Working and Keeping the Garden: The Human Body in Earthly Engagement


Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our FaithI have previously examined the ways in which sociability and strong relational bonds can impact societal health and economic prosperity. Likewise, I have persistently emphasized that spiritual transformation through Christ and subsequent obedience to God play crucial roles in strengthening such bonds.

Without recognizing and embracing such an alignment, I have argued, we will be severely impaired in identifying real value as God sees it, and will be ill-equipped to pursue our proper mission.

Yet throughout all such considerations, I have rarely (if ever) contemplated the role of the body in the spiritual and intellectual workings that drive our stewardship. This is strange, to be sure, for despite the great importance of all the other inputs to our actions, it is the body that actually does the doing.

But alas, even this basic realization does not go far enough, says Matthew Anderson, editor of Mere Orthodoxy and author of the new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter To Our Faith.

For Anderson, the body is much more than some tool we use to move our spirits from here to there; it is an essential and inextricable part of what it means to be human, a truth affirmed and amplified by the reality that have we been created in the image of God. For Anderson, the connection is crucial, but has been largely ignored by an increasingly dualistic culture. For many of us, the body has become nothing more than a mere means for pleasure or a “prison for the soul.”

Yet for those of us who over-emphasize the spiritual side of man, Anderson argues that any such transformation will never be complete without a full understanding the bodies position therein:

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth.

Anderson proceeds to tackle a number of issues through this approach, from tattoos to homosexuality to death (and beyond), yet throughout each revealing insight, my mind consistently flashed back to his chapter on how our bodies more simply relate to the other (Chapter 4). It’s easy to understand how an appropriate body-faith orientation might improve our marriages or our churches, but what about our larger socio-economic engagement and overarching earthly stewardship?

“We are social even in the womb,” says Anderson, and that sociability “is inextricable from the structure of our bodies.”

When we score a goal, we like to bump chests and give high-fives, the act of which is sometimes followed by hazardous, celebratory dives into a large piles of teammates. When socializing with friends and family, we often prefer to do so over a cup of coffee or a meal, sharing in the most basic bodily necessities as we relate to each other, pour out our hearts, and foster social bonds. These shared bodily pleasures and activities “not only curb our loneliness,” says Anderson, but are “a manifestation of our gratitude for the goodness of the created order that God has placed in us.”

Yet, as is the fundamental premise of the book, Anderson believes the distortion of the body’s place in such interactions has by and large distorted God’s created order in the process. Thanks to the rise of a self-absorbed, short-sighted, and materialistic culture, the social ties necessary for a healthy and flourishing society have largely vanished, and our views of the human body have corresponded accordingly. No longer are our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit, but rather, we have perverted them into serving as temples unto ourselves.

As Anderson explains:

In our late-modern world, the body’s basic dependency upon the world for both its sustenance and its pleasures has been distorted to the extent that what we consume has become central to our identity as persons. What we wear, what we eat (or don’t eat), what we endorse—these become the means by which we construct ourselves…

….In a consumerist society, the world is flattened out as everything becomes an instrument for the individual’s well-being. Things only have value when a consumer desires  them, which means that there is no order of goods to which our desires should confirm.

At the root of this, then, is a sort of “degraded” individualism, as Anderson calls it — the type of misaligned, atomic hedonism that submits to no authority other than its humanistic God of Autonomy. Edmund Burke railed against such an approach back when we needed it much less, and more recently, David Brooks offered a similar critique related to our modern attitudes regarding morality.

In Earthen Vessels, Anderson does something similar, although centered around the body:

[Modern] [l]iberalism reduces the human person to a naked individual, eliminating any social relationships except those we choose. But the void cannot stay empty for too long, and consumerism has stepped in to complete our understanding of what it means to be human…Our bodies are hollow, waiting to be filled out by the products and relationships we choose to enter.

This, Anderson explains, is evidenced most prominently by the widespread commodification of sexuality (e.g. human trafficking, pornography, etc.), wherein our bodies have become nothing more than another means for pleasure-seeking and identity-building. There is no higher order, and there is no higher purpose, leading to an overall debasement of the body centered around “desire for desire’s sake,” as Rodney Clapp puts it (as cited by Anderson).

But there is indeed a higher order, an authority that cuts through the perverse consumerism and contorted individualism of this world, and beneath which we can redeem our bodies for the glory of God and orient them toward the proper cultivation of creation. To achieve such an orientation, Anderson argues, we must recognize not only that God’s creation is orderly (and that it is God’s, of course), but also that the human’s proper place therein is as a co-creator.

“Within the creation narrative, humans are the high point,” says Anderson, and we must recognize this position of authority. More importantly, I would add, without recognizing our duty and obligation in assuming such authority, we will certainly go nowhere fast.

