Science, Worship, and Fasting (RJS)


This is the fourth in a series of posts looking at the implications of the fact that we are fully embodied beings created in the image of God.  We have body and soul – but these are not separable entities. (The third, on Science and Christian Virtue, contains links to the first two on Science and Sin.)

I will get back to NT Wright and his development of the idea of Christian Virtue, but today I would like to focus on Scot’s book Fasting: The Ancient Practices. I don’t want to review  the book (which is excellent) here, but use it as a focus point for what it means to think of humans as “organic unities” (a term I picked up from Scot’s book).

Here is how Scot introduces the idea in connection with fasting:

The thesis of this work is simple: a unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind creates a spirituality that includes the body. For this kind of body image, fasting is natural. Fasting is the body talking what the Spirit yearns, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true. It is body talk – not the body simply talking for the spirit, for the mind, or for the soul in some symbolic way, but for the person, the whole person, to express herself or himself completely. Fasting is one way you and I bring our entire selves into complete expression. The Bible, because it advocates clearly that the person – heart, soul, mind, spirit, body – is embodied as a unity, assumes that fasting as body talk is inevitable. (p. 11)

The core idea here – that a unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind creates a spirituality that includes the body – has profound implications for worship, for spirituality (including fasting), and for discipleship. For one thing, discipleship should lead us concern for the bodily well being of others.  The command to love God is not an issue for intellectual assent, but a command for whole life transformation; loving others is not cerebral  empathy – but a matter requiring concrete action.

This leads to the question I would like to ponder today.

What are the key ways that a unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind impact worship, spirituality, and discipleship? 

Or – to put it another way (thanks Scot):

Where are you seeing dualism in Christian worship, in spirituality and in discipleship? What does dualism look like?

As I read Scot’s book on fasting I was struck by the way the themes that he developed meshed with things I was thinking about in connection with the science of the human mind and the ideas of Christian virtue.

Scot’s approach to the ancient practice of fasting is quite simple – fasting is not a spiritual discipline as much as a natural, inevitable response to a grievous sacred moment in life, moments that are so serious, so severe, that the only appropriate response is a whole body response.  It is the natural response of a human as an organic unity.

Humans are made as God’s Eikons. A variety of terms can be used to describe humans in their various facets, terms like soul and spirit and body and heart. But no matter which term we use, you and I are organic unities, and we cannot lose sight of that unity.

There is, however, a reason that dualism develops. Each person, however you divide up the terms in the previous chapter, is both an outer physical person and an inner spiritual person. The Bible does not say the body contains a spirit, like a beaker into which we pour a liquid, but that each person is a spirit and is a body. In other words, the Christian traditions teaches that there is a duality about humans, but there is not a dualism. We are one person with an inner and outer dimension, but we are not comprised of two parts. – an inner and an outer part. Neither is is right to think that one is good (the inner) and the other bad (the outer). (p. 17)

The remainder of the book develops the theme of fasting as a natural, even essential, part of whole body spirituality.  It is turning and plea and grief and discipline and calendar and poverty and contact and hope. Fasting is not a way to get something from God – nor is it a means to battle the (worldly) body.

Many examples of fasting throughout church history are really examples of body destruction from the depths of dualism – not body discipline. Science shows that extreme fasting will change body chemistry and curb bodily desires. But extreme fasting does not lead to the discipline of body, soul, spirit, and mind that transforms one’s entire life to follow Christ. It does not lead to Christian virtue.

Carrying on with the theme of humans as organic unities. A unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind impacts other areas of Christian life as well. I have a few thoughts on this – but perhaps others will add to the list.

Because we are organic unities worship should be a polyphonic whole body experience – praise and awe, repentance and submission. There is a time to stand with hands raised and a time to kneel before the Lord. In music we should use the entire dynamic range (not just “loud”) and variety of forms – from rock band to organ to a cappella to hand bells.  In the name of cultural relevance we accept monotonic worship – and are poorer for the sacrifice. We need liturgy, spontaneity, tradition and innovation. Most of all we need sacrament as a body and in the body of the church.

