Book Excerpt: “Tortured Wonders” (Mar-Apr 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

Excerpt from Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People not Angels

by Rodney Clapp
March – April, 2005

“Putting Adam Back Together Again: Christian Spirituality and the Social Body”

When a friend of mine returned to her apartment near the recently fallen World Trade Center, she discovered a human finger on the balcony. It is almost too horrible to contemplate, but she reported that her neighbors found similar grim evidence of the carnage of September 11, 2001. We know that paramedics and physicians encounter this kind of horror all too often, on battlefields or at the sites of car and plane crashes, and few of us envy them their dreadful duties. The carnage of dismemberment shocks us, of course, because it all too graphically represents death and bodily disintegration. A limb or finger or eye violently separated from the rest of the body is patently and terribly incongruous.

We are not repelled by fingers or legs or heads in and of themselves. For instance, we are at ease with photographs that picture people from the waist or neck up. But a head or other part actually severed from its entire body is immediately awful. In a sense the severed part is human—it belonged to the whole body of a member of the species Homo sapiens. Yet it is not quite human; it is only a part, and removed from the body it is frightfully, repulsively out of place.

Revulsion at dismembered physical bodies is not unique to us moderns. In history’s bloody chronicles there have been few if any cultures that did not share this revulsion. Yet we moderns (or postmoderns) are unique as regards our response to another sort of dismemberment. Unlike any known culture before it, the modern West has seen individual physical bodies as the basis of the social body. The individual is real and primary, the social body a derivative fiction. The modern West has, in essence and contrary to the apostle Paul, said that individuals as “hands” or “feet” are most themselves in isolation from any social body of which they may be members. Premoderns saw matters differently. The individual, inasmuch as such a creature could be conceived, was preceded by and dependent on the social body. The whole person existed only in community. Anyone apparently beyond all community was at best quasi-human, to be greeted with an alarm similar to that evoked in our day by a severed hand or foot.

Traditional Christian spirituality cares about many things. One of them is shaping people so that they can see and prevent the horror not only of physical dismemberment but of social dismemberment as well.

Will the Real Mother Please Stand Up?

Among the preeminent modern shapers of what “religion” and “spirituality” are, and are about, the nineteenth-century psychologist and philosopher William James stands tall. Though he rejected orthodox Christianity, James maintained an intense interest in religion and mysticism. This passion culminated in his still famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience. Like other moderns, James insisted that spirituality is an asocial, essentially individual concern. He wrote in a letter, “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation. . . . The ground I am taking is this: the mother-sea and fountain-head of all religions lies in the mystical experiences of the individual . . . . All theologies and all ecclesiasticisms are secondary growths superimposed.”

So James saw spirituality and spiritual experience beginning with the individual. Individuals had mystical religious experiences. Then they might—or might not—seek to associate with others who have had similar experiences. So churches (what James called “ecclesiasticisms”) and theologies were secondary. They resulted when individuals with their separate experiences subsequently responded to one another.

James rightly intuited that such an approach put him at odds with traditional Christianity. The “Christian scheme of vicarious salvation” means that there is no such thing as atomized or isolated individuals. Human beings are social creatures, linked in solidarity. As the Christian poet John Donne insisted, “No man is an island.” In one, Adam the proto-human, many are created and can fall into sin and destruction. In one, Christ the second Adam, many can be restored or recreated. Christianity sinks its roots into the reality and priority of the social or corporate body. In such a vision, the identity and welfare of each member are embedded in and intertwined with the identity and welfare of the whole, the many united. Without an appreciation of the social body, orthodox Christianity can simply make no sense. Immured in an individualism James exemplified, we moderns and postmoderns may easily find ourselves, like him, constitutionally incapable of believing (or even understanding) the classical confession that the world has been saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In short, modern individualism makes it hard for us to see the forest for the trees, the whole for the parts. When we look at a single physical body, we easily tend to think of it as freestanding or autonomous, unrelated to other bodies. Our medicine, for example, concentrates on individual habits and diet. Worrying about a possible cancer, the physician asks the individual if she smokes—not if she lives in a community near a toxic waste dump. Even as patient after patient reports severe stress (one doctor told a friend of mine that he attributed over 80 percent of the patient complaints he heard to the effects of stress), modern medicine concentrates on helping the individual “adjust to” and “cope with” stress. That is our gross individualism speaking and defining the conversation, blocking other possible and important questions. For instance, noting chronically high rates of stress, we might ask if the community, the social body, is sick. And we might wonder how it could be changed so that members of the social body might adjust to a standard of health rather than illness.

