Living as Whole People in a Fragmented World: An Interview with Gregg R. Allison
Modern Reformation’s executive editor, Joshua Schendel, recently interviewed Dr. Gregg R. Allison regarding his latest book Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fragmented World (Baker, 2021). Dr. Allison (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is a professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Allison is also the secretary of the Evangelical Theological Society and the book review editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. In addition, he serves as pastor of Sojourn Church East.
MR: In the introduction to your new book, you say it has been a long time in coming. Could you give us a brief synopsis of what the book is about? Was there a particular impetus to publish it now?
GA: Briefly, the thesis of my book is that the proper state of human existence is embodiment; that is, God created human beings to be embodied image bearers. This biblical and theological affirmation contradicts the wrong and dangerous worldviews of Gnosticism and neo-Gnosticism, philosophies that claim that the immaterial aspect of human beings (the soul and/or spirit) is good while the material aspect (the body) is inherently evil. This perspective is not supported by Scripture; indeed, it is inimical to the biblical viewpoint.
MR: In terms of topics and scope, this is a really ambitious project. You discuss issues such as the relation of soul and body, human nature and individuality, human sexuality and gender, and suffering and death. Rather than being simply a collection of your thoughts on various big issues, however, there’s a distinctly theological organization of material. Why do you approach these topics theologically, and what do you think a theological analysis brings to the wider cultural conversation of these various topics?
GA: There are a number of us currently writing about these cultural topics—body image, gender confusion, transgenderism, and more—from a theological foundation. Interestingly and independently of one another, we all affirm that the right way to address these issues is to develop a theologically robust, biblically grounded theology of human embodiment. Beginning with Genesis 1, we find Scripture itself narrating God’s creation of us as embodied image bearers (vv. 26–27). Furthermore, Genesis emphasizes that we are created as either male image bearers or female image bearers, a fact that is specifically recounted in the narratives of Adam’s creation and Eve’s creation (Gen. 2:7, 18–25). Moreover, we note that God creates each person as a particular gendered embodied image bearer (Ps. 139:13–16). Add to this the fact of human sociality and sexuality and my book presents a fully orbed theological approach to the issues of our day. For example, I address the blessed and disciplined body, the sanctified body, the worshiping body, the clothed body, the suffering and healed body, the dead body, and the future of the body. I face the most controversial trends of today from that theologically grounded framework: body image, gender confusion and transgenderism, lust, pornography, masturbation, same-sex attraction and homosexuality, polyamory and polygamy, gluttony, sloth, and more.
MR: As already said, you cover much ground in this book. Since I can’t ask about everything in it, let’s focus the remaining few questions on a claim you make early on. You argue from the Creation account in Genesis that God created humans as embodied creatures for two purposes: procreation and vocation. First, then, why do you think that having a body is essential for the completion of these two God-given purposes?
GA: Following his creation of embodied image bearers, who are either male or female (Gen. 1:26–27), God blessed them and gave them the responsibility to build society for human flourishing (Gen. 1:28). This responsibility consists of two purposes: the expansion of the human race through procreation (“be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”) and the prosperity of humanity through work, which is engagement in vocation (“and subdue it and exercise dominion”). Clearly, gendered embodiment—being men and women—is essential for the fulfillment of the first purpose: procreation. The same complementarity is essential for the fulfillment of the second purpose: vocation. In contrast, angels, whom God created as immaterial beings, do not multiply to expand the angelic realm, nor do angels engage in the physical work of building human society. By God’s design, their proper state of existence is immaterial. Human beings, because of their embodiment, are also emplaced (located bodily in a particular space); they require a body to fulfill their God-given purposes in a physical world. By God’s design, the proper state of human existence is embodiment.
MR: You argue in chapter 5 that human sexuality is part of God’s design for the expression of human sociality in the context of marriage. Sex in marriage is for procreation as well as for pleasure. What do you make of the claim of some other theologians, who have argued that sex and sexuality are not only about the human-to-human horizontal plane, but also about the human-to-God vertical plane? Sexuality, in other words, is indicative of the fundamental human desire: desire for union with God?
GA: While I know some theologians who maintain this position, I disagree with their choice of terminology; that is, their use of “sexuality” as indicative of the human desire for a relationship with God. The term itself is so associated with genitals, intercourse, lust, flirtation, eroticism, and more that it becomes a stumbling block to most people to use it in relation to union with God. Originally, I liked and even used the word sexuality in this way, but scores of students in my courses on a theology of human embodiment dissented from this term—some even rightly scolded me for using it! I had to abandon its use.
In its place I use the term “sociality,” which I define as the universal human condition of desiring, expressing, and receiving human relationships. God has designed his gendered embodied image bearers for friendship, community, and bonding; that is, for sociality. God also designed them for a personal relationship with him, but I distance myself from calling this “sexuality.” I reserve that term for the physical activity in which married people properly engage.