By properly grasping this position in the larger created order, we can then begin to view our bodily consumption through the proper lens: “A biblical understanding of creation emphasizes that our consumption should be ordered toward cultivating and creating.”

Not destroying others. Not destroying ourselves. Not consumption for the sake of consumption, but for cultivating and creating.

It is here where it becomes abundantly clear that our bodily engagement with creation has much less to do with our own indulgence and self-satisfactory revelry than it does with working and keeping the garden, as Genesis states (and Anderson reiterates). Grabbing hold of such truth will impact our entire earthly engagement because it will transform the very ways in which we view ourselves and engage with those around us. Yes, the Holy Spirit leads us and guides us into all truth (as I have thoroughly discussed elsewhere), yet the body is indeed His temple, not our own.

While the Spirit goes where he wills, his primary place of dwelling is the temple, the human body. He brings us, our bodies, and our desires into conformity with the will of God and radiates outward through us into the cosmos.

Although Anderson’s vocabulary sometimes clashes with my own (“consumerism” = commodification/material idolatry and “individualism” = misaligned self-sufficiency), the general message pushes our view of the individual and the other in the right direction.

We must not only affirm that it is in our best interest to love and care for others, but we must also recognize that ours is in the end an incomplete or unfulfilled approach unless we view and utilize our bodies as God intended. Only then can we truly maximize our social bonds and relationships and serve others holistically.

As the rest of Anderson’s book makes abundantly clear, creation care is just one of many casualties of the modern body-faith (mis)understanding. But for those of us interested and invested in the pursuit of improved socio-economic and environmental stewardship, we should not assume that the distinctions are important for theology buffs alone.

To purchase Earthen Vessels, click here.

Note: This post was written as part of a chapter-by-chapter symposium on Matt’s book, hosted by his blog, Mere Orthodoxy. This post is centered around Chapter 4 of Earthen Vessels, “The Body Toward Others.”

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/131434080754601984 Remnant Culture

    I discuss Chapter 4 of Matthew Anderson's book in a symposium hosted by Mere Orthodoxy. http://t.co/30Qxqvso

  • http://twitter.com/valuesandcap/status/131434508422610946 Values & Capitalism

    I discuss Chapter 4 of Matthew Anderson's book in a symposium hosted by Mere Orthodoxy. http://t.co/30Qxqvso

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/131438856183611392 Remnant Culture

    What role does the human body play in creation care? New post on @mattleeanderson's book, Earthen Vessels: http://t.co/rGRIvA3H

  • http://twitter.com/mattleeanderson/status/131802789323096065 Matthew Anderson

    Created to create: @josephsunde reads Earthen Vessels closely: http://t.co/1W9KgX9Z #fb

  • http://twitter.com/mattleeanderson/status/131802789323096065 Matthew Anderson

    Created to create: @josephsunde reads Earthen Vessels closely: http://t.co/1W9KgX9Z #fb

  • http://twitter.com/actoninstitute/status/131804229026328576 Acton Institute

    RT @mattleeanderson: Created to create: @josephsunde reads Earthen Vessels closely: http://t.co/76udJkuh

  • http://twitter.com/actoninstitute/status/131804229026328576 Acton Institute

    RT @mattleeanderson: Created to create: @josephsunde reads Earthen Vessels closely: http://t.co/76udJkuh

  • http://twitter.com/joeljmiller/status/131808106421301248 Joel J. Miller

    RT @actoninstitute: RT @mattleeanderson: Created to create: @josephsunde reads Earthen Vessels closely: http://t.co/aEVBebs2

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/131808199752953856 Joseph Sunde

    Created to create: @josephsunde reads Earthen Vessels closely: http://t.co/1W9KgX9Z #fb

  • http://twitter.com/valuesandcap/status/131814090569023488 Values & Capitalism

    RT @mattleeanderson: Created to create: @josephsunde reads Earthen Vessels closely: http://t.co/QQuA6NpX

  • http://twitter.com/materialculash/status/131958797303418881 Aliyah Valine

    Working and Keeping the Garden: The Human … – Remnant Culture http://t.co/eEJhsHX6

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/132833667520266241 Joseph Sunde

    In case you missed it: I explore @mattleeanderson views on consumerism, creation care and the human body. http://t.co/cXmVHXDy

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/192636151423713280 Remnant Culture

    .@mattleeanderson's Earthen Vessels is now on Kindle for 5 bucks: http://t.co/FXbKoAT1 My review is here: http://t.co/tVP4jy1O

  • http://twitter.com/valuesandcap/status/192657317706211329 Values & Capitalism

    MT @remnantculture: .@mattleeanderson's Earthen Vessels is now on Kindle for 5 bucks: http://t.co/UEhQhhPe My review: http://t.co/XG2oCT44