A best-selling author and internationally recognized preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor is known for her memorable way of extracting profound spiritual insights from the grit (and grits!) of ordinary human experience. In addition to her roles as writer, speaker, professor, and ordained Episcopal priest, Taylor and her husband stay grounded to earth corralling chickens on their working farm in rural Georgia. In her most recent book, An Altar in the World, Taylor explores how material practices, such as wearing skin, carrying water, and feeling pain, can open the soul to God. In this interview, Barbara Brown Taylor discusses the revelatory power of the body and the challenges of practicing embodied faith in a twenty-first-century context.
The Other Journal (TOJ): I first began to grapple with my own theology of the body a few years ago when I entered full-time ministry as a single woman in my midtwenties—in a tradition where female clergy are still relatively rare and where there is no custom of robes or collars to de-emphasize obvious gender distinctions. Whether behind a pulpit or beside a sickbed, I found that people were attuned to my physicality in ways I’d never anticipated. Words and gestures carried distinct resonances when issued in a different pitch or from a differently shaped diaphragm. I quickly learned that truth is never merely spoken but is imaged in particularized ways. The divine word must be read through the lens of the body—of speaker and listener both. This seems a deeply significant reality in a tradition that finds its center in a Middle Eastern Jewish man who ministered in his early thirties. What are the gifts and challenges of being part of a religious tradition that takes seriously the notion of truth incarnated in finite, particular bodies?
Barbara Brown Taylor (BBT): The significance of the body in Christian teaching is one of the things that keeps me wedded to my tradition. Like the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity teaches that matter matters to God. Unlike these other faiths, it teaches that the central revelation of God comes in human form, which means that divine truth comes wrapped in flesh—not just Jesus’s flesh but also the flesh of the brother, the sister, the neighbor, the stranger, and mine too. At the moment I cannot think of a single teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that does not involve a human body in some way or another.
This is problematic in all kinds of ways. Bodies are sensual, for one thing. They are not all attractive, for another. To stay open to the presence of God in a stranger may mean putting myself in danger. To take the health and welfare of other people’s bodies as seriously as I take my own may require me to do something different with my time or my money. All in all, it would be much easier to keep the body in one drawer and the spirit in another. But for all these same reasons, Christian teaching about the body serves as a daily rescue from religious abstraction. Divine reality is not way up in the sky somewhere; it is readily available in the encounters of everyday life, which make hash of my illusions that I can control the ways God comes to me.
The main challenge I am aware of right now, as far as our bodies are concerned, is that we live in a culture so saturated with sexuality—both expressed and repressed—that it is hard to talk about the body without provoking a lot of discomfort. Church people in particular seem to have a hard time talking about physicality without going straight to sexuality. That leaves a lot of the body in the dark.
TOJ: As you say, in our current American cultural setting, it seems like from earliest childhood we are steadily indoctrinated into a certain cultural liturgy of the body—the body commoditized, sexualized, and the subject and object of violence. But to ask most of us about that liturgy is much like asking the proverbial fish about water: it is so pervasive, we have difficulty imagining beyond it. How is Christianity’s vision of the body different from that which composes our current cultural waters, and what might be the first steps in beginning to construct an alternative liturgy?
BBT: Because there are so many different ways of being Christian today, I am not sure I can defend a single Christian vision of the body. However, I do think there is some virtue in being a careful consumer of cultural waters. I wish more churches had more to say about the spiritual challenges of living with so much technology, especially the media that zeroes in on our doubts about our bodies to sell us things we don’t need. I also worry about what happens when virtual reality becomes more interesting than physical reality. Students at my school walk right by each other on the sidewalk without registering each other’s presence because they are so focused on the messages on their cell phones. They don’t look up when they cross the parking lot, either. They count on drivers to see them.
I am not interested in demonizing technology, especially since I am as dependent on it as anyone else. But I do want to stay tuned to the spiritual costs of using it. There are plenty of good Christian reasons for limiting the amount of time we spend in front of television and computer screens, but chief among them is staying physically engaged in our lives because that is where God has promised to meet us.
