I Am My Body: New Ways of Embodiment. – book reviews
Melanie A. May
Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel has written a clear-sighted and courageous book in which she retrieves the centrality of “the body of God (of Jesus) and the human body (the woman’s body” (p.xii) in Christianity. By beginning with a retelling of the New Testament story of the healing of the “woman with a flow of blood”, she “plunges us deeply into the dimensions of the body, shows us the body as a field of energy” (p.x). But by ending with “a theology of embodiment” (which she insists is not “a new theology”; p.103), Moltmann-Wendel herself retreats from the radical, and still scandalous, implications for Christianity today of what she has retrieved: God became body; we are bodies.
In the first chapter of her book the author insightfully articulates the experiences men and women have of our bodies in societies shaped by the teachings of Western Christianity. These teachings follow from Augustine’s mistrust of the body and from his theology that, accordingly, takes its lead from the fall instead of creation and emphasizes sin instead of God’s pleasure in earthly beings. In consequence, Christian churches and cultures have distanced us from our bodies and have directed the discipline of our bodies. Even the contemporary preoccupation with exercise and healthy foods can be an expression of manipulation of the body. Moltmann-Wendel, in contrast, calls us to attend to our bodies, which have voices of their own.
Women’s bodies in particular, says Moltmann-Wendel, are the places where cultural dis-ease with bodies becomes clearest. Prescriptions for women’s bodies — how they are to look and what they are to do and not do — are most demanding. Women’s bodies are violated physically and emotionally, are viewed by modern medical technology as reproductive vessels, and are means of waging war. Women have “no bodies of their own” (pp. 14-15) in societies for which men’s bodies are nonmative.
But the author makes it clear that men are as alienated from their bodies as are women. Expected to be the stronger sex, men take less care of their bodies than women. Men repress feelings. Societal dictates of detachment and discipline are no healthier for men than for women. Health, says Moltmann-Wendel, is “harmony with oneself, with one’s fellow human beings, the environment and nature, and with God” (p.23). Health is being fully alive in one’s body, with its pleasure as well as its pain.
So saying, Moltmann-Wendel turns in the second chapter to the ambivalence of Christianity relative to the body. Focusing on the healings that are central to Jesus’ saving actions, many of which “take place directly from body to body” (p.37), she asks: “what is the explanation of this love of the body on the one hand and contempt of the body on the other” (p.36)? For Moltmann-Wendel, the Jesus movement was marked by a revaluation of the body that meant “leaving the body free” (p.39). This freedom of the body was freedom from biological social norms, above all from norms about the family, and freedom for life in the family of God, for a new life-style having particular significance for women in a society oriented around the family.
This “body freedom” was undermined, Moltmann-Wendel argues, by two early developments. One was the confusion in Pauline thinking of soma — the body in its wholeness — and sarx — the flesh, or human beings in their fallenness. The other was the inability of early Christian communities to sustain freedom from biological social norms in the face of the dominant society. Consequently, through the centuries Christianity has subscribed to the normativity of the male body and to attendant social expectations of the body, even as body freedom bursts forth from time to time in marginal movements.
One of the most powerful sections of I Am My Body is that in which Moltmann-Wendel puts forth concrete suggestions towards “a body-reformation of the church” (pp.55ff.). She does so by drawing on New Testament stories of healing, particularly those of women’s healing. She argues that the women appear in these stories with “new ailments which have no male parallels: fever (of Peter’s stepmother), bent backs, bleeding from the uterus, the apparent death of Jairus’s daughter” (p.57). These illnesses, says Moltmann-Wendel, involve the whole person, not only an appendage. And, she continues, “the healings have much more far-reaching consequences that simply the regeneration of an organ… In any healing of a woman a greater social relationship is restored, one which was lost or perhaps was never there” (p.58). In other words, the women who are healed enter into “a new social, family and religious relationship” (p.58).
The author further elaborates this “body-reformation” in discussing touching and being touched, healing as resurrection, and the resurrection of the flesh. She concludes this section with this invocation: `Don’t be anxious’, `Don’t be afraid’. That is the message which stands at the beginning of the incarnation, God’s becoming body, and it can accompany us as we become human beings. It is also the message of the resurrection on Easter Day, the message of hope that all that is cannot be separated from the love of God, whether blade of grass, or human being, or animal” (p.77).
In the third and final chapter of the book Moltmann-Wendel clarifies and critiques views of women’s bodies as vessels. She sets forth new views, including “thinking with the body” and the revolutionary significance of attending to all the senses, in order to break open old vessels and point towards liberating relationship for women and men.
At the end she reflects on “a theology of embodiment” (pp.103ff.). On one hand, this section is a summary of thoughts woven throughout the book. Read as such the section is helpful. But I was disappointed by what seemed to me Moltmann-Wendel’s distancing herself from her own bolder talk of “a body-reformation of the church” as she states: “A theology of embodiment does not seek to outline a new theology, but it does seek to open up a forgotten place… from which there can be theological thought and action: the human body” (p.103). On the one hand, I agree with Moltmann-Wendel that there is much in the tradition to which to return in articulating a theology of embodiment. On another hand, however, the very use of the word “embodiment” in this regard signals to me that the Word is still in its place of primacy. The pulsing physicality and body energy that Moltmann-Wendel emphasizes in earlier passages is ever so subtly contained. The scandal of God become body — God is body as we are bodies — is sidestepped.
I speak my disappointment in solidarity with Moltmann-Wendel, for I believe that one of the difficulties we face in setting forth a theology able to speak our bodies’ voices is the absence of adequate language to do so. Such a theology calls us to the creation of new words and it is, therefore, a new theology. Yet Moltmann-Wendel has given us in this book a great gift, both clear-sighted and courageous, with which to continue our theological creativity — which is co-creativity with God who is indeed body and is made known in our bodies.
Melanie A. May is professor of theology and dean of women and gender studies, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Bexley Hall, Crozer Theological Seminary, Rochester, New York, USA.
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