By Julia Meszaros
A few weeks ago, I—like other members of the Anthropos research group—had the privilege of participating in a workshop led by the dance artist and scholar of religion Carol Webster. Focusing on the theme of Body Matters: Somatic Conversations on Christianity, Love, and Justice, Webster took us on a theoretical and practical exploration of the human body’s role in Christian life and thought. Webster began with a short lecture on how St Paul, in her eyes, negotiated the emergent Christian identity in recourse to bodily images, such as that of Christ’s body being eaten (at the Eucharist) and that of the prostitute (as the antithesis of a member of Christ). With this, so Webster argued, Paul gave the body the ambiguous role of both unifying Christians and forever ‘othering’ those who do not fit the Christian understanding of social and moral norms.
Instead of choosing the conventional route of embarking on an intellectual discussion of these bold claims, Webster then let us probe Christianity’s relationship with the body more practically, performatively and experientially. She asked each participant to physically enact (with movement and sound) how he or she presently felt. Our bodily self-expressions were then ‘shared’ in various ways: we were for instance asked to re-enact as well as physically connect each other’s movements and sounds (by having everyone enact their movements together and while touching one another), and to reflect on how we experienced these—at times uneasy and physically challenging—encounters.
Webster continually related these exercises to the relationship between our own identity and our relations with others. How and to what extent, so Webster asked, can we truly remain ourselves while being just and loving towards others—and vice versa. Her thought-provoking underlying hypothesis was that, unless we become conscious of their bodily dimension, both our self-identity and our relations with others are compromised.
While our various experiments did confront us with the fact that our human lives have a profoundly bodily dimension, Webster’s final—and impressive—exercise nonetheless made me doubt quite how central our body is both to our self-identity and our capacity to love. In this exercise, our group was asked to crowd together, such that we occupied the smallest possible amount of space in the room. Finding ourselves in one sweaty and uncomfortable pile, we were asked to reflect on whether we still felt capable of upholding our identity and of loving one another. To contrast this experience, we were then invited to spread out over the room with as great a distance from one another as possible.
As I experienced it, the first case of a crowded space certainly posed a challenge to my self-identity and capacity for love but did not seem to undo this. Love quickly became imperative for survival and took on the concrete meaning of solidarity, interdependence and mutual acceptance. My ability to find a positive bodily identity was nullified to the point that my bodily senses shut down, yet I managed to inhabit an internal place that still felt like ‘me’. My identity, it seemed, had become more spiritual than bodily but nonetheless felt authentic.
In the second case of physical alienation from others, by contrast, bodily self-expression and –identification may have been possible in theory, yet my spirit felt suffocated to the point of incapacitating me as a whole (i.e., also bodily). My physical alienation from others seemed to imply that I could neither be myself nor love others (or myself)—indeed that I was stifled and petrified at the very core of my being.
Ironically perhaps, the attempt to explore myself as body thus seemed to reveal the primacy of myself as embodied (!) spirit. This is not to say that the bodily dimension does not matter to our ability to be ourselves and love others. Far from it—my physical or bodily situation obviously had a deep impact on my sense of self and love insofar as I experienced physical isolation, in particular, as profoundly hazardous. Yet it was striking to me that I experienced my ability to be and to love as relatively divorced from my capacity for bodily self-expression. Indeed, even where any such freedom was taken away, that is, where our bodies were so close that we could not even more them, self-identity and love still seemed possible—possible on a spiritual plane.