Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Only the body saves the soul"

"Only the body saves the soul. It sounds rather shocking put like that, but the point is that the soul left to itself, the inner life or whatever you want to call it, is not capable of transforming itself. It needs the gifts that only the external life can deliver: the actual events of God’s action in history, heard by physical ears; the actual material fact of the meeting of believers where bread and wine are shared; the actual wonderful, disagreeable, impossible, unpredictable human beings we encounter daily, in and out of the church. Only in this setting do we become holy, and holy in a way unique to each one of us."

- Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, 115-16.

Christian faith is not abstract; it is not simply about ideas or a worldview. It is not about having the right attitude to life, even if that attitude is faith, hope and love. It is a way of living opened for us by the act of God in Jesus. Any form of faith that is purely inner, private, non-bodily or apolitical has missed one of the key themes of the whole Christian story.


Unknown said...

Great point Byron. I was involved in a Bible study today where we discussed "Fellowship" and what it meant in 1 John 1:7.

One of the things we discussed is how we are part of the wider body of Christ and how many / some within the body want the hand to be the whole body and speak against the rest of the body for not being a hand.

I think your last sentence can also be applied to congregations and denominations in how they listen and engage with others from traditions and practices that they disagree with.

On a personal level its something that even goes deeper than a firm belief and practice. One of the issues I'm working through is that of identity in being a Christian Man. Now that sickness has stripped my capacity to work, study and fellowship as I have previously done.

Yet in saying this much encouragement has come from the body in encouragement and generosity that would not be experienced outside of fellowship with the body. Such as the group of men I was meeting with today whom I met through my hospital stay.

Matthew R. Malcolm said...

Great stuff - I am currently working on Paul's "bodily" theology and ethics - and I'm amazed at how much more frequently Paul speaks about the body than I had previously thought. Here's one thing that has struck me: In Philippians, Paul sums up his Christianity by saying "It is my eager expectation and hope... that Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death." When I've mentioned this current fascination of mine to a couple of people, I've detected a nervous "uh oh... matt's a raving fundy" sort of look on their faces - but I don't think an emphasis on that which is "bodily" has to be the domain of "fundies" - Rowan Williams' provocative quote is a good one. I've also found Kasemann very memorable on a related point: He points out that I can't call Jesus Lord of the cosmos, if he is not Lord of a particular body-shaped part of the cosmos known as "Matthew Malcolm".... well he didn't mention me by name, but you get the idea

Anonymous said...

Yes, great quote; and you know I'm with you.

But I wonder if there is still a need for language of "the soul". I'm sure Williams wouldn't want to deny this. But I feel like we can react too far the other way. Talking about our soul is a way of remembering the spiritual reality of who we are (without denying our bodiliness).

Jeff Gill said...

Gotta ask -- what wall is that, and where?

byron smith said...

Craig - some great points. Sounds like you've taken "body" to mean "body of Christ"/Christian community, which is certainly part of what RW is on about in this quote/passage.

So there were then interesting echoes set up by your shift to talking about physical illness and the other weaknesses of the physical body, that can limit at least how much we can do as part of the "body".

Matthew - sounds like interesting work. Is this for your own interest or part of some other research/study/project? I wrote a thesis a few years ago on Nietzsche's take on the Christian view of the body, and so also spent some time looking at Paul's thinking on this. I certainly don't think the "flesh"/"spirit" (or "Spirit" as I think it is) distinction is directly talking about bodily vs non-bodily.

Andrew - Yes, whatever other problems it has caused, the traditional notion of the 'soul' has helped guard the dignity and worth of those whose bodies are broken or failing. I think there are better ways of doing this, but it's important to acknowledge the significance this notion has played and the ways that the rejection of a 'soul' can play into materialist assumptions of instrumental worth.

Unknown said...

I think I may have misread your quote. I thought his emphasis was more to do with the Christian community as you said more so than our physical body. Particularly in regards to the breaking of bread.

Part of what I am finding to mean Identity is that we cannot distance our identity from Christ and the Christian Community.

I'm finding that true identity means to be able to receive as much as it does to give. So much of our identity tends to stem from a position of strength even though we may verbally and internally acknowledge we are weak in sin and that Christ has conquered and forgiven our sin.
I wonder how much of out charity work stems from a position of strength towards the underprivileged rather than a sense of equality of dignity before God.

In thinking about what you said,

So there were then interesting echoes set up by your shift to talking about physical illness and the other weaknesses of the physical body, that can limit at least how much we can do as part of the "body".

I have to conclude that my being sick fully contributes to the communities growth and holiness and therefore by default my own growth.
By my being sick it necessitates others to use their various God given gifts to minister to us in all the various ways we are helped.

Therefore God is able to work good through my illness in that it enables me to contribute towards the needs of the community equally in a way that actually strengthens and encourages it rather than weakens it.

byron smith said...

Oops - forgot to answer Jeff's question. It's a wall of a tudor-era building in York, England (to be honest, I now can't remember exactly which one! I just thought it looked like an interesting wall at the time).

Craig - I'm finding that true identity means to be able to receive as much as it does to give.
You make some great points here. I found myself thinking along some similar lines back here. Make sure you check out the Milton poem.