April 7, 2003 / Theology
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May 12, 2016
Over the last twenty years, I have frequently found myself in fitness clubs, where after work I run on treadmills, clip my feet into a LifeCycle’s pedals, and trudge up the escalating steps of a Stairrkster only to experience my doppelganger whisper, “This is a mistake,” or worse, “This is deadening!”
What I like least about my occupation—in regard to its disproportionate concentration on mind work—is being mirrored in and reproduced at the health club, for my exercise does not appear to be intimately related to myself as a body. I sense this has become primarily a regimented exercise that is uncoordinated from the graced fullness of my embodiment.1 My professional life already does heavy mental lifting, though in the sedentary context of computer-generated realities with little consciousness of my “lived-body” experience. Indeed, I move from laptops and other office- and education-related technologies, which rule my vocation as a professor, to a room full of more machines, which disciplines my exercise. I am suspicious that something might be wrong with how this place envisions and shapes bodies, with the way in which health clubs picture our bodies and enroll them in repetitive practices that, upon reflection, might trespass against our God-given graced bodies.
And yet I keep finding ways to ignore what might be wrong about how this place may contribute to my malformation because I outwardly receive enough of a reward to detach (ironically) from whatever troubles me upon deeper reflection. After a sweat-producing and pound-reducing workout, I enjoy knowing that I can indulge in a scoop, even two, of Ben and Jerry’s or eat extra chips and salsa while waiting for my main entrée.
How Fitness Centers Can Estrange Us from Our Bodies
Exercise, when done responsibly and enjoyably, helps us live well in and honor our bodies; it helps us to care for these temples in which God’s spirit dwells and to promote good health, particularly given the prevalence of obesity and other health problems that can be avoided with regular physical activity. Fitness centers may therefore seem like an ideal setting for helping us live well, especially for people who live in extreme climates, cope with certain injuries, or have unique vocations (e.g., elite athletes). However, as I have exercised in fitness centers and watched others exercising there, I have begun to sense that for those of us who visit these health clubs, there is something going on at the level of imagination and habitus, something that puts many fitness buffs at a distance from their bodies.2
The health club industry—like any social institution—influences people’s beliefs and behavior. The practice of exercise performed in health clubs pedagogically shapes our hearts and minds, and we typically absorb this shaping in our physical bodies unconsciously. While routinely going from one fitness station to another during a training session, our imagination concerning our bodies gets indelibly worked into the texture of our identity, and because this is an exceptionally intense visceral and tactile experience, this bodily experience exponentially flexes our imagination as we get around in health clubs. That means, a fitness center as an institution consists of a constellation of thick and thin cultural practices, which are meaning-laden and identity-forming, all in response to the desires and goods associated with health, bodies, beauty, and so forth.3
Bodies represent and express the symbolic capital given to them. As we burn calories and pump our quads in spin classes, grimace to push one more rep in our bench-press sets, run on elliptical trainers, and walk to the water fountain, we watch and relate to other bodies and our own. And as we watch and work, our worldviews, attitudes, and traits are being habituated in ways that over time develop virtue or vice, growing us into certain kinds of people.
Because worldviews get articulated and affectively conditioned in everyday rituals and practices in places like health clubs, dualism is one pesky imagination in Western thought, passed down to us from Plato and René Descartes, that can get enfolded in the know-how of our exercise. Dualism serves to split all of reality up into two different kinds of substances: immaterial things like minds, souls, and spirits and materiality, such as bodies. What emerges is an inherent difference between these substances with the mind privileged and valued over the body.4 This further means that the body becomes incidental to who we are, relegated to the periphery as ancillary, since the human body is something passive and inert not unlike other empirical objects or physical bodies which are governed by mechanical laws in the world. Moreover, this brand of dualism is really skeptical of bodily senses, since they belong to the body and are considered unreliable. Dualism’s wariness of the body, in general, and the sporting body, in particular, presents problems for embodiment and exercise.
