Why ‘enfleshed’

We often get asked why we chose the name “enfleshed” when we launched in 2017. Each Friday for the next five weeks, we’ll share a little bit about what’s behind the word for us.

1. enfleshed - because the significance of god is a material experience

One of the many unfortunate and destructive influences of patriarchal white dominant philosophies on the theological, political, and cultural landscapes we live in today is the ongoing influence of mind/body dualisms. God is associated with the mind, held over and against the flesh. In many Christian spaces, this has shaped the concept of God in the direction of something so other-than, beyond, or outside of material existence that theology – and the ground of spiritual life – becomes first and foremost a thinking-thing. Faith as an abstracted set of beliefs about a singular static story of truth that is unimpacted, unchanging, and entirely unaffected by material life. In this frame, the ideas through which we understand God trickle down to us from a holy realm above our ordinary encounters in the world. Among other things, this implicitly and explicitly encourages understanding by thinking about God, reading about God, talking about God and the heavens as if apart from us. The struggles and pleasures of life become secondary and separate to God – or at worst, theological distractions.

One of the many dangers of this approach is the way it enables claims of objectivity in theologies (The concept of objectivity, a project in and of itself of white supremacies). When revelations about God are found entirely outside of our everyday lives and encounters with material life, claims can be made about God without any accountability for how those claims affect bodily life. (Think, God as anti-queer regardless of impact on queer life).

As a counter to such theologies, we at enfleshed choose to emphasize and prioritize an understanding of and encounter with divinity that begins and remains with material life (within and beyond our known universe and constructions of time). Spiritual life that understands bodies, land, food, health, pleasure, community, human practices and cultures as the landscape of God. Religion and spirituality as an “enfleshed” experience, reality, and commitment. The material consequences of theologies become the primary focus.

When the collective of material life is understood as “the Body of God” (Sallie McFague), then we encounter God by encountering life in the here and now (as past and future shape it). God becomes a set of encounters and practices as diverse as the flesh life bears. What harms the body of God is the evil with which our faith then wrestles. Spiritual liberation is inseparable from material liberation. When enfleshed, our individual orientations toward that liberation are shaped by our places in the body of God – our bodily and material locations – and the singular story of truth becomes instead a story of multiplicities and truths.

None of this is new, of course. Womanist, Black, queer, feminist, Indigenous, Mujerista, Disability justice, eco-, and economic liberation theologies have born witness to these truths for decades within the theological academy and long before they were at-all welcome there. In witness and gratitude to these lineages, past and present, we aim to continue in this spiritual freedom work of god in material and collective life.

2. 'enfleshed' points to our source of hope

enfleshed points to the source of our hope. It has always been and will always be enfleshed. God alive in the people, in the water, in the trees, in the places where ancestors meet those yet to be in and through us. 

enfleshed. As in past tense. As in, there is nothing we have to wait for in order to encounter the divine. They have long Themselves known among the mysterious material of life, ordinary and miraculous. Moving through and among faithful ancestors. Moving in our own lives, in memories and relationships past. We have felt. We have encountered. We have heard the stories of deliverance and sustaining presence. The past bears witness to the God already among us.

enfleshed. As in present tense. As in, where to encounter that divinity now. Not in claims that disembody, in denial of feeling or flesh. Not among forces, institutions, doctrines, or practices that repress life. Not in the mind apart from the body – but enfleshed. In tears flowing. In anger burning. In holy disruption of life as usual. We find God around us, enfleshed in neighbors, art, protests, rivers, and meals at table. God as verb. God as relational encounter. God as everything that nurtures life under forces that deaden and destroy. God as tangible, tastable, touchable.

enfleshed. As in, what our faith is, in practice. Ongoingly. An opportunity that unfolds over and over again. Not a static condition, but a matter of active participation. Divinity that is not passive but alive and affected by us and everything. Divinity will be enfleshed yet again. Today. Tomorrow. In future generations. Luring us like a lover. Inviting us to be co-conspirators. Challenging us to lay down alliances, commitments, fears, and resources that keep us from being dwelling places of the divine. It is not as simple as a matter of choice, but neither is it void of one. At times we align with divinity, at times we are misaligned, more aligned with powers that destroy. We practice our faith or betray it by way of what we enflesh. We, individually and collectively, in different ways and from different places in the whole of things, in every moment, partner with or work against the enfleshment of God among us. This is a biased endeavor. God incarnate is incompatible with political neutrality. When we choose to cast our lot, through behaviors and beliefs, with dominance through white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, capitalism, Christian supremacy, or anti-LGBTQIA forces, we close ourselves off to the present and future enfleshment of God. God incarnate is a force of flourishing, always resisting oppressive powers within us and around us. We tend with grace and courage our inner lives, our relationships, our resources, our communities with the aim of being hospitable to God enfleshed, liberation practiced, love embodied. 

