Friday, September 08, 2006

Body image: some theological reflections

The Western world is suffering from something of a crisis on how we should view the body. The problems of obesity and anorexia are often discussed in the media here. Just this week, medical experts revealed that obesity can lead to blindness amongst other very nasty things. At the same time, we are bombarded with images of idealised male and female beauty. Is a man a man if he hasn't got a six-pack and a perfectly coiffured head of hair? Of what value is a woman if she does not conform to the skinny splendour of the likes of Keira Knightley?
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Christians are not Teflon-coated. The thinking that shapes our society rubs off on us. We struggle to respond to James' exhortation to "keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Some believers battle with being overweight, others with an obsession with body image that leads to anorexia. Still others feel worthless because of their perception of their physical appearance. I do not write as a dietitian or psychologist. I don't propose to try and discuss, for example some of the physical causes of obesity. But I do understand that a person may be underweight or overweight due to underlying medical problems. What I would like to reflect on in this post is the way in which the Bible would have us view the human body. A truly Biblical theology of the body will help Christians to relate to their physicalness in a healthy and realistic way.
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When God created human beings in his image as male and female, he created them with bodies as well as souls. We are, by divine constitution psychosomatic beings. Our physicalness is as fundamental to our humanity as our spirituality. When God looked at the created universe with embodied human life at its pinnacle, he declared all "very good". Adam and Eve would have been paragons of human perfection and beauty.
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The first human beings were not otherworldly ascetics who stifled the pleasures of physical pleasure. They took great delight in the enjoyment of the earth that God had created. They ate freely of the food the God provided for them in the garden of Eden, food that was attractive to the eye, and delicious to the palate. They enjoyed the physical exercise that came from happily working in the garden. This is how God meant human beings to live, in grateful communion with him, their bountiful Creator. When we despise the body and seek to annihilate our physicalness as is the case with those who deny themselves food and other legitimate pleasures, that is a symptom a deep malaise in the human psyche. When we over-indulge our bodies to the point of being dangerously overweight, that too is an indication that the joyful innocence of Eden is no more.
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The fall of human beings into sin did not destroy the image of God in mankind. But sin has distorted and ruined all human life. Not one person can now claim physical or spiritual perfection, for "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23.) Even the most attractive of human beings is marked by the ugliness of sin. But God does not loathe fallen people with all their spiritual and bodily imperfections. He affirmed the value of human life in this fallen world when he sent his Son, Jesus Christ into our world "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3). Jesus embraced the ugliness of human life and was deformed so that "his appearance was marred more than any man" when he was crucified for our sins (Isaiah 52:14).
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After death, Jesus did not abandon physical life to live on in some kind of disembodied, non-physical state. He was raised from the dead. His crucified body was reanimated and transformed by the Spirit of God. He now possesses a glorious body, resplendent with divine majesty. Jesus' resurrection life is the embodiment of human worthy, dignity and beauty. Christian believers, as God's new humanity will be made like their Lord when they are raised from the dead on the day of Jesus' appearing. We will share in his human perfection and enjoy the delights of God's new creation.
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Christians are called to live in the light of this future hope. Our bodies are even now the temple of the Holy Spirit. Abuse of the body, in terms of sexual immorality or allowing ourselves to become dangerously ill because of too much / too little food is inappropriate. We are to honour God in our physical lives because we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, "therefore glorify God in your body". (1 Corinthians 6:20.) ..
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A Biblical theology of the body will help us to embrace our physicalness as God's gift, to be used for his glory. Men and women have value and worth as human beings because they have been created in the image of God, not because they conform to the image of femininity or masculinity promoted in Hello magazine. The fact of sin will make believers realistic about the impossibility of physical perfection in this life. The resurrection hope holds before us the promise of Christlike beauty in the the age to come. In the light of the gospel, let us present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy acceptable to God. (Romans 12:1)

6 comments:

Steven Carr said...

Presumably when Moses returned from the grave at the transfiguration, never to die again, he also had a physical body which never died again.

Exiled Preacher said...

Steven,

I know that you enjoy trying to pick holes in the Christian hope. But you have failed to respond to my challenge to set out your atheistic eschatology. Have you anything positive to say about about the future beyond death and the grave?

Steven Carr said...

It seems Christians just cannot defend their worldview, although they clam the right to tell others just what will happen to their bodies.

According to Christians, after death, you can be resuscitated and die again, become a ghost (as in the Witch of Endor), become a spirit and never die again, or have your corpse rise and live in a physical body for ever.

Or you can go to Heaven when still alive (like Elijah and Moses)

Or perhaps just be annihalted.


A bewildering number of life-style choices when you are dead!

And the amazing thing is - all of these are totally consistent with each other!

Steven Carr said...

'Abuse of the body, in terms of sexual immorality or allowing ourselves to become dangerously ill because of too much / too little food is inappropriate.'

What harm will it do to us in the long run, if we allow people to stick nails and spears into us , or allow people to flog us?

Presumably no harm at all.

Exiled Preacher said...

Steven,

I'm still waiting for your atheistic view of life after death. What hope to you have in the face of death?

Have you read some of the books I suggested like Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism? or John Blanchard's Does God Believe in Atheists? ?

Em said...

Hhmm. I agree with what you have said in its basic content. You seem, however, to have little time for the ascetic contemplative who does not despise his God-given physical nature but does abstain in a Godly way from indulging it in order to be able to develop in other ways. You may wish to be careful here not to seem to condemn a well-established and fruitful Christian tradition.