Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 16

Spirituality and the Body

Gary W. Moon

What an embarrassment, the body. With all the belching, oozing, pain, and decay, it’s no surprise St. Francis called it “Brother Ass.” And with its unceasing attraction to bacon, beer, and other bodies, it’s enough to make you wonder:

What was God thinking?

What a marvel, the body. By comparison the most powerful computer is a child’s stick-figure drawing. Consider the intricate designs of eye, ear, and brain; consider the body’s ability to cool and heal itself; what a gift, this mass of meat that can experience music, mosaics, and marathons. So precious is the body that Jesus took his to heaven, as will you and I. But still the question: What was God thinking?

The body comes from dust. No wonder it behaves in such earthy ways. The vulgarity of the body has caused some to muse that human beings are like angels whose feet are trapped in concrete. But then again, we are dust infused with Trinitarian things like creativity, compassion, and volition.

Perhaps it is this apparent bifurcation that has caused so many Christians throughout the centuries to adopt Plato’s body/soul dualism. Indeed, in Gnosticism both past and present, the chasm between dust and light may be dug so deep that the ultimate end of all being is thought to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter.

But all such dualism, be it subtle or exaggerated, stands in stark contrast to the unitive, mind-bending teachings found throughout the Bible. Before I give you an overview of how the writers of this issue will offer insights and suggestions for appreciating the body in a manner more akin to Jesus and Paul than Plato and the pre-converted Augustine, let me first offer a story—with two illustrations—to underscore how subtle, yet profoundly impactful, dualistic thinking can become.

I have a friend who is not afraid to establish audacious goals. When he became CEO of the British Bible Society, he realized he had a major problem on his hands. In the course of his relatively young life, church attendance on any given Sunday morning in Great Britain had fallen from just over 50 percent of the population to well under 10 percent. So he decided to attempt something quite dramatic. In addition to continuing the huge goals of making the Bible available and affordable, he decided it was time to change cultural perceptions of the Bible and Christianity.

During a recent visit to England, my wife and I got to experience firsthand the attempts of this one individual—and his organization—to alter the views of an entire society. Our ten days across the pond were bookended by two dramatic events. On the last evening of our stay we got to attend a four hundredth birthday party for the King James Bible—just a few doors down from Parliament. The last remaining copy from the first print run was present, under protective glass, and opened to the preface. A throne where King James sat was present in the room, as were the Queen’s husband, a few hundred celebrities—and me. It was a marvelous, media-covered birthday bash for the Bible. I’m sure that a few of the fundamentalist pastors from my childhood would have been put off by the event, especially those who were known for opposing other, “less inspired” translations with cheers such as, “If the King James Version was good enough for Paul and Silas, it’s good enough for me.” First, the champagne that flowed so freely might have been a stumbling block. But I don’t think they would have been happy with the Bible itself. The opened preface to the 1611 edition of the KJV contains a long note from the translators in which forgiveness is asked for any mistakes they might have made. What? You certainly won’t find that preface still attached to modern translations. Perhaps, like the body itself, that much humanness is just too much for some dualistic thinkers to handle.

Earlier in our stay, we attended another culture-shaping event: the Theos Annual Lecture. At this iteration of what has become a very public and very visible event, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Ian Blair, gave a lecture on “Law and the Public Order” to a few hundred shakers and movers in London—and me. After the talk, a national talk show host with a popular evening program (if you are from the United States, think Regis Philbin) engaged the speaker in a spirited debate concerning his speech. The famous emcee pulled no punches. In fact, the persistent, probing nature of his questioning would have been considered rude in my Southern culture.

At one point in the spirited debate, the emcee asked Lord Ian this question: “When you were Metropolitan Police Commissioner, if you encountered a situation during which Muslim demonstrators were disrupting a Memorial Day remembrance ceremony, would you respond as a Christian or as the Police Commissioner?” I thought the question was tough but interesting. I thought the recipient, who had handled himself so well, would use this occasion for offering a brief teaching on Christian spiritual formation that all the newspapers would cover. But instead, he simply said, “I would respond first as the Police Commissioner.”

To me this was a very disappointing and very Platonic response. Don’t get me wrong. I did not want him to say he would have bullied the Muslims and protected the Christians. No. I simply wanted him to say, “I cannot make such a bifurcation. I am a Christian. As such, I live my whole life ‘with God.’ I would respond the only way I could—Christianly as the Police Commissioner.”

Perhaps I’m overly sensitized. So many times I’ve been asked the question, “When you meet with a client, are you acting as a psychologist or a Christian?” I’ve raised more than a few eyebrows when I say, “Both and at the same time. I hope I always act Christianly, and with the knowledge base of a psychologist.”

What is my point? Platonic thought is so influential that it has become difficult for us to think with the holism offered by the writers of Scripture. So influential is this bifurcated thinking that we may be tempted to view our spirit as the ghost that exists somewhere in the machine that is our body. So influential is it that we might chop courageously human prefaces from the fronts of our KJVs—embarrassed by the imperfection—and assume that to be policeman, psychologist, wife, or parent is one thing, while being a Christian is another.

Providing you with the opportunity to take a serious look at this chasm of dualism—and the implications for a more unitive view of body and soul is why we put this issue of Conversations together. The lead article, written by Steve Wilkens—a good friend who also happened to have written his doctoral dissertation on the resurrection body (or going to sleep with your sarx off, as he likes to say), reminds us that “Paul’s life after death ‘body language’ would have been shocking to any platonic lurkers checking out his Corinthian blog.” An interview with David G. Benner follows, in which we discuss his latest book, Soulful Spirituality, which underscores the importance of living life in a way that honors both our material and spiritual realities.

In our Honesty About the Journey section Jason Santos discusses how having a Christian symbol or an image of one’s faith journey permanently on one’s body can be an act of evangelism; and Scot McKnight provides a provocative essay on how reluctance to fast may reveal a disconnection from one’s body. And in Life Together, Tara Owens writes about the disconnection between sexuality and spirituality that is so common in Christian circles; and Juliet Benner offers an engaging interview concerning how art can stimulate both the senses and the soul.

In the section Intentionality of the Heart, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre discusses how caring for one’s body is a sacred task, inseparable from care of the soul; and Robert Morris writes with passion about reclaiming the body in prayer. And in our final section, Classical Spiritual Exercises, Nathan Foster takes us on a poetically described bicycle trip through the seasons of a year, while Christian George walks us through a labyrinth as a “discipline of sole and soul.”

Also in this issue you will hear from our feature writers. In O Taste and See, Acree Graham offers reflections on our cover art, Matisse’s painting La Danse. And in his column, Ancient Wisdom, Michael Glerup provides a conversation about body and spirit from voices of the early centuries of Church history. In her Transforming Center column, Ruth Haley Barton provides a practical bridge between our issue theme and normal folks on the pew; and in her feature, Conversations Guide Kim Engelmann does her usual masterful job of turning this issue into a small group resource for thematic study.

Finally, in this issue we are pleased to introduce a new feature. Ken Boa’s Reflections column will present his thoughtful musings on classic literature, film, or music as relevant to both our issue theme and the overarching theme of Conversations, promoting Christian Spiritual Formation. In his first column he focuses on The Brothers Karamazov as a metaphor of the person. Taken together, the three brothers form a composite hero—body, mind, and soul—in need of redemption.
We hope you will enjoy our first attempt to explore spirituality and the body.


Gary W. Moon, president and chair of integration at Richmont Graduate university, founded (with David G. Benner and Larry Crabb) Conversations Journal, directs the International Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation and has authored several books, including his most recent, Apprenticeship With Jesus: Learning to Live like the Master (Baker).