If we are entrenched in this way of seeing ourselves as divided substances, fitness centers can become sites for promoting and coaching us to exercise the social imaginary of dualism, an imaginary in which we neglect and discount bodily dignity. Our involvement in this kinetic context can mean a disunity of mind and body. I realize that on the surface this may sound strange, if not absurd, for it appears that body pedagogy and enrichment are at a premium when going to health clubs. However, fitness centers are decked out with sundry body accouterments, which together, because the sum is greater than the parts, can dynamically distract, deter, and discourage bodily knowing and communion. Consequently, we miss the mark of knowing how integral our bodies are to who we are.
As an experiment, count all of the distractions at a health club in the form of services, products, and technologies that potentially miseducate and thwart persons from the adventure of directly exploring the sensual aspects of their materiality. For instance, customers enter a space that consists of features from very different institutions such as hospitals, schools, cafeterias, factories, and amusement parks. Once through the turnstile, people are greeted with antiseptic sprays, hand sanitizers, rotating fans to dry the sweat, deodorizers, an endless supply of wipes and towels, fitness staff disinfecting and cleaning the germs and grime from the equipment, loudspeakers and televisions incessantly blaring sounds and images, Wi-Fi connectivity, personalized mobile device hookups for streaming shows and music, downloadable fitness apps, games and workouts with simulated competition on touch screens, classes and instruction about technique, an assembly line of machines and fixed stations arranged according to the characteristics of particular work-out routines (e.g., aerobic fitness, strength training, core exercises, and stretching), bright colors and natural lighting or softer adjustable lighting (even candles in some centers) depending on the genre and mood of exercise, physical therapy and massages, protein drinks and nutritional planning, integrated performance training, eco-conscious green gyms and high-tech machines, swanky pools and lazy rivers replete with waterfalls, tricked out treadmills and bikes with heart and pulse monitors, and on and on. These added accessories and charms offer substitutions to bodily knowing. Using sleight of hand, they put real intimacy and richness of being-in-the-world on the run.
Additionally, all of these supposed exercise enhancements are indissolubly connected to a physical culture that is ordered and regulated by modern sport’s rationalization of bodily competencies. Sociologist Chris Shilling declares that this ethos of rationalization invests processes and structures with meanings that value the body for its efficiency and performativity.5 This focus is on the body as a thing subject to calibration and quantification, symptomatic of cultural valuations that John Hoberman says are “a mania for measurement.”6 A metaphysic gets enacted at these stations and in these fitness tasks that—even though this experience devotes incredible attention to the body—undervalues an account of the body since the body is an object to be managed and assessed scientifically. The net result is that bodies exercised in fitness centers are diverted from immediately listening to, feeling, and respecting their bodies, focusing their attention instead on the devices and technologies, which read and govern our bodies as machines. Rather that cherishing the body as a gift in which exercise can reawaken and remake contact with the integrity of our bodies and with the world we inhabit, this experience tempts us to forget that it is in these bodies that we feel and move in the world.7 Contact between two very different bodies—machines and humans—takes place in this space, but what ensues is the abolition of human bodies.
The Abolition of Human Bodies
C. S. Lewis addresses an aspect of this loss of the proper value of our humanity when, in The Abolition of Man, he contends that such losses occur when we make the value of objective reality conform to the wishes or will of humans. In The Abolition of Man, which is the publication of three lectures he gave at Durham University in 1943, Lewis seeks to expose an insidious brand of moral education that he discovered being taught in English elementary textbooks, which he refers to as The Green Book; he seeks to defend objective moral law over against The Green Book’s assertion that human values are subjective.8 For Lewis, this “scientistic” understanding of reality as something to be controlled is radically opposed to seeing reality with a built-in purpose or final cause. Lewis recognized that, since reality has objective value, the aim of education should be to train students in “ordinate affections,” for appropriate attitudes and actions ought to be congruous to the demands given in reality.9 However, students are corrupted when they choose incongruous responses to reality, responses that defy and violate the given values of an objective order.