Of course, modern hyper-individualism has in recent decades come in for its knocks. One such challenge comes from historians, who remind us that the notion of the autonomous, unconnected individual is—in the span of history—an idea so anomalous as to be bizarre. Former cultures have seen the individual rooted in and identified by communal ties. The individual physical body was real. But no less real, and in fact preceding and living on after every individual body, was the social body. Premoderns saw the two bodies related, corresponding, each affecting the other. The use of the human body as symbolic of human society dates at least as far back as 900 B.C.E. and has been noted in India, Iran, Russia, and across the Mediterranean. The microcosm of the physical body seemed most handily to illustrate and explain the macrocosm of society—how unity can exist with an interdependent diversity of parts, or members. The language I use here is telling to our point: microcosm means “a little cosmos.” In the view of many peoples throughout history, the human body is the world writ small. The single physical body reflects and imitates the configuration, workings, or mechanics of the universe. Moreover, it is influenced by and participates in the designs of the universe. The part constantly relates to the whole, and vice versa.

Roman architects scrutinized the human body and saw it structured in geometrical, symmetrical relationships. The bodily parts are proportioned one to another, and limbs, eyes, and ears match across the two sides of the body. Accordingly, as in Rome’s Pantheon, the architects constructed buildings with equal and opposite parts to their matching sides—bilateral niches, bilateral placement of statues, and so forth. Likewise, when Europeans in the seventeenth century discovered that blood, pumped by the heart, circulated throughout the human body, the design of urban infrastructures was affected. Officials banned the dumping of chamber pots on street surfaces. City planners built sewage systems beneath the streets and wanted the dirt and filth of the city, like the impurities of the physical body, to circulate under the surface, toward their elimination. In cases like these, the interplay of physical and social bodies determined the concrete shape and substance of the world in which people lived and moved. There are many other possible examples, of hardly less importance or influence. For instance, medieval Europe regarded the bodies of kings as symbolic of the social bodies these kings ruled. An attack on the king was equivalent to an attack on the society as a whole.

However much modern individualism obscures perception of the social body, it has not entirely blocked it. We moderns can, for instance, readily relate to the notion of an individual figure representing a community or society. Mayors are spokespersons for cities, ambassadors act on behalf of entire countries. And a state would perceive another nation’s assault on the person of its president or prime minister as an assault on the society as a whole. The interaction and interdependence of the physical body’s limbs and organs remain extraordinarily suggestive and readily apparent. The diverse parts of the physical body work together to serve the whole, and only in relation to the whole can the parts remain healthy. The apostle Paul was not the first or last to notice this and to compare the physical to the social body. Paul said the individual body consists of many members, but what good would it do for any one member to try to go off on its own? “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. . . . If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:15–20).

Here the apostle spoke of the social body we call the church. The parts (the individuals) of that social body, he said, do not look out for their own interests or gain. Each has gifts of the Spirit, but not for personal enrichment or enjoyment. Instead, the gifts are given “for the common good,” for the edification or building up of the social body as a whole (1 Cor. 12:7). In fact, as the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, earlier uses of the word spirituality simply indicated “the [corporate] body of spiritual or ecclesiastical persons.” In one example cited by the OED, we find a speaker in 1441 preparing to address “the spirituality,” which consists of a convocation of two cardinals and five bishops. Here Christian spirituality just is participation and formation in the church, the social body created and sustained by the Holy Spirit.

We can see how orthodox Christian spirituality differs from William James’s modern spirituality. For James, individual experience is the “mother-sea” of all spirituality. For Christians, the church is the mother of spirituality. Standing on the shoulders of many church leaders before him, John Calvin declared, “The church is the common mother of all the godly. . . . There is no other way to enter into [spiritual] life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast.”

