Everybody Ought to Have a Body

October 16, 2013 | 12 comments
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A distinctive Mormon doctrine related to creation and stewardship is the idea that embodiment is a necessary prerequisite for god-like exaltation. This doctrine includes within it the ideas we can be exalted to become like God, and that God himself has a physical body.

The soul of man is the spirit and the body. Although we believe we had a premortal existence as spirit children of God, we were not completely created until we were born into our physical bodies. Our mortal parents acted as co-creators with God in having us. Our bodies are the temples in which our spirits dwell, and which the Holy Ghost may visit. So in a Mormon view, having a body is necessary for the development of our spirits. The traditional Christian view that holds that God embodied himself as Christ in order to make himself approachable to us. While we believe in the condescension of God, we believe our embodiment has the potential to bring us closer to God, to make us more like Him.

There are great pleasures to be experienced through our bodies. The body is our vehicle for experiencing the whole of creation, our means of developing an aesthetic sense which God already has. He wants us to find that things please our eyes and gladden our hearts. We are meant to experience the pleasures of the flesh, within the bounds that the Lord has set. Those lines of moderation and restraint serve to increase our enjoyment and protect us from the misery of excess.

Although we have positive doctrines about embodiment, we are often deeply ambivalent about our bodies. The natural man is an enemy to God. Temptations and base impulses, the sins of the flesh, must be overcome. We repeat the phrase “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” All of these things may cause us to despise our bodies from a religious point of view. When we despise our bodies and seek only to overcome them, we are more likely to neglect and manipulate them. We fail to cultivate a sense of moderation, and feel guilty in enjoying the natural pleasures of embodiment. That guilt itself may become a perverse pleasure, and so we fall into an unnatural, unhappy state, far removed from God.

We do well to remember our own mortality. We believe we have these bodies only temporarily, and our bodies are not our own. We must give them up at the end of our lives, retaining only the memory of our freedom and pleasure and pain until the day of our resurrection in a glorified, perfected body like that which God has. But for now, our bodies are our first and most intimate stewardship assignment, inescapable while in this life. How we care for these bodies of ours, and what we choose to do with them and through them determines our future relationship to our Heavenly Father, the degree to which we will be like Him, and our eternal proximity to Him.

This body is not the end: it is a means. As such, may be despised or disregarded, seen in this unattractive light as at best a tool to do God’s work and at worst as an ineffective tool: a hinderance, a source of temptation and embarrassment. How often have we heard, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak?” To develop a purely utilitarian view of the body, or to loathe it for being what it is, is to deny the good of it that God saw at the moment of its creation. It is to be ungrateful to God, perhaps the greatest sin there is.

Every attitude and belief discussed above about the body can be applied to the larger earth we inhabit.

Just as the body is our personal vehicle for experiencing mortality, the earth is our collective vehicle. It it the setting in which our bodies exist. It provides every stimulus; it is the primary source material for all of our sensations. As we need our bodies as a means to approach and become like God, so we need the earth. We are able to experience pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, delight and beauty because we are embodied in this world. As we are made to enjoy our bodies, we are made to enjoy the wonders of the world. But as with our bodies, we must temper our use of the earth with moderation, observing the bounds the Lord has set. Excesses of consumption and privation are sinful, the first because it imposes the second on others, and the second, when chosen, because it ungratefully refuses to partake of the goodness of creation. Both vices have the effect of denying the blessings of God and the good He has created.

The problem with seeing the body and the earth as temporary things we occupy as means to an ends is that they may become nothing more than something to be used and disposed of when their purpose is fulfilled. Planning to discard something will result in its being treated more shabbily while it is in use. It can be wasted completely, so long as the job gets done. This ignores the fact that the purpose of life is not to survive it, it is to develop certain attributes within life, to cultivate good things within ourselves and the world around us. Our body and the earth are not only tools to be used; they must be cherished and protected, preserved so they can be restored to full glory. That act of restoration will take place because of the care we show now. If we do not exercise care, we cannot have a part in that restoration. For we believe that good will be restored to good, and evil to evil. If we use our means to be wasteful and condemn creation, we will be wasted at the second coming, and find ourselves condemned.

Just as our soul is made of the body and the spirit, the earth and all things that are upon her have spiritual and physical form. The trees have souls. As we learn to live within the bounds the Lord has set for us, we fulfill the measure of our creation; we become like Him and are happy. The rest of the created world already obeys God; their measure of creation will be filled unless we hinder them and pervert them from their natural course of glorying God. For there is no doubt but that we can derail all of creation, and cause corruption to fall on everything. When we do so, when we exercise unrighteous dominion, all things suffer. The earth weeps in her defiled and polluted state. We neglect the poor among us, and cause God to sorrow. We find our proud little selves alone and miserable in the impoverished world we constructed for ourselves, cut off from the presence of God and the joys of this life and the next. Our bodies, the vehicles that would carry us to exaltation if we but use them humbly and gratefully, relying on in Christ to overcome our shortcomings and forgive us our misdeeds, become the means of our damnation.

