In his recent book The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive ArtLuke Timothy Johnson presents a remarkable thesis: Our human bodies are the fulcrum of God’s revelation. He contends that even Scripture itself points beyond itself to our human bodies as the “preeminent place of God’s self-disclosure.”
The argument of this book is thoroughly phenomenological by emphasizing embodied and lived experience as the source of our perceptions about reality. Johnson argues that we need to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us about God’s will. The book is an attempt to offer some guidance in reading God’s revelation from our lived experience.
In summarizing the major points of the book Johnson states:
Of the greatest importance, and grounding everything else, is my conviction that God continues to create the world at every moment, and by so creating, continues to reveal Godself in what is coming-into-being. If this understanding of the Living God — an understanding I think underpinning everything said in Scripture — is not correct, then everything else I have said in this book is false. If God only acted in in the past, and those actions are adequately reported by Scripture, then the Bible can indeed be said to “contain” revelation, and nothing more needs doing apart from the systematic exposition of propositions based on the biblical accounts. The major problem with this is that it posits a God who is no longer active — in effect, a dead god. But if God is, in fact, active in the world, then authentic faith — and, by extension, authentic theology — must consistently fix its attention on what God is up to here and now. I have argued from a variety of angles that the human body is the preeminent place of God’s continuing revelation in the world, and that theology must pay close attention to what is happening in actual human experience, which is always in some way somatic. Scripture itself, I have shown, declares that, not itself, but the human body is the place where God’s word particularly is expressed and where God’s work is done. But I have also argued that, without being formed by Scripture, theologians are not able to perceive the movement of the Spirit in human bodies as expressing the word and work of God. Scripture participates in revelation first by providing the lens for perceiving human experience, and second by being given new meaning and pertinence through engagement with God’s living work. (231-32)
For Johnson, theological, like the therapeutic practice, is a “living art” — learning takes place primarily through practice, not theory or scientific methodology. It is much more the practice of engaging human bodies, than mental wrestling with abstract propositions.
I admit, I’m sympathetic to the thesis of this book. I have come to believe that we have ignored or diminished the importance of the human body in spiritual formation and theology. Rather than being a source of revelation, we’ve treated the body as a problem that needed to be solved, a wild animal that needed to be caged, or an epidemic that needed to be contained.
Johnson’s proposal objects to this approach to the body. It is an invitation to pay attention to our lived experience as a vehicle of God’s living voice. There are dangers in this approach, Johnson admits them. What’s more, I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that Scripture should take a secondary place to lived experience in theological discourse. Yet, I think Johnson is on to something here and I want to continue to think about this.
I do believe if we are to be conformed to the image of Christ, we need to trust and attune to our body’s voice, expressed through its myriad of testimonies. It is not a far step for me to see that in my body’s voice God is also speaking.