Consumer Capitalism and Dismemberment

These profound differences between Christian and modern spirituality do not mean Christian spirituality has no appreciation whatsoever of the individual. Christian spirituality does not want to abolish all differences between persons. It is not echoed, for instance, in Communist schemes to dress everyone alike, in the same gray, drab uniforms. Recall the apostle Paul’s use of the body metaphor. The foot should not want to be the hand or the ear to be the eye. Each is different and has its own function. The body cannot run effectively on its hands or tie knots with its feet. If the body wants to hear, it had best use its ears. And if it wants to see, it turns to its eyes. Likewise, says Paul, the church as a body needs different, and differently gifted, members. In this regard Paul, and Christian spirituality following him, respects and upholds individuality. Diversity within the body is not only tolerable, it is necessary and good.

What classical Christian spirituality does deny is diversity, or difference and individuality, separated and removed from the whole. Paul wants the members to be different, but different as members of one body. When modern individualism speaks of the “self-made” man or woman, it imagines that the foot can be most gloriously itself if it is cut off from the body as a whole. Paul would say otherwise: the foot really is most wonderfully and felicitously a foot when it operates as an organic member of the whole body. The person likewise realizes and enjoys his or her humanity at the fullest as a member of the social body. To be an “individual” in the sense of being primarily unrelated and separate is not to be fulfilled but to be amputated.

Hence the early church saw individualization (in the negative, alienating sense of the word) as a result of the fall into sin. Maximus the Confessor said that by original sin “the one nature [of humanity] was shattered into a thousand pieces.” Humanity was to have been a harmonious unity in which “mine” and “yours” presented no cause for conflict, but with sin humanity exploded into an uncoordinated horde of suspicious and frightened individuals. “And now we rend each other like wild beasts.” Using similar imagery, St. Augustine wrote, “Adam himself is now spread out over the whole face of the earth. Originally one, he has fallen, and, breaking up as it were, he has filled the whole earth with pieces.”

To the degree that a modern spirituality, then, exhorts a person to focus only on self (as in “self-esteem,” “self-realization,” “self-fulfillment,” and the like), it is in the terms of Christian spirituality perversely making the fall its ideal. It puts forth the alienated and amputated individual as the highest and healthiest human condition. And—seen with Christian eyes—that is an illusion. The amputated limb is a dying limb. It is not more but less effectively itself for its severance from the body.

If you are looking for the premier modern spirituality that shapes persons as unattached and alienated individuals, consider consumer capitalism. It may seem odd to think of consumerism as a “spirituality.” But if spiritualities are ways of life that form persons, giving them something to live for and by, consumer capitalism certainly qualifies. After all, captains of industry and advertising executives in the early twentieth century saw that they needed to change the attitudes, hopes, and habits of the populace if consumer capitalism were to succeed. Machinery and assembly techniques were at hand that enabled the manufacture of goods far exceeding any existing markets—especially in a land of thrift. Eventually, habits of saving needed to be replaced by habits of free spending. Attitudes favoring the old and familiar needed to be replaced by lust after the new and novel. People who might question and discipline their desires needed to be taught to honor and indulge them as “felt needs.” Today, we are formed and encouraged as consumers in countless actions: by presidents who urge shopping as a patriotic duty, by credit cards (and the “check cards” enculturating youngsters in the use of credit cards), by the multimedia flood of advertising and marketing, by the retooling of nearly all fields and professions along a market model, by the giving over of “public” spaces such as parks and sports venues to corporate sponsors, and so on and on.

Perhaps traditional Christian spirituality and consumer capitalist spirituality are most clearly contrasted if we consider their opposed understandings of desire. For Christian spirituality, desire can never be considered apart from its object. A desire is known as “good” or “evil” only when we take account of what is desired—the object of desire. As St. Augustine simply put it, desire is wrong or distorted “if the love [the object of desire] is bad, and good if the love is good.” So for Augustine, as for orthodox Christian spirituality in general, desire must be specified and directed. To be healed and rightly aimed, desire must serve a proper end or goal. For Christian spirituality, that end is the God of Israel, met in Jesus Christ. “For you [God] have made us for yourself,” Augustine famously exclaimed, “and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” All desires are judged by how well they do or do not serve the Creator and Redeemer God.