An inevitable consequence of rejecting that nature participates in a greater reality of truth, goodness, and beauty, according to Lewis, is the formation of “Men without Chests.” Instead of the heart (or chest) being schooled in older, premodern traditions of moral inquiry in which humans are believed to possess a natural understanding of right and wrong that can apprehend moral law, humans are initiated in a way of thinking that debunks objective ends and purposes, resulting in casualties to humans and society. The malevolent effects of this education do not stop simply with caricatures of humanity, for Lewis asserts that absent the chest we become “trousered apes.” This devolution is because we “see through” first principles—suppressing and explaining them away. Lewis deliberately illustrates how both vain moral reasoning and unjust pedagogy atrophies the very moral organ required for living virtuously as humans. Lewis states, “It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will.”10 If Cartesian dualism left us with the understanding of our bodies as lacking an inherent telos, Lewis demonstrates how the Conditioners (a term he uses to denote a class of innovative educators who condition students to think moral values are subjective) move in to supply artificial value and meaning to nature, and thus they aim to subdue and control it.
Just as Lewis feared the way in which science and technology exercise power devoid of objective values, so too we should be skeptical with respect to the ethos and technologies of fitness centers that as a social body can conscript and wrongly educate human bodies.11 To say it another way, the Conditioners liberate physical things like the body from the constraints of permanent truths (the Tao) that ground the body’s worth. Bodies, then, are cut off from their God-given dignity—that is, in the biblical canon, the image of God presumably pertains to bodies, in that God made human bodies to visibly and corporeally represent him in his world.12
When stepping into fitness centers without the inherent worth of our bodies intact, we step into the void, becoming distinctly unhuman, and by application, our bodies then become artifacts susceptible to abolition. The body is lost to mere nature so that it too can be conquered or mastered. According to Lewis, when chests vanish—or in this case, when bodies are lost—dehumanization is the ultimate result. That means that this education’s metaphysics both dematerializes and dehumanizes.13
In practice, this entire process unfolds in a precognitive, pretheoretical manner. Rarely do people consciously bring René Descartes’s theory of dualism into health clubs. Nevertheless, this vision seeps into our social imaginary, which, according to Smith, gets passed on and carried in the logic of such practices.14 Like Lewis, who doubted that the lessons being taught in English literature in Great Britain were intentionally malicious,15 I admit too that it is unlikely that the designers and proponents of fitness centers conspire to propagate a philosophy that undermines the fullness of our humanity as embodied persons. However, it is ignorance and the concomitant assumptions, faults, and vices that can condition the theologically immature by blinding their sensibilities from recognizing what is at stake (i.e., the integrity of bodily dignity).
Smith carefully adds, in his exposition of Pierre Bourdieu, that the logic of such practices occurs gradually, for it incorporates individual bodies into a social body through seemingly mundane means such as we find repeated and ritualized in health clubs. In this process of incorporation, a habitus gets implanted and incarnated in individual bodies by the social world of fitness centers, reframing our bodies with an arbitrarily assigned meaning.16 And this can result in us experiencing our bodies as things to be trimmed, trained, sculpted, disciplined, weighed, examined, and pushed.
