One of the reasons I grudgingly remain a Christian, is because of a particular story that Christianity tells about bodies. Now, I hardly need to point out that not all the stories Christianity has told about bodies are good ones. A lot of them are crap. Maybe most of them; I don’t have an exhaustive understanding of Christian stories about bodies, but of the ones I come across, most are terrible. But there is, I think, a strand of the Christian tradition that is very body-affirming. For example: You might not know this, but there’s actually good reason for viewing the notion of a “soul” going to “heaven” as an interloper in the Christian tradition. Well, maybe “interloper” is too strong. But many theologians would say that, at best, it’s a belief that’s become an unhelpful distraction simply by being so focused upon. (Like, it actually doesn’t say in the historical canonical creeds that Christians’ souls will go to heaven when they die; it says only that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and then ascended into heaven, where he’s hanging out until he comes again.) (Er, I’m paraphrasing.)
Arguably, the FAR more consistent and long-established Christian belief about life after death is EXACTLY NOT that some immaterial vapor of selfhood will go into a happy place in the sky. Rather, it’s that our bodies will be resurrected and perfected.
Aieee! Perfect bodies. I’ve gone to church since I was a wee tot, and have now made a job of it — and yet when I hear about bodies being “perfected,” what springs to mind is not the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. No, it’s diets. It’s bikini season. Clear complexion products and spray tan and so forth. I fill with dread and anxiety and self-loathing.
But in the Christian theological sense, “perfected bodies” means mostly that our bodies won’t be in pain or die again. (Well, you have people like St. Augustine who also specified that everyone would be 33 years old in the resurrection, but that’s sort of an academic point.) More interesting than what the bodies won’t be, is what they will be, according to this particular flight of the Christian imagination. Namely, they will be ours. Recognizably. They will be physical bodies, the same ones we have now, just… transformed, somehow. They’ll be even more what they are now, more alive, more there. Their longings and yearnings will be fulfilled and satisfied. The delightful tangibility and vulnerability that comes with being fleshy won’t go away, but it won’t any longer be an occasion for danger and harm. It has even been speculated by at least one Christian theologian (and yes those are weasel words, and no I can’t remember who said it but I swear it’s in my seminary notes!) that our perfected bodies will retain their scars. The reasoning was that it makes sense that anything which testifies to suffering’s having been overcome will be preserved.
And what’s one image in the Christian tradition that has consistently been used to describe this new, redeemed, embodied life that awaits? Obviously not immaterial souls becoming harp-playing angels on clouds. Nope nope nope. A feast. A feast, where nobody is left out and everybody has enough. A feast where – if I may extend the image in a manner I think is faithful to it – there are no good foods and bad foods… no popular table and no nerds table… no foods that look gorgeous on the plate but are the result of cruel and world-killing technology… no need to make eating into a locus for control in the hopes of finally, finally being worthy of love. Just a beautiful, intimate, abundant, joyful, and peaceful meal with your close circle of friends. Except that the circle is extended to every creature, and the Holy One is sitting with us at the table too.
She goes on to talk about some of the ways in which the "wedding night" imagery is problematic and then to her great credit says:
Ah, that’s where I see the whole “ordered appetite” thing come in. And, you know, I can *almost* cut my tradition some slack here. I mean, if you’re saying that both gastronomical hunger and its fulfillment, and sexual longing and its fulfillment, reveal something about the very goal of the whole cosmos… well, suddenly, it seems pretty important to put in a bunch of provisos about how there are right and wrong ways for those appetites to be ordered. Because we don’t want to say that just EVERYthing that someone might theoretically do sexually, or EVERYthing you do related to your meals, is redemptive and good. A meal can be the occasion of exclusion and harm, even accidentally. So can sex. So can a bunch of other embodied longings.
Well, better make a whole bunch of rules to make sure that people only do the right things with their appetites, and not the wrong things, right?
Uhhh, sure, go ahead. Make a list of ordered and disordered appetites. And rules. And good people and bad people. And good bodies and bad bodies. Knock yourself out. EXCEPT REMEMBER THAT a big horking part of the Judeo-Christian narrative has to do with the guardians of “order” always being tempted to use that order to shore up their own power. And meanwhile – at least as I read the Christian Bible, but I’m not alone – God has pretty consistently cast God’s lot with those who’ve been othered by the authorities of the day.