Consumer capitalist spirituality, on the other hand, cultivates a starkly different sort of desire. Capitalism, and the liberalism out of which is arises, wants to focus on desire that does not specify its object. It interprets desire in a formal, blank, unintentional manner. Its desire is a matter of open-ended choice, and the more choice the better. The market demands that questions of the common or ultimate good be set aside and marginalized. The individual must pursue whatever she privately desires, with indifference to the good of the social body. Consequently choice (at least apparent choice) must multiply. Capitalism deifies dissatisfaction and exercises what might be called a preferential option for the options. The kaleidoscope of choice spins freely and wildly, ever changing and expanding. It can be directed, if direction is the word, only by the mysterious workings of the market and its “invisible hand.” The market is considered amoral and is supposed to carry no judgments about good or bad choices and the desires behind them. Thus the neighborhood drugstore sells cigarettes right beside stop-smoking aids, without any sense of irony or contradiction. Whether smoking or not smoking is intrinsically better escapes notice. So long as there is a demand to smoke and a demand to quit smoking, the market will meet either desire (or both). This is what I mean by calling capitalistic desire formal or blank. It is empty of substance. It does not specify desires according to the substantive, actual objects of those desires. It promotes desire for desire’s sake.

Confronting Capitalism with Augustine

Though he knew no such economic animal as our present-day capitalism, St. Augustine did address unspecified or merely formal desire. He said such desire was not neutral but “can only be understood in the bad sense.” That is the case because unspecified desire is no longer related to and ordered by reference to God and God’s love of all creation, but only by reference to the one who desires. Lust or evil desire is “in love with being in love,” desire for desire’s sake. The lustful, concupiscent lover alienates and severs herself from the social body and God’s harmonious arrangement of it. She no longer considers the welfare of the object of her desire so much as the pleasure and satisfaction of her own desiring. So even when unspecified desire’s objects are good in themselves, the desire itself is no longer subordinated to serving the Creator. It is instead desire subordinated to serving the (alienated) creature, the human desire-er.

Augustine protests, “What does it matter in what direction or by what way the unhappy state of man sets out on the pursuit of felicity, if it is not guided by divine authority?” Such desire and striving in a shiftless, aimless yearning can only be enmeshed in sin, as the human being or society gropes in the confusion and ignorance of its fallen state. More exactly, it encourages the sin of idolatry, since the desire-er focuses on pleasing self rather than God. In these terms, wildly manufacturing and pursuing “felt needs” for an unending gusher of new products and experiences can hardly be considered spiritually wise or healthy. It breaks up the social body and scatters it in as many directions as there are self-interests. It corrupts the individual by making him a slave to his desires. As Paul puts it in Philippians 3:19, the slave to his own desires has made his belly, his appetites, his god. Where is the human dignity in that? Inasmuch, then, as the consumer capitalistic ethos is about cultivating desire for the sake of desire (shopping as a way of life), Augustine could only regard it with repugnance.

By Augustine’s lights, God originally meant to impress upon the human that “healthy obedience” and true freedom (the freedom to be what the human is intended to be) are found in “free service” to God. This “free service was in that creature’s own interest.” But the human acted originally and prototypically, in the Garden, against God and so against its own genuinely human interest. Consequently, the creature making his own desire his god is severed not only from the true God and from the social body but from himself. He “who in his pride had pleased himself was by God’s justice handed over to himself.” As creature trying to act as his own Creator, he was divided and pitted against himself. The result was “not that he was in every way under his own control, but that he was at odds with himself, and lived a life of harsh and pitiable slavery, instead of the freedom he so ardently desired.” The “punishment of that [original, and in ensuing generations habitual] sin” was and is “nothing but his own disobedience to himself, so that because he would not do what he could, he now wills to do what he cannot.” Human desire is now disordered and as such often desires what, for its own good, it should not. It is also frequently thwarted by pain and bodily limitations, and ultimately always by death. So in our defiance of God “we have only succeeded in becoming a nuisance to ourselves, and not to God.” Boring to the heart of the matter, Augustine sees that the worst slavery of all is the slavery to a self given over to disordered desire. In his view, it would in fact be better to be slave to another human being, especially a virtuous and wise one, than to fall under the tyranny of one’s own corrupted and confused desire.

