Church needs to take incarnation more seriously. In all the talk around church transformation, orienting from the body (one’s own and Earth’s body) is rarely part of the conversation. Yet it may be the most radical step we can take toward a renewed integrity, relevance, and ecological mode of presence.
Historically, we have limited incarnation (Spirit becoming flesh) to a single person in Jesus. Paul’s theology expanded this to help the early church imagine itself as the body of Christ in the world. But what if Spirit actually manifests in, through, and as, bodies, human, animal, vegetative, and geological? What if Isaiah got it exactly right that “the whole Earth is full of G_d’s glory”, and that this includes bodies? Our seminaries still teach, as far as I know, that there are three primary sources of revelation—scripture, tradition, and reason. Conspicuously absent from this teaching is our own experience—which is mediated by our bodies. When reason is dissociated from the wisdom of the body, it gets abstract and academic pretty quick. Imagine teaching our children that their bodies were a kind of scripture that they could learn how to read in order to know G_d?
What’s been missing is a truly positive view (let alone experience) of the body— that is, gaining a deep respect the inherent intelligence and evolutionary elegance of the flesh. We don’t have practices in Christianity that help us to tune into the body’s wisdom as a way of orienting to Spirit. Traditionally, the body has been the problem that Christ “came” to solve. Essentially, this meant transcending the bodily impulses (read sex and an assumed insatiable narcissism/greed) in order to live the good (moral) life. Being moral came down to exercising sufficient willpower to adhere to an external set of rules and codes of conduct—in other words obeying laws handed down from on high. The “good” Christian (in the worst sense of the word as Mark Twain put it) has a deep, unconscious distrust of the body and its desire.
And yet, the prophet Jeremiah imagined a time when all the laws would be “written upon our hearts”(Jeremiah 31:33). He foresaw a time when there would be no need for teachers of the law because we would have access to the wisdom of the heart (and the lungs, liver, kidneys, skin cells, etc.). Jesus essential message was that we had become overly dependent upon a set of external conventions (the law), when what we needed to do was to find a new, interior guidance system—Jeremiah’s “heart”, which is the compass of the senses, the movement of emotions, and intuitions that guide us in the ways of Spirit, moment by moment.
It’s not that moral teachings or external codes of conduct are wrong. They served and to a degree, still serve, in our early stages of development as a way to moderate our evolutionary impulses for survival, sex, and security. But ever since St. Augustine expressed his deep fear of his own sexuality and invoked Christ to help him transcend his own nature, we have been left with the rather blunt instrument of willpower and the threat of shame to control ourselves and others. Before Christianity, Hinduism understood that these early, natural impulses were not wrong, but rather entry level portals into deeper yearnings of the body/mind, body/soul, and body/spirt for communion with Source.
Even if most of us have intellectually moved beyond associating our wants and needs (our nature) with shame, functionally we distrust them. Yet it is my experience that every time I have tracked and trusted where my body wants to lead me, I am led into restoration and healing—into and through shame and into my birthright of joy and deep connection. It is also true that most of the suffering I’ve experienced, and caused others, originates in my willful over-riding of my deepest wants and needs. This over-riding is the result of shame in my own nature, my lack self-acceptance.
Our spiritual practices have been focused primarily on transcendence. But today we need practices of incendence, that help us to deeply inhabit our bodies. Transcendence represents the vertical dimension of the spiritual path, receiving from above and beyond. But perhaps more important at this point in our history is the horizontal dimension, constituted by deep relationality with the community of life. This is the shamanic path.
The shaman deepens relationship by taking the initiate inward and downward, through body, into Earth, into connection with ancestry, human and other-than-human, and the whole living universe from which we have been disconnected, even dissociated. My friend and Anglican priest, Chris Dierkes, has been reclaiming Jesus as shaman, and I think he’s on the right track. The way forward is the way back to our own nature and deeper into Earth’s intelligence, there to grieve what we’ve lost, and to reclaim the inheritance we squandered.
This will involve a metanoia of our sacred rituals. We’ll need to allow our bodies to move, be moved, and to move us. Our bodies will lead us into prayer and ecstatic celebration, as we allow ourselves to feel the rhythms of Earth and universe, radiant with the glory of G_d.