Years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that read, “Think globally; act locally.” That might be a good first step at constructing an alternate liturgy for our bodies. What is going on right where you live that engages you in body, soul, and mind? It may be something you can do by yourself or it may be something that involves other people. Where I live, church softball teams are still a big deal. So are community gardens. Almost everyone who can still move does some kind of sport, whether it’s golf or water aerobics. Some of my friends are contra dancers. Others do yoga. Lots of them are in singing groups, which is as at least as physical as watching birds or pruning roses. One bunch of friends meets to collect trash from the side of the road. None of these things can be done on a computer! I know Christians who would object that these are all secular activities, but I think that is in the eye of the beholder. Our intentions are key. When we physically engage the people and places closest to us with eyes wide open to the sacred dimension of reality, few of us are disappointed.
TOJ: In your book An Altar in the World, you offer compelling examples of practices, largely undertaken individually, that help restore our recognition of the sacredness of material existence; for example, the practice of wearing skin or the practice of carrying water. What are some of the best practices we can undertake corporately—either in worship or in our communal life together—to form a deeper and more robust understanding of that sacredness?
BBT: Most churches have lots of offerings in that area, all the way from corporate worship to corporate service projects and mission trips. Because I’m an Episcopalian, I am especially tuned to the physical sweetness of sacraments. There is nothing like a good communion service—or a good foot-washing service—to bring bodies and souls to the altar together.
I mentioned some other local corporate practices earlier, but after years and years of doing things with other people, I have discovered some distinct virtues in solitary practice. One is that I can drop my defenses in a way that is difficult to do when other people are around. When I am alone, there is no one to please or look out for. There is no reason to resist the prompting of the Spirit. If there is a yelp inside of me that needs to come out, then it can come out. If it becomes suddenly important to lie spread-eagled on the ground for an hour, then that can happen too. Although I am sold on the value of corporate spiritual practice, it often happens inside a building, and it also depends on a certain decorum that does not always match the soul’s hunger for exploring the physical territory. Late in my life, it seems time to abandon some of my spiritual decorum.
Another thing I have learned is that a practice can be corporate even if there aren’t any other people around. When I walk a labyrinth alone, I am acutely aware of those who walked it before me. Every time I put my foot down, I put it down on someone else’s footprint. I walk in and with the communion of saints. If the labyrinth happens to be outside, then something else happens. The voices of birds join me in the practice. The wind in the trees—and the hovering trees themselves—join me in the practice. As it turns out, I am hardly alone. It is just that human company sometimes distracts me from the company of creation. I’m not taking back what I said earlier about the revelatory role of human bodies in particular, but it does seem to me that the words individual and corporate can be used to count more than human bodies.
TOJ: Post-Enlightenment, reason, and the intellect have often assumed a role as the primary vehicles of encountering and understanding God. Yet visual arts, poetry, music, dance, and storytelling have historically all been recognized by people of faith as revelatory and formational in profoundly different ways, in part because of their ability to bypass the mind and speak directly to the body and spirit. What parts of the broader Christian narrative tend to get lost most quickly when we fail to diversify our mediums of divine engagement? Are there aspects of the life of faith that these material expressions may be in a better position to comprehend than more doctrinally focused expressions?
BBT: I am persuaded that every living religious tradition stays lively by attending to three overlapping circles of concern. The first is its institutional life, which includes the care and feeding of institutions so that the faith can be communicated from generation to generation. For Christians, these institutions include churches, schools, and seminaries, as well as other historical institutions, such as the papacy, the presbytery, or the episcopacy. The second circle of concern is the intellectual life of faith, in which followers are called to think clearly about the ways that changing times call for new teaching. For Christians, liberation theology, process theology, and feminist theology belong in that circle, along with new thinking about the relationship between Christianity and the other world religions. The third circle is the experiential life of faith, which embraces the practices that a religion offers its followers to help them make direct contact with the divine. For Christians, that circle includes everything from centering prayer to speaking in tongues.
Most of us are more comfortable in one of these circles than we are in the other two, but if a living religion ignores any of them for too long, then it will get wobbly. I think that the present exodus from many traditional churches suggests that one or more of the circles has gone flat. When people say they are “spiritual but not religious,” I think they are announcing their resignation from the institutional sphere—or their disinterest in joining it. Of course that means their faith may get wobbly too, but rather than dismissing them as shallow, it might be interesting for church people to put some energy into finding out what the Spirit is doing with them. What if they are the faithful ones?
