A Call to Christian Embodiment
Rev. Jim Dickerson
One of the terrible heresies of not only ages past, but of this current one as well, is the dis-embodiment of the Christian faith and it’s richly embodied, comprehensive and holistic theology, traditions, communal life and spiritual practices. Like Esau, who allowed Jacob to beat him out of his father Isaac’s inheritance (Gen. 25:29-34), Christianity has allowed the larger culture and religio/political forces and powers from within to con it out of the full measure of its divinely embodied birth right.
The consequences of Christians and institutional Christianity exchanging its thoroughly embodied faith and practice for a largely dis-embodied, overly fragmented, compartmentalized, highly individualistic, psychological and spiritualized one has been disastrous to all levels of life be they personal, social, or ecological, to name but a few. Christianity’s legacy of dis-embodiment has fragmented and disabled the church, distorted its doctrine, thwarted its mission, damaged its people, wreaked havoc on earth and opened the door to more inequity, injustice, violence, domination and alienation in society.
Dis-embodiment and fragmentation is not only the case in the Christian Church, but the North American culture and its varied and sundry popular spiritualities and religious practices as well. This includes different forms of yoga be they the newly emerging Christianized version or the traditional forms based in Eastern practices that have been imported to North America for popular capitalistic consumption and adaptation. To my knowledge, many, if not most, practitioners, teachers, and types of yoga are content to keep the focus and scope in the classroom, the studio and on the individual to the exclusion of the larger social, political, earth bodies as integral dimensions of their practice and teaching.
But all is not lost, especially for Christianity. As one Christian theologian put it, “the end of all God’s work is (and I say, ‘continues to be’)… embodiment.” All sources of divine revelation and, most importantly, Jesus, have disclosed that radical embodiment is God’s nature, work and will in and for all areas and levels of life. “There is one God and Father of all, who is above all, through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:6) Jesus once said, “What God has joined together let no one put asunder.” (Matt.19:6). God will not long stand for creatures’ attempts to dis-embody what God intends to be embodied.
This good news of Christianity’s embodied nature is beginning to be reclaimed, proclaimed, celebrated, practiced and promoted by some, including Christians who practice yoga, among others. It’s very good news that, in some Christian circles, the individual human body, with help from the Holy Spirit and the human spirits who inhabit it, is making a comeback and slowly elbowing its way into its rightful place as a more accepted, valued, integrated, integral and equal part of Christian spirituality and practice.
So, the great work of reclaiming the body and our thoroughly embodied, holistic Christian tradition and spiritual practices has begun, but as the song says, “we’ve only just begun.” There’s still a lot more inward, outward and communal work to be done before all parts of our radically embodied Christian tradition are fully integrated and included into one, seamless, unified spiritual practice. I refer to the larger bodily system and systems of life where God also dwells and to which our individual bodies and personal prayer practices are intricately and inextricably connected. The “social/political body”, the “earth body”, and the “corporate body” which includes the Church—are still treated as separate dis-embodied members of the One Body of Life in which the Divine Life is embodied and experienced.
While many practitioners and advocates of a more embodied Christian spirituality are not opposed and even sympathetic to including the larger socio/political/earth bodies and systems in the practice, the fact remains there is little effort being given to do so in any cohesive, practical, well-integrated manner. The “Christian Yoga Teacher Training” courses and curricula I’ve seen thus far do not do it [editor's note: pre-2008]. Nor do most body-mind-spirit retreats, workshops, classes etc. Discussions about how to expand and integrate the larger bodily systems into a much more whole, unified, less individualistic and dis-embodied spiritual practice, usually gets reduced to individual acts of mercy, charity and direct social services which are good and necessary, but fall far short of the full scope of Christian embodiment. This is yet another symptom of the highly individualistic and fragmented spirituality we remain stuck in.
The Kingdom of God in the bible and according to Jesus is not only an “alternative state of inner and ethical consciousness” that is to be applied on an individualistic basis. God’s Kingdom is also an alternative, domination-free and non-violent social, political, economic and communal reality. Jesus embodied and taught this alternative order/empire/system as an integral expression of the spirituality he practiced and passed on to His followers, inviting them to do the same—“Just as the Father sent me, so I send you, and he breathed on them saying, receive the Holy Spirit.” (Jn. 20:21-22). Authentic Christian spirituality that is centered in Jesus and biblical tradition, by nature has us incorporating all parts of the One Body of Life—individual, social/political, earth– into one embodied spiritual practice. There exist some models and examples among us of how different folk are doing this in their own unique lives, work, communities of faith and settings. What’s lacking is more called and committed people to do it.
My hope and prayer is that we Christians and our Church get unstuck from our current debilitating state of individualism and the terrible legacy of dis-embodiment in our faith and personal/corporate spirituality. Now that the individual human body is being more integrated into our prayer practices, our challenge and call is to take the next natural faith-filled step toward expanding and fully integrating the political, social, earth and communal dimensions into Christian spiritual practice.
Until that happens, our body-mind-spirit spirituality will continue to be too small, fragmented and not nearly substantial enough to meet the challenges and heal the wounds we face today. We need a spiritual practice that is, as Paul says, stronger and more powerful than what the world considers strong and powerful (1Cor. 2:18-31). We need the spirituality that sustained Jesus’ journey to and through the cross. Our current individualistic focus on yoga and meditation must expand if we are to be true to our biblical tradition and practice the spirituality Jesus passed on to us.
God’s call and our times demand an enlarged, robust form of divine embodiment that clearly and cohesively integrates and expresses the social, ecological, and cosmic as well as the individual nature of our mystically embodied union and communion with God in Christ. Our current practice needs to become a more comprehensive prayer of embodiment with called, gifted and committed people of faith, hope and love in Christ to live and teach it.
May we heed the call of the prophet Isaiah to, “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” (Isaiah 54:2)
About the author: Rev. Jim Dickerson pastors the New Community Church, a small, highly-active, neighborhood-based church affiliated with Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. He is founder and chair of Manna, Inc., a nationally recognized, non-profit, affordable-housing and community development organization in D.C.