Recognizing ourselves as organic unities requires that we view others in the same way. It is not possible to have a healthy concern for another’s soul without an accompanying healthy concern for their physical and emotional well being, a concern for justice.

Dualism allows one to concentrate on saving souls without concern for feeding bodies, caring for widows and orphans in their distress, or pursuit of justice.

On the other hand, only a rejection of the Biblical duality – body and soul – allows one to concentrate solely on feeding bodies and pursuit of justice without concern for the soul

What do you think? Where should the recognition of humans as organic unities change the way we approach spirituality, the church, or the world?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, I wonder if we could ask another question for the readers:
    Where are you seeing dualism in Christian worship, in spirituality and in discipleship? What does dualism look like?

  • Rick

    “Fasting is not a way to get something from God – nor is it a means to battle the (worldly) body.”
    I don’t think we can underestimate the impact of the common use and interpretation of the term “flesh”, as used by Paul. Many, especially within Christianity, will think of the body in negative terms, due to the contemporary use and emphasis on “flesh”.
    To overcome dualism, that perception and understanding needs to change, which would also mean dealing with some difficult questions.
    For example, looking at the Sermon on the Mount, at what point does anger become sin? When does observing become lust? When does eating become gluttony? Envy? etc…
    The teachings of “self-control”, as stated by Paul and in 1 Peter, become key.
    In regards to worship, the incense smell I remember in my childhood was overpowering at times, but I do miss that (or any) odor in contemporary worship.

  • pds

    Peeling Dragon Skin
    Excellent post. I have thought a lot about many of these issues, and have many thoughts- too many. I will focus for now on one.
    You said:
    “Because we are organic unities worship should be a polyphonic whole body experience – praise and awe, repentance and submission. There is a time to stand with hands raised and a time to kneel before the Lord.”
    The primary word for “worship” is proskuneo. This is generally translated as “worship” or “bow down.” These translations miss the fact that it inherently includes both: bowing down, kneeling, kneeling with face down, or prostration, and 2. homage, worship or supplication. How can you adequately translate this into English?
    Most Evangelical worship services include no bowing or kneeling, except perhaps of the head. Liturgical churches at least kneel in confession.
    Is bowing and kneeling normative for us? Or is it just descriptive? Was it just the cultural practice of that time, and are we free to stop doing it?
    I think it is normative (but when and how and how often are open questions). When I bow down with my face to the ground, something spiritual happens.
    RJS, I would love to hear more about the scientific evidence of how bodily posture affects mental processes and emotions.

  • Joe James

    Rick #2 –
    Amen, brother… Amen! I like the way Frost and Hirsch talk about “Messainic Spirituality” in their book “The Shape of Things to Come” Their claim is that Jesus did not spiritualize, internalize, privatize, or individualize the gospel. Rather he sought to embody true spirituality in the world. This is why we are taught to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. We are not just praying to be pious people who pray a lot. We are praying that God’s will be done on earth!

  • Rodney

    Once again, a very interesting question/post.
    I’ve been thinking about fasting as an act of grieving over sin (James 4:8-9). Indeed, among the Jewish people, acts of grieving over death and sin looked very much the same: disheveled hair, torn clothes, fasting, weeping.
    Sometimes, I need to feel like I’m grieving over sin (mine and ours). Fasting helps me do that. It’s not asceticism (I’m not trying to purify my soul). It’s not pious deprivation (I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone). I simply need to grieve.

  • RJS

    I think that is exactly right – sometimes we need to grieve, over personal sin and over corporate sin. Scot’s book on fasting is quite good here – it provides an interesting way to think about fasting. But the ideas should go beyond this – to encompass everything we do as individual Christians and as a part of the Church.
    I actually think that this idea – embraced in agreement with biblical teaching – would revolutionize our church.

