“The Resurrected Flesh ” – March 27, 2005
Mark W. Harris
– “Let Us Worship” by Kenneth Patton (#437 in hymnal)
Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips;
Let us love the world through heart and mind and body.
We feed our eyes upon the mystery and revelation in the faces of our brothers and sisters.
We seek to know the wistfulness of the very young and the very old, the wistfulness of people in all times of life.
We seek to understand the shyness behind arrogance, the fear behind pride, the tenderness behind clumsy strength, the anguish behind cruelty.
All life flows into a great common life, if we will only open our eyes to our companions.
Let us worship, not in bowing down, not with closed eyes and stopped ears.
Let us worship with the opening of all the windows of our beings, with the full outstretching of our spirits.
Life comes with singing and laughing, with tears and confiding, with a rising wave too great to be held in the mind and heart and body, to those who have fallen in love with life.
Let us worship, and let us learn to love.
Do you think that personality types have anything to do with Easter? Is it important to know if Jesus was an introvert or an extrovert? It seems like he needed those disciples in order to have suppers and discuss strategy, and he just may have drawn his energy from being around other people. Theologians and church historians these days seem to want to play up the role of women in his ministry with emphasis on Mary, his mother and Mary Magdalene. On the other hand, he went off by himself, too, contemplating and praying on serious matters. I am not sure an extrovert could stand 40 days alone. They’d go a little stir crazy. We could continue along with this line of questioning by asking if he was sensing or intuitive, feeling or thinking, judging or perceiving. Of course everyone is a little bit of each of these, and the idea is to try to balance them in our lives. Personality tests have become a popular management tool in our culture to predict what kinds of behaviors to expect from prospective employees. Critics say they are about as accurate as using astrology as a predictor of behavior. It is like taking a zodiac sign, such as Gemini, and assigning all the people who were born under that sign to the sales department since this is what they naturally do best. While they may not be entirely fair or accurate in judging what kind of people we are or where our skills may lie, personality tests are interesting and we certainly relate. I wrote a newsletter column a couple of years ago about my introverted revulsion at going into a Christmas party where I didn’t know anybody. It seemed like all the other introverts in the congregation came up to me afterward and said how much they related to that anxiety producing situation for introverts of being in a room full of people and having to talk to them, sort of like social hour.
Society can present challenges for introverts as 75% of the population are extroverts. Each of us has to figure out a way to fit into an extroverted world. Personality tests do help us learn a little more about ourselves, and give some insight into areas of strength and weakness, but there are too many other factors to make them entirely accurate predictors of our abilities or leadership qualities. There is one aspect of personality tests though that I find relevant to Easter, Unitarian Universalism and myself. This is in the perceiving function that is categorized as Sensing or Intuition. The vast majority of the general population are sensing, but very few Unitarian Universalists are. I am one of those few. Sensing people rely primarily on the senses or the body’s ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell to perceive the world. We live in our bodies more than we live in our heads. This makes perfect sense to me when you think of Unitarian Universalism as a rational, thinking person’s religion. People who tend to perceive through intuition are more detached from the direct experience, and tend to use abstraction and metaphor, and they need language to capture something in memory. One needs action, and the other needs words.
One obvious question for Unitarian Universalists might be would we appeal to a broader spectrum of the population if we had more bodily experiences in our worship services, instead of primarily words. Historically, we have lacked the bells and whistles of Catholicism with its candles, incense, wafers and wine, and perhaps today the lighting of candles for joys and sorrows, the greeting and talking in church are ways for us to have more sensual experiences of each other or our surroundings. We need more bodily experiences of spiritual knowledge besides talking and speculating about truth. This is where the importance of the idea of the resurrected flesh on Easter comes into play.
In some Unitarian Universalist churches Easter is a time to explain away the idea of resurrection. We view it as a biological absurdity (dead men do not come back to life), and usually say his life and influence was so powerful in the disciples minds that they came to believe that he continued to live on, and would always do so. End of story. The other part of the story is that we liberals have always affirmed his bodily existence over his spiritual essence. In fact this was an important argument in the early Christian church. Spirit or flesh? There were some Christians who came to worship a spiritual Christ, who was an other worldly figure who only assumed flesh. This became the abstract theology of Christianity, or the Gospel of John’s word made flesh, where the flesh is secondary. This abstraction denied the more sensual Jesus who not only shared meals and wine with his followers, but was also a person of action more than abstraction. This is the Jesus who was descended from the warrior king David, and was here to lead his people out of their oppression.
