My friend Ben talks sometimes about the power of incarnational theology – he’s thinking of the ‘God becomes human in Jesus’ thing – as a theology which is accepting of bodies, even or perhaps especially disabled and suffering bodies. I think it’s fair to say that to him, it’s one of the things which makes Christianity attractive.
His experience of that theology is very different from mine, because when I look at the Incarnation I mostly see a male God who favours his son (and the things people point to and say, ‘Look, Jesus was nice to women!’ seem like the scraps from a table at which I don’t even want to eat).
It is a theology which informs Quakerism, though, and it does make a powerful statement. I sometimes wonder whether British Quakerism isn’t more British than it is Quaker: we have the British revulsion for all things bodily or emotional. We’ll make jokes about the way that Quakers dress – and I think it is true that Quakers today dress differently, on average, from the rest of the population – but we very rarely talk about it seriously. We’ve curbed our shaking, if we weep in Meeting we try and do it quietly and neatly, if you’re angry about something it’s often dismissed as too emotional to be a real concern.
(‘Concern’ is for next week.)
People do have opinions about Quaker bodies. There’s a subtle pressure group in some meetings that I call the Pilates Police – the people who have done yoga, or pilates, or the Alexander Technique, or chi gung, or whatever – and now Know How To Sit. Now, if they know how they should sit, that’s fine by my and I hope they enjoy sitting. It’s when they know how I should sit that I think there’s a problem.
Fortunately, it’s been a year or two since I met a member of this well-meaning but unfortunately irritating group. More recently, I think we have been addressing Quaker bodies less directly but perhaps more urgently, through our explorations of sustainability. I was reading the Good Lives study pack recently – four sets of four sessions each addressing a different aspect of sustainability (download it here (pdf)); I started reading and was itching to start doing the activities, which I think is a recommendation! Anyway, in the introduction to the final series of sessions it says, “For sustainability, we need communities where most of what we need can be found within walking and cycling distance.”
This seems right to me, but it also seems to me that this raises a clear and very challenging question which is not addressed in the pack: what demands does sustainability make on the body? To travel on feet or human-powered wheels, firstly. Beyond that, I suspect that it also demands that we endure the cold better than my body will at present. And issues like nutrition (can you get all the vitamins you need only off your allotment?), and disability (and the social status and payment of carers) will become even more urgent. Not to mention, among other things, sex and death: the latter we sometimes manage to address in Quaker settings, the former almost never (sexuality yes, children yes, marriage yes, but actual sex no).