Human Embodiment, Cultural Experience, Modernity and Christ's Body


Rev. Dr. James A. Noel
Professor of American Religion,
H. Eugene Farlough Chair of African American Christianity
jnoel@sfts.edu

SEMINAR DESCRIPTION
Breaker This seminar will enable students to acquire theoretical and conceptual tools for analyzing the nature of contemporary global culture(s) through the lens of aesthetic theory that focuses on the body and the social and ecclesiastical spaces it inhabits and creates through material exchanges and cultural productions. Participants will demonstrate their mastery of the theories and concepts pertaining to the course topic—such as modernity, gift-exchange, embodiment--by integrating and applying the content of the assigned readings to their own cultures of origin and relating this to their contexts of ministry in terms of the Church’s/Pauline understanding of the Body of Christ. Students will indicate how they see possibilities for Christological meaning to be communicated in the material and visual forms of contemporary culture and the implications this has for Christian mission.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES
Breaker Quotations are from the document "Habits and Skills of Theological Education at These objectives will be measured through the essay exams, one page summaries, and class discussions. These learning objectives will be measured by the seminar participant’s class presentations, discussions, and final paper. The S.C.A.R. (see below under “requirements”) form for conducting class presentations serves as one instrument.

1) To define modernity or post-modernity in a manner that demonstrates a "critical awareness of the impact of social, political, economic, and cultural contexts on life and thought" of the church.

2) To discuss the Pauline notion of “Christ’s Body” and the theological understanding of “Incarnation” and relate it to the descriptions of modernity and post-modernity in such a way that demonstrates "knowledge of, respect for, and intelligent use of the Church's manifold traditions," in particular, intellectual, political, ritual, and social contexts of Christian doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, Soteriology, and Anthropology; the relations of Christianity to other indigenous and world religions.

3) To do cultural/social/political analysis of “space,” “place,” and “time,” in a way that demonstrates "an ability to ground theology in practical reality" of ordinary folks—especially those who are marginalized.


SEMINAR REQUIREMENTS
BreakerEach seminar participant is required to prepare a 3 page (approximately; typed and double-spaced) synopsis of the required reading of each seminar session. These short papers will be evaluated by the professor according to the criteria indicated in the S.C.A.R. form blow and form the basis for the final grade. Seminar participants are also expected to lead at least one discussion of the required reading which will be evaluated by the other seminar participants in addition to the professor. Seminar participants are also required to write a 6-8 page final paper on a topic of their choice that integrates the readings and class discussions in a way that will be useful to them in their ministry and demonstrate their having achieved the course learning objectives.

EVALUATION (SCAR) FORM for STUDENT PRESENTATIONS
(Each student must make one class presentation on the assigned reading assignment and will be evaluated by his/her peers and the professor according to the following form on a 1—3 scale for each item with 3 being the highest score.)

  1. SYNOPSIS OF READING ASSIGNMENT (Ability to accurately summarize the reading assignment’s contents).
  2. CRITIQUE OF READING ASSIGNMENT (Ability to make critical comments about the reading assignment’s sources, presuppositions, and internal logic and/or contradictions.).
  3. APPLICATION TO STUDENT’S CONTEXT (S) (Ability to utilize some aspect of one’s engagement with the reading assignment for doing a social/cultural analysis of one’s own culture and context of ministry).
  4. RELATE THE CURRENT READING ASSIGNMENT TO OTHER PREVIOUS READING ASSIGNMENTS (Ability to show how the current reading assignment contributes and deepens to what one has learned from the other reading assignments.)


REQUIRED TEXTS
BreakerPlease read pp. 1-110 in Mark Johnson’s text and prepare a 3 page synopsis (typed and double-spaced) for the first class meeting.

  1. De Certeau, Michel, THE PRACTICE OF EVERYDAY LIFE (UC Press; 1988).
  2. Halpern, Manfred, TRANSFORMING THE PERSONAL, POLITICAL, HISTORICAL AND SACRED IN THEORY & PRACTICE.
  3. Harvey, David, THE CONDITION OF POSTMODERNITY (Blackwell: 1990).
  4. Johnson, Mark, THE MEANING OF THE BODY: AESTHETICS OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING (U. Chicago Press: 2008).
Mauss, Marcel, THE GIFT (W. W. Norton: 1990).


READING ASSIGNMENTS & DISCUSSION THEMES (page numbers TBA)
Breaker

SESSIONS 1-3 [2/4, 11 & 18]: Johnson, Mark, THE MEANING OF THE BODY: AESTHETICS OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.

Discussion themes: De Certeau makes the provocative statement in his book, in the chapter titled “The Scriptural Economy,” that “There is no law that is not inscribed on bodies. Every law has a hold on the body…law ‘takes hold of’ bodies in order to make them its text” (p. 139). The Apostle Paul also invokes the image and reality of the body in his letters. For instance, Paul says in Galatians and Romans that when we are incorporated into Christ we are free from the law. But why do Christians have trouble with certain types of human bodies? Mark Johnson challenges Descartes dualism between mind and body and writes in his preface: “We are born into the world as creatures of the flesh, and it is through our bodily perceptions, movements, emotions, and feelings that meaning becomes possible and takes the forms it does. This quotation invokes statement in the Prologue to John’s Gospel that “the Word became flesh.” So there is a lot of grist for the mill as we think about our bodies in relation to other human bodies, nature, artifacts, Christ’s body, the Eucharist, etc. as culture producing and culturally conditioned.


SESSIONS 4-5 [2/25 & 3/4]: Tuan, Yi-Fu, A STUDY OF ENVIRONMENTAL PERCEPTION, ATTITUDES AND VALUES (Columbia U. Press: 1974); SPACE AND PLACE: THE PERSPECTIVE OF EXPERIENCE(U.of Minn.Press: 1977).