3. 'enfleshed' disrupts supremacies - human, male, and Christian

When we tell the story of divinity ‘enfleshed,’ we can celebrate the way in which the Divine incarnates in all material life. God enfleshed means humans, yes, but also mushrooms and bumble bees, scaly things and feathered friends, the rich soils beneath our feet, and the places beyond our universe but no less alive or beloved. All the ‘flesh’ of life is a potential site of divinity. enfleshed. Not God becoming Jesus alone, which reinforces Christian supremacy. Not God becoming human – which reinforces human supremacy. Not God becoming man – which reinforces the supremacy of men. God enfleshed. As close as our own breath. As beyond as the depths of the sea, the core of the earth, and the farthest reaches of the cosmos. As the planet groans under colonizing theologies of a God-ordained human ‘dominion,” where the earth’s meaning is derived as a resource for human consumption, ‘divinity enfleshed’ re-orients us toward the sacredness of all material life. Indigenous wisdoms call us collectively back to right-relationship with the land, with interdependence, with the indigenous people and practices within our own texts and the people of the lands we occupy.

4. 'enfleshed' disrupts the singularity and static image of the body
With deep gratitude for the womanist, mujerista, feminist and other theological scholars who laid the groundwork for resituating theology from patriarchal spiritual abstractions back to the body as a source of revelation, especially and particularly in the 90s, we evolve from that essential conversation on embodiment to that of enfleshment.
Because the concept of a ‘body’ can be static, ableist, and individualistic. It can suppose a hard and fast border between me and you. As if we are so singular. As if we are not made of many organisms – of water and tree-breath and stardust and bacteria, of ancestors and collective contexts and lands. As if the borders between life forms aren’t more queer than that. As if who we are isn’t entirely dependent on our surroundings. So we speak and write of flesh. Flesh is soft. Flesh is permeable. Flesh is porous. Flesh is collective. Flesh is always changing.
Teilhard de Chardin wrote in his essay, “what exactly is the human body” of the challenge of drawing borders around a body:
“Even a single attempt to determine exactly what the body of a living being consists in, is sufficient to make one realise that ‘my body’ – an entity that is so clear when we remain in the practical sphere – is, when we come to theory, extremely difficult to define and pin down. My own body is not these cells or those cells that belong exclusively to me: it is what, in these cells and in the rest of the world feels my influence and reacts against me. My matter is not part of the universe that I possess totaliter [in total]: it is the totality of the Universe possessed by me partialiter [in particular].”
Disability scholar Dr. Sharon Betcher makes this point beautifully:
“Whereas body can invite the hallucinatory delusion of wholeness, and thus the temptation to believe in agential mastery and control, flesh, I want to propose, admits our exposure, our vulnerability to one another, if also to bios. Flesh, the dynamic and fluid physics of embodiment, cannot as easily as the body submit to…the logic of one. Flesh suggests that the capaciousness of a life resembles a teacup crackled with ten thousand veins. Spirit, lived in relation to flesh, might not then be so interested in wholeness as in passion.”
The concept of the body, she argues, is ‘subdued and disciplined’ by forces of dominance that pre-suppose a ‘proper form.’ This form is racialized, gendered, ableist, of a certain class, etc. Flesh, however, resists this static image. Flesh is flux, ‘improper,’ changing from day to day.
We aim to be faithful with this flesh – vulnerable, interdependent, subversive, and mysterious dwelling place of the Divine.
5. 'enfleshed' suggests sensuality

‘enfleshed.’ It sounds a tad scandalous. At least a little salacious. Definitely sensuous. And that is very much a part of the intent. When we center what it means to recognize, interact with, and experience divinity within the realms of flesh, we necessarily confront the need to right our relationship with the more unruly, queer, and carnal aspects of our bodybeing. Flesh that arouses, stinks, flows, aches, cries, grows hair, wrinkles, hungers, delights, screams, and stretches. In and through such, divinity can tingle. Divinity can scream. Divinity can nurse. Divinity can crave rest, a kiss, or protection. Too often, the ways in which our human and animal bodies experience the worst pains and the greatest pleasures are deemed theologically unspeakable. Orthodoxies entangled with systems of oppression teach us to hide, repress, blame, or shame our bodily realities. Afraid of what transformation we might seek, our pain is individualized and pathologized. Afraid of what we might awaken, our pleasure is morally maligned. We are told there are fleshy spaces – within our around – through which we are severed from God. But it is only from the God of dominance through whom theological evils of ableism and cisheteronormativity and capitalism and white supremacy flow. The Divinity we (re)discover in those same depths resists  orthodoxies that betray the flesh in its many forms. This divinity loves us as we are, even when we can’t love ourselves. This divinity delights in every pleasure. Companions us through pain. Enables us to practice doing the same for ourselves and each other and the earth. Whatever scandal that is, it is a holy one which we are glad to celebrate and prioritize.

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