As I noted in this book’s introduction, within the consumer capitalistic ethos we have resisted naming this bondage to self as itself a kind of slavery and subjection to tyranny. But we have not been able to entirely hide or disguise it, and so the language of addiction has spread pervasively. Addiction goes well beyond strictly physical or substance addictions, as to heroin, alcohol, and prescription drugs. Twelve-step groups have proliferated to confront “addictions” to shopping, food, and sex, as well as what are deemed unhealthy dependencies on other persons or relationships. In its exaltation of formal or blank desire, its yearning for ever novel experiences and material goods, the consumer capitalistic ethos cultivates addiction to the new and the untried. Though this ethos rarely identifies itself as addicted to addiction, it forms addictive personalities and commodifies addiction itself. The consumer capitalistic economy feeds on the addictiveness of consumers. The tourist seeks ever new and different destinations and experiences. The smoker who tries unsuccessfully to quit will buy more stop-smoking aids. It becomes “cool” to belong to a twelve-step group, even as we struggle against victimization by one or another addiction.

Augustine sought to unveil and remove the disguise not merely of particular addictions but of addiction and slavery to self in general. He confessed to God, “I was sure that it was better to give myself up to your love than to give in to my own [disordered] desires. However, although the one way appealed to me and was gaining mastery, the other still afforded me pleasure and kept me victim.” A better dissection of addiction, I submit, will not be found in any modern literature of dysfunctionality. Addicted to unspecified desire, we can submit neither to God nor to others. The social body is rent into millions of pieces, each anxiously looking out for number one.

Augustine Cross-Examined

Now, as inhabitants and beneficiaries of the consumer capitalistic West, at least we affluent Christians might push back at Augustine in some defense of our ethos, our way of life. We have rehearsed such defenses well. We might point to how life spans have doubled and even tripled from Augustine’s day. We might call attention to our comparatively low rates of infant death and the eradication or control of several diseases that formerly spelled premature death. We can bring into the dock the advantages, joys, and comparative safety of modern transportation and mobility; we can point to the much greater proportion of the population that never knows hunger or want of basic shelter and even enjoys such comforts as air conditioning and media amusement, undreamt of by the wealthiest monarchs in Augustine’s day. We might present on modern capitalism’s behalf the abundance of simple joys such as fresh wine and leisured weekends for the great masses of our citizenry, or the availability of basic and even higher education (without the brutal floggings the young student Augustine routinely endured!) to a majority of citizens. We could submit the granting of a voice and nearer equity to women (highly developed capitalistic technology has neutralized the brute upper-body strength of males over females, rendering incredible any assumptions of comprehensive male superiority). Likewise, we could note the virtual disappearance of chattel slavery, replaced by machinery.

We could argue that these and others are genuine and profound goods and that the capitalistic economy must in considerable part be credited with their attainment. In his remarkable wisdom and compassion, Augustine would not, I think, be likely to gainsay or deny all this. He could, after all, be quite eloquent and exhilarated in his delight in earthly, material, and physical goods. And he never expected the City of God, in its pilgrimage in this age, to deny or refuse the temperate use of temporal goods. So maybe he could come alongside us and approve certain aspects of our way of life.

But he would hardly back off his critique altogether. Stumbling out of a time machine into our world, perhaps he would echo the 1922 assessment of G. K. Chesterton, which carries shades of Augustinianism:

A wise man’s attitude toward industrial capitalism will be very like Lincoln’s attitude towards slavery. That is, he will manage to endure capitalism; but he will not endure a defence of capitalism. He will recognise the value, not only of knowing what he is doing, but of knowing what he would like to do. He will recognise the importance of having a thing clearly labelled in his own mind as bad, long before the opportunity comes to abolish it. He may recognise the risk of even worse things in immediate abolition, as Lincoln did in abolitionism. He will not call business men brutes, any more than Lincoln would call all planters demons; because he knows they are not. He will regard alternatives to capitalism as crude and inhuman, as Lincoln regarded John Brown’s raid; because they are. But he will clear his mind from cant about capitalism; he will have no doubt of what is the truth about Trusts and Trade Combines and the concentration of capital; and it is the truth that they endure under one of the ironic silences of heaven, over the pageants and the passing triumphs of hell.

