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Living Religion: Embodiment, theology, and the possibility of a spiritual sense by James W. Jones

11 September 2020

Tobias Tanton reflects on the flesh-and-blood nature of human life

THE Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus our embodiment. Lockdowns and social distancing drastically change our bodily practices, including those of our worship. Gone is our bodily co-presence as we gather for worship; gone is the way the eucharistic host is chewed between our teeth and the wine slides down our throats; gone is the intimacy of human touch as we offer greetings of peace — at least for a time. Our bodies render us vulnerable to disease, but they are also important conduits for relating to one another and to God.

This new context makes Living Religion timely, although it was published before Covid-19 came on the scene. The opening chapter surveys the growing body of scientific studies on “embodied cognition”, exploring how human embodiment (including factors such as body posture, movement, and tactile experiences) shapes our understanding (influencing emotional experience, perception, and even social judgements). These studies suggest that the body plays an active part in human meaning-making. James W. Jones subsequently argues that both the philosophy of religion and the cognitive science of religion have been blinkered by tending to focus on discrete beliefs in isolation from their context in lived religion with its bodily practices.

Jones’s advocacy for renewed attention to bodily practices does not, however, come at the expense of a rigorous analysis of the more abstract philosophical questions that undergird his argument: he does not shy away from technical debates in epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and religious studies. Although these topics are largely broached in a style accessible to the curious and ambitious “layperson” (with respect to those disciplines), particular sections may prove challenging to the uninitiated.

This wide-ranging interdisciplinary work — spanning science, philosophy, and theology — is made possible and compelling by the author’s expertise. Jones regularly cites his own published work reaching back over four decades, demonstrating that his insights in this book are the cumulative result of a long journey of scholarly exploration. He also provides a brief autobiographical snippet: he is a trained philosopher and a clinical psychoanalyst who largely taught in religious-studies departments in secular universities; he practises Christian and Buddhist meditation as well as martial arts; and he was an adult convert who became an Anglican priest. These autobiographical details routinely inform his work, though never through naïve appeals to his own personal experience.

Jones ultimately seeks to build a case for a “spiritual sense” that is grounded in human bodies. In particular, he argues that proprioception — our perception of our own bodies — underpins a sense of connection with the cosmos and an awareness of our own existence, which ultimately point to God as “the heart of our existence”. Moreover, spiritual practices such as meditation can improve proprioception and thereby cultivate this “spiritual sense”.

Jones limits himself to considering a few fairly generic religious practices. Nevertheless, he provides a rich framework with which to analyse more tradition-specific rituals and liturgies — the kind of embodied religious practices that, a pandemic lockdown reveals, are taken all too often for granted.


Dr Tobias Tanton is Lecturer in Theology at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.


Living Religion: Embodiment, theology, and the possibility of a spiritual sense
James W. Jones
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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