Corporeality here functions as a tool or instrument of the mind. This portrait of humanity is not about welcoming the body but about coming to terms that the body is an irreconcilable implement, something foreign to our true essence. Because of dualism’s distrust of the body, the body must be overcome; disequilibrium exists between mind and body that must be balanced by conquering and using the body.17 Rather than perceiving the body as subject, the body is externally observed as object, as a possession to be treated or improved, not unlike the story that medicine tells about the body as a passive material thing to be manipulated.18 Klaus V. Meier defends that in accordance with the powers-that-be of modern sports theory and practice: “the anatomical, kinesiological, bio-mechanical, and physiological sciences are intensely and tenaciously pursued and granted almost exclusive sanction to scrutinize, analyze, and manipulate man’s corporeal nature and his participation in sport.”19
Once in a fitness center, this narration of the body frames it as something to be measured, as seen by the fact that trainers and mirrors are strategically located throughout a club, putting the body under the constant vigilance of others. When under this objectifying gaze, both from others in the center and more widely from the science of exercise, this institution’s constellation of power relations range from the machines and the trainers, as technicians and disciplinarians of human bodies in a regimen of domination, to sociopolitical ideals (e.g., from the Conditioners) concerning the body as circulated and consumed in commercials with athletic bodies, the content in fitness magazines,20 and shows like The Biggest Loser.21
Fitness Centers as Mechanisms of Domination
Michel Foucault, who has received a lot of attention within the sociology of sports literature, calls this domination “disciplinary power,” a theme that he traced in the context of prison punishment, demonstrating that such institutions focus on the control of bodies “by means of surveillance.”22 Pirkko Markula and Richard Pringle see fitness centers operating like prisons and schools; they are mechanisms of domination and control. In all of these sites, disciplinary power gets a hold on bodies via disciplinary techniques that aim to produce pliable and productive bodies. Markula and Pringle argue that techniques work on a multitude of body types (e.g., fit, strong, thin, fat, male, female, emaciated) with trainers using each exerciser’s body profile to develop training-specific programs of control. Applying Foucault further, they describe how personal knowledge of bodies at health clubs allows for coaches or trainers to use their expertise and authority as a form of hierarchical observation, a way of making bodies visible and thus objects of knowledge that are subject to their manipulation.
Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s prison design, the panopticon, to explain how an institution’s gaze of authority is centrally structured (architecturally) to examine and regulate all movements 24/7. Even though the parallels are not perfect, Markula and Pringle recognize that while exercising in such institutions, individuals are visible under the watchful eye of fitness authorities who discipline the desires of exercisers and who normalize a health club’s judgment about what constitutes fit bodies.23 This public gaze creates and sustains a disciplinary mechanism whose observations educate bodies toward what the panopticon reckons as ideal.
This multitude of hyperintense scrutiny also extends to the training programs that use industry tools and calculators (more machines) to determine body mass index, target heart rate zone, blood pressure, body fat composition, and daily caloric needs. All of these calculations, as conditioned by this place, assume control over the individual body, which, according to Jennifer Smith Maguire, renders the body calculable, accountable, and predictable.24 Even the machines function as eyes, for each machine is equipped with devices to monitor the body. Together, these machines play the roles of spectator, objectifying the body. In this site, the body is sine qua non, though this disciplinary mechanism’s focus on metrics and analyses singles the body out as primarily something I have, something I am in possession of. That further means that the dialectics between my body and this institution, operating in a larger body politic, is under the discipline and possession of others.25 As power is channeled through the various tools, diagnostics, and practices at a health club toward fulfilling this narrative’s ends, human bodies get repressed and oppressed by the power of others. This matrix of power reduces our bodies from being an indispensable part of our humanity as image bearers of God to being mere things, and consequently, our bodies are not allowed to speak as personal bodies. Rather, our bodies speak a machine language when exercise occurs away from their God-given worth. This contempt for the body makes sense in light of dualism, since Descartes held that the body is akin to a machine working mechanically like a clock.26
Countering the Missteps of Fitness Centers
To counter the missteps and the unnatural machine language that human bodies can mistakenly speak when in service to various ideologies, Christians need to speak about bodies according to the scriptural narrative. Theologian Jonathan Wilson notes that in our Genesis origin story (Gen. 2:7), the emphasis is on a single two-part creation act, consisting firstly in God fashioning us from the ground and then secondly in God breathing into us the breath of life, not on a distinction between body and spirit. Genesis 2 does not record that God created a body, which like a material receptacle had to be filled with an immaterial spirit, but that this is “one act performed in two movements.”27 The result of this one act is a “living being” (Gen. 2:7), a living body, not a dualistic separation of body and spirit, that is recipient to the gift and blessing that God pronounced on all of creation in Genesis 1 to 2.