In the end, LDS doctrines of embodiment and the creation are only as useful or as harmful as how we choose to interpret and apply them in our lives. We will always fail to live up to our ideals, but striving to attain those ideals will keep us from complete failure. Through our embodiment, we have the opportunity to become like God, the creator and preserver of all things. Each moment of grateful pleasure, each act of cultivation and restoration brings us and creation closer to Him.

 

This piece is cross-posted at ldsearthstewardship.org.

12 Responses to Everybody Ought to Have a Body

  1. Master Blaster on October 16, 2013 at 9:02 am

    The body is the instrument of our mind and the foundation of our character.

  2. Wayne on October 16, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    I don’t think that planning on discarding something will result in it being treated more shabbily while it is in use. I think the fact, that the thing will be discarded makes me want to treat it that much more carefully so that it will last longer. I take extra care of the materials and tools I use at work because I need them to function as long as possible. I know they will eventually have to be discarded when their usefulness erodes, so I try to make sure I do everything I can to stave off that erosion.

    Our bodies usefulness, and the earth’s usefulness should be cultivated and cherished so that it can be used to good. I don’t think that restoration to full glory comes from protecting and preserving what we have now, but from using what we have now to do good.

  3. Leonard R on October 16, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    This is very good; a deep call to mindful stewardship

  4. Cameron on October 16, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    I tend to lean towards Waynes perspective. Conservation is a moral good, but I think for the Lord it is exponentially trumped by his concern for our souls and how we improve them. The Earth is not wasted by consuming its resources, but rather by the childrens’ refusal to turn to their fathers, and the fathers’ refusal to turn to their children. It weeps much more for sin than for carbon dioxide or even acid rain. Indeed replenishment (read: to fill up) in Genesis identifies souls (embodied spirits) as the prime natural resource of our planet.

    This position is not to justify gluttony or selfishness, those sins in their own right. This position is rather to clarify the hierarchy of value it seems to me that the scriptures guide us towards.

  5. Laura on October 16, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    This is really beautiful, Rachel–I love the parallels you draw about our stewardship responsibilities in our individual and collective mortal dwellings. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about health over the last year, mostly because mine has needed a lot of improvement. I’ve been pleased to find that a year of making small, consistent changes has added up to huge improvements in how my body feels and operates. And when I mourn for the sad state of health of our earth, I’m going to remember your essay and my experience, and try to be more hopeful. Surely small, consistent changes by its inhabitants could bring earth’s health back on track, too?

    Thank you for a beautiful essay, and lots to think about.

  6. Marie on October 16, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    This is perfect. One of the reasons Mormons tend to distance themselves from environmental concerns is that many of us have a strong belief that all the stuff we do in the church–all the to-ing-and fro-ing and magnifying our callings for the praise of man–is really really important in the eternal scheme of things and so should be done at whatever cost in time, money, and resources. If we could stop confusing busy-ness with righteousness we could obtain inspiration about what is really necessary and how to do that necessary stuff without wasting our world. The physical world, in Mormonism, is a type for the spiritual world, so if we are hurting our physical world we are also out of harmony spiritually. The two cannot be separated.

    The comparison between our physical bodies and the earth is apt, and one I’ve used as well. With both, we know there will be a mortal end and eventually a magical resurrection to immortal perfection. And yet we’re told that unnecessarily marring our mortal bodies (tattoos, excessive piercings, etc) is spiritually damaging for those under covenant, even though those marrings will be wiped away in the resurrection. We’d do well to consider why that is–why it’s a big deal, and why it would also be true about the earth. As for the usefulness of bodies and the earth–I’m a 37-year-old single woman in the church who rarely gets the attention of single LDS men and so is in danger of never filling the measure of her creation. That great big good that I could do with my life, the responsible children that I could present to the world, and the growth it could mean in my understanding and abilities and spirituality is likely to never happen in this life because single LDS men have a lot of beautiful LDS women to choose from and I’m just not close enough to the top of the physical heap to make the cut. What would church members think if I went out and got breast implants and collagen lip injections and learned to talk like a porn star in order to get male attention so that I could accomplish the righteous desire of my heart to have children in a covenant marriage? Would that be an acceptable move, since great good (children) would come of it? Most would probably say, “You would be happy to have your children, but the kind of man you’d likely get with that sort of tactic would only make you and the children miserable.” And they would be right. More important even than having a family in this life is learning to make decisions in line with personal revelation and having trust in God’s approval even if the results I get don’t match what I think I was asked to produce before I die. Aside from the violation of the sanctity of God’s creation (my body) by twisting it to achieve some “righteous” end, the ultimate fruits would likely not be the good ones I was aiming for. If God requires us to do something, there will be a way to do it without damaging the life-sustaining powers of the world we give to future generations, though it might require praying for the ability to think outside of tradition–or, as in the parallel to female LDS bodies with certain measures of creation left unfilled–it might just require a whole lot of patience and trust in God’s grace to fill in the gaps, and confidence that in the meantime we have chosen the better part.