MR: You’ve written helpfully about some practical ways that churches can think through and engage the current rise in gender dysphoria. Can you explain the distinction between gender and sex as it is currently used (for those of us not up on the literature)? And do you think this crisis—if we can call it that—provides churches with a unique opportunity for witness and care, both to those inside and outside its walls?
GA: The new vocabulary is quite complex and ever changing! Here is a basic orientation: “Sex” refers to “the physical, biological, and anatomical dimensions of being male or female (including chromosomes, gonads, sexual anatomy, and secondary sex characteristics).” “Sex” is the assigned biological label written on one’s birth certificate. Genetically, men are composed of XY chromosomes and women of XX chromosomes. For clarity’s sake, some people use the expression “biological sex” or “natal male” and “natal female.” Sex is a matter of human DNA and anatomy.
“Gender,” which is now a complex term, can still refer to sex but more commonly refers to gender expression or gender identity. Generally speaking, gender refers to the “psychological, social, and cultural aspects of being male and female.” More specifically, “gender expression” is the set of attitudes and behaviors conveyed by people, significantly influenced by their society’s expectations for (generally speaking, male and female) persons. “Gender identity” concerns how people perceive or feel about their sexual identity. The term “cisgender” refers to people whose sex and gender identity match: a biological male identifies as a man, and a natal female identifies as a woman. The term “gender dysphoria” refers to people whose sex and gender identity don’t correspond: a person whose sex assigned at birth is male doesn’t perceive himself as a man but feels like a woman.
I definitely believe that the crisis of transgenderism (the current popular term is “trans”) provides a unique but challenging opportunity to minister to people both inside and outside of the church. Imagine young teenage girls who find themselves outliers in their schools, socially awkward with few friends and crises of identity. They discover that when they declare themselves to be trans, their popularity skyrockets, especially on social media, and they are applauded for their heroic stand. If they are prepubescent, then they take puberty blockers and may even go so far as to undergo sex reassignment surgery. While some may find temporary relief, many end up as or more confused about their identity than before they went from girl to boy. When they turn twenty-four-years old and are exhausted from their struggles, they request to return to their former selves. Their lives are essentially wrecked. Who will be there to love them, welcome them with compassion and commitment to walk with them through thick and thin, and communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to them? This is the loving work of the church!
MR: As a culture, we may be ostensibly preoccupied with issues of sexuality, and so you address the deadly sin of lust as it relates to the sanctification of our bodies. You also, though, address two other deadly sins that relate to the body: gluttony and sloth. Why have these been considered “deadly” sins and should we really consider them in the same category as lust?
GA: Historically, the church has highlighted seven sins as “deadly” sins: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth. These are particularly grave sins, for several reasons as revealed in other names for the seven. They are called “cardinal” sins because they are foundational or essential sins. They are called “capital” sins from the Latin word caput or head: as the head directs one’s body, so these capital sins drive one to commit other sins. So, these sins are “deadly” in the sense that they lead (in a negative way) to other sins; they are the cause of other sins. For example, sloth results in poverty (Prov. 6:9–11), which may propel the sluggard to robbery to rectify his situation. Gluttony may become such that the glutton falls into idolatry, making food their god (Phil. 3:19).
MR: When Christians think of sanctification, they usually think first (and perhaps only) of growth in certain characteristics generally associated with the soul: faith, hope, love, and other fruits of the Spirit. But you write that “God’s design for his embodied image bearers is that we live physically blessed and disciplined lives in areas such as proper nutrition, regular exercise, fasting, and feasting” (166). Why should we think about sanctification and embodiment together?
GA: Here’s how I put it together:
• If the proper state of human existence is embodiment, and
• If an essential given of human life is embodiment, and
• If God designed us as his image bearers to be embodied, and
• If the Triune God dwells in our embodied selves by means of the Holy Spirit, whose temple we are, and
• If, at the return of Christ, the Holy Spirit will reembody us with our glorified, resurrected body,
• Then we would expect that it is proper for us to live as disciplined embodied Christians, caring for and treating rightly our body.
Such theological reflection flows from biblical passages such as the following:
1. In the conclusion to one of his letters, Paul prays for our sanctification to be holistic: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).
2. The apostle specifically underscores the importance of the body in the divine plan of redemption. In his discussion of sexual sin, he explains that “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13). How is “the Lord for the body”? Paul answers: “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Cor. 6:14). That is, as the proper state of earthly human existence is embodiment, so the proper state of the eternal existence of Christians is embodiment or, more specifically, re-embodiment with glorified, resurrected bodies.
3. While Paul does emphasize spiritual disciplines (just as we would expect) for Christians—we should “train ourselves for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7)—he also addresses the importance of physical discipline: “bodily training is of some value” during our present, earthly pilgrimage (1 Tim. 4:8).
I think it’s revealing if we ask ourselves the following questions: When was the last time I heard a sermon on the sins of lust, gluttony, or sloth? When was the last time I sat in a Sunday school class about regular exercise, good nutrition, or resting and sleeping well? Ouch! Our all-too-common reply of never highlights the fact that gnostic/neo-gnostic philosophy has infiltrated our churches, such that we “save souls” and engage in “spiritual disciplines” while completely neglecting, even disparaging, care for our embodied selves.