It is interesting in Christian history that as the man Jesus became more and more the spiritual Christ, the body became more and more denigrated. Augustine, one of the great teachers in Christianity used the creation story of Adam and Eve to prove that sexual desire for another’s body is sinful, and that infants all have the infected trait called original sin, which also corrupts all of nature. In her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels says the church made the choice of the forbidden fruit the major sin in this story rather than the disobedience of God. Every measure was taken to control the desires of the body, so that nothing was suppose to be done from desire, ie. you were not allowed to have any. The expectation was that the good Christian would control the will, and thus sexual behavior was only allowed for procreation. In that context women could have only two roles in Christianity – whore or virgin mother. Eve represented the first and Mary the second. Augustine denied any possibility of free will. He says the serpent beguiled Adam with the lure of liberty. The forbidden fruit is to symbolize control over the will, and thus represents the primary virtue, which is obedience. What Augustine said was that humans are not capable of being trusted to govern themselves. Teaching that all of nature is corrupt was a way to have social control over the people, because you as the church had the only tool available to save themselves from this corruption. Perhaps the creation of the sensual experiences in worship was to make up for the belief that sensual experiences of living were evil.
Two things are destroyed in this framework. We only experience life through our bodily experiences, and yet we are told that the body and its sensual desires are sinful. This sets up a situation where everything we do or want is bad. Therefore the choices we make about our own lives must be wrong unless we deny ourselves those individual choices, and let the church or the state or if you are a woman, your husband, control those desires through our obedience. Here’s where we return to the story of Jesus, and its implications for us. The body plays a crucial role in the story of Jesus. All through his years of development and ministry, he defies attempts to control him, and what he believes his mission in life to be. He is someone who is disobedient to the established norms of the acceptable rules of society. In his final days he risks death rather than be silenced. Finally, the story depicts him as raised in the body rather than merely as spirit to tell us that he triumphs in the end over the attempts of the religious hierarchy and the state to control him. The truth of his life as he lived it in his body will not be defiled by the authorities, even though they abuse his body in the worst possible ways.
Our Unitarian forebear Emerson never quite understood a relationship between the physical self and the spiritual. The scholar Lawrence Buell says that Emerson would not have understood identifying the real you with your feeble carcass. While he did suggest walking in nature and physical labor, they were only tools to improve the mind. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a younger Transcendentalist suggested that they had neglected physical culture while only cultivating the mind. Emerson believed that even though we are 99.5% mud and 0.5 per cent god, the little bit of divine trumps all. Aging was difficult for him, and its effect on the body made him equate experience with fatalism. The real Emerson was not his body. Yet the central doctrine of all of Emerson’s thought was on Self-reliance. While he may not have been comfortable in his body, no one was going to control what it did. For him self-reliance, that transformation to living by the integrity of the self came from a veil of mediocrity that shrouds most people most of the time. There is a power of resurgence within each of us. For Emerson the body becomes heroic when it lives into this pure integrity of the self. In his essay on heroism he speaks of Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist, “who gave his breast to the bullets of a mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was better not to live.”
Like Emerson, most of us have body issues of one kind or another throughout our lives. As young people there is cultural pressure to be attractive and trim, and women especially, often feel trapped by the enforcement of strict standards to meet the societal idea of beauty. What is ironic about this is that statistically we are now a society struggling more and more with obesity. We don’t move enough, walk enough, swim, run or bike enough, and we find our kids may be out of shape and flabby. Body continues to be an issue as we age and confront greater difficulties in losing weight, or in the pains of joints and muscles as time begins to catch up to us. What kind of control will we have as we continue to age, and eventually become infirm. Can we make decision now to help others know what we want done or not done to our bodies. Do we want terribly invasive procedures merely to remain alive, and when there is no quality to our life, and the person who was once us is no longer there?