Whether or not Augustine would want Chesterton’s words put in his mouth, we can, judging from the fourth-century bishop’s evaluation of the powerful and wealthy in his own world, suggest with some plausibility how he might respond to our defense of twenty-first-century consumer capitalist spirituality. He would surely protest that our list of temporal goods (lengthened life spans, technological advancements, and so forth) are only fully and really goods so long as they are rightly used. Certainly they are only disastrously made ends in themselves, rather than subordinated to the end of serving God. He would sternly warn against the dangers of an uncritical embrace of earthly prosperity. In his own day, he recognized that the earthly citizen was concerned for “peace and general prosperity” and tended to desire these “without moderation” instead of “with restraint, with self-control, with reverence.” He would assert that a longing for earthly, temporal goods apart from, or in denial or ignorance of, humanity’s Final and Supreme Good, is the worst folly of all. Luxury, Augustine said, “is more deadly than any human enemy.” The various spectacles and amusements of the gladiatorial games represented a “moral corruption far worse than all the fury of an enemy.” Better to suffer bodily injury or disease than the corruption and deterioration of the soul (or character). Moral and spiritual evils are the worst of all evils because they attack “not the body but the character.” He railed against the Romans, “You seek security not for the peace of your country but for your own impunity in debauchery.” This was desire like consumer capitalistic desire: focusing the individual on himself and on pursuit of immediate satisfaction, without reference to the social or common good.

Ever mindful of the lust for domination at the heart of the earthly city thinking only of itself, Augustine averred that discord, greed, and ambition are the evils “which generally spring up in times of prosperity.” He worried about the real health of a polity whose concern for its poor was only that they remain docile, whose attempted “justice” aimed mainly to protect the personal property of the wealthy and powerful. He lamented that anyone questioning the affluent Roman’s libertarian hierarchy of values would be scorned and “hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority.”

Others may of course disagree, but I see similar attitudes in our own day, with the bread and circuses of mass media and other amusements serving in part to distract attention from injustice and poverty. Guarding personal peace and security, we among the affluent are a “freedom-loving majority” that will brook few critiques of class or other injustices so long as our blank, unspecified “freedom” to indulge consumer choices and comforts is protected.

Abhorring regulation or restriction of consumer choice, our culture proliferates crude and titillating amusements. What would Augustine say to exhibitionistic talk shows and degrading “reality” TV and radio shock jocks, or a general propensity for equating any innocence with naïveté? Perhaps something like this: “Full publicity is given where shame would be appropriate; close secrecy is imposed where praise would be in order. Decency is veiled from sight; indecency is exposed to view. Scenes of evil attract packed audiences; good words scarcely find any listeners. It is as if purity should provoke a blush, and corruption give ground for pride.” What might he say to plutocratic politics, blatantly serving the interests of the rich? Maybe something like this: “We have self-indulgence and greed, public poverty and private opulence. . . . No distinction is made between good men and bad; the intrigues of ambition win the prizes due to merit. No wonder, when each of you thinks only of his own private interest; at home you are slaves to your appetites, and to money and influence in your public life.”

We may debate the degree to which our current ethos of consumer capitalism agrees or comports with these characterizations. But that it does to some real degree is a judgment now widely shared. To the degree that in consumeristic spirituality “sensual pleasure is put above virtue, it is sought for its own sake, and it is believed that virtue should be brought into its service—that is, that the only purpose of virtue should be the achievement or maintenance of sensual pleasure,” then we know Augustine’s verdict: “Now this is certainly an ugly way of life.”

Keeping the Feast

I began this chapter by recognizing the importance of the social body throughout history until modernity. Next I reviewed how orthodox Christian spirituality accounts for the division and conflict of our world: the harmonious social whole God created and intended has been ripped into pieces. Then, using Augustine as a touchstone, I explored how Christian spirituality might evaluate the current dominant ethos of consumer capitalism. In my judgment, the tradition would see alarming and strongly destructive tendencies in our ethos. It is, at least in significant degree, a way of life that rends each and every social body and encourages alienated individuals to guard their own interests quite apart from any common good. Where does this leave us?

In the Christian account, we are not left simply to flounder and flail at one another. God in Christ has come to restore us to true humanness, and that humanness includes restoration of the social body. After all, human beings are creatures and as such are contingent on their Creator. That Creator also made us so that we are members of one another: we were created as social and interdependent creatures. So any full restoration to true humanity must include the mending of the social body. The church is the anticipatory sign and foretaste of the restoration of humanity to full harmony and wholeness. Christ demonstrated in his own life what it means to live toward that restoration. He gave himself up for others and loved even his enemies. He prayed that his disciples might be brought to unity, made one as the Persons of the Trinity are one (John 17). He called his disciples to make for him friends and followers out of every nation, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20).

