A Harvard scholar and minister discussed honoring the body for an inaugural lectureship at Samford University Monday night.
Stephanie Paulsell, associate dean of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School and author of Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice, gave the Inaugural Marie NeSmith Fowler Lecture in Christianity, Women and Leadership Studies to a packed Hodges Chapel on the Samford campus in Birmingham, Ala.
Paulsell, who holds a doctorate in religion and literature from the University of Chicago, began by saying that Marie NeSmith Fowler, in attendance, represented “the best of the free church tradition which we share.” Paulsell is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Fowler, a Howard College/Samford alumna, has been a longtime member of First Baptist Church in Hartselle, Ala.
Paulsell focused her comments on how people may embrace their own embodiment amid the tensions and crises our own bodies—and cultures—sometimes create.
“When God looks at us,” Paulsell asked, “what does God see and cherish?” Paulsell said Christians throughout the centuries have wavered between emphasizing the body versus the soul in the body.
Paulsell quoted from Genesis, the Psalms and the Apostle Paul about humans being made in God’s image, and she suggested that Christians need to revisit the concept of embodiment, especially because God chose embodiment and incarnation.
“Bodies obviously matter to God, and they should matter to us too,” she said.
American culture doesn’t remind us how our fragile bodies are made by God, said Paulsell. Thus, churches must reclaim that message and shine a light on how all bodies are loved by God.
“My hope tonight is that I will speak a fruitful word about what we all share” despite differences of race, sexuality, vocation and other characteristics, she said.
Paulsell said most people shift between thinking of themselves as their body versus being in their body. We can feel both integrated and alienated by our bodies in any given moment—a fact that points out the complexity of honoring the body.
Both approaches, she said, have profound implications for how we live and practice our faith. One approach may lead to defending the body’s pleasures at all cost, whereas the other may lead to despising the body.
The key to balance, she said, is discerning which practices liberate and which practices constrain us in honoring the body. Furthermore, certain practices can hold the potential for either, depending on how they are employed. She cited plastic surgery as an example.
“Any powerful practice can be corrupted,” said Paulsell, a Lilly fellow.
She mingled Christian scriptures with contemporary poetry excerpts, while including her current and former perspectives as a mother, minister and young churchgoer.
She concluded the lecture by discussing her own experiences with footwashing, suggesting that concentrating on merely interpreting the act, without participating, may yield a diminished sense of its lesson.
Paulsell spoke of footwashing as an intimate, vulnerable and sacred experience, capable of giving its participants a new vision—one of how God sees those created in the divine image.
“This is our work: to see our bodies and the bodies of all others through the eyes of God,” she said.
The Marie NeSmith Fowler Lectureship honors the university’s 1948 graduate, a community and church leader who became the first female registered pharmacist in Blount County, Alabama.
Fowler was joined by her husband, Howard, and daughter, Karen Fowler Howell, and her family. Also present were Wanda Lee, executive director of Woman’s Missionary Union; Thomas E. Corts, president of Samford University; and Carol Ann Vaughn, founding director of the Christian Women’s Leadership Center, which oversees the lectureship.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.