The Disembodiment of Lockdown
One of the impacts of lockdown is that many elements of life have moved online. Work, friendships, theatre, church, even sight-seeing and holidays are now online experiences. Many of these virtual alternatives are real blessings in our current situation, but as time goes on, we are becoming increasingly aware of their limitations, and that is revealing an important point about embodiment.
The move to the online world takes away the physical, bodily elements of many activities, and often we find that removes something important about the experience. Meeting new work contacts online without being able to shake their hand leaves the meeting feeling almost incomplete. Gathering with friends online is a great way to catch up with their latest news, but many of us find ourselves longing for the bodily experience of a hug or of just being together in the same room and not having to talk. Online church is a huge blessing, but there’s a sense of something missing when we can’t raise our voices together in song and can’t participate in the shared loaf and cup. And online travel, well, it just isn’t the same. (Google Earth is great, but I’m still missing being able to visit London!)
All of these things reveal the fact that we are embodied people. We are not just a non-physical spirit or soul that lives in a fleshy container; we are embodied beings, and our bodies are a key part of who we are. When our bodies have to be excluded from so much of our daily experience, we begin to notice the loss.1
This is particularly noteworthy since embodiment often isn’t very valued in contemporary culture and even, sometimes, among Christians. Dualism between the physical and non-physical parts of a human is alive and well in the world around us.
We see it in transhumanism and the idea that we might one day conquer death by existing forever as mind clones (a way, it is claimed, of preserving the non-physical, once the physical is no longer able to function). We see it in sexuality, where the physicality of the body’s orientation towards procreation and the sexual complementarity of male and female is often overlooked and ignored. We see it in support for abortion, where the physicality of the living human being in the womb isn’t deemed enough to warrant the protection of that being. Something non-physical – personhood – has to be present to ensure the right to life. And we can see it in many popular Christian conceptions of eschatology, where we think our ultimate hope is a disembodied existence as a soul in heaven, overlooking the better promise of embodied, resurrection existence in a new creation which comes after any sojourn in a non-physical intermediate state.
Perhaps the experience of a quasi-disembodiment which many of us have tasted during lockdown could be a helpful tool to remind ourselves and others of the importance of our bodies. Having lived through lockdown, the idea of our loved ones being preserved as a mind clone might seem less appealing. Perhaps it won’t sound quite so crazy to suggest our bodies are important in ethical matters about sex and life and death. And perhaps when we think about our future, it won’t be our temporary stop in heaven which is most exciting, but the day when the body and soul are reunited, when we are once again embodied beings, and we live forever in a perfect new creation with one who loved us and became embodied for us.
- 1. It is interesting to speculate whether some of us are compensating for the reduction in embodied experiences during lockdown by prioritising embodied activity in the form of physical exercise. Contradictory surveys and reports have appeared over the few months of lockdown, but a weekly survey commissioned by Sport England has produced some interesting results. While the percentage of people saying they are doing less physical activity than before lockdown is broadly speaking similar to that of those saying they are doing more, the percentage of people saying that physical activity is more important during lockdown is consistently high (between 58-64% over the eight weeks of the survey so far). No doubt this is because of considerations of physical and mental health—both of which suggest the importance of embodiment—but I can’t help wondering if there might also be something deeper going on here.