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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Sacred Body

see Philosophical Theology


edited by Sarah Coakley

Cambridge University Press

$69.95, hardcover, 312 pages, notes, bibliography, index


The proliferation of studies on the ‘body’ (and subjects in close relation) is an obvious, even startling, feature of the literature of the social sciences and humanities in recent years. Such an explosion of interest makes the lack of a standard study of the ‘body’ and the major religions of the world the more surprising. In setting out to remedy this omission, RELIGION AND THE BODY aims above all to highlight the distinctive and unfamiliar ways in which diverse religious traditions understand the ‘body’, and, in doing this, to raise to greater consciousness some of the assumptions and problems of contemporary attitudes to it.

This volume brings together essays by established experts in the history of religion, the social sciences, and philosophy. Part I is devoted to an analysis of current secularized discourses on the ‘body’, and to exposing both their anti-religious and their covertly religious content. Parts II and III provide essays on traditional ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ religious attitudes to the ‘body’ .Each contributor focuses on some (especially characteristic) devotional practices or relevant texts; each carefully outlines the total context in which a distinctive religious attitude to ‘bodiliness’ occurs.


A book that invites comparisons between religious traditions does well to declare its ‘interests’ at the outset. This is true, firstly, because the nervousness about ethnocentric imposition of Western categories on the ‘other’ in matters of culture and religion has currently become so intense in some quarters as to make any sort of comparisons across traditions inherently suspect.’ Hence, secondly, the project of providing parallel essays on a topic of shared (perhaps even universal) interest is open to the scornful objection of a spurious dispassion. It is thus the task of this brief introduction to lay bare the editorial interests and aims of this collection, and to declare what it hopes to achieve and illuminate, as well as what lies beyond its particular scope and intentions.

In clarifying these goals I shall not provide a precise version of each of my contributors’ essays in advance. Rather I shall highlight the ways in which the ordering of the book’s contents is intended to lead the reader from the known to the (relatively) unknown: from an analysis of our current Western (and ‘secularized’) obsessions with the ‘body’ (Part D; through a deepening understanding of the ‘Western’ religious traditions that have spawned this (Part II) - and are still, I shall argue, to some extent ironically replicated in it; to the lesser-known territories of ‘Eastern’ religious traditions on the ‘body’ (Part III), themselves increasingly becoming the targets of consumerist Western syncretism.

From this it will be clear that the organization of the volume is unashamedly contemporary and Western in its starting-point, an admission, however, that does not detract from the care with which the scholars whose work appears in Parts II and III have, to the best of their abilities, attempted to ‘bracket the familiarity’ of current ‘body’ discussions in their treatment of religious traditions less immediate to contemporary Western attention. When they do import categories or methodologies from these discussions into their exposition (structuralist, symbolic, or Foucaultian accounts of ‘bodiliness’, for instance), the intellectual genesis - and contestability- of these accounts will have already been made clear from the analysis in Part I. In this way the volume can profitably be read as a dialectic between the Parts, as well as a systematic unfolding from Part I to Part III. The final editorial objects (and novelties) of the exercise, however, are these: the clarification, first, of the specificity, oddity, and even repressed religiosity of the current secularized debates about Bodies’; the complexification and contextualization, second, of the (now often misconstrued and derided) ‘Western’ religious heritages that have formed their Sackcloth; and the analysis, third, of religious ‘bodily’ practice within metaphysical frameworks beyond the traditional purview of Western eyes.

If this initial division reflects a series of demarcations that are now becoming rapidly outmoded, it is advised; it is precisely the further intent of this book to throw these demarcations into question - to raise implicit questions about the spiritual and philosophical impoverishment of our current ‘body’ obsessions, and yet also about the superficiality of consumerist ‘magpie’ raids on Eastern religious bodily practice. The frantic assemblage of fragments of wisdom from Eastern religious traditions in our culture so often serves a wholly unquestioned narcissistic quest for gratification and pleasure, or a more insidious and pervasive ‘denial of death’.

