Dust by God – the matter of the body – Part 1

Because of a ski injury last year, I ended up getting an MRI, which entails lying down inside a giant bullet while invisible rays are shot at your body.  The technician, who assures me this is safe, is safely in another a room.  No wonder we don’t trust words anymore.

Days later, while sitting with doctor, the most disturbing thing about the looking at the MRI wasn’t the diagnosis, learning how I had an injury that would never fully cure itself, but could get passable with physical therapy and maybe much better with a new kind of surgery.  No, the disturbing part was looking at a white part around the joint where my hip meets my pelvis and hearing the doc say: “See that – that’s a sign your getting old.  That’s just plain wearing out.” The words are hard to take because I relax by wearing skis and rock climbing shoes, and here I am sitting with an expert whose assessment is that my joints are ‘wearing out’.  Do they really need to wear out?  Isn’t there a pill for that?  Some physical therapy for that?  An app for that?

This is where two different bad streams of theology can inform how to react such news.  I’d like to look at one of them in this post.  The “gnostic dualism” stream says, “The body?  Who cares about the body?  It’s nothing more than a container for the soul and the spirit, and haven’t you read?  The container’s recyclable, compost-able, combustible, and fading away.  Don’t give it two cents of thought.”  This response is rooted in the belief that, because the spirit trumps the body, prayer beats exercise every time, and it doesn’t matter what you eat since you’re on a downward slope to the grave anyway.  Strength, flexibility, beauty, nutrition, and stress reduction are things for the world to chase after – not you.

This, I believe, is rubbish.  When Jesus said we could eat whatever we want, Twinkies and hydrogenated oils that wreak havoc on your insulin and immune systems hadn’t been invented yet.  Neither had industrial agriculture with it’s cheap, hormone and anit-biotic induced fattened meats, which are created in inhumane conditions that are far from God’s heart for His creation.  Jesus didn’t need to talk about exercise because the percentage of people with desk jobs could be counted on less than one finger, and even they walked a lot and lifted things.  We’ve become, as one exercise guru notes, like zoo animals – domesticated, and weakened.

Yes, we’ll return to dust, and there’s a danger to idolizing the body (that’s part 2 of this post, later this week).  But the notion that we can live the life of abundance Jesus came to give us while we abuse our bodies though bad eating, lack of sleep, and lack of movement is absurd.  It’s predicated on the notion that we’re separate parts, and that one part is more important.  This comes from Plato, not the Bible.  There’s an ecology to our personhood.  Guilt, which is spiritual, affects sleep, insulin levels (as the stress response pours cortisol into my blood), even posture.  Lack of sleep, which is physical, means I’m more likely to say something uncharitable to a colleague, which is a spiritual problem.  God told Elijah to take a nap and get some rest.  His depression and loss of objectivity wasn’t spiritual.  He was just tired.

God’s designed our bodies with marvelous capacities so that each of us can be a blessing in our world, and we can do that best to the extent that we treat our body kindly.  What does that mean?

1. Move – Walk a bit, lift some heavy stuff, play a game, ride a bike, sit less, go barefoot more often.  There are a thousand ways to exercise, but it’s important to realize that you don’t need to sign for a gym membership to make this work – you just need to get moving.

2. Eat Real Food – This doesn’t need to be complex. One author wrote a book about this, but said in the preface that he was going to only tell us three things:  Eat real food; mostly green; not too much.

3. Recognize the holistic nature of health – You’re not a spirit housed on a container, like the peanut butter is in a jar.  You are the body and the spirit – and will be for eternity, by the way.  Seeing each piece as related liberates us to care for our bodies, and yes, even enjoy them.  I sometimes wonder if a good run down a powdered slope on a Friday doesn’t make for a better sermon on Sunday, but now I’m just speculating.

4. Get enough rest – There’s a rhythm to this, given to us as a gift by God, both in order to sustain and restore our bodies, and to remind us that we’re not the Messiah, that we don’t have to do all the work.  If you’re not healthy in this area, you’re not as healthy as you should be, in any area – body, soul, or spirit!

People who live this way enjoy the sensuousness of life – they don’t view food solely as fuel, they enjoy it.  They enjoy moving, cherishing the gift of the daily miracle that is a body in motion.  They enjoy rest too, seeing all these things as gifts from God, rather than just utilitarian necessities we endure until we die and go to heaven.