Discussion themes: We will read selectively from these important texts by Tuan who is a major contributor to the relatively new field of Cultural Geography. These readings will serve as a bridge between the previous readings on the body, Harvey’s discussion of the role of ‘capital” in the modern production of space, and Certeau’s—relying on Bourdieu’s category of ‘habitus”-- emphasis on “everyday practice,” Tuan is influenced by existentialism, phenomenology—Heidegger’s notions of “being-in-the-world,” “dwelling” and the fourfold connectivity of Being with the earth, cosmos, the body and Spirit—which he applies to human geography. He expands the discipline of geography beyond the physical toward metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics. These texts provide a lot of grist for the mill in thinking about the Body of Christ and the local congregation in environmental terms.


SESSIONS 6-7 [3/11 & 18]: Mauss, Marcel, THE GIFT.

Discussion themes: The Gospel of John states that; “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son.” Within the framework of Christian theology, it is in receiving God’s gift through faith that we are reconciled with God. But what has this to do with being reconciled with our neighbor? Or to put it differently and spatially—what has the vertical dimension to do with the horizontal dimensions of human exchange and interaction? Her we are asking the question: What has Christian theology to do with the political-economy constituting its social context? Mauss’s classic text will be of great assistance in helping us think about these questions. In the preface to The Gift Mary Douglas says; ‘He…discovered a mechanism by which individual interests combine to make a social system, without engaging in market exchange…Mauss’s fertile idea was to present the gift cycle as a theoretical counterpart to the invisible hand” (p. xiv.). How does the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit and its collective practice in western society pertain to what Mauss says at the close of his study?

Societies have progressed in so far as they themselves, their subgroups, and lastly, the individuals in them, have succeeded in stabilizing relationships, giving, receiving, and finally, giving in return…the clan, the tribe, and peoples have learnt how to oppose and to give to one another without sacrificing themselves to one another. This is what tomorrow, in our so-called civilized world, classes and nations and individuals also, must learn. This is one of the enduring secrets of their wisdom and solidarity.

There is no other morality, nor any other form of economy, nor any other social practices save these (Mauss, pp. 82-3).

SESSIONS 8, 9 &10 [4/1, 8, & 15]: Harvey, David, THE CONDITION OF POSTMODERNITY

Discussion themes: According to Harvey: “The Enlightenment project…took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question. From this it followed that the world could be controlled and rationally ordered if could only picture and represent it rightly. But this presumed that there existed a single correct mode of representation which, if we could uncover it…would provide the means to Enlightenment ends…But after 1848 the idea that there was only one possible mode of representation began to break down. The categorical fixity of Enlightenment thought was increasingly challenged and ultimately replaced by an emphasis upon divergent systems of representation” (pp. 28-9). Some of the things that were affected through this and contested was the way people experience and conceptualize time, space, and place. Here we are talking about both aesthetics and geography. Harvey observes that “Shifts in the objective qualities of space and time…can be, and often are, effected through social struggle” (p. 227). What are the social spaces, places, and “temporalities,” of our communities of origin and those in which we will conduct our ministries—suburban, urban, middle-class, poor, mono-cultural, multi-cultural? What if any control does your community have over the determination of space?


SESSIONS 11 & 12 [4/22 & 29]: De Certeau, Michel, THE PRACTICE OF EVERYDAY LIFE.

Discussion themes: De Certeau also critiques the Enlightenment project for its inability to illuminate the embodied cultural-political reality of ordinary folks through it linguistic abstractions—those of the humanities and science—which objectify (should we also say, commodify) human beings. The language of the specialist follows the conventions of a discipline but not those of ordinary usage in dynamic and ever nuanced settings. Thus, the experts language can never occupy the same “place” or “space” as those it objectifies. Additionally, there is no vantage point whereby language can become the empirical object of reflection. Language can be very oppressive when it reifies systems of domination while creating a hierarchy based on its mastery. “On the other hand,” writes de Certeau, “distinct from this polemological space which perspicacious country people saw as a network of innumerable conflicts covered up with words, there was also a utopian space in which a possibility, by definition miraculous in nature, was affirmed by religious stories…in order to affirm the non-coincidence of fact and meaning, another scene was required, the religious scens that reintroduces, in the mode of supernatural events, the historical contingency of this ‘nature’ and, by means of celestial landmarks, creates a place for this protest” (p.16)…”In spite of everything, they provide the possible with a site that is impregnable, because it is nowhere, a utopia. They create another space, which co-exists with that of an experience deprived of illusions” (p. 17). So what are the stories in your community that create such possibilities? How will you tell the “story?”


SESSIONS 13-15 [5/6, 13 & 20]: Manfred Halpern, TRANSFORMING THE PERSONAL, POLITICAL, HISTORICAL AND SACRED IN THEORY & PRACTICE.

Discussion themes: The books we have thus read provide different sorts of analysis of the problem of modernity but few scholars provide us with any positive avenues of intervention beyond the “complaint.” Halpren has attempted a theory of how to transform ourselves and our culture. A review of his book states:The eminent political scientist Manfred Halpern (1924–2001) viewed politics as belonging to each of us, as part of the nature of being human. In A Comprehensive Philosophy of Transformation, his magnum opus, Halpern elucidates the interconnected “four faces of our being”: the political, personal, historical, and sacred. This momentous volume identifies several modes of political activity, warns against the dangers of leaving politics to professional politicians, and urges us to build networks of compassion that include everyone in a just society. Overall, Halpern calls for a transformative politics achieved through enhanced participation and understanding.” What is your evaluation of Halpern’s analysis and recommendations based on the previous readings and your social/ecclesiastical context?