Differences in Daily Life

Religious and Cultural Aspects of Bathing

The Anthropos Research Group invited Bulgarian professor Maria Schnitter to present a paper at the Anthropos Forum of March, 16. The paper was entitled: “Body Hygiene of the Southern Slaws: Religious and Cultural Aspects”. Schnitter offered an historical overview of bathing practices in the region we now know as Bulgaria. She showed how during the Roman Empire, but also in the first centuries after the invasion of the region by Bulgarian tribes, public - and in many ways ritual - bathing was an important and extensive part of every-day life. This changed when the region was christianized. In light of the Christian emphasis on the need for spiritual purity and for sacrificing the body, regular bathing came to be viewed as an indulgent pagan enterprise (though occasional bathing remained acceptable where the needs of the body demanded it). Schnitter discussed some examples of this cultural shift. Perhaps most relevant for theologians is the example of baptism as a purifying ritual that brought about a (more or less) lasting spiritual purity and thus replaced the need for regular purificatory baths (which thus came to be seen as a sign of spiritual impurity). The rejection of ritual bathing was reinforced during the Osman Empire, which brought to Bulgaria the Islamic concern with purificatory washing in both ritual contexts and in daily life. The rejection of bathing now became an identity marker by which Bulgarian Christians distinguished themselves from their invadors. Schnitter discussed how the practice of bathing thus became a means of confronting difficult questions regarding identity of cultural communities, and the boundaries between them. She showed, for instance, how practices of bathing changed according to the way people in different contexts (for example: rural versus urban context) dealt with these new questions. What we now consider to be a daily habit with little more than practical meaning - to wash yourself, to bath - has been, from an historical point of view, a litmus test for one’s position towards the body and towards concepts such as ‘purity’, as well as a marker of one’s identity. Schnitter’s presentation, although at first sight not evidently of theological relevance, clearly showed the value of daily habits for theological anthropology.

How to Deal With Ambiguity

In the afternoon, Prof. Adam Seligman, who also participated at the Anthropos Forum with prof. Schnitter, gave a lecture on ‘Ritual, Experience and the Limits of Notation’. The lecture served as the discussion starter for a doctoral seminar, organized by Anthropos, in collaboration with the Centre for Metaphysics and Philosophy of Culture (Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven). In his paper, Prof. Seligman addressed three different ways of dealing with the ambiguities of life and living together: notation, ritual and shared experience. Notation refers to the attempt to disambiguate by way of defining categories and rules. It has been a vitally important project in the period beginning with the Enlightenment and is continuing in many ways today. There are, however, important limits to notation, which solidifies and refines boundaries and tends towards abstraction, away from experience. Ritual and shared experience are presented as important alternatives that allow us to live with ambiguity and that sidestep the problem of shared meaning either through the creation of a subjunctive space, a shared ‘could be’, or by bracketing the need for shared meaning. Seligman emphasized the latter two ways of dealing with differences to answer the question ‘how to live with people who differ from us in fundamental ways?’ After a response by Prof. Paul Courtois, a lively discussion ensued, in which both philosophers and theologians engaged the thought-provoking paper offered by Seligman.

Body Matters – A Workshop on Christianity and the Body

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.

Carol Webster image.jpg

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.