  7. Steve Martin on October 17, 2013 at 8:08 am

    “I don’t think that restoration to full glory comes from protecting and preserving what we have now, but from using what we have now to do good.”

    Restoration to full glory comes by God’s good pleasure and mercy…alone.

    He will restore us. Not because of what we do…or do not do. Not in spite of us. But because He has decided to do so.

    Methinks.

    Thanks.

  8. Rachel Whipple on October 17, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Thank you all for your comments. Laura and Marie, you’ve both given me new things to think about on this topic.

    Steve Martin, you remind me of Nephi’s words here:

    2 Nephi 25:23 “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

    I think that how we treat our bodies, and how we exercise our stewardship of the earth, may be the physical part of our reconciliation to God.

    And now for Wayne and Cameron’s contention that it is better to use resources to do good rather than simply protect and preserve them: I think that good use is critical. For me, good use would include thrift and prudence, so that the resources may benefit not only ourselves, now, but also others in the future. We must also recognize the limits our of knowledge, and in a true conservative way, err on the side of caution. It is better to keep some known resources on reserve, untapped, for demands we have yet to face. Just as we set aside food storage, we should be setting aside wilderness areas, even or especially those with as yet unexploited economic resources. And just as we are all encouraged to have sound family budgets, to be financially independent so that we have enough for ourselves and the ability to help others, so too we should have sound environmental practices, so that we have enough and are able to use our abundance to help others.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    It is an interesting speculation to consider the importance of the material world in which we are embodied, which is essential to sustaining us in the essential stage of mortality on our progress to becoming eternal children of our Father in Heaven. I think it is clear from the scriptures, from Genesis through Revelation, that Father has placed a burden of stewardship and accountability on us to care for and preserve the world we have been loaned, including all of the things that God created so we could simply enjoy our sojourn here.

    What is a “natural resource” depends on the technology you have that can use it to produce something desirable. There has been coal and oil in the earth for hundreds of millions of years, but it did not become a natural resource until we turned away from burning trees for heat and industrial purposes. With the promotion of wind generators and solar panels, large areas of dry lands without enough rain to produce crops have become a valuable resource to site large electrical generation projects. Uranium was not a natural resource until nuclear reactors were created. Falling water was not a natural resource until it could be harnessed to waterwheels for factories and mills, and eventually to electrical generators.

    Modern technology has allowed the United States to grow a surplus of food on much less land than before, and return much of the land previously farmed to forest and wildlife habitat. We have far more trees now than a century ago. We are rich enough we can afford to set aside large areas of land as undeveloped wilderness, in addition to national parks and monuments which preserve most of the natural values of ecosystems while accommodating human visitation by people who are too young or old or disabled to spend a week hiking in small groups to view significant parts of God’s creation. We can afford to place higher priority on preserving the habitat of rare plants and animals above extraction of mineral resources and use of water on public lands. Father allows us to use the resources he has prepared if we do so with wisdom.

    The most important path to enlisting all of mankind into taking care of the earth is to help them raise themselves out of poverty and ignorance and disease. Once their fundamental needs are satisfied, they will become far more likely to care for the earth in their own neighborhoods as their home.

    I have worked in the field of environmental and natural resource regulation for three decades. I am optimistic in the long term about the preservation and protection of the earth’s natural environment because in my 60 years of life, I have seen progress in many places on earth toward the kind of economic freedom that enables prosperity, and growing prosperity is the main driver toward more responsible stewardship of the portion of the earth over which each nation holds sway.

  10. Wayne on October 17, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Steve Martin and Rachel, how do you apply Christ’s parable of the talents to your thoughts? Did not the master reward only the stewards who were able to increase their talents?

  11. Cameron on October 17, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Well said Rachel.

    I guess part of my frustration is more with an imbalance between what I think our level of actual understanding is of our resources and how our planet works and what we think our level of understanding is. I think we vastly overestimate how well we understand our planet on all scales.

  12. jonovitch on October 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    I’m kind of surprised most of the comments are about the second half of this post. What really moved me was the first half, because it was so well thought out, so well written, and with so many complex principles laid out so cleanly and simply.

    Pleasure, moderation, condescension, stewardship, restoration, all as they relate to a physical body. None of it was new to me, but like I said, it was so well done, it really caught me off guard.

    Yes, the second half about the earth was good, too, but toward the end it started to sound a little preachy (even though I tend to agree that being a good steward is important). It was really the first half about our physical bodies, and the pieces about the body in the second half, that really impressed me.

    Good stuff.