I’ll see you on the slopes, or at the lake, or at the Farmer’s Market – in Jesus’ name.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I LOVE this post, because I am so passionate about (finally) taking care of this body that God has blessed me with. And I also love Mark’s Daily Apple, so thanks for the link. Sorry to hear your joints are wearing out – here’s hoping & praying for many more moments of relaxing on skis or in hiking boots.

  • Meg Kilcup

    This is great, Richard. Being a lover of exercise, a lover of cooking and good foods, and a lover of the Lord – this spoke right to my heart… and body and soul and mind! And I know the part about a “fresh powder day –> great sermon” probably spoke directly to my husband’s heart 🙂

  • Wow, we must be on the same wavelength – I was just writing about Gnosticism, dualism and the body – but I didn’t publish the post yet.
    I’m very interested in this conversation.
    Jason F

  • In addition to the words…I love the picture.

  • …I am looking forward to a good sermon on Sunday…so I hope you are enjoying that long run down a powdery slop!
    p.s. you forgot to mention coffee regards the diet…

  • raincitypastor

    love your site Jason – keep up the good work.

  • raincitypastor

    well… the powder was good… so let’s just what happens with the sermon!

  • Don Heath

    Thanks Richard! Good thoughts – better to wear out than rust out, eh? With good health insurance our old joints don’t have to wear out – they can be transformed into titanium!

    Skiing Chair Peak area tomorrow – I’ll wave to you from our high point.

  • Josh

    Greetings Pastor Richard,
    I certainly think this is an important topic. I think many ancient Christians stated things like a flabby body equals a flabby soul. Flabby soul that I am, many of my choices reveal more faith in secularism or gnosticism than the truth of the Gospel’s holistic healing.
    This post raised other thoughts for me as well. Since I’ve grown up in it, how much of my “christianity” resembles the gnostics more than the Apostles? St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote a famous refutation of the gnostics of his time, and we are quick to side with him against them. But would St. Iranaeus side with us? Does the way I eat side with the gnostics or the apostles? Does the way I read the Bible side with gnostics or the apostles? Does the way we baptize and take communion side with the gnostics or the apostles? A related blog on this topic http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2009/07/31/the-orthodox-reading-of-scripture/
    Blessings, and Thank You for your Post!

  • Will Hale

    Thank you Richard,

    My experience has been that people struggle to 1. see spiritual connections to physical care because it is never mentioned, or minimized or 2. The subject remains abstract (beauty, aesthetic) without any real practical application that makes it worth their time.

    As I am training to work as a therapist, this sort of approach helps me to build a “theology” of self care that I can use with my Christian clients/brothers and sisters. And it will help me as I continue in my relationship with God.

    -Will Hale

  • Jeremy

    Thanks for a great post Richard, and sorry to be commenting a bit late (I tend to get through blogs on a once monthly basis). Also sorry to be such an infrequent commenter, I am a regular reader, just not a frequent commenter…

    Since my heady days as an undergraduate, I’ve been on something of a quest to scrutinise the gnostic theology you note in your post and I’ve noticed a few surprising things along the way. I’ll just ask about one here for the sake of brevity.

    I’ve begun to wonder whether the term ‘gnostic’ doesn’t set us off on the wrong track. In identifying this anti-physical tendency by contemporary Christians has having such ancient roots, I wonder whether we fail to note how much of the actual inflection of this contemporary gnosticism is actually somewhat unique. As theologians have been trying to work out some answers to the modern Christian predicament with regards to the body, there is an emerging consensus that former dualisms weren’t nearly as absolute or intense in previous centuries as they are now. Even Plato and Descartes had some place for the body in their philosophy, and late-Enlightenment philosophers like Hume and Smith made allowance for the place of emotion and the affective dimension in moral reasoning and theology. The absolute characterization of cold hard scientific reason at the expense of embodiment, from the perspective of the historical theologian, actually seems to be something rather new, if at least in terms of intensity and the absolute way in which this view has been woven into our daily lives.

    I pose this question only in order to ask whether it might be worth setting Plato aside (if he were walking around in the modern world, he might actually be a bit startled at our situation) for a bit, and looking into some of our near theological heritage (i.e. 1900-1960) with some scrutiny for how this problem may have arisen there. If the roots are much more shallow, it is worth hoping that these ‘theological weeds’ might be a bit easier to pull up than expected. Thanks as always for your blogging, and I’ll look forward to catching up on the rest of your posts!

  • raincitypastor

    Great thoughts Jeremy. I wonder if the deeper problem isn’t the old dualism, but rather a new strictly materialist mindset to which people of faith react by swinging the pendulum? It’s something to ponder anyway!