An incarnational theology
How is it possible that we in the church, which claims that Jesus is the center of our faith, don’t love our bodies and love being human? As I am ever so slowly learning to love and accept my body as it is, my criticism of the culture around me is quieting and subsiding.
In its place is an increasing incredulity and impatience that the church has been and continues to be complicit in teaching us to shun our bodies.
It is an understatement to say that most girls and women in this country struggle to love their bodies.
From magazines to movies to shopping malls, the pervasive message is that our bodies need to be slimmed down here, enhanced there, dressed this way, made up that way, shaved and waxed and peeled and colored and highlighted and painted and on and on.
Blaming the world around us for the ever more sophisticated objectification of women’s bodies comes naturally, and there is responsibility and fault there.
The Christian faith claims that Jesus is the Son of God. We know this so well that we no longer have any idea what it means or what a profound and remarkable thing it is. We call this belief the Incarnation: Jesus is God in the flesh.
We don’t hold this as an idea or a spiritualized belief; rather our faith says God was born in the historical person of Jesus. A God who chooses to become a human being is one who loves being with humans.
Perhaps one of the most pervasive and insidious influences through the centuries has been Platonism. Platonic thought elevates the ideal over the real, the spiritual over the physical, mind over matter. Not only is the soul elevated but the body is denigrated, shamed for its baseness.
Too often the theology we live is one that disembodies our minds and spirits. What we teach about heaven and hell confirms that spirit and minds will go to heaven, but bodies will burn in hell.
The church has fostered an oppositional relationship between earth and heaven.
This separation between heaven and earth, between flesh and spirit, denies the Incarnation. The church says Jesus was fully divine and fully human, and that is the theology we teach. But the belief we actually live is that Jesus was fully divine but a special and different kind of human being.
Yet Jesus referred to his disciples as brothers, siblings, and he taught us to pray, “Our Father.” Just as Jesus’ body gave flesh to Creating God, so God is waiting to be enfleshed in our bodies.
Loving our bodies is not some new age or heretical concept; it is at the heart of the gospel. Learning to love our bodies is the first step to learning to love all bodies, but that is no small task.
It means bringing a new awareness and a revision to the theologies of the church. If we are going to learn to love our bodies, we need a practice that teaches us to love and honor bodies.
One way to do this is through the ancient practice of yoga. We may not think of yoga as a way to practice Christian theology. In fact, friends who are yoga teachers often talk about concerns they hear from people in classes that yoga violates their Christian beliefs.
There is an irony that our church, with the foundational doctrine of the Incarnation, doesn’t have a practice for us to learn to inhabit and love our bodies, so it makes sense that we borrow from another culture and translate it into a Christian practice.
Yoga is a practice of mindfulness, of learning to be in the body, in space and in time. As such, it easily becomes an incarnational practice.
The intention of embodied prayer brought to yoga makes it an appropriate way to practice learning to love bodies. It also matters who the teacher is—just as teachers and pastors in the church matter.
My teacher welcomes every body—any shape and size, any level of ability and flexibility.
On the yoga mat, wherever and however we are in our practice, is the perfect place to be. Each yoga pose is distinctly and uniquely expressed in individual bodies. While every pose is celebrated, there is no measure of perfection or completion; there is only the invitation to give myself to greater opening, deeper stretching, more strength and sturdier balance.
Let me give several examples of how the practice of yoga becomes an incarnational practice. Let’s take Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. Most of us give intellectual assent to this teaching, but it is not easy. The truth is that it’s hard, very hard, to love our enemies.
As pacifists (and “nice” Mennonites) we may not identify people in our lives as enemies, but if we tell the truth, we do have enemies. Jesus’ words, “love your enemies,” make it sound like a simple task. But the emotions and behaviors our enemies evoke in us are anything but simple; they catch us off guard and demand attention.
Through yoga I’ve learned to bring my practice on the mat to my life off the mat. When I find myself in a difficult situation, in the eye of an emotional storm contemplating some form of violence against another body, I remember my yoga pose and breathe, and my body remembers the experience of love.
Now as I face this “other” body, my practiced body whispers that my enemy is also a beloved body. My body remembers its prayer and, rather than acting out of anger, over time and with hours of practice, learns to act out of love.
Yoga has been an essential practice as I learn to let the profundity, the forgiving-ness and the immanence of God’s love form and transform me—body and spirit.
There is a yoga pose (half-moon) that has taken me years to be able to do.
Slowly, one practice at a time, after a year or so, I noticed I could balance.
After more years, trusting my body’s learnings, I am now able to lean into my balance and strength, opening my body in new ways, experiencing the power and vulnerability of such an opening. This happened so gradually that I barely noticed. Learning to live as God’s beloved happens slowly.
And so, over time, we discover that our bodies are fully capable of giving flesh to God, just as Jesus’ body gave flesh to the Holy One. In our humanity, we give residence to God, on earth as in heaven, just as Jesus did. We discover that we, too, can do impossible things, such as loving our enemies.
There are many ways we can practice embracing and loving our bodies. But they all require that we move from our heads, from our thoughts and our thinking, into the physicality of our bodies.
And so I imagine the following:
• A church where our catechism includes an incarnational theology that teaches us that God already loves us, teaches us to love being human and teaches us to love human beings the way God loves human beings. When we give Bibles to our children, we will give a yoga mat as well.
• A church where each time we gather for worship, we breathe together, recognizing that it is the breath of God that gives each of us our being and that together we are the body of Christ.
• A church where, rather than being divided by ways of thinking and understanding, we gather to cook meals and sit our bodies down, side by side, to eat. Instead of being separated by beliefs, we play together. We share our stories with each other, telling each other about the pain and joy that our bodies carry.
• And I imagine a church where, when we are gathered for Communion and we hear the words, “This is my body,” we remember the way Jesus taught us to love bodies, all bodies, even our own.
Suella Gerber is pastor at Fellowship of Hope in Elkhart, Ind.