Once upon a time I spoke about my faith a different way. In high school, my church youth leader asked me if I had any goals for the coming school year. I replied with “spiritual maturity”—as if I had any idea what that meant. As I transitioned from childhood to adult life, I assumed maturity was the answer. And since I grew up in the church, spiritual maturity seemed like the best goal.
I went on to Bible college, where I learned about spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation. My mentors offered prayer, fasting, and Bible study as spiritual practices to further the growth of my faith.
When I set foot on my seminary campus, I found the course catalog filled with classes and a whole department for “spiritual formation.” I embraced this tone for my faith. The “spiritual” felt like the correct thing to emphasize. It’s possible I started to believe the (falsely attributed) C. S. Lewis quote that says, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Nearing the end of seminary, I now begin to accumulate experiences that forced me to reevaluate my “spiritual” faith.
My professor, who was also my mentor and the subject of my thesis, was diagnosed with cancer. I watched him as he taught what would be his final class, as the cancer slowly destroyed him. He died a few weeks after classes ended.
The next year, we learned that—fourteen weeks into pregnancy—our daughter had a terminal diagnosis. She was strong through pregnancy but she lived for less than an hour after birth.
The next fall, my father called to share that he had been diagnosed with cancer. While his cancer remains treatable, the ever-present reality of what cancer can do remains.
I had to figure out what to do with these bodies. My “spiritual” faith needed to grow more expansive.
A New Way to Be Human
We gather with others in physical community each Sunday to celebrate core practices of our faith. Real water plunges over the heads of those we baptize. The pieces of bread and cups filled red are passed among the gathered. Each of us eating, drinking and engaging our whole bodies in communion. As an outsider watching these events, it would be hard to simply spiritualize them—to ignore the physical nature of our faith. Physical things do represent immaterial, but the physical matters, and the immaterial doesn’t exist or isn’t remembered without it.
The church I called home during my early twenties would recite the Apostles Creed before we took communion. The words of the Creed emphasize the physical world and humanity at the core of our faith.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ . . . who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, suffered under Pontius Pilate. I believe in . . . the Resurrection of the body.
The creed recognizes that our physicality is rooted to our faith. A church service is a weekly demonstration of our Christianity, and it’s irrefutably physical in nature.
Over the last few years, as my body has started to find a home in this physical world, I’m beginning to feel at home in my faith.
I spent the better half of 2016 and beginnings of 2017 renovating a fifty-year-old duplex. Very little of the house had been updated from the original finishes. It boasted the same old oven, dated light fixtures, flowery wallpaper, and original flooring. As I scraped up that old flooring I wondered many times, “What am I doing?” I could pretend I quickly found some spiritual hope in the midst of a frustrating project but I didn’t. It took months of early morning and late night hours before I could step back to see some progress.
When the worn out started to look fresh and the broken down was replaced by the new, I began to settle into the realization that I was mimicking, in a small way, God’s work. I was taking parts of a physical world that longs for newness and was making it new again. Paul reminds us that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
That old house with its ’60s carpet and rotted wood windows looks a lot like I feel sometimes—both in my body and spirit. Lacking so much and longing for redemption. But the Lord promises to remake my achy knees and tired limbs along with my spirit. While our spirits are moving from broken to redemption, so also is this physical stuff. Our bodies and our souls receive new life in the end.
A Physical Faith
In some way I haven’t quite understood, that means my diet, exercise, and carbon footprint are a part of my faith. It also explains why the firm embrace of a good friend has a different gravitas than a phone call.
I no longer desire to talk about my faith in terms of spirituality alone. I want a Christian formation that takes into account all the dirt and skin of this world. And one that looks forward to materiality of the next world.
Cover image by Bruno Ramos Lara.
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