Do you agree or disagree with this statement:
“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Or this one:
“I am my body.”
These statements get at the heart of not only some of the big cultural issues we are facing now, but actually inform our regular, everyday lives. Gregg Allison argues the latter statement in his book Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World. While it is also true that we have a body, in the sense that it can be “disposed of in a number of ways,” Allison rightfully pushes that we “cannot completely dispose of [our] bod[ies] without at the same time losing [our selves].” And so, he gives us a theology of embodiment. Introducing the book, he summarizes:
In relation to the doctrine of sin, a theology of embodiment traces the bodily effects of the fall and sin. With respect to the doctrine of Christ, embodiment speaks to the nature of the incarnation. Connecting to the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and salvation, a theology of embodiment helps us understand the Spirit’s indwelling of, and divine action through, redeemed people. In relation to the doctrine of future things, embodiment theology highlights the strangeness of disembodiment in the intermediate state (the period between our death and the return of Christ). It also fosters hope in the contemplation of God’s redemptive work through the resurrection of the body.
I am my soul and my body because they are in hylomorphic unity. It’s such a mysteriously wonderous part of being human! But how does this impact the way that we live and feel and think? That’s what Gregg Allison wants to help us with.
Allison is a professor of Christian theology and it shows in his writing-style. His chapters take a systematic approach to this topic, from looking at the created body, to gender, particularity, wellness and discipline, worshipping bodies, suffering, death, the future, and even the whole clothing of our bodies. And the formatting of the chapters reveals his teacher’s heart. He begins each chapter with an overview of it: what to consider upon entering it, the big idea, and an application question. As he introduces the topic, he interacts with cotemporary thinking and gets very practical. His teaching is guided by biblical affirmations and theological considerations. And he ends each chapter with an applicatory section, as well as a section that takes the teaching a little further for those who may be more curious (that’s where I grabbed the “I have a body” vs. “I am my body” question).
One distinction that I appreciated that Allison makes is between social body and the sexual body. “Sociality is the universal human condition of desiring, expressing, and receiving human relationships.” We are social beings. He reserves the term sexuality for sexual activity. While I often use the word sexuality in a much broader sense, Allison’s distinction was helpful in being able to spend a whole chapter focusing on “God-honoring, self-valuing, and others-respecting” relationships which we are called to both with our own sex and our corresponding sex. In these chapters and others, I also appreciate what I learned in the footnotes—Allison enriched his book by asking the perspective of others, learning from that, adding them to the book, and gratefully giving them credit. I love that. That’s the best kind of teacher.
This book would make a great resource for small group discussions. It speaks to so many of the issues we are struggling under today regarding gender, personhood, body image, friendship, health, worship, suffering, and hope. It’s organized well to facilitate discussion. It’s biblically faithful and nuanced on issues that need to be. It provokes more questions that would be edifying to explore. And its subtitle really is a guiding principle. We can’t face and discuss our fractured world without a grasp on embodiment. The whole person needs to be addressed, loved, cared for, and challenged.