Embracing Embodiment: Baptism and the Nuptial Meaning of the Body
December 17, 2015

In my previous two articles, I argued for the significance of the fact that baptism addresses our bodies in their objectivity. In the body, the self has an existence that runs deeper than our consciousness, decision, self-expression, and action. In washing our passive bodies, baptism seals us with an anticipatory seal of future resurrection. The presentation of the body in baptism, so that it might be rendered sacrificial in union with the body of Christ, manifests a fundamental principle of Christian ethics that grounds its imperatives. In baptism our limbs and organs are presented as part of the Church’s living sacrifice to God in Christ and this sacrifice is confirmed in the life of Christian obedience, as we use our limbs and organs as instruments dedicated to God. In baptism our bodies are also incorporated into the social body of the Church, and the pedagogical process of instilling its habitus of righteousness within us is begun. As we “learn by body” the way of Christ, we will be increasingly conformed to him.

It is not easy to articulate the connection between the self and the body. Although the body in its objectivity and living potentialities represents the exteriority of the person and the precondition for all subjectivity and personal agency, we frequently speak of our personhood as if distinct from and situated over against our bodies. Roger Scruton remarks: “Although people are essentially embodied for us, and although we always respond to them as embodied, it is only occasionally that their embodiment is itself the object of our interest, just as it is only occasionally that I am interested in the buildings of my university, rather than in its institutional procedure.”[1]

As we primarily relate to other human beings as agents, our embodiment can retreat to the shadowy background of our awareness, save for those occasions when our bodies seem to frustrate or defy our agency, occasions which may encourage a self-body opposition. In fact, in a great many of our daily interactions with other persons in the modern world—perhaps especially online—our embodiment is invisible to each other. It is not surprising, given this, that we should instinctively come to think of the body as a sort of intimate instrument of the self, rather than identifying the body as self. Even in our society’s significant concern for the health and appearance of the body, the personal character of the body is still neglected; the body may be considered the realm of the self’s expression and the means of the self’s sensual experience and enjoyment, but it is still thereby held at some remove from the actual self.

The selfhood of the body only rarely comes to the foreground of our awareness. Indeed, sexual relations are one of the few occasions when it really might. Even here, however, it is rendered unclear in much contemporary understanding and sexual practice, which can proceed as if the self were not body. Rather, sex can often be conceived of as if it were a mutual enjoyment of bodies, apart from any deep “intercourse” of persons. Bodies are perceived in detachment or at a remove from selves: our own bodies to be gratified and other bodies to be desired in “objectifying” and personally effacing ways.

Yet, for all of the distortions and dysfunctions in our sexual culture, we can never fully elude the disclosure of the bodily character of the self in sexual relations. Whether it is the intimations of unrealized and neglected promise in the casual sexual encounter or the intense sense of violation in sexual abuse, we can discover that our selves are peculiarly exposed and vulnerable in sexual relations, in a manner from which no prophylactics can protect us.

Scruton writes again: “Although I am identical with my body, my experience of embodiment must be sharply distinguished from my experience of the body. In arousal the unity between body and person is immediately experienced, and forms the living focus of an interpersonal response. But the body is not the object of this response—as it is the object of a pathologist’s examination or an anatomist’s exposure. Arousal reaches through the body to the spirit which animates its every part.”[2] In the caress, for instance, the self is addressed through and in the body.[3] In such a manner, sexual relations can awaken one to a new sense of oneself, of what it means, not just to have a body, but to be embodied.[4]

In my discussion of the self and the body in my previous articles, I spoke of the objectivity and exteriority of the body and the self within it that is distinct from our subjectivity and interiority. While throughout I suggested that the bond between these two aspects of the self was a profound one, some readers might have wondered whether I was overstating the case. While the self might have a body, the claim that the self is a body might appear to some to go too far. Our bodies can often feel akin to a crustaceous covering around our subjectivity, attached to us, but a part of us with a decidedly liminal character, only tenuously related to our personal life. In its revelation of embodiment, however, sexual intercourse suggests that the body is much more than an external part of the self. Although seldom foregrounded in our consciousness—we must be awakened to it, our consciousness beckoned into our bodies—our bodies and our personhood, our exteriority and interiority, have a fundamental relation more akin to that between the outside and inside of a Möbius strip.[5]

Despite its familiarity, 1 Corinthians 6:19a is a scriptural text that retains much of its capacity to surprise: “do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit…?” The body isn’t just claimed for God’s ownership or service, but is presented as a site of his personal residence and of our communion with him. While within my account the body has hitherto featured principally as the objectivity and givenness of the self or as the grounds of its agency, here the ‘exteriority’ of the body is seen to implicate and be entangled with our deepest ‘interiority’.

The Möbius strip-like unity between self and body to which we can be awakened in sexual relations is the basis for the profoundly personal nuptial union. It is not accidental that Paul treats the profound power of bodily union to effect personal union in the verses that immediately precede 1 Corinthians 6:19. As Paul argues in verse 18, sexual relations, as they directly relate to the fundamental reality of our embodiment—of our being and not just having bodies—implicate the whole person in an especially profound manner. To sexually unite with someone is to be personally united to them in an enduring fashion. The body isn’t just an instrument of sexual pleasure, but a means of self-donation, personal union and communion. Because of the personal character of the body, through their bodily interactions persons can commune with and indwell each other.

