Theologian Sarah Coakley has written that our cultural obsession with health and fitness amounts to a “sweaty Pelagianism.” Yet when I look at myself and I look around the church (both behind the pulpit and in the pew), I don’t see much evidence of this particular practical heresy.
In fact, it looks like many of us are suffering from too little care for our bodies. We struggle with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other effects of too much food, stress and work and not enough exercise. Perhaps “sweaty Pelagianism” describes the mentality of some people, but much of the church appears to suffer from a “flabby Gnosticism.”
The challenges to physical health and fitness are fairly easy to enumerate -- just think of any excuse you’ve ever used to avoid exercise or to justify over-indulging in food.
In addition to the constraints of time, comfort, money and responsibilities, however, we Christians have often adopted a version of the Gnostic heresy that has impacted our theological sense about taking care of our bodies.
If “sweaty Pelagianism” compels people to obsess about keeping fit, “flabby Gnosticism” asserts that bodies don’t really matter as much as souls. Popular versions of this can be heard in statements like “We all have our time to die, so it doesn’t matter if I drink soda all day long,” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!”
The Gnostic heresy asserted, among other things, that the material world was inherently evil, a badly made copy of the pure, spiritual realm of the true God. In Gnosticism, salvation entails the soul’s freedom from the body and the created realm so that it can fly off to spiritual realm from which it came.
The temptation to view our bodies and the rest of creation as disposable trappings to be sloughed off at some point has plagued Christianity for centuries, despite the denunciations of church leaders as early as Irenaeus in the second century. Though I suspect that few church members and clergy would describe themselves as Gnostics, influences from this heresy continue to permeate our popular theology and impact such basic human practices as how we care for our bodies.
To counter this practical heresy, I suggest three theological truths that should ground the way we view and subsequently care for our bodies.
First, our bodies are part of the good creation of God. God has declared the creation to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and we are instructed to exercise stewardship over it by caring for and nurturing it (Gen. 1:28–30). This stewardship extends to the care and nurture of our own bodies.
This notion of stewardship provides us with a model of balance in the practical matter of caring for our bodies. We are not given the task to achieve some notion of perfection (Pelagianism), nor are we instructed to give up the earth to the chaos from the fall and the ravages of time (Gnosticism). We are to care for God’s creation in order that it may bear fruit. In the case of our bodies, this might rightly be understood as taking steps to care for them so that we might be able to serve God.
Second, our salvation in Jesus Christ includes our bodies, not just our souls. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have understood that extending the gospel included meeting the practical, physical needs of others. Christians built hospitals, staffed food pantries, and ministered to the marginalized. Yet by the end of the 20th century, many of us had neglected the daily care of our own bodies, which are intended to be a gift for us to use in service to God and to others. The injunction from Teresa of Avila -- “Christ has no body but yours, no hands or feet on earth but yours” -- becomes difficult to follow once we have neglected our bodies to the point where they are incapable of service.
Finally, our treatment of our bodies should be grounded in the eschatological reality that God will restore all of creation -- both a new heaven and a new earth (Isa. 66:22; Rev. 21:1). Our own bodies will be resurrected -- evidence of God’s love for all the stuff of our physical beings, including the dust, sweat, muscle, bone and sinew (1 Cor. 15:42). Bodies matter to God, and they will be fully restored for an eternity. Though we know that aging, disease and death will come, we still steward this gift to the best of our abilities in the grace of God.
A number of practical objections might be raised at this point. What about people with chronic illness or disability? Are they able to serve God despite their incapacitated bodies? Let me respond with an emphatic yes.
Our worship and service does not depend on pristine physical condition. If it did, we would be back to the notion that our own good works (and good workouts) would be enough to substitute for faithful dependence on God.
What about body image issues? Doesn’t this promote an obsessive or even dysmorphic view of our physical being at the expense of our spiritual journey with Christ?
I answer this with an equally emphatic no.
We are not to worship or value any gift -- whether money, talents or even our bodies -- more highly than the giver. These are resources for us to use in worship and service. No matter what body we’ve been given, we should neither worship nor neglect the gift we have been given.
A call against “flabby Gnosticism” is intended to promote a theologically grounded reason to care for the resource of our bodies that God has given us. We need to find ways to manage stress, encourage each other in healthy eating and exercise habits, and remind church members about life-saving health screenings.
But we also need to claim theological truth about our bodies as created, redeemed and ultimately restored by God. A healthy theology might help us turn in a direction toward a healthier clergy and laity and provide a way to balance care for our bodies between the obsessive worship of “sweaty Pelagianism” and the dreadful neglect of “flabby Gnosticism.”