Lived Theology, Embodied Theology

The phrase “lived theology” has been turning over in my head for the past several weeks in anticipation of my Lived Theology internship – What does it mean for theology to be lived? What are the implications of such a theology? How might theology be brought to life in one’s being? At some point during this first week of my intership I struck upon the idea of embodiment – that lived theology is embodied theology. Of course to live in this world is to be embodied. From the tiniest single-celled microorganism to the tallest redwood, to you and me, all that lives in this reality finds physical expression in a body. Thus theology that is lived would be theology that is embodied – word made flesh. As I come to recognize theology as something that is necessarily realized in embodiment then I can begin to think about my own embodied nature – and those of all the creatures that surround me – in what I believe to be a more reverential, humble, and ultimately truthful way.

The thinkers whose writings will accompany my work and theological reflection this summer have already proven instructive in this idea of embodiment. Modern agrarian mystics Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba and Brazilian eco-liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in particular write extensively on the theological significance of the physicality of the world and the bodies that inhabit it. In his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry urges us to move beyond the body-soul dualism that has for centuries broken man into two distinct parts, a body and a soul, placing the latter far above and before the former in theological import. Berry instead recognizes man as “a single mystery,” reminding us of the creation narrative which affirms that “The breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the other is the dust” (314, The Art of Commonplace). Unlike so many antiquated modes of religious thought that denounce the material realm in an effort to access the spiritual one, Berry’s agrarian theological sensibility holds that “God too loves material things; He invented them” (301, The Art of Commonplace).

The brilliant and sometimes bewildering 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart was certainly of the same mind when he wrote, “Earth cannot get away from heaven: let the earth drop downward or rise upward, heaven still penetrates it” (4, Sermons, Writings and Sayings). Thus a lived or embodied theology cannot be of that dualistic mentality that confuses escapism for piety, rather it must be firmly rooted in the sacred dust of our own body-souls and dwell richly in this good Earth. Such a theology will revere the sacred in not only the community of mankind, that is the Mystical Body of Christ, but in what Boff calls the “cosmic community” as it recognizes the “radical interdependence of living systems” (106, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor). Berry describes this same “radical interdependence” in his own words when he writes, “Between any two humans or any two creatures, all Creation exists as a bond” (297, The Art of Commonplace). Norman Wirzba, in his agrarian mystic essay “The Dark Night of the Soil,” similarly affirms that you and I are essentially “communal and relational;” that each one of us is “a creature formed and sustained through the dynamisms of soil and soul” (153, Heaven’s Earthly Life).

A theology that upholds the sanctity of our bodily existence will concern itself deeply with the manifold relationships that sustain our creaturely state of radical interdependence. Thus, our recognition of ourselves as living bodies lays the groundwork for an ethic that preserves the sacred in the whole membership of God’s creation. Wirzba writes,

There is a correspondence among creatures, a mutual and created harmony and sympathy, that finds its unity and wholeness in God. If we are to come into the presence of God, we must learn to find our place in this created correspondence and live responsible and charitably within it (151, Heaven’s Earthly Life).

Berry too writes of the charity that is required by and grows from what I am calling an embodied or lived theology. “Charity even for one person does not make sense except in terms of an effort to love all Creation in response to the Creator’s love for it” (298, The Art of Commonplace). For Berry, to “love all Creation” is not at all the sentimental abstraction it may seem; rather it is the profound, relentless, and above all practical work of “right livelihood.” He describes the requirements of “complex charity,” writing, “Real charity calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, engineering, architecture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, the making of monuments and pictures, songs and stories” (298, The Art of Commonplace), for charity cannot be practiced without skill. Thus, the response to a true recognition of the sacred in ourselves and our fellow creatures is the pursuit of a living and a society that is “responsible to the holiness of life” (309, The Art of Commonplace). This is the difficult yet necessary project of lived theology and the project that I hope to engage through my work this summer.