07 June 2013

Soul-Body Dualism and Sacramental Theology

About a week ago, I put forward some thoughts on death and Fundamentalism's Gnostic tendencies, suggesting that the Fundamentalist view of death (especially as expressed in Grudem's Systematic Theology) tends towards an ancient heresy. In reading James K.A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom (appropriate as it was in reading Smith's Desiring the Kingdom that I got the idea for the original post), though, I noticed a further connection: Fundamentalist adherence to mind/soul-body dualism detrimentally shapes their sacramental theology.

Smith's project is a philosophical anthropology that explains human desire and imagination (thus, the books' titles) in relation to worship and education as Christian formation. In Imagining, he suggests (by way of Pierre Bordieu) that practice arises from between the intellect and instinct. We are not merely thinking things rationally contemplating every single action nor are we merely automatons driven by biological hard-wiring -- though both intellectual rationality and biological impulse do come into play. Instead, we are shaped by who we tell ourselves that we are and what we do (and what we practice doing). Nowhere is this more obvious than in how we worship. Liturgy (be it the strict rubrics of the Roman rite, the general ordo of contemporary megachurches, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before class everyday) asks us to participate in a story -- both in the mind and in body -- that tells us who we are.

In chapter two of Imagining, Smith looks at what Bourdieu calls "the religion of the knights": physical postures when swearing fidelity to the feudal lord, placing hands on holy things (crosses, Gospel books, relics) and reciting a ritual creed. Bodily position and action was of the utmost importance. (One sees immediate connection to the importance of manual action in Eucharistic celebrations.) Smith says:
It's not that the knights were insincere or "didn't mean it;" such concerns about sincerity are still operating with a dualism that assumes we "go through" rituals because "inside" we first believe something -- that rituals externally "express" some prior, mental interiority. But that fails to recognize (and honor) the integrity and irreducibility of the logic of practice.
And for those of you who have spent any time around Baptists or "non"-denominational Christians will hear an echo. Most Christians with Baptist leanings think of Holy Baptism as an outward sign or expression of an inward change. The same dualism that says the soul can live without a body, is somehow the true person, leads to a belief that Christian initiation is fulfilled in a purely cognitive act.* In such a view, ritual washing as initiation is just an outward sign (and, in its least orthodox iteration, can be performed multiple times).

What Smith is suggesting, however, and what has real traction for the "High" Church traditions, is that what we do with our bodies is part of what we do with our minds and souls. Baptism (or swearing an oath on holy relics or consuming the Eucharist) actually does something to us -- to our true selves. Baptism (and all worship) is not just expressing with our body what we are thinking with our minds or believing with our souls. Smith and Bordieu say that such physical actions are "enacted belief" (though embodied gets more to the heart of the matter). As Smith puts it, "Ritual is the way we (learn to) believe with our bodies." The action itself is a way in which we believe, in which we are shaped into who God calls us to be, and in which we are drawn into the Kingdom.

Grace + Peace
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*Here I say cognitive because whether the dualism is mind-body or soul-body, it's still the same thing. The view puts a barrier between the true self that thinks and believes and the physical flesh. Same thing, different language. This is, of course, not a universally accepted view; some place a separation between mind and soul as well. However, in the intellectualist view as well as the Fundamentalist, mind and soul serve as the respective location of the "true" self, and thus I think we can easily (at least, for this conversation) use the term with some accuracy.