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A Plea for Embodied Spirituality: The role of the body in religion, by Fraser N. Watts

by
02 July 2021

John Saxbee reviews a discussion of faith and the ways in which it is corporally expressed

IN RESPONDING to the invitation “Let us pray”, do you kneel, sit, or stand — and does it matter? Well, whether it does or not, Fraser Watts is certain that it has significance, and in this informed and intriguing study of the part played by the body in religion, he explains how and why.

His scope is wide-ranging, from primeval trance dancing to spiritual bodies evidenced in this world and the next. But the key chapters focus on his two related objectives, one theoretical and one practical.

The first draws on recent scientific research into “embodied cognition” to counter enslavement to mind-body dualism and thereby re-capture the origins of religion predicated on a more integrated view of human nature.

The second details the implications of this for the body in religious and spiritual life. “Though religion is often thought to be a ‘spiritual’ matter, there is probably no domain of human life in which people make such deliberate and extensive use of embodiment.”

Surveys repeatedly show that churches that take the body seriously when it comes to how faith is experienced, expressed, and shared are growing, while others are not. This in itself should ensure that Watts is given every chance to make his case.

This he does with clarity and conviction, drawing on a range of disciplines, especially his own primary discipline of psychology.

The concept of 4E cognition — embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended — is now commonplace in psychology, but it has its origins in an explicitly religious context. These four dynamics shape the practical application of his argument, with how the body is used in prayer and liturgy likely to be of particular interest to Church Times readers.

But the expression, or even manipulation, of emotions in religious contexts is also addressed, as is the place of healing in worship and ministry. There is much food for thought here, even if he is rather hard on Anglican healing services, which, he says, deter expectations of a cure. But surely healing is about wholeness, an emphasis that can be compromised by majoring on cure.

Although Watts holds Christian beliefs himself, he doesn’t assume that his readers do. But his close attention to New Testament emphases on incarnation, physical healing, and the resurrection of the body does tend towards Christianity as his key test case. An extended appendix by Sara Savage on the body in other world faiths does, however, provide some balancing insights.

Chapters on the benefits and dangers of extreme ascetic practices associated with, for example, Opus Dei, less extreme but still physically challenging practices such as pilgrimages, and bodily focused forms of meditation and mindfulness ensure that the coverage is comprehensive, and occasionally controversial. The link between sexual and religious impulses is a recurring theme with both positive and negative implications.

Given that most of our bodily expressions of religious faith and spirituality — posture, gestures, feelings, etc. — are habitual and seldom considered, this authoritative and accessible guide is very welcome. In a church that I once visited, on one side of the aisle were those willing to share the Peace physically, and on the other, those who were not. It is pretty clear which side Watts would be on, but his book would surely help both sides to bridge the divide.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

 

A Plea for Embodied Spirituality: The role of the body in religion
Fraser N. Watts
SCM Press £25
(978-0-334-06007-9)
Church Times Bookshop £20

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