According to David Kelsey, embodiment, as seen in God’s creation of our living body, is fundamental to human creatureliness. Being a living body is integral to who we are, and reasons Kelsey, Scripture emphasizes that these are personal living bodies. He says—being guided by his theological reflections on Job 10 and Genesis 1 to 3, which are paradigmatic for his view on personal bodies—that humans “are personal in virtue of the status before God and within creation that is given to them by the peculiar way in which the Creator relates to them.” In both narratives, God relates to humans (Adam, Eve, and Job) by distinctively addressing them, which, since human creatures may respond, presupposes that God’s address is to personal bodies. God’s address through the conventions of ordinary language is such that it is to the entire person, not to a particular property, aspect, or capacity of human creatureliness. It pertains to the whole person in all of her complexity and integrity. Therefore, if bodies are essential to who humans are, the dignity accorded to humans encompasses the full reality of their bodies.28
If we are personal living bodies, this should influence how we see and do exercise. Exercise is not a path to discount or run from our bodies (i.e., excarnation) but an opportunity to plunge to the integral depth of our humanity as incarnate subjects.29 This imaginary orients us as bodies who sense, touch, and see our way during a bike ride, for example, in which we sweat, stretch, and strive. If the fullness of our humanity belongs to our bodies, this means that exercise should operate as a specific practice to awaken us to our bodies and this world. Sondra Fraleigh, in her analysis of human movement in dance from the phenomenological tradition, sees such contact with our bodies as preverbal communication, a speech specific to the body itself.30
At a health club, this might mean taking our pulse without the aid of a heart-rate monitor so that we can directly touch our wrists, feel our arteries bulge, experience the effects of our heart contracting and pushing blood out. This intimate fleshly contact with our bodies can re-enchant exercise to be a practice where bodily knowledge communicates secrets about who we are while jumping, dribbling, and swimming. When the body is perceived in this way, it becomes the means of communication and locus of self-discovery. Merleau-Ponty describes such bodily learning as what constitutes the phenomenal body, for in bodily comportment the body “surges towards objects to be grasped and perceives them.” Phenomenal bodies are alive and expressive because our movements are bound to, carried out, and incarnate in our bodies, and by wrestling with this way of thinking we can resist reductive accounts of the body that depersonalize and deaden our experiences of movement in exercise.31 Meier celebrates this philosophical shift from dualism to phenomenological conceptions of embodiment, noting that “Rather than concentrating solely on the objectified, treadmill image of sport, predominately centered upon the development and attainment of physical strength, motor skills, and technical efficiency, it appears to be legitimate, fruitful, and imperative to focus upon the full range of dynamic, lived experiences available therein.”32 This holistic take on bodies opens up exercise to be a serendipitous adventure, and an anodyne against those experiences in which boredom encroaches and kills the joy of exercise.
Let our bodies taste the salt of our sweat, hear the pant of exhalation, and feel the perspiration on our skin, for it is in these very bodily possibilities that we relate to God, others, and self. Think of exercise as a time to vigorously expend energy and to test our bodies so that we can become more conscious of our creaturely boundaries and vulnerabilities. These suggestions indicate experiences in which the body is not a thing to be dominated but a gift to be treasured. This style of thinking makes the body central to our identity—our bodies are sources and references for how we know this world. Our bodies are the very dwelling places in which we hospitably engage in bodily conversations, with our bodies and others in their primordial language, in order to experience through our exercise that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14 NSRV).33
John B. White
John B. White holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. He is the Harold and Dottie Riley Professor of Practical Theology and Director of the Sports Chaplaincy Program at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He received a grant from Lilly Endowment in 2015 as the principal investigator to establish the Youth Spirituality and Sports Institute at Baylor University.