As Jesus was led to the cross, as the abolitionist Lovejoy stood before the mob, as Emerson struggled with aging, all are wondering in different ways, how do I keep my integrity of self, my true beliefs alive until the end when powerful others or when fate of dwindling years or disease confront my body with its final days or years. The integrity of the self , and the struggle with maintaining a sense of control over one’s own body seem to make the front page news item over the life of Terri Schaivo relevant to the Easter story. In the last two weeks we have seen politicians grandstanding, and others battling to try to capture control of a woman’s body who has been in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years. What is perhaps relevant is that the heart attack that brought on this condition came about because she was bulemic. It is often said that young women who have that condition come to it as a result of trying to wrest control back over their own life. This is not to minimize the parent’s pain at her condition, but to reiterate that we must do all we can to maintain the sanctity of each person’s control over their own body as opposed to the state, the church or a family member trying to control another. When someone says preserve life at all costs, we must ask at what cost, is this preservation necessary? Jesus said my body will not live to be a slave to your oppressive system. Lovejoy said I will die so that you cannot enslave one more man or woman or child. We must stand up for the sanctity of the body of any person who is being made the slave of another – of those who will keep a life alive when the personality is gone, of those who exploit others with pornography, of those who insist on opposing a woman’s choice to end an unwanted pregnancy – any and all attempts to violate the sanctity of the body.
These lives tell us how hard it is to be true to your bodily and spiritual self when so many forces are trying to control who or what you are. I think Easter can be a call to revel in the bodies that we have. It is a call to use those bodies as spiritual embodiments of the self. To come to see and understand the world through mind and heart and yes, body. It often seems like we have lost the sensual world in our liberal experience of religion. Yet if we look at religious practices we can see that they can call us to find our faith through the senses. In Isalm the faithful believe in the Five Pillars: with prayer, they roll out their rugs and prostrate themselves on the ground; with charity they give of the self to work to help others welcoming and giving to the stranger; with fasting you give up food from sunrise to set, and feel the effects on your body, physically knowing discipline and dependence on others; with pilgrimage you make the journey to a holy place, like walking to Walden for us; and finally with your sense of the divine, you understand the goodness of the creation, and how we are created as free moral beings to make choices in the world that bring freedom and equality in society. Think of the sensual experience of living a faith. How can you find the sensual center of our faith? Can we discipline our bodies with food, pilgrimage and compassion for others? Can we make our bodies dance with joy for the wonders of the creation?
I lived my younger days out as an athlete. I still live to feel the water on my body as I swim, or to throw a bowling ball down a lane or shoot a basketball with my boys, or walk in the wilderness. I love to eat. I love to look. The body and its senses tell us in such glory that we are alive, and this is the great Easter message. Love the body, use the body, celebrate the body with all your heart. The other day in the wake of a childrens theatre performance, Andrea was telling me about beau geste. This is when an actor uses his/her whole body and sounds as props. You become your surroundings – live into them. In her poem “God send easter,” Lucille Clifton would have us dance toward Jesus in the sun, glorifying in our skin. Our skin that we must take care of and use for as long as we can, and then when its is old or weary, keep the body sanctified by letting it go to die in peace. Sometimes fate or circumstance means that body must go too soon, but the sanctity is upheld when integrity of the self is maintained and followed. This truthfulness about body and spirit integrated and whole is Clifton’s ”spring song” of the world turning in the body of Jesus giving us a possible future. For the body of Jesus was true, ever following the truth he found in his heart – he lived this truth until he died, he respected the dignity and equality of others, he walked in their shoes, he welcomed them at his table. He said we should hold no slaves, be no slave. The Easter message is let us find ways, body and spirit, to be free.
from Mark Harris
We welcome Easter morning as a festival of the living body.
May its story remind us never to separate ourselves from our life in the body.
May we feel that the body and spirit are one; that flesh is good.
May we be in touch with our hands and feet; every living, breathing part of ourselves.
May we love the body; as regenerating earth, as reproducing seed, as the stuff of stars – growing, changing and becoming the incarnated breath of all life; each one of us the word made flesh.
Praise the body!.