June 18, 2012

Thinking about Bodies

The number of Americans who think they will go to heaven hovers around 80%, according to American Religion by Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke.  Growth in this belief is fastest among those who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious."  An area Chaves does not examine is whether any idea of "judgment" is retained in this optimistic view of life after death.  I would suspect that it is in inverse proportion to confidence in God's welcome to all.  How should we think about this matter theologically?
Paul puts the matter rather starkly: "For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Corinthians 5:10).  This text is imbedded in a long discourse about one's accountability to God as fragile humans who must contend with the encumbrances of being "in the body."  This is one of those passages that leads the reader to think that the Apostle is rather Gnostic--thinking that the body is of little value and a hindrance to spiritual well being.  Actually, one can argue that "the body" is an organizing theme throughout the Epistles, and for the most part, the body is affirmed as the dwelling of the Holy Spirit and the instrument for participating in the mission of God.
Yet, there is this clear statement about how one uses one's body, i.e., does one make it the chief aim to please Christ (v. 9), or does one believe his or her body is a private possession?  What one does "in the body" is of critical concern to Paul, for one has been joined to Christ in baptism and one should not implicate him in unworthy deeds.
We live in a curious age where bodies are concerned.  There is the cult of the perfect body--witness any fashion or sports magazine.  Thin or muscular; curvaceous or "ripped," a high bar is set before women and men.  While glorifying the human form, there is also a casual, almost negligible attitude toward how one acts out his or her embodiedness.  Promiscuity, addictions, obesity, and abuse--not to mention the violence of war--demonstrate an almost Gnostic view, as if what we do with our bodies does not impact or mar our true selves.  Paul knew better.
Scholars call Second Corinthians the Apostle's most personal letter. In it he talks about his own struggles, his frailty, and his detractors--especially those who regard his apostleship only from a human point of view (v. 16).  He speaks about bodily suffering incurred following Christ.  Though he bears in his body cruciform wounds because of faithfulness, he lives in confidence that "one has died for all," so that he and other Christians "might live no longer for themselves" (v. 15).  Clearly, he believes that there is both promise and peril in one's stewardship of the body, and he urges a new way of viewing oneself.
Thinking about the body after death is rather complicated; however, the body continues to play an essential role in personal identity, which is why resurrection figures so prominently in the New Testament narrative of redemption.  This Corinthian text suggests that ultimately all will be subject to the scrutiny of Christ, who can make all things new.  What has been done in the body--whether good or evil--is not off the table.
Molly T. Marshall
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