The Physical Side of Faith

8 11 2010

Since Salvation is a Life, it must be an embodied life.  That is hard for us to imagine because our bodies seem to be a constant hindrance to spiritual vitality and obedience to Christ.  After all, Paul insists that the flesh and the Spirit are at war and we must strive to choose to walk with the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).  The answer to spiritual progress, however, is not to ignore or beat down the body.  Those two options always devolve into heresies.  Rather, the body must be redeemed if Salvation is to be a real, daily reality.  In no way can we follow Jesus on the inside only– in the mental, spiritual, emotional  realms.  If we pursue this course, we fall into the heresies of Gnosticism and Dualism.  These heresies reject the body as either evil or insignificant and all effort is aimed at being liberated from the body.

Does this, in actuality, sound like a fairly Christian idea?  If it does, it shows how far removed we have become from the message of the New Testament and the Early Church.  How can I make such a claim?  One event:  The Resurrection.  Eternal life with Christ will be an embodied existence.  This means our life here and now with Christ must also be an embodied experience.

This is why the spiritual disciplines and Christian worship unabashedly employ the body:  fasting, kneeling, standing, prostrating, pilgrimage, silence, sacraments, holy embracing, singing, dancing, etc.  Other practices that Protestants and Evangelicals have typically rejected are extremely common for other Christians:  using prayer beads/ropes; making the sign of the cross; kissing icons, statuary and the Bible; bowing before the cross/Bible/altar; lighting candles and incense.  Whatever you think of such practices, for those who do them they are as natural as hugging your children is to you.

At any rate, Dallas Willard argues in The Spirit of the Disciplines that a key reason we so rarely make progress in Christ-likeness is because we neglect or dismiss the body.  Jesus used his whole body as he learned to walk in flawless obedience to the Father, so what makes us think we can be effective Christ followers by practicing a predominately interiorized faith?

Matthew Gallatin, in his spiritual autobiography, Thirsting for God, recounts how he comes to regard the physical acts of worship and spiritual discipline as the key to an intimate walk with Jesus (keep in mind that his journey lead him join the Orthodox Church).  This is a sacramental world view– certain physical acts, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enable us to connect in real ways to the Kingdom life of the Trinity and the saints in glory.  It is not magic, but neither is it mere ritual.  Yes, our faith, state of mind and emotions, preparation, and moral state are factors, but they are not the determining factors in meeting Christ through the sacraments and disciplines.  The determining factor, Gallatin confidently asserts, is that God established these acts through the Apostles in the Early Church.  For one raised in an Evangelical denomination with a fairly low and mundane view of the sacraments, such practices and theology feel like forbidden territory– even the Devil’s playground.  And yet it increasingly makes more sense to me at a deep level than how I was generally brought up in the church.

One small example:  Jesus is the King of Kings of the entire universe, of heaven and earth– why shouldn’t I bow when his Gospel word is brought out and read.  Why should I not bow before His Table where he has promised to meet us through the Supper he instituted?  We are human beings with bodies.  We experience those around us by the use of our bodies– hugs, hand-shakes, kisses, a hand on the shoulder, etc.  AND, our life is full of meaningful rituals:  bed-time routines with our children, saying “I love you”, Saturday mornings, birthdays & anniversaries, that daily phone call to “check in.”  Why do we tend to neglect the use of our bodies in our life with God?  And why do we assume any ritual must be spiritually dead?  If we think this way, it is a horrible inconsistency, because we do not treat the rest of our lives this way!  What we do with our bodies in worship and in our “daily devotions” is very important to loving the God who loves us.  Considering all the unhealthy things we do with our bodies, it’s time to put our bodies to good use!

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