In a depart­ment store line, I watched an under­gar­ment com­mer­cial on a screen above the cashier desk. It fea­tured women express­ing their dis­sat­is­fac­tion with their fig­ures, while the cam­era zoomed in on their chests.

It seemed I was watch­ing a series of dis­mem­ber­ments, as the infomercial’s edi­tors divorced body parts from their own­ers in order to direct atten­tion to defi­cien­cies in qual­i­ty and tra­jec­to­ry. I was struck by how trag­ic it is that mil­lions of humans — impos­si­bly com­plex in neu­ro­log­i­cal make­up, fan­tas­ti­cal­ly unique, and almost unbear­ably freight­ed with poten­tial — walk around obsessed with per­ceived appendage inad­e­qua­cies (or superiorities).This is no news flash: We live in a body-obsessed cul­ture. Mate­ri­al­ism — the con­vic­tion that only mat­ter can be proven to exist and that belief in tran­scen­dence is at best a fond hope, and at worst a dan­ger­ous delu­sion — is the spir­it of our age. Iron­i­cal­ly, it leaves us with no spir­it at all, just our bod­ies and their appetites, unbri­dled and insa­tiable. No won­der we approach the fridge — and each oth­er — with a preda­to­ry eye. We’re just try­ing to survive. 

I believe that the only cure is to embrace non­ma­te­r­i­al real­i­ty as an inte­gral part of the uni­verse and our­selves. The con­vic­tion that we can­not be reduced to bod­ies is foun­da­tion­al to my world­view. It has also enabled me to jus­ti­fy avoid­ing any sort of con­sis­tent phys­i­cal exer­cise for much of my life. 

My hus­band is a kines­thet­ic per­son; if he goes too long with­out activ­i­ty he gets rest­less. I, on the oth­er hand, can be per­fect­ly and indef­i­nite­ly hap­py with a book and a com­fort­able couch. Although I often have felt a vague sense of guilt (and, late­ly, grav­i­ty), I have found a way to spir­i­tu­al­ize my incli­na­tions. I focus on soul things (books, ideas, music, rela­tion­ships), not body things (exer­cise, nutri­tion). It’s always seemed to me that exer­cis­ing for exercise’s sake is like wast­ing your life con­stant­ly fine-tun­ing your car rather than dri­ving it somewhere. 

Then my par­ents got sick. See­ing how stress on the body — both theirs and mine — affects the well-being of the soul, I began recon­sid­er­ing my posi­tion on exercise. 

So I promised my 11-year-old son that I would run a race with him, and I down­loaded a Learn to Run a 10k in 13 Weeks” train­ing guide. And I start­ed to run. 

Actu­al­ly, run is a strong word. I began to shuf­fle for­ward in a con­tin­u­ous motion. But this was no small thing. I start­ed ris­ing an hour ear­li­er than nor­mal to jog before the kids got up for school. My friends said, Who are you, and what have you done with Carolyn?” 

I’ve been shocked by how spir­i­tu­al an activ­i­ty exer­cise has turned out to be. When I am run­ning I am unique­ly awake and open; it’s not uncom­mon for me to wind up cry­ing, laugh­ing, pray­ing, or prais­ing. The neigh­bors must find this unset­tling; I find it fascinating. 

I sus­pect that my long­stand­ing protest against mate­ri­al­ism has made me sus­cep­ti­ble to anoth­er time-hon­ored heresy: Gnos­ti­cism, the belief that mat­ter is inher­ent­ly evil. Gnos­tics won­dered how a per­fect God could be defiled in imper­fect human form. Gnos­ti­cism had to be struck down repeat­ed­ly in order to reach an ortho­dox under­stand­ing of the Incar­na­tion: Jesus was ful­ly God and ful­ly human. The Word, as the Gospel of John so suc­cinct­ly puts it, became flesh (1:14).

The Incar­na­tion shows us that mat­ter is not all there is. But it also shows us that mat­ter mat­ters. Jesus came a long way to take on our mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture. He point­ed to oth­er kinds of exis­tence, telling his dis­ci­ples, I have food to eat that you know noth­ing about” (John 4:32). But he also ful­ly inhab­it­ed our bod­i­ly real­i­ty, so much so that many of his mir­a­cles involved food, drink, phys­i­cal heal­ing, and even res­ur­rec­tion. One of his final earth­ly acts was to cook fish on the beach for his friends. 

So maybe our bod­ies aren’t the cars that dri­ve our souls to the altar. Maybe they are an inte­gral part of what we lay on the altar, and are up for heal­ing and holi­ness with the rest of us. 

After all, Jesus called us to love God with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. Just as his words dis­turb the com­fort­able and com­fort the dis­turbed, they call the over­ac­tive to still­ness and acti­vate the over­ly still. They restore the soul to those who overem­pha­size the body, and redeem the body for those who focus only on the soul. 

The phys­i­cal part of you is not some piece of prop­er­ty belong­ing to the spir­i­tu­al part of you,” says The Mes­sage trans­la­tion of 1 Corinthi­ans. God owns the whole works. So let peo­ple see God in and through your body” (6:19 – 20) — even if that means shuf­fling for­ward in a con­tin­u­ous motion, one step at a time.

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Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Chris­tian­i­ty Today, Wrestling with Angels,” August 2009.

Originally published July 2009