I am intrigued with churches that have dream groups, writing groups, dance groups, and street theater groups—not instead of traditional teaching but in the same mix. If doctrinal teaching assumes that people of faith need wisdom from outside themselves, then these embodied ways of teaching assume that people also need the wisdom that arises from within. I think there is plenty of room in the Christian tradition for both.
TOJ: One of the central themes of traditional Christian teaching is resurrection, the hope of bodies reconstituted and restored. Yet for many of us, this real hope coexists with painful realities of illness, disability, and aging. What are the possible gifts of our universal experience of “perishability” (to borrow Paul’s wording)? Are there ways of engaging those experiences that may be more likely to call forth these gifts?
BBT: Yes, there are, though I do not encounter many Christians who are interested in those gifts. There seems to be a lot more interest in bypassing perishability than in engaging it, to the point that Christians who confess to being in a lot of pain can be accused of not having enough faith. Just yesterday I passed a church sign that read, “Do not fear; trust Jesus.” That is wonderful advice, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Trust Jesus to do what? What is it that you are afraid of? Can you put it into words? If you can, then what is it that you trust Jesus to give you, or take away from you, to relieve you of your fear? Is that reasonable, based on what you know of his life story? What might your fear have to teach you, if you gave it a chance? Are you willing to do your part? Maybe I’m just cranky, but I don’t know many Christians who are interested in answering those kinds of questions. For many of us, trusting Jesus means leaving the heavy lifting to him.
I devoted a chapter of An Altar in the World to what I call “the practice of feeling pain” because I believe that pain does a lot of useful things.1 It gets our attention. It wrecks our illusions that we can control our lives. Depending on how bad it is, it can give us a time-out that we sorely need. It often leads us to accept help from others that we would otherwise reject. Insofar as it breaks our hearts, it gives us the sturdiest possible bridge to other broken-hearted people. If we happen to survive it, then we can come through it with fresh gratitude for the simplest things in the world. The catch is that it does not always work that way. Most of us know people so broken by pain that they have never fully come back from it. Some have dealt with it by hurting others; others have taken their own lives.
The way I read the Jesus story, pain is inevitable—not just in his life but in the life of every person. People taunted him about his parentage. When his public ministry got underway, his family came to take him home. He loved children but had none of his own. His closest friends were largely baffled by him. When his miracles ran out, the crowd turned against him. The judge in his trial did not even speak his language. He died a painful death and—in at least two gospels—gave voice to his sense of abandonment by God. If people want to believe that his resurrection erased all of that, they can—but I don’t. I believe that his resurrection revealed the relationship between breakdown and breakthrough in a whole new way. The one does not erase the other. The one leads through the other. When I say I trust Jesus, that is what I mean: I trust that the way of life leads through perishability, not around it.
TOJ: Much of the pain we just spoke of is the sort associated with mortality; its coming and going is largely outside our control. Over the course of its history, the Christian tradition has run the whole spectrum of material engagement, from the well-known extravagance of Middle Age Catholicism to the sometimes deliberately severe asceticism of some monastic and mystic traditions. In your opinion, is there an appropriate place for Christian asceticism today, and if so, what might this particular stream of the Christian tradition have to teach us—particularly those of us who find our home in a culture of excess?
BBT: That is an exciting question, because it is one that not many people ask. I think I started to address it earlier, by talking about how important it is to limit the amount of time we spend sitting in front of screens. Although living in a culture of excess can bewitch us, it can also offer us regular opportunities to say, “No, thank you,” which is the spiritual equivalent of lifting barbells. The French mystic Simone Weil once wrote about how important it is to be able to regard something beautiful without having to devour it. In Waiting for God she wrote, “It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at.”2 To learn to look at things instead of devouring them is to discover how quickly the feeling of deprivation can turn to liberation instead. Every time I say no—to more stuff, more speed, more activity, more food—this great big space opens up in my life. If I can remember how free I feel inside of that space, then I can sometimes even resist filling it back up again. I have never been part of a church that supported me to do that in community, but I can imagine how powerful it might be.
So yes, I think there is an appropriate place for Christian asceticism today—especially because we live in a culture of excess. If the church is meant to embody an alternative way of life, then what better witness could there be than a community that decided to live on less in order to live more richly? That sounds like the kind of truth that could make people free.
1. Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2009), 155–73.
2. Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1951), 166.