January 16, 2015 / Seth Richardson

Becoming Newly, #TrulyHuman: Embodiment is Not Enough (Part 1)

One of the most pressing challenges of discipleship and mission that daily confronts me is articulating in word and practice why and how salvation in Christ is good news in a world where Christianity is increasingly perceived as irrelevant to the things that matter most. I am bombarded with this challenge in different places – like in the relational dynamics of my family, in the pressures and complexities of being a pastor to seasoned church-folk, and in the lost and hurting people I regularly encounter at the coffee shop.

Addressing this challenge involves re-imaging how salvation gets real in the lives we actually live – in the grittiness and fleshiness of embodied life. If we are affirming that salvation is about becoming more, not less, human, I’m learning that the recovery of embodiment is a crucial move. But I’m also learning it doesn’t stop there. We must follow the implications of the incarnation and resurrection all the way through.

We must keep going because the means of becoming more human is not intuitively obvious. Left to our own devices, we cannot properly name or satisfy the groaning of our bodies for more. Although we’ve seen behind the curtain and know it’s just smoke and mirrors, our bodies are perpetually tugged down the same brick road of self-preservation and self-fulfillment.

It is a kind of tragic ironic that, even though we might be convinced we’re pursuing life, our bodies are hell-bent on a path toward death – becoming less human. We cannot follow our body to true life – even when we really want to feel more human.

One of the great paradoxes of the Gospel is that we become who we are truly meant to be by forfeiting the things we want most to preserve. We must lose our life in order to find true life. But our bodies do not naturally make this move. This means we cannot simply go back to the fleshiness of embodied life and stop there. Because this is a bodily issue and we cannot be something other than embodied, we need more than good advice or even a great example.

We need Life itself to inhabit our fleshiness and redeem us from the bondage of perpetually becoming less human. This is why becoming more human is bound-up in the full logic of incarnation-resurrection.

The incarnation-resurrection does not simply throw us back to the recovery of humanity lost; rather, it launches us forward toward new creation – making possible an embodiment that is entirely new. The invitation to true human flourishing is an invitation to new human flourishing possible only in and through Christ. This is resurrected life – not just resuscitated life.

In other words, returning to embodiment is good but it doesn’t go far enough. The next step in becoming truly human after returning to embodiment is opening our embodied selves to the possibility that, in Christ, our bodies and all of creation can become sites where resurrection life springs forth.

And not just any part of our life, but our failure, weakness, disappointment, loss of control, pain, and conflict (places that feel like death) are all the especially raw, fleshy places where life springs forth when those places become sites of surrender to Christ.

We can look the fleshy parts of our lives square in the eye and take the plunge because, in Christ, God shared our humanity, lived, died, and was raised. This means becoming truly human looks like going back to the body and then taking the body all the way to the cross and the grave where surrender becomes the starting point for learning to be truly human.

Avoiding the Other Ditch Along the Salvation Road

Keeping in mind that we must “keep going” is crucial for becoming truly human because it helps us avoid ditches on both sides of the salvation road.

One side of the ditch – the one, perhaps, we are more attuned to – is disembodied. It is all about the salvation of some other life than we actually live (where we work and cook and play and hurt) in some other part of ourselves than our bodies (the gritty, fleshy, sexual, breathing parts) for some other place than this one (our neighborhoods, coffee shops, parks, and markets).

Many have rightly identified how disembodied salvation is functionally gnostic: Jesus has come to save us from our humanity.

In our effort to heal from a culture of disembodied salvation, which has lingered within evangelicalism for many decades now, we must remember there are dangers on the other side of the ditch.

The other side – the one, perhaps, we are less attuned to – gets back to the embodied part but lacks the redemptive imagination to know what to do next. It is all about the implications for these bodies and this world, but it is flat inasmuch as it fails to define what true embodiment is like and how we become more truly human. Moreover, while it affirms that work and pleasure and food and scotch are good – that concrete acts of justice are important – it also fails to fully address the brokenness inherent in the system.

This vision for salvation, in its flat embodiment, teeters on the brink of functional materialism: Jesus has come to show us how to find the goodness present all along.

Both of these options leave no room for the possibility of becoming truly, newly human because becoming human in Christ assumes the possibility of, and cultivates space for, transformation in the places where it matters most. When our bodies are irrelevant or the same as when we found them, there is no possibility for new humanity.

When we keep going toward resurrected life, not just resuscitated life, we see that the “turn” back to humanity is not just a decent – a low anthropology, as if that in itself is better – a swing of the pendulum from the disembodiment of gnosticism to the flat embodiment of materialism. The turn back to humanity – becoming truly human – is an affirmation of transformed humanness.

So what does that look like?

In Part 2, I will explore how becoming truly human is all about the embodied transformation possible when the fleshy, ordinary places of our life become sites of surrender. [Read Part 2 here.]


[Photo: Tamara, CC via Flickr]