Baptism and induction into this body makes one in Christ of those formerly divided—by ethnicity, by gender, by class or political subordination (Gal. 3:27–28). Many categories divide people. We may find ourselves separated by race or sexual orientation or nationality or income. We draw lines that cannot be crossed by others whom we will still consider “one of us.” For the writers and readers of the New Testament, the starkest dividing line was that between Jews and Gentiles. And in Christ even that iron curtain of social partitition and enmity was knocked down. In Christ, Jew and Gentile were made “one new humanity” (Eph. 2:15). When anyone is baptized, “there is a new creation”—the restored and reconciled humanity, the mended world, is glimpsed and foreshadowed (2 Cor. 5:17).

Given all this, it is clear why the church’s great tragedy is its own division. We are, exactly as Christians, seriously crippled by our fraction into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and hundreds of Protestantisms. The church’s lack of unity, its own internal conflict, obscures the oneness of Christ’s body, the very oneness meant to show the world the healing, reconciling power of God. Still, it is only in and through the church that we glimpse or fleetingly touch and know the unity of creation. For Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:17–20). As the modern martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it, it is by baptism and participation in the church that “we live in full community with the bodily presence of the glorified Lord. Our faith must become fully aware of this gift. The body of Christ is the ground of our faith and the source of its certainty; the body of Jesus Christ is the one and perfect gift through which we receive our salvation; the body of Jesus Christ is our new life.” Despite its shortcomings, Bonhoeffer said, the church “is a living witness to the bodily humanity of the Son of God. The bodily presence of the Son of God demands bodily commitment to him and with him through one’s daily life. With all our bodily living, existence, we belong to him who took on a human body for our sake. In following him, the disciple is inseparably linked to the body of Jesus.”

Bonhoeffer makes apparent how Christian spirituality is participation and formation in the church, the social body created and sustained by the Holy Spirit. We can no more become and grow as Christians apart from the church than we can become accomplished painters and sculptors apart from the guild and ongoing history of painters and sculptors. Those who fish for a livelihood learn from those who fished before and now alongside them. There can be no Americans apart from the formative social body America, no Germans apart from the country Germany. So, too, those who would follow after and become like Christ give up their physical bodies to his social, corporate body, the church (Rom. 12:1–2).

Thus in classical Christian spirituality the physical (individual) body cannot be separated from the social body. The physical body and the social body are constantly involved in an interplay, constituting and enabling one another. Christian spirituality interlinks the individual and the social in ways foreign to modern consumer capitalist spirituality. Modern spirituality divides between “social” and “personal” ethics. Sexual attitudes and behavior are then a matter of personal, private, or individual morality. So long as the sex is mutually desired, it is a private affair between the individuals involved. But traditional Christian spirituality cannot so easily compartmentalize and segregate the private and the social. Christian spirituality must not only consider the individual bodies involved but also ask how their actions serve (or fail to serve) the church as a social body. Accordingly, as we will see more fully in chapter 10, St. Thomas Aquinas saw fornication and adultery as issues not simply of sex but of justice. Thomas’s censure of sexual sin centers on the consequences of lust as they weigh on women, children, and wronged spouses. He worries that sex outside marriage “rules out proper provision for bringing up any offspring of the act.” Children need parents for their survival and nurture. Such an “exercise of the sex-act outside marriage is promiscuous and disadvantageous to the care of children, and for this reason a fatal sin.” Adultery is “not merely a sin of lust but also itself a sin of injustice, a type of greed; and a man’s wife is dearer to him than his possessions.” Marriage and sexual intercourse are matters of justice because they are meant to “serve the general good of mankind.”

Sexuality is but one example. Christian spirituality, as participation and formation in the body of Christ, is constantly concerned for the edification or building up of that body. Only in its thriving can the individual members of the body thrive. But again, and especially in a hyper-individualistic age, it is not easy to learn to “discern the [social] body” and look to its health. How are we cultivated to do so, to remove the cataracts of isolation and atomization from our eyes?

