This week I experienced my first root canal surgery. My dentist called it a “procedure,” but it felt like surgery to me. Earlier that day my ophthalmologist told me that my cataracts, charted two years ago, aren’t all that bad, but “they’re not babies any more.” So are they now toddler cataracts? First graders? “We’ll keep an eye on them,” he said, pun unnoticed. A day later I had my “annual physical,” and have already received an email with the results of multiple blood tests required on such occasions. All were within the “normal” range. Looks like I’ll last a while longer.
After all those remember-that-you-are-aging checkups, by luck (or grace) I stumbled onto an old copy of Sam Keen’s To a Dancing God (1970), a book that literally changed my life when I was a seminarian. It was on the top shelf of our home library, where I was looking for another book which I still haven’t found. Like St. Augustine on the cusp of conversion, when I saw Keen’s book, “I seized, opened, and in silence read that section, on which my eyes first fell” — “The Importance of Being Carnal — Notes for a Visceral Theology.”
Suddenly, the text that discomfited my safe, prefabricated faith so long ago did it again, but differently this time, at another stage of life. Ideas I’d overlooked 46 years ago seemed more relevant now than then with Keen’s confession that neither “the Christian nor secular cultures” in which he was reared, “taught me to discern the sacred in the voice of the body and the language of the senses. In the same measure that Christian theology has failed to help me appreciate the carnality of grace, secular ideology has failed to provide me categories for understanding the grace of carnality.”
Phrases like “the importance of being carnal,” and “the grace of carnality” took me back to some of my earliest religious instructions received in Baptist Sunday school classes, revival meetings and youth camps, where well-meaning spiritual mentors insisted that “carnal” was about the worst thing you could be. Indeed, “carnal” was right up there with words like lust, flesh, fornication, adultery, dancing, smoking, “honkey-tonking” and of course S-E-X in general. (Just thinking about that “sin list” required immediate “rededication of your life” on the next available Sunday morning!) Such sensual behaviors helped define a certain kind of carnality, true enough, often with devastating consequences.
Yet Keen’s vision carries us beyond carnal as an earthy state to be avoided to carnal as a renewed sense of who we really are, an inescapable earthly identity that “pertains to the body.” In words that put my root canal in unexpected physio-spiritual perspective, Keen writes: “Incarnation, if it is anything more than a ‘once-upon-a-time’ story, means grace is carnal, healing comes through the flesh.” Such grace, Keen says, “is a happening rather an achievement, a gift rather than a reward.” Then he adds provocatively that grace “happens to an individual who bears a unique biography and destiny and not to an anonymous body governed by the imperative of autonomous laws. I may speak of grace only in the first person.”
As I suspect he intended, Keen’s comments sent me running to Jesus and the dilemma of the earliest Christians in sorting out his incarnation, his life in the flesh. Some Monarchians said Jesus was simply a philos anthropos, a mere man, uniquely empowered by God with divine power and presence. Certain Gnostics denied that a sinless, transcendent God could ever “take on flesh,” insisting that Jesus only “seemed” (dokein) to occupy a human body. Second-century theologian Clement of Alexandria reported on Gnostic-founder Valentinus’ belief that Jesus only appeared to occupy a carnal body, “exercising his divinity” by eating and drinking “in a peculiar manner, [but] not excavating his food.” Thus, “so much power of continence was in him that in him food was not corrupted, since he himself had no corruptibility.” Metamucil be damned!
The gospels are full of stories in which the “incarnate Christ” opens the interior life of human beings by giving attention to their carnal presence, their broken, hungry, naked, hurting bodies. In this season’s lectionary text from Luke 14:12-13, Jesus offers this advice to first-century party-planners: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Wherever else it may appear, the grace of carnality is intended for those whose bodies are most broken.
If Sam Keen is right, then there’s an in-carnation lurking in all of us. He writes: “A visceral theology majors in the sense of touch rather than in the sense of hearing. … The sacred must be rediscovered in what moves and touches us, in what makes us tremble. … The word must be discovered in the flesh.”
“This is my body,” Jesus said, owning and extending the carnality of grace. I’ll try to remember that, at the communion table and the dentist’s office.