A physical faith in a disembodied age
We live in a disembodied age. Think about it. If you’re like me, most of your communication with others takes place by text or email. We may speak on the phone regularly, but many of us live miles from our closest friends and rarely have protracted face-to-face conversations. In fact, our common means of communication tend to assume that we are biological computers sharing discrete data packets with one another. This assumption is obviously false, but is it also detrimental to our flourishing?
I have recently started fishing the waters near my home in Bethlehem (PA). I had always envisioned fishing as an essentially passive activity. The popular perception is that fishing is essentially a form of outside napping. It’s not. In many ways fishing is very active both mentally and, to a lesser degree, physically. Every cast of the line you’re thinking about where to place the lure or the fly. Every time you reel you’re trying to mimic the action of the lure you’re using. You’re looking for evidence of trout activity. You get the idea.
In this regard, fishing is an awful lot like Christian spirituality. Fishing requires the alignment of our minds, our actions, and it requires a store of wisdom that comes through experience. Our Christian faith calls upon us to be Christians inwardly as well as outwardly. We are invited to a faith that embraces thinking and acting. And over a life of practicing the faith we find that we begin to have a sort of wisdom to offer others. It’s a wisdom that’s shaped by, among other things, our physical experiences and practices.
Christians have historically affirmed the goodness, if brokenness, of the created order. As a result the Christian faith has typically valued our physicality rather than running from it. Consider that the two most important signs and symbols of our faith involve the sprinkling of a child or convert with water, and the consecration and reception of bread and wine. These are tactile experiences that are central to our faith.
I worry that my evangelical faith has not paid sufficient attention to physicality. Online campuses. Virtual communion. Symbol-less sanctuaries. Perhaps we’ve taken things further than we ought, or than what is helpful in our present moment.
When it had the choice the ancient church chose to affirm the value of images of God under the rubric that in the incarnation we have permission to represent Jesus as both truly God, and also a Palestinian jew. The second Council of Nicaea restored the practice of venerating icons to the universal church.
Of course, as a reformed Christian I am part of tradition that looks on iconography with a degree of skepticism. My own conviction is the Christian traditions should continue to “agree to disagree” and to do so charitably. I value icons for aesthetic rather than dogmatic reasons.
God has given us bodies, and God has placed us in a physical world. Any spirituality that fails to account for this essential truth is surely deficient.