Human body reveals God's work in the world, says Candler's Luke Johnson

Nov. 11, 2015

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Luke Timothy Johnson is the author of "The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art."

Emory University's Luke Johnson is convinced that if theologians want to know more about what God is up to in the world, they need to pay attention to what the human body and lived experiences are telling them.

In his latest book, "The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art," Johnson asserts that "if God is, in fact, active in the work of creation, the work that underlies all of God's 'activity' in the world, then authentic faith—and, by extension, authentic theology—must consistently fix its attention on what God is up to here and now."

Johnson, R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory's Candler School of Theology, says the need for a new approach to theological study has been a preoccupation of his for some time. He calls the study of theology today "a kind of entrenched academic scientific enterprise."

"I sometimes have had the sense that theology remains a discipline concerned above all with texts and propositions based in the past, rather than the discernment of the work of the Living God in the present," he says in the book's introduction.

While he would like to see "a Copernican revolution" in theology, Johnson doesn't expect it to happen.

"I think in many ways the most fruitful theology is being done by non-academics," says Johnson. In the book he makes a list of contemporary female novelists—Ann Tyler, Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble and Ruch Rendell—who are close observers of lived reality.

"I've learned far more theologically from these writers than anyone writing scholarly tomes," he says, and recommends the practice of reading novels to young theologians. "We learn how people are from stories told by people and about people."

Understanding spirit through the body

At the heart of the book are chapters in which Johnson offers specific observations about the human body and everyday experiences: The Body at Play, The Body in Pain, The Passionate Body, The Body at Work, The Exceptional Body, The Aging Body.

"I'm trying to explore what we can learn about spirit by paying attention to how human bodies express spirit," he says.

This close attention to the body as an expression of the spirit is "very much at the heart of how I came to the position I take with regard to same-sex love," Johnson says. "This is not a vice that people choose; it's a discovery of how they are created. Real thought has to begin with what is, not what ought to be."

In his chapter on The Exceptional Body, Johnson asserts that the first step in talking about what actually exists involves getting beyond abstract thinking and terminology.

"We have to use abstractions; day and night are perfectly valid, but they don't correspond to dawn and dusk and all the gradations in between," he says. "They don't describe all of reality."

Think of the phenomenon of intersexuality, Johnson says. "Here is the biologically verifiable situation of 1 to 2 percent of human bodies. In my own city of Atlanta, that would mean more than 60,000 people. It's a reality that ought to be taken seriously in any discussion of sexuality."

Johnson's conviction about "the revelatory power of the body" began during his days as a Benedictine monk from 1963 to 1973, was at the heart of his Ph.D. dissertation at Yale, and has been a recurrent theme of his work.

His thesis is straightforward: "If God is the Living God, then God continues to create the world in every moment by bringing it into existence. Therefore, in some sense the world is God's body. What exists is God's way of expressing God's spirit," says Johnson.

"The privileged arena of that is the human body, because we're blessed with speech, and thought, and so we can see what's up, what's going on in the world and we can give expression to it. I find that terribly exciting and open-ended," Johnson says. "God can continue to surprise us."