  • Your Name

    I wholeheartedly agree with this:
    “worship should be a polyphonic whole body experience – praise and awe, repentance and submission. There is a time to stand with hands raised and a time to kneel before the Lord. In music we should use the entire dynamic range (not just “loud”) and variety of forms – from rock band to organ to a cappella to hand bells.”
    As fasting is a natural bodily reaction to reality, so too is weeping, or standing to cheer. In my experience, the common church culture is a mix of ignorance and fear when it comes to our bodies and our emotions. I think a lot of the excesses in charismatic church practice, both real and imagined, have to do with our nervousness/disdain/ignorance of how to use our body or emotions in worship, and the unavoidable over-corrections that come when trying to overcome these dualisms. We’ve got to lighten up about emotional expression. It’s not the end-all, be-all, for good or for ill; it’s just human.

  • T

    Sorry, 7 is me. The captcha erased my name.

  • Brian

    How should we respond to the practical criticism that fasting is not healthy? We now know that it is not good for the body to skip entire meals or go 24 hours without eating.

  • Paul
  • T

    Brian (9),
    I think part of the response to that is that there are times in which extremes such as fasting (or feasting) are an appropriate response to some of the larger issues of life. Eating a fattened calf (or some other rich food) for example has some healthy and some unhealthy aspects to it, but there are times when it is an appropriate response, all things considered, even if it would be a harmful norm.

  • RJS

    This has gotten little comment today – not sufficiently controversial I guess.
    But I think that it should be controversial – because your question about dualism really nails it. And the question I closed with should start everyone thinking (although I must have put it poorly).
    I think we see dualism in truncated gospel, emphasis on show, consumer church, lack of concern over transformation (because “salvation” is all that really matters and is separable from transformation) and I could go on.

  • pds

    I too am sorry there was not more discussion. I love this topic. I guess no one raised a topic in a comment that grabbed anyone else.
    I think that there is a tendency in Protestantism to focus on the heart and mind alone, and think that bodily acts like kneeling don’t matter and are associated with Catholic ritualism. I think is important to think through these things well.

  • pds

    I would still love to hear how you and/or Scot think about the problem of translating “proskuneo.”

  • RJS

    On this one – we’ll have to wait for Scot to have time to comment. I haven’t the expertise.

  • Phil M

    I like the concept of the the body speaking for the spirit, but how does that mesh with Jesus’ commands about fasting, where he told his listeners to oil their hair, and keep their appearance tidy, so that they were not putting on a display?
    He was, no doubt, curbing excess and speaking to those who were simply putting on a show for the sake of other’s opinions of them – but his comments would also apply to one who was genuinely fasting would they not?

  • pds

    It seems that he was speaking to everyone: the fast is between you and God. It is not to show of how religious you are.

  • Mike M

    I think even in this discussion, the dualism between “body and mind” however phrased (eg heart, mind, emotional, rational) is so ingrained in us that we have a difficult time staying out of that pit. I wish I could think of something controversial to say so that this post gets more contributors but I can’t. I just know one thing: the benefits of fasting only become apparent while fasting. We can read all about it or listen to others who fast but there is only one way to know.
    Brian @9: I’m not sure where you got the idea that fasting is bad for you. If you are pregnant, have diabetes, or some other medical condition that precludes fasting, then yes, it can be bad. Otherwise, there are certain health benefits. But that’s not why we fast now is it?

  • RJS

    Phil M,
    It seems to me – although perhaps someone will offer other insight – that Jesus was not speaking against fasting, praying, or giving to the poor in the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t even think that he was commanding all prayer, fasting, or giving to the poor need be “secret” – certainly we don’t take prayer as a strictly private activity. The church has also practiced community fasts at set times throughout history.
    In the context of the entire NT and other comments on these issues it seems as though he is speaking of motivation and hypocrisy – not other aspects of practice.

  • Emily

    Has someone already mentioned that the first couple chapters of Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines has some profound things to say about this topic? It is also very rewarding reading.