What Does Embodied Spirituality Mean to You?

One of the reasons I kissed evangelism goodbye is because of the troubling method of convincing our conversion target of their need to be saved. It’s Marketing 101, create the need then supply the solution. Both Christian establishment and global capitalism depend upon the same formula. The message we are bombarded with, both from secular and religious spheres, is that we are somehow broken, empty, and in need of something to make us whole.

Naming our deepest longing and seeking redemption is the stuff of poetry. Preaching a good news can be beautiful, healing, and transcendent. But lately I have been struggling with the language we use to frame our fundamental human condition as neediness. The metaphors we use are such that we have holes in our hearts, or that we have missing pieces of a puzzle waiting for a perfect match, or perhaps that we are incomplete and require wholeness, as if we aren’t already a whole person and only a shadow of one. I confess to having used this language myself.

“What does embodied spirituality mean to you?” This was a question asked of me at a recent podcast interview. I hadn’t considered it before and I am still working out the answer to it. But here are some initial thoughts:

Embodied spirituality critiques the idea that our spirituality is trapped in the broken vessels which are our aging bodies, temporarily residing in this world that is wasting away, waiting to be snatched up into a heavenly realm. Instead, a spirituality that is embodied means we find the fullness of our being manifested in the complex system which make up the whole of us—our bodies, our minds, our energy, our dreams, our longings, our past, present, and future.

The Christian narrative grounds our spirituality in our created-ness. That we are tenderly knit together in our mother’s womb, our cells intricately formed according to a genetic blueprint, and we emerge into this world as human beings imprinted with the image of the divine, beautiful and strong. It is good, God had declared.

One of the things that I consistently want to enforce as I work on my Unfundamentalist Parenting book is that our children are born as fully formed people, they aren’t half-beings with less-than status, but are fully capable of embodying a beautiful spirituality at two years old, five years old or fourteen years old—before a baptism, before praying the prayer, even before they utter their first word.

If this is true, and I believe it is, then we face the struggles of our lives not as broken, fragmented, empty souls in need of saving, but as empowered whole human beings engaging in an often unkind world.

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We are striving, longing, laboring, but we aren’t defected goods that require fixing.

We wrestle for meaning, fight against injustice, crave love, but we aren’t insignificant until our longings are fulfilled.

We have needs, wants, desires, but we aren’t incomplete until those dreams come true.

I don’t know if this nuance is worth deliberating because that realization of our finitude feels like a hole in our hearts. I feel broken, incomplete, and insignificant. I feel weak and in desperate need of being saved.

But then I am reminded that weakness doesn’t diminish my value, in fact, my vulnerabilities often are the most resilient and precious parts of myself. So to name our human weaknesses as a problem that needs solving is to make the grave error that our weakness isn’t what makes us the most beautiful.

I think a language and theology of embodied spirituality matters to those who have disabilities, trans people, and those who suffer chronic illness. Because an overly simplistic line drawn from sinfulness to redemption imposed upon them easily becomes a theological tool for further marginalization. A body manifesting physical defects is not a demonstration of the spirituality of brokenness needing redemption. Her body struggles uniquely, but embodies a whole, dynamic, spiritual being.

This begs the question: if we are born whole and wired for struggle, then what are we saved from? I think we have to abandon the notion that redemption equals perfection and is a one time done deal. We aren’t saved into moral superiority or a balanced performance ledger. We aren’t converted once and in no more need of a Savior subsequently. My own spiritual journey tells me that I am saved by inviting a God who struggles with me in the flesh, manifested in the Jesus story as seen in Scripture, and in loving folks who care in Christ-like ways (quick disclaimer: Target boycotters not included). God doesn’t fill a hole in my heart, or fulfill my longings. God stays with me when my heart hurts and dreams with me and for me as I long for more.

Perhaps that’s not enough for some people – I know some need to worship a God who can wave a wand and supernaturally heal, shield, and perform wonders.

I just need a God who stays.

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  • Rea

    Obviously Christian culture is deeply ingrained in me, because I’m wrestling a bit with this! But I’m trying to think of anywhere in the Bible that uses that language of ‘you are broken until God comes along and fixes you’. I need to do more study. Thanks for making me think. 🙂

  • Beautifully written Cindy. I love how you end it…

    I think that one of the hardest and most difficult deficiencies of the “we are broken and in need of a savior” model you critique here is how it’s very prescribed remedy also often becomes its own cyclical source of brokenness — in that what do you do with all the prayers and situations that despite someone’s great faith or reliance in a God that heals and saves and transforms fails to see that answer actually realized or need addressed. For every time that it has felt like God has intervened in my life I also have plenty of experiences where his apparent absence and silence “according to that formula” were so difficult to swallow. Christianity Today ran an article recently interviewing church historian Kate Bowler on her study of the “Prosperity Gospel” movement and circles of the Evangelical Christian church that I found addressed these very shortcomings with a powerful amount of clarity. The writer herself is currently dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis, and thus has a really poignant perspective on it. Definitely worth reading the interview as well as the original article she wrote. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/kate-bowler-on-dying-and-sure-hope.html

    • Yes that article was beautifully written, we actually discussed it for a small group. Thanks for your poignant thoughts here…

  • Bart Kroon

    I identify with your thoughts, Cindy. I just read a blurb on a speaker at a conference in Sydney, Australia. It says: “Ray will paint the broad backdrop of a biblical anthropology by considering humanity as both the glory and the garbage of the universe;….” I felt SO discouraged that Christians can still think this way about God’e image-bearers. “Garbage of the universe”! Yes, garbage. Sad.

  • José

    This is beautifully worded Cindy, as always, you see straight to the heart of this longing for and living with God. Theres already too much theology around telling us that we’re basically still under the law and God would annihilate us–individually and as a nation–for our sins except that Jesus’ death somehow stays his judgement. It’s such a twisted, unbiblical way of understanding Incarnation, which you’ve beautifully called Embodied Spirituality. I think this way of looking at things is more in tune with the reality of our God becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood. This really IS Good News. This really is hope. This grounds us in the here and now, because God is here, he’s not displeased with us, he’s not turned away but our brokenness, and we are not morally perfect somehow, better than others. Incidentally, I thought, this embodied spirituality should also compel us to care more for our environment. This is not a throw-away world, just waiting for destruction and renewal. This is our home, our now and here. And as such we need to respect it, take care of it, and share it wisely with others. Thank you so much for your writing.

  • Tony Senewiratne

    I feel revitalised and refreshed by the line of thought about the peddling of Christianity through the carrots of fear (hell) and rewards (properity here and the hereafter) Two concepts that dont find congruence with the God that christians profess to beleive in.

    However while sounding good and even profound I find the ‘God that Stays’ concept requires unpacking. Why does he stay – why do I need him to stay and for what purpose.

    I am very aware that no one article or book can answer all questions or suppositions but we have to begin somewhere. The answers must make more sense than the criticisms

  • oh yes, yes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. As someone in a ‘flawed body’ I’ve been wrestling with this. An the image of God as one who stays with us in and through the hurt, who is not afraid of it but keeps pouring out love just the same as always, that is so powerful. After all, our God is Emmanuel: God with us. It honours the now of creation, points us towards being with God, rather than just one-time saved. My experience would agree that redemption is an on-going and wrestling process, gradually transforming my life.
    I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this and Paul’s writings about our weaknesses.

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