MRS. Moltmann Monday: On the Body

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today I want to share an excerpt from Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s book, I Am My Body. Yes, Moltmann has a rock star wife who also has a PhD in theology. Her book is accessible and readable, more of an overview and conversation starter. Of course, as you can guess from the title, she’s talking about the body and how it relates to faith, and all the ways religion and doctrine and theology have engaged (or ignored, more often) the role the body plays in faith. From her chapter on ‘The Body and Christianity’:

More recent attempts to recover a more positive sense of embodiment in the church are finding difficulty in getting detached from the old thought-patterns and developing independent ideas which are not just the adoption of modern secular concepts. They would have to bring about a comprehensive change both in the traditional Christian doctrine of sin and in the doctrine of grace. They would have to rediscover the human body as a comprehensive field of energy and as a political organ, and start from the creation, not from the ‘fall.’

On the other hand people also have the experience that Christianity more than any other religion practices a broad acceptance of the sick, suffering human body which is despised in many societies. The works of mercy are again the most distinctive potential of Christianity. But what is the explanation of this love of the body on the one hand and contempt of the body on the other?…

Salvation concerns the whole person, since according to the New Testament the salvation of the soul is not yet salvation. The message of Jesus relates to human beings in their totality, in their bodies, in which the soul dwells and gives them life…In some stories the healing also takes place directly from body to body: thus in three stories Jesus’ spittle is the means of cure… Theology and the church have long felt such stories about the body to be painful and magical, to be in contradiction to the Enlightenment. They are certainly not coincidental, but were deliberately included in the Gospels and remind us of the forgotten bodily dimension of the message of Jesus.

A couple of things to note here. First, I really like her idea that if we are to rediscover an appropriately holistic theological view of the body, we may want to consider the body as both a ‘comprehensive field of energy’ and ‘a political organ.’ Because we are only and ever located within our bodies, all the energies, choices, movements, and directions we take will be directly correlated to the way we understand the world as bodied people. And that is blatantly political. These movements and choices have end results and consequences and are affected by what we put into law and what we deem acceptable in society. For example, #BlackLivesMatter is a bodied political statement. It is calling us to ask the question of whether we really are going to let it be acceptable in our society for a young black man’s body to lie in the street before someone covers him, or whether a young black man needing medical attention after being shot will actually receive bodily attention for his wounds. These are political questions. And they are undeniably theological questions, directly related to what you think about the body of Jesus, broken for us.

Second, salvation is a body thing, not just a soul thing. Moltmann-Wendel pokes at the squeamish nature of her contemporary Enlightenment colleagues, for whom the miracle stories in the Gospel felt too magical and skeptical and illogical to be given sufficient attention. No, she says. These stories are in there for a reason: they ‘remind us of the forgotten bodily dimension of the message of Jesus.’ In other words, score one for the canon. This is why you don’t go messing around with which books got in and which ones didn’t. Because if the Enlightenment could have edited the Gospels, they would have left us with a few nice sayings of Jesus, a few ethical imperatives perhaps, and all the weird, messy, uncomfortable things like healings and harsh words and Jesus’ spit would have been left out. And we would be able to forget even more than we do already that our faith is, by design, embodied and complicated.

It made me think, too, about how we have such faulty vision and attention with these miracle stories. I’ve been in I don’t know how many conversations in Bible studies or Sunday gatherings or classroom discussions where we focused almost entirely on the “magic” of it, the improbability of a woman bleeding for that long, the obvious fact that this man had epilepsy, etc.  What a weird way for us to respond. Because we don’t know what to do with the miracle of it, we somehow fixate on the least important aspects of it and blow them all out of proportion, and then pat ourselves on the back for seeing through the facade we ourselves just created. What if we stopped all of that, and just read these stories as descriptions of salvation, which invariably connect to our bodies and our overall well-being, because that is what salvation IS?

To do that, we probably have to heed Mrs. Moltmann-Wendel’s advice first. We have to rediscover the human body as a comprehensive field of energy and a political organ. We have to start from creation and not the ‘fall.’

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