Against the background of false sexual union, Paul articulates the union that the people of God share with Christ, comparing it both to nuptial union, the relation between bodily members and the unity of the body to which they belong, and the divine inhabitation of a temple. While appearing quite distinct, there is considerable conceptual and metaphorical traffic between these images in Pauline thought and in biblical thought more generally. Architectural imagery is used interchangeably with organic imagery (e.g. compare Ephesians 2:21-22 with 4:15-16, or the fusion of the two in 1 Peter 2:5) and both of these are related to nuptial imagery. We are the body of Christ—and, as such, the temple of the Holy Spirit—but this relationship is also a nuptial one between a husband and bride.

The temple always had both bodily and nuptial overtones. It was the site of fertility (the threshing floor, see, e.g. Ruth 3) and the Most Holy Place was a sort of nuptial chamber, where God communed with his bride. The temple/tabernacle was also a kind of body (which also corresponds to the vestiture of the high priest). Vern Poythress presents a compelling argument for this, remarking upon the correspondence between the Most Holy Place and the head of the body, which contained the tablets of the Law, the Holy Place and the trunk of the body (containing five tables and five lampstands on each side, corresponding to our two hands and their fingers), the altar as the grounding for the feet, the two great pillars of Jachin and Boaz as the feet, and the laver or sea representing the procreative organs and the waters of birth (born aloft by twelve bulls corresponding to the sons of Israel).[6]

There are reasons to associate the temple closely with the people as God’s bride. The temple is “built” as Eve was in Genesis 2:22 (note the presence of other architectural language in that context). The temple represents the people as the bride of the Lord. It is associated with symbolism of rebirth in the laver and Sea. In Revelation 21, the bride—the ‘holy city’, the ‘tabernacle of God’—descends from heaven for God to take up residence in her. More generally, it is the woman’s body that is most especially suited for such communion and indwelling.

This article may seem to have strayed far from the subject of baptism. What I have sought to establish is the significance of personal embodiment and the body as the site of “one flesh” personal union and communion. The body isn’t just the objectivity of the self in the sense of a substrate, nor the self’s intimate instrument, but it is the self in the Möbius strip of interiority and exteriority and union with the body is union with the person.[7]

Paul refers to baptism’s washing and consecration of us in Christ and by the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 6:11, shortly before referring to our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. In setting apart our bodies through the waters of baptism, our bodies are marked with the seal of the Spirit’s indwelling. Just as the Spirit descended upon the tabernacle and Temple, upon the Temple of Christ’s body at his baptism, and upon the temple of the Church at the baptism of Pentecost, so the descent of the Spirit upon the temple of our bodies is sealed in baptism. The temple was a macrocosmic body; our bodies are a microcosmic temple.

Baptism also has nuptial meaning in Ephesians 5:25-27; through baptism the Church is consecrated and cleansed as Christ’s bride. This is true for the body of the Church as a whole as the bride of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also something that each individual baptized Christian participates in. Just as the lover relates to the beloved in their embodiment, addressing the person in the body, so in baptism God declares his love for us and summons us to faithfulness to him precisely in our embodiment. Whatever our bodies look like, whatever frailty, disease, or disability they may experience, whatever we have done with and to them in the past, however others may have violated them, whatever bodily shame we might bear: in baptism God declares that he values, delights in, and is committed to our bodies, that he loves us in our embodiment. God’s claim upon our limbs and organs—the claim I discussed in my previous article—is the claim of love.

Looking back to the beginning of this enquiry, it should be clear that we have moved a great distance from the notion of baptism as the outward expression of an internal subjective state. In the process of describing the meaning of baptism, I have sketched the lineaments of an anthropology. I also hope that I have exposed something of the wonder of the truth of salvation manifested in baptism. Within baptism we encounter a rich word of divine grace: our bodies are redeemed by Christ, to be offered to him as limbs and organs, established as the temple of his Holy Spirit, delighted in by God as our embodiment, and set apart for the honour and glory of resurrection on the last day. In baptism God addresses these truths to our bodies themselves, so that the voice of his declaration of liberty might ring throughout the entirety of our being.

Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.

[1] Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (London: Continuum, 2006), 73-74.

[2] Ibid. 26

[3] Ibid.

[4] Although I have strong differences with several claims made within it, Rowan Williams discusses this point helpfully in his important essay, ‘The Body’s Grace’.

[5] Peter Leithart, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press), 4-5.

[6] Note also the living water that flows out from the base of Ezekiel’s prophetic temple and from the womb/heart of the one who believes in Christ in John 7:38. I might quibble with certain of the ways that Poythress frames the relation (e.g. the Most Holy Place probably relates more broadly to the most inward parts, rather than narrowly to the head), but the fundamental shape of the analogy is a sound one.

[7] The body is not the self in an undifferentiated manner, but in a membered yet integrated and unified one. Nor is every member or function equally or as directly implicated in our ‘interiority’.

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