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religion and the body

religion and the body Across the ages, organized religions have always laid claim to the bodies of their adherents. The expression of religious belief through bodily conduct and comportment has served both to confirm knowledge of abstract creeds and to evoke expedient devotional attitudes. In the initiation ceremonies of the Araucanian shamanesses, for example, initiates were brought into a sacred circle of healers by having their bodies rubbed with canelo leaves and massaged repeatedly over breasts, bellies, and heads. When the celebrations reached their height, initiates climbed nine-foot trees that were barked and notched to form ladders. Ritualistically, they were ascending to the sky to acquire magical skills of healing, enacting physically their faith in the supernatural curing powers of the gods. In like manner, Chinese Buddhist practices of funereal feasting mirrored theological precepts. Through consumption of vegetarian dishes and the offering of food items to the world of the spirits, celebrants expressed filial piety and demonstrated concern for their ancestors' continued livelihood. In both ritual instances, human bodies were acting as depositories of deferred thoughts and values.

It is a quality characteristic of pre-literate societies that bodily rites and symbolic gestures have been used to articulate religious credo. Traditionally, the body has served as a living memory pad to reproduce abstract knowledge. In the absence, through most of humanity's religious experiences, of reading skills that might assist in retrieval of basic spiritual information and insight, knowledge has survived in the memory, where it is recalled kinaesthetically through ritual gesture and orally through prayer. Bodily ritual helps reconstruct, often below the level of consciousness, the fundamental ordering of the cosmos in religion. Careful stagings, decorations, and scarifications of the body in liturgical ceremonies and theatrical productions are mimetic reproductions of complex oral and scriptural stories and ideas. It is in this manner that the Omaha Indians of North America paint and tattoo the skin of their young women with two significant symbols: a round disk representing the sun and a star standing for the night. Together, the two bodily signs are offered as a physical memorial to the power of day and of night to grant fecundity on all earthly things.

In many religions, theoretical ideas concerning the origins of the universe, the nature and power of divinities, and the fate of human souls are made visible in seemingly innocuous details of bearing and verbal manners. In Islamic prayer-habits, for example, the simple task of physical prostration before Allah demonstrates willed subservience to divine omnipotence. In similar ways, variable positioning of the body during Christian liturgy, with its initial acts of genuflection to complex patterns of standing, kneeling, sitting, and singing, involves the believer in a set of communal gymnastics that contributes to internal reflection on biblical messages. Like the mind, the body expresses itself in symbolic forms.

This ‘incorporation’ of abstract thought into bodily sign is in fact a key to the psychological formation of belief. Commitment to any symbolic order requires more than cognitive understanding. It includes as well, willed assent to moral regulations and emotional commitment to narrative mythologies. This order of identification with symbolic systems is most fully accomplished, as Pierre Bourdieu has said in The Logic of Practice, through ‘bodily hexis’, the realization or em-bodiment of abstract principles. Through many different styles of physical homage, symbolic systems are ‘turned into a permanent disposition, a durable way of standing, speaking, walking, and thereby of feeling and thinking.’

Traditionally, among the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, each of which have set up strict ontological distinctions between the supernatural and the natural, or the soul and the flesh, spiritual aspirations are made manifest through the body in characteristic ways. Although all three of these ‘religions of the book’, have their fundamental moral and theological precepts scribally recorded, they have nevertheless made extensive use of bodily resources. Internal devotional life has been maintained through external behavioural codes like dietary regimen, dress codes, and work and holiday schedules. These devotional habits have been structured to discipline the body according to cosmic principles of sacred and profane. Each one of them is designed to affirm the theological notion of the superiority over the corporeal world of the transcendent realm of being in god. This is the reason for head-coverings, face-veilings, bowing, kneeling, genuflecting, and other signs of spiritual modesty. The body is daunted before the magnificent transcendence of the god of Light. Hierarchical distinctions in Jehova's religions between good and evil, and male and female, are likewise acclaimed through religious rituals such as these. The segregation of women in the back of synagogues, churches, and mosques, the ‘purification’ or ‘churching’ of women's bodies after childbirth, and the circumcision of boys at initiation rites into the covenant of Abraham, are all forms, as it has been said, of ‘bodily hexis’. They articulate underlying theological notions concerning the inferiority of women in the deity's creation.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have also given account in their theologies of a distinctly positive role for the human body. As expressed in the foundational Hebrew myths of Genesis, the body is a creation of divine life; it is made in the image of the creator of the universe. The human sensory apparatus is designed, so these theisms affirm, to be an instrument through which the human soul apprehends supernatural truths. Nowhere was this acceptance of bodily existence more obvious than in the graphic works of Christian artists during the Renaissance. Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo were celebrating the divine content of the human form. Their attention to the beauty of bodily physique is still astounding to behold. This same affirmation of earthly existence in the body is apparent structurally in the pedagogical strategies of the various beliefs. Since ancient and medieval times, the main task of organized religions has been to instruct the moral person to pursue truth and piety through the natural abilities of mind and body. To study the sacred and traditional writings of the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran, making use of the body's temporal powers of reason, will, and memory, was expected to lead believers toward more complete and intimate understanding of eternal matters. Contemplation of created things, it was believed, deepens appreciation of god their creator. During spiritual services, sensitivity to the sacred order of things has been further heightened in many denominations by instrumental music, choral singing, psalm recitation, and hand-clapping. In some churches, the odour of incense and the sight of meaningful iconography support the process of prayer and meditation.

It is a matter of special interest to scholars of religion to determine how religious attention to corporal devotional strategies may have heightened awareness of the sentient nature of the human body. Corporal ritual calls for repeated reflection on some of the most intense sensory experiences, including hunger, sexual abstinence, sleep deprivation, and skin laceration. Across the centuries, holy men and women have engaged in heroic efforts to deny basic physiological drives and desires, and have consciously utilized their contrived situations of pain and fatigue to reflect upon the human condition. It may very well be true that religious efforts to regulate behaviour have contributed to the unprecedented consciousness among the human species of sensory experiences and bodily movements and passions. Centuries of monastic efforts to curb sexual impulses, for example, finally led among Christian ascetics of the high Middle Ages to the exoneration of sexual passion from charges of mortal sin and the creation of elaborate codes of amorous chivalry. It was indeed among the reflective body-chastening monks of several different religions in the past that ‘crimes of passion’ came to be identified and granted special status under the law. In this regard, religious attempts to design moral codes has led to continual re-investigation of the types of bodily desires that are conducive to willed control and the types that seem intransigent to reasoned opinion.

Maureen Flynn


See also asceticism; flagellation; morality; mythic thought.

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