body that is big, small, fat, skinny, tall, short, dark, light, and all other variances of shape, color, and identity in between!