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Honoring the Body: an Interview with Stephanie Paulsell

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The body comes to the attention of all of us sooner or later, whether through deep bodily pleasure, or through illness and pain, or through our encounter with the bodies of others.

EthicsDaily.com recently interviewed the book’s author, Stephanie Paulsell:

What factors led to your interest in the body?
The body comes to the attention of all of us sooner or later, whether through deep bodily pleasure, or through illness and pain, or through our encounter with the bodies of others. What got my attention focused on the body was the birth of my daughter, and the sudden shock of realizing that someone’s body was very much in my care, that what I did or did not do on behalf of another’s body would have real consequences.

Holding a tiny baby in my arms for the first time got me thinking about the relationship of bodily vulnerability and the sacredness of the body. It also made me aware of my desire for a way of life that cherishes the body—a way of life that I might pass on to my daughter.

How has Practicing Our Faith—as a movement—played into your own interests, and vice-versa?
I have found the “practices approach” to Christian life very liberating because it begins not with abstract beliefs to which we might or might not give our assent, but with how we conduct our ordinary lives. This approach insists that the countless embodied gestures and rituals of daily life themselves bear meaning.

As a minister, the “practices approach” seems to me a deeply pastoral way to invite others into Christian life.  The practices—hospitality, keeping sabbath, honoring the body, etc.—are all doorways through which to explore and enter into Christian life. A congregation that is attentive to and reflective about its practices is able to see and act upon the profound connections between the hospitality the greeters offer at the threshold of the church, the soup kitchen in the fellowship hall and the meal we share at the table of the Lord. Those who enter the practice of hospitality at any of those points can move, through that practice, more and more deeply into the life of faith.

As a scholar, the “practices approach” seems to me to offer an important way of recovering the wisdom of the Christian past because it insists that the practices themselves have a history that we need to know in order to move forward.

What practices are involved in honoring the body?
I think of “honoring the body” as, itself, a practice that is made up of many gestures, disciplines and rituals.  In the book, I’ve focused on bathing, clothing, eating, rest and exertion as well as sexuality and suffering. All of these activities can be entered into with or without attention to the honoring of the body.

But when we eat or work or make love without being mindful of the vulnerability and holiness of our bodies and the bodies of others, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and others—which is why this practice is so urgently needed.

What are some key scriptural references for honoring the body?
Psalm 103:13-14 has been very important to me because it suggests that God’s compassion for us is born of God’s knowledge of our bodily vulnerability.

Honoring the body is, in part, learning to see ourselves and others the way God sees us. And, of course, Genesis 1:27 is hugely important, for if we are made in God’s image, then every part of us is worthy of care and blessing.
Paul’s insistence in I Corinthians 6:19-20 that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that we might glorify God in our bodies helps us think about the many ways in which our bodies might draw us into deeper relation with God. And so do Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, when he tells us that when we tend to the material needs of the bodies of others we tend to him, and when we ignore those needs, we ignore him.

The vulnerabilities of the body—our need for shelter and clothing and food and drink—are one of the ways God calls to us.

You deal with adornment of the body.  What are your thoughts on tattoos?
Tattooing has a long history as a religious practice in many cultures.
I am interested in Tom Beaudoin’s notion (which he discusses in Virtual Faith) that young people mark themselves with tattoos because they are not having “deeply marking” experiences in places like church. For Beaudoin, tattoos are a reflection of the desire for meaning and even for God.

troubling thing about tattooing, for me, is that it’s such a permanent adornment. It inscribes on your body something of the person you are in the moment you choose to be tattooed, and I’ve wondered if that might make it difficult for the tattooed person to grow and change. But for many people who have chosen to tattoo their body that’s the value of it—that it preserves something of the person you were in a moment that has passed.

In the book, I quote the writer Darcy Steinke (co-editor of Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited and author of several novels including Jesus Saves) who says that she got a tattoo to mark her passage through a difficult time in her life. She preserved her coming-through that hard time by marking her body.  I find that very interesting.

Describe the relationship—if any—of “honoring the body” to the health/fitness industry.
Attention to health and fitness in an indispensable part of honoring the body, to be sure. Eating well and exercising are ways of cherishing our bodies and, as I say in the book, choosing life over and over again. It is possible, through eating well and exercising, to receive our body with joy as the gift that it is. But it is also easy to slide from understanding the body as a gift to understanding the body as a task. And that can be a destructive move that dishonors the body.

Our culture has so many ways of sending us the message that only one body type will do—we must be a certain size and shape, we are told over and over again or we will not be beautiful or happy. When attention to health and fitness is powered solely by the desire for the “perfect body,” our body can seem more of a burden than a gift.

We honor the body when we care for our bodies out of love and gratitude. When we are motivated by a desire to have our bodies conform to a cultural standard, then the pursuit of health and fitness can become drudgery that forever disappoints or an obsession that diminishes our lives.

Do you think “honoring the body” has unique applications in a country like the United States, where many lead sedentary lives on account of the proliferation of “screen time,” driving instead of walking, etc.?
Absolutely. Our sedentary way of life has the effect not only of dishonoring our bodies through lack of exertion but also of dulling our consciousness of our bodies.

We have to move our bodies in order to feel our heart beating, our blood pulsing, our breath moving in and out of us. We can’t honor our bodies if we are not aware of them, if we aren’t mindful of blood and bone and breath.

This shows what a shared practice honoring the body is—it’s not just about getting out the exercise video every day, it’s about building communities with sidewalks and crosswalks and bike paths and with neighborhoods that are close to workplaces and schools and shops.

Is the idea of “moderation” at all essential to the notion of honoring the body?
Yes, certainly. The body is not honored by exertion to the point of injury or by extreme eating (or not-eating) and drinking.

Part of the practice of honoring the body involves developing mindfulness about our hungers and desires and learning to meet them in ways that help us to cherish the body. It also involves a compassionate attention to the bodies of others and learning to meet the needs of our bodies with the needs of others in mind, and so not using a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources.

I’ve seen the word “vulnerability” attached to discussions about this book.  Please explain how or why vulnerability is a key to understanding the practice of honoring the body.
Bodily vulnerability is something we all share, no matter how different we are in other ways. We are all vulnerable to pain and illness. We will all die.
Early Christians preached that knowledge of our shared vulnerability ought to lead us into solidarity with every other human body, especially the bodies of the poor. Our fragile bodies require communal attention, and so honoring the body is a shared practice, one for which we need each other in profound ways.

Through the vulnerabilities of our body, God has given us into the care of one another. And through the needs of the body—our need for food and clothing and touch—we are invited not only into deeper relationship with one another, but with God as well.

It makes a difference whether we meet our need for food by gulping down fast food or sharing food around a table with others. It makes a difference whether we meet our desire for touch in relationships grounded in trust and love.

Is there a difference between honoring the body as opposed to just taking care of it? 
Yes, although taking care of the body is certainly part of honoring the body. But the practice of honoring the body does not stop at the boundary of our own skin.

A Christian practice of honoring the body has at its center the conviction that every body is worthy of blessing and care and that every time we sit down to eat, or rise to walk, or embrace a beloved with tenderness, we are invited into deeper relationship with God.

Stephanie Paulsell is a visiting lecturer on ministry at Harvard Divinity School. She received a doctorate in religion and literature from the University of Chicago in 1993 and has taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Catholic Theological Union and Valparaiso University. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

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