Being at home in ourselves means as much as anything being at home in our bodies. Our bone, muscle, fat and blood are not incidental packing. But current societal pressures mean it is harder and harder to live happily in our skin. In a survey in 2014 by Glamour magazine in the USA, 80 per cent of respondents said just looking at themselves in the mirror made them feel bad.
Plastic surgery, punishing exercise regimes, strange powdered food substitutes – these are de rigueur in a culture that idolises youth and a slender frame. It is hard in this toxic environment to love our bodies, to embrace our physicality as it is. We might be tempted instead to focus on an idea of ourselves as an ephemeral soul, to disassociate from our flat feet, sallow complexion and weak chin and instead focus on our inner beauty.
In her wonderful book Body, subtitled ‘Biblical spirituality for the whole person’, Paula Gooder writes: “The tendency to focus on the soul at the expense of the body is one of the reasons why the Christian tradition has had such an ambivalent relationship with the body throughout its history.” She argues that the idea of the physical body being a temporary and ‘non-spiritual’ husk, to be discarded on our deathbeds, originates in the philosophy of Plato, and not in the Bible. Paula and I have become friends lately and I’ve had the opportunity to chew her ear off with my thoughts and questions about her understanding of Paul’s teaching on bodies and their long-term prospects. (Paula is a Pauline scholar, as you’ll soon find out, if you meet her!) She doesn’t think Paul teaches that there is a soul or spirit that exists separately from the body. In other words, soul, spirit and flesh are indivisible. Eternal life means eternal life as bodies, and more than that, as these bodies.
When I asked her to help me understand how that could possibly work when we start to decay almost from the moment of birth (and quite visibly once you get to my age, I’m forced to admit), she reminded me of the seed metaphor in 1 Corinthians. A seed is packed with the full potential of the tree it is to become, even though it looks nothing like it. We talked about whether there would be people of different ages in heaven, my primary concern being that I’d be landed with looking after a bunch of rowdy toddlers, world without end. “How I imagine it,” she said, “is that all of us will be who we were at every age, and who we were meant to be: our full selves. There’s real comfort there for anyone who’s lost a baby. I think they’ll get to meet the full person – everything that baby could have been.” I love that idea, and while I know we can only grasp through mists of mystery far beyond our ability to understand, Paul’s teaching and Paula’s interpretation sit well with me.
So who am I? What is the self that I must embrace and make my home? I am this body, I am this mind, this personality, this character. I am a flawed and imperfect and broken person, created and beloved by God. And before I can be at home anywhere or with anyone, I must be at home in me.
This is an extract from Home by Jo Swinney, published in June 2017, and available from Amazon and Christian bookstores around the country.