MR: In chapter 4, you write about how humans were created for human relationships, what you call “sociality,” and that “sociality in the church prompts us to know, love, respect, cherish, encourage, and care for one another as siblings” (77). Especially after more than a year of living with the effects of COVID-19, can you speak to the significance of embodied presence for this kind of sociality? Put another way, can this God-given sociality be fully expressed via virtual gatherings and communities?
GA: You’ve uncovered further support for my idea of sociality: the universal human condition of desiring, expressing, and receiving human relationships! God created us to flourish together in community through friendships and bonds of love. The worldwide lockdown due to COVID-19 has prevented us from expressing our sociality, at least from expressing it in an embodied manner. We have been viewing and listening to one another through masks, and this veiling of our faces is not natural. We’ve been conducting meetings and teaching classes via Zoom and, while this platform has enabled us to connect, we’ve found it difficult to fully embrace (pun intended) one another in an embodied way. We’ve reached out to one another via Skype and, while it’s allowed us to continue our relationships, they’ve seemed less personal because they lack personal presence.
Accordingly, our God-given sociality cannot be fully expressed in virtual gatherings and communities. Take church worship services as an example. My church live-streamed and recorded its services for several months, so I participated in them virtually. Yes, there was worship through singing, responsive readings, and praying. Yes, there was worship through confession of sin, the assurance of forgiveness, reading Scripture, and preaching. But what about baptism? And what of the Lord’s Supper? My church decided not to celebrate these ordinances because, in our estimation, they couldn’t be done virtually. And what about fellowship and community both before and after the worship service? It did not, because it could not, take place.
Churches face a tough decision once the pandemic and its associated lockdown are over: Do they continue to offer virtual worship services, reaching scores, hundreds, even thousands of people who have grown accustomed to staying at home either out of convenience or because they have been burned by churches in the past and can’t bring themselves to actually participate in church? Sociality would answer that question in the negative, or at least prompt thoughtful reflection on how to engage these people in some actual rather than virtual ways.
MR: You claim that the big idea of your book is that God has designed humanity for an embodied existence and you say, “Then I invite you to adopt it as a new perspective on the world” (259). What do you mean by that? And, if you could sum up in a sentence or two, how do you think that acknowledging “I am my body” can transform the way we think about, well, our whole selves: “Your createdness, your genderedness, your particularity, your sociality, your sexuality, your sanctification, your blessedness and discipline, your worship, your clothes, your suffering and healing, your death, and your eternal future” (260)?
GA: The new perspective to which Embodied invites its readers stands in opposition to the far too frequent negative view of embodied existence promoted by Gnosticism and neo-Gnosticism. More specifically, however, it is the retrieval and refreshment of an old perspective, because Scripture indicates that the divine design for his image bearers is embodiment. This perspective, sadly and tragically, has been muffled or even dismissed because of the gnostic demeaning or even disparaging of material things—including the human body. Christians and churches have accepted, in many cases unknowingly, this antibiblical worldview. Embodied is intended as a kind of wake-up call. Moreover, by offering a theologically robust, biblically grounded theology of human embodiment, the book positions itself to address the many perplexing moral and social issues of our day.
“I am my body.” Do I agree or disagree? As you would expect, I agree. By this affirmation, I do not mean that I am only my body; that’s not how I framed the provocative sentence. With the historical view of the church, I affirm that we human beings are complex, consisting of both a material aspect and an immaterial aspect. And I affirm that, at death, believers will continue their disembodied existence in heaven with the Lord. Still, they will wait longingly for the completion of their salvation, the return of Christ, and the accompanying resurrection of their body—a return to the proper state of human existence: embodiment.
If, then, “I am my body” is true, that perspective impacts everything about us. It prompts thanksgiving to God for his creation of us as embodied image bearers. It engenders gratitude to God for his creation of us as either a man or a woman. It helps us embrace our particularity, the way God has designed us as individuals with our unique identities in terms of our ethnicity, kinship and family, temporality, spatiality, context, and story. It encourages us to express our sociality in God-honoring, self-valuing, and others-respecting ways. If we are married, it encourages us to express our sexuality in God-honoring, self-valuing, and spouse-respecting ways.
This perspective indicates how we should progress in holistic sanctification. It prompts us to design a personal program of bodily discipline that we consistently follow. It causes us to ensure that our physical posture and bodily activity during worship express what is transpiring in our heart and mind. It calls us to thoughtfulness with respect to the clothes we choose to wear. It challenges us to consider how we should face suffering and how we should seek healing. It urges us to think about how we should properly face death. And it stimulates us to contemplate how our future resurrection (with eternal physical life) confirms the affirmation “I am my body,” the thesis that embodiment is the proper state of human existence.
Footnotes:1. Craig L. Frisby and William T. O’Donohue, eds., Cultural Competence in Applied Psychology (New York: Springer, 2018), 578.
2. Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 16–17.