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The Healing Power of Bodily Presence

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For the most part, today’s church has been woefully unaware of how deeply the Cartesian split between mind and body has influenced our culture. Forgetting its own historic struggle with the perpetually attractive heresy of Gnosticism, the cleavage between body and soul has opened a fresh fissure running through the heart of today’s church.

So with the church largely on the sidelines, and late modernity content to misconstrue or ignore the intimate union of body and soul, the body set afloat has become easy prey to the false ideas of this age. The body has been quickly marginalized to reductive matter, allowing us to believe we can conform it to our own image and overcome its susceptibility to sickness and death. In like manner we have minimized embodied experience, giving priority to abstract and disembodied interactions that reinforce our preference for comfortable distance and an illusion of control. Strikingly absent is the deep Christian conviction of the finite body as gift, given in creation in deep unity with the soul, and formed for embodied relationship with others.

To regain the proper place of the body in human destiny, there is no greater gift than God himself inhabiting fragile flesh and dwelling among us. The incarnation counters every effort at excarnation with the essential nature of embodied life.

Let us look at the good it produces in us, and the effect it may have on others.

The Body in Vulnerable Relationship with Others

The excarnation of our age reinforces our natural tendency to minimize the weakness and vulnerability of our bodies, especially as revealed in relationship with others. It’s easier to think in theories about people and relate to their disembodied images on screens than to risk the reality of being close and vulnerable to their idiosyncrasies. We even prefer to do charity in programmed and planned ways rather than directly interact with a hurting individual on the road.

But what if our vulnerability in the presence of another is a gift? What if our deepest resources for good can only be discovered in our vulnerable relationship with others? What if our journey toward God is not about Gnostic separation of spirit from world or body from soul but about intimate union and vulnerable interaction with other embodied souls?

In contrast to our natural avoidance, the biblical story is shaped by the contingencies of real life and divine love revealed through the surprise of embodied encounters. If excarnation moves us away from agape love, in enfleshed experiences we discover it. As Charles Taylor points out, “Agape moves outward from the guts; the New Testament word for ‘taking pity,’ splangnizesthai, places the response in the bowels” (A Secular Age, 741).

Far from disengaged reason’s suspicion, the few instances where this “gut reaction” appears in the Gospels show that fully knowing and fully loving can only be found in incarnate experience.

It is instructive to consider the times when Jesus is moved. Sometimes the crowds provoke it, as when he sees them harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36), or when thousands have been with him for days and grow hungry (Matt. 15:32). Another instance surrounds a widow’s tears as they carry her only son’s body to the grave (Luke 7:11–15). It happens both early in Jesus’s ministry as he tries to move on to preach (Mark 1:40–41), and also late on the road to Jerusalem as he stumbles toward the cross (Matt. 20:29–34). Unexpectedly encountering a leper begging for healing or two blind men longing to see, he is stopped in his tracks by their needs. In all these circumstances, Jesus is moved to deep compassion (splangnizesthai) that flows from his incarnate involvement with a hurting world.

‘Go and Do Likewise’

We also find this heartfelt response in two of Jesus’s most well-known parables. In the story of the prodigal son, the father—filled with compassion (splangnizesthai) when he sees his wayward son returning—runs to embrace him (Luke 15:20). And in story of the good Samaritan, unlike the priest and the Levite who pass by, the outcast crosses the road to see the hurt man, and “when he saw him, he took pity (splangnizesthai) on him” (Luke 10:33). With the words, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37), Jesus makes this gut reaction and the actions that follow a model of how to care for suffering humanity in every age.

But here I must be honest. As I try following Jesus in my own embodied life, my initial “gut reaction” can be anything but caring.

When Tommy came to the homeless clinic, I suddenly wished I were anywhere but there. He was 30 years old, coming down off a methamphetamine high, and dirty, disheveled, and smelly from no sleep or shower for several days. Worst of all he looked to me for help—most immediately for the neglected and infected wounds on his hands from a recent street fight. I turned away aghast at how someone could abuse his own body, and became angry at his expectations of me for help. Then I looked at his chart and saw his story. Sexually abused as a child in foster care by the very people he should have been able to trust, Tommy was only repeating the abuse he’d learned from a young age.

In his book Works of Love, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard tells a parable of two artists. The first has traveled and seen countless people in the world, but can find none worth painting. Each one he sees is imperfect; each one has faults. The second artist has traveled nowhere, yet in each person he meets he finds beauty worth painting. The second artist, Kierkegaard remarks, brings “a certain something” to each encounter—a view of the other that redefines the human encounter.

When I turned back to Tommy after his wounds had been washed and bandaged, I saw something I had not seen before: a sadness in his eyes as he looked at what he was doing to himself, and a glimmer of hope that his future could be different. And at that moment I felt compassion.

The Body in Healing Presence with Others

If we draw near in embodied love, we may be surprised by the healing power of bodily presence. Many years ago, I was training in family medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, and began seeing a patient in my clinic named Melvin. Over the course of two years I came to know Melvin and his wife well, as she accompanied him on most visits. When I diagnosed her husband with inoperable liver cancer, she was there. And the night he died, she called me to come to the house to be with them, as I promised I would.

Watching the first person I attended pass from this life to the next was enough to make the moment memorable. But what I remember most vividly was the funeral. When the service had finished, I was stopped again and again by friends and family, each wanting to thank me for being present when he died. I walked away in wonder at the mystery of what happened that night—that a young doctor, having so little to offer, could be a healer simply because I cared, because I was there. I have not stopped plumbing the depths of that mystery ever since.

For Health

“From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16), the apostle writes, because as new creations in Christ we have received the capacity to see others with new eyes. Yet it is a fragile perspective. Ever since Jesus Christ came in the flesh, the spirit of disembodiment has been at work in the world to separate what belongs together—whether body and soul, knowledge and experience, nature and supernature, or you and me.

Though the excarnation of our age presents unique challenges, the basic dilemma of the neighbor on the road still remains the same. We worry with the priest and the Levite, “What will happen to me if I go near?” while we wonder with the Samaritan, “What will happen to him if I don’t?” The surprise of the incarnation is to discover that crossing the road is the path to true health for both of us.


Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from TGC’s newly released book, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, now available at Amazon (Kindle | Paperback) and WTS Books. Other excerpts:

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