Seriously, that’s like, um, kind of the whole freaking plot of the Bible, over and over and over and over and over again. The guardians of order say, with some plausible reason, “These are the conditions necessary for God to find favor with people!” And then God says, “Aww, nice try, mates, and I can totally see how you got there… but turns out I’m not so simple. ‘Scuse me a sec… Hey, you outcasts over there! Come join the party!”
At the end, she writes:
I can’t write about this without mentioning a memory that I shall cherish for as long as my memory functions. It illustrates everything I’ve just been trying, in fits and starts, to describe.
In the early ‘aughties I lived in a sort of pacifist anarchist Christian commune. One of the things we did — in addition to dumpster-diving, protesting war, and gardening — was provide a place for families with children who needed somewhere to stay. (At the time, in the city where I lived, most regular shelters and agencies wouldn’t place parents and children together.) One young woman, a high school student, stayed with us for more than a year. She’d been kicked out of her house when she got pregnant and decided to proceed with the pregnancy.
One day – when she was getting near her due date – she and the baby’s father announced they would be getting married. “WHAT!? CONGRATULATIONS!” we exclaimed. “WHEN?!” Whereupon this woman said somewhat dejectedly that they’d just get it taken care of the next day, because it’s not like they’d have any family who’d want to come.
At this point the matriarch of the community BEGGED her to let them try and give her a beautiful wedding. The bride happily said yes. And what I saw come together in the next twenty-four hours… I just don’t know how to describe it except that it felt like God was a sprightly and eccentric auntie throwing a wedding for her favorite niece. Somehow the news spread throughout the whole neighborhood. Little things just came together. For instance, the next morning my friend Christy and I found gorgeous entire bouquets of fresh flowers in the dumpster behind a florist, which we used to decorate the basement chapel. The intentional community down the street baked a wedding cake using, for the toppers, boy and girl chocolate Easter bunnies that they happened to have gotten on clearance. One of the other moms in the house worked as a caterer, and she made piles and piles of pupusas and heaps of black beans. Other neighbors brought chicken and I don’t even remember what else. A very psychologically troubled friend of ours who had some musical gifts sang “Danny Boy” as a solo. The preacher from the storefront church half a block away offered to do the ceremony. And the eighty-five-year-old grandfather who lived up the street — the sort who’d sit on his front porch in all but the worst weather so he could greet everyone as they passed – asked the bride if he could give her away.
ALL THIS HAPPENED IN ONE DAY.
It was both a feast, and a wedding night. And to me, it was a very scripturally-appropriate foretaste of the future of justice and peace that I try to work for. But I’ve often reflected how it satisfied exactly nobody’s rules for proper behavior or ordered appetites. Nobody. Certainly not wedding experts. Certainly not most religious people, who would have frowned on the bride (and perhaps only her) for having sex. Not the young woman’s family, who were angry she proceeded with the pregnancy. Not the vegans in our community, because of the chicken. I mean, they handled it with good humor and everything; I’m just saying if *they* had been in charge there probably wouldn’t have been chicken, you know? The wedding probably wouldn’t even have satisfied the government, seeing as how the groom didn’t speak English, couldn’t understand a word the preacher said, and didn’t actually repeat any vows. Hell, as a feminist I wasn’t thrilled in principle that she was being given away!
Didn’t matter. There was some power that had gone out ahead of us, ahead of all our rules, and brought us together in a place of peace… in a way that none of us could have anticipated. It was a gift *precisely* *because* it didn’t just spring up out of our fastidious adherence to rules.
Well, that’s my take, anyway. It’s also a long way of telling how I eventually found my spot in a liberal Christianity where a love of embodied life (in its lumpiest and bumpiest and earthiest sense) is at the heart of my faith… a Christianity that expects God to be especially at work in the lives of people with the “wrong” kinds of bodies, who have or are believed to have the “wrong” kinds of yearnings, longings, appetites.