For orthodox Christian spirituality, the premier and most dramatic constitution and appearance of the body of Christ is at gathered or corporate worship. There the church hears the Word proclaimed, rehearses the story of the world’s creation and salvation, offers up its praises and petitions, and circles in unity around the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood. There, then, is the epitome of our remembering (bringing back to mind and active imagination) and re-membering (putting back together) the body.

Misled by modern spirituality, contemporary Christians sometimes assume their most important spiritual practices occur in their solitude, with private daily prayer, Bible readings, and so forth. As a high school football player, I often spent fall afternoons in the yard alone, throwing the football up and catching it, passing it through a tire swing, and running to stay in shape. It was worthwhile to practice alone, but I never imagined that my solitary exercises overshadowed or were more important than team practices, let alone actual games. I knew my individual work and play derived from a pastime that was first of all social and corporate and always knew its fullness as a social and not a solitary endeavor. Christian spirituality is similar. Our individual and daily exercises are important and worthwhile, but they do not precede corporate worship. They are derived from corporate worship and circle back to find their fulfillment in corporate worship. Ultimately, if others had not played football with me, I think I would have quickly left off the solitary practice as a silly waste of time. Ultimately, if others do not pray with me, Christian faith and spirituality will become small and trivial, beaten down by a world so much bigger and more interesting than my individual obsessions and desires.

So Christian spirituality, bodily both physically and socially, is born from, nurtured by, and always destined to corporate worship. “Therefore,” as the classical liturgy has it, “let us keep the feast.”New Wineskins


Sources

“I believe myself to be”: William James, quoted in Carol Zaleski, “A Letter to William James,” Christian Century 119, no. 2 (January 16-23), 2002): 32.

“The microcosm of the physical body seemed most handily”: Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 92, also 268n13.

“The single physical body reflects”:Ibid.,16-17.

“Accordingly, as in Rome’s Pantheon”: Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 90, 102-6.

“City planners built sewage systems”: Ibid., 257-63.

“In one example cited by the OED”: The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 16:259.

The church is the common mother”: John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians,trans. T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 181 (re Eph. 4:12).

“Hence the early church saw individualization”: Quotes from Maximus and Augustine in this paragraph are from Hentri Du Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 33-34.

“desire is wrong or distorted ‘if the love'”: St. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Hentry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 1972), bk. 14, chaps. 6-7.

“For you [God] have made us”: St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image, 1960), bk. 1, chap. 1.

“desire was not neutral but ‘can only be understood'”: Augustine, City of God, 14.6-7.

“in love with being in love”: Augustine, Confessions, 3.1.

“What does it matter”: Augustine, City of God, 18.41.

“we have only succeeeded in becoming a nuisance”: Quotes from Augustine through this sentence in this paragraph are from ibid., 14.15.

“In his view, it would in fact be better”: Ibid., 19.15.

“I was sure that it was better”: Augustine, Confessions, 8.5.

“A wise man’s attitude toward industrial capitalism”: G.K. Chesterton, What I saw in America (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 204.

“Luxury, Augustine said, ‘is more deadly'”: Quotes from Augustine through this sentence in this paragraph are from Augustine, City of God, 3.21.

“moral corruption far worse”: Ibid., 131.

“not the body but the character”: Ibid., 1.32.

“evils ‘which generally spring up'”: Ibid., 2.18.

“hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority”: Ibid., 2.29. For Augustines’s God-centered understanding of justice, see Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 204-11.

“Full publicity is given”: Augustine, City of God, 2.26.

“We have self-indulgence and greed”: Ibid., 5.12; he here quotes, approvingly, the Roman Cato.

“sensual pleasure is put above virtue”: Ibid., 19.1.

“we live in full community with the bodily presence”: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 213.

“the church ‘is a living witness'”: Ibid., 232.

Such an “exercise of the sex-act”: Aquinas quotations through this sentence in this paragraph are from St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1989), 431-32.

“Adultery is ‘not merely a sin of lust’: Ibid., 253-54.

“meant to ‘serve the general good of mankind'”: Ibid., 431-32.New Wineskins

Rodney ClappRodney Clapp is editorial director of Brazos Press and author of several books, most recently of Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataFebruary 4th, 2014
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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