This initial statement of intent, however, with its admission of an element of ‘hermeneutical circularity’, has to contend with a more fundamental methodological objection. The notable explosion of thought and literature on the subject of the ‘body’ in the last decades has begged a question of definition which is not so easily grasped, let alone answered. It is as if we are clear about an agreed cultural obsession — the ‘body’ — but far from assured about its referent. As Judith Butler has recently put it, ‘I tried to discipline myself to stay on the subject, but found that I could not fix bodies as objects of thought . . . Inevitably, I began to consider that perhaps this resistance was essential to the matter in hand.’ Or, as put from a rather different methodological perspective, by Mary Douglas: Just as it is true that everything symbolizes the body, so it is equally true that the body symbolizes everything else.’ But why, then, are ‘bodies’ simultaneously so ubiquitous and yet so hard to get our ‘hands’ around?

The cumulative answer to this question emerges from the analyses of Part I, but can be stated summarily here. A naive approach to ethnography or ‘comparative’ religion might still imagine that bodies provide us with an Archimedean point, a ‘natural’ datum of uncontentious physicality upon which religious traditions have then spun their various interpretations. Structuralists still harbor this language of the ‘natural’; and it has a surprisingly persistent mythological power even in the thought of those who have ostensibly forsworn it. But the question that presses in a postmodern age is this: if we can no longer count on a universal ‘grand narrative’ to undergird the enterprises of religious and cultural studies, then does not the ‘body’, too, become subject to infinitely variable social constructions? Indeed the ‘body’ comes to bear huge, and paradoxical, philosophical weight in postmodern thought: just as its Enlightenment partner, the ‘mind/soul’ of Cartesianism, is seen off with almost unexamined vehemence, so, simultaneously, what is left (the ‘body’) becomes infinitely problematized and elusive. It is all that we have, but we seemingly cannot grasp it; nor are we sure we can control the political forces that regiment it…

If Part II succeeds in its goals, then, it will throw into a new light the cultural specificity, and still lurking religiosity, of our present ‘bodily’ interests (as outlined in Part 1). For these interests arise from particular post-Christian and post-Enlightenment twists in ‘body’-history: the loss of belief in a ‘true body’ (vellum corpus) as both transcendent and socially binding; the simultaneous demise of belief in an eschatological ‘body’ the perfected ‘body’ of the life beyond; the destabilizing of a unified, forensic notion of responsible ‘selfhood’ in twentieth-century Western thought; the anxieties caused by medical power and intervention in contemporary society, as well as by the limitations of that power (symbolized potently by the AIDS epidemic); the riddles of personal identity that arise from the capacity to swap body-parts; the manifold challenges of secular feminist theory and feminist theology: the questioning of an identification of woman with the (despised and subordinated) ‘body’, or of the hegemony of ‘masculinist’ reason over the ‘body’; the assertion of women’s medical rights over their own ‘bodies’, and the exposure of the falsifying pressures of consumerism on women’s self-image; the rediscovery and exploration of (female) ‘thinking through the body’; the canvassing of ‘gay rights’ and the arguments of ‘queer theory’; and last, but far from least, the grave anxieties caused by the redrawing of the ‘body’-map of the political world: the uncertainties about what is now ‘Left’ and what ‘Right’, what friend and what foe.

It is no wonder that these ‘body’ matters so exercise us; for the quest seemingly encoded in them is for a unifying, and social) cohesive, point of reference that will give mortal flesh final significance. It is no wonder that ‘body’ studies can be published only as Fragments, since there is no longer a eucharistic presence to ‘gather them on the mountains’ .And yet, whilst the Western resources for religious orientation have been largely abandoned, ironic, secularized ghosts from that past continue to haunt us. What have elsewhere been called the ‘cultural contradictions’ of contemporary life are no less evident in matters of the ‘body’: the ‘body’ is sexually affirmed, but puritanically punished in matter of diet or exercise; continuously stuffed with consumerist goods, but guiltily denied particular foods in aid of the ‘salvation’ of a longer life; taught that there is nothing but it (the ‘body’), and yet asked to discipline itself from some other site of control; flaunted everywhere, yet continuously disappearing on the cybernet.

Do we see here the perverse replication of a (desacramentalized) Christian asceticism, or is it the last smile on the face of a Cartesian Cheshire cat?



How it Deepens Your Experience of Self, Body and Community

by Judith Blackstone


$12.95, paper, 145 pages, notes, glossary, index


In today’s world we are encouraged to be individuals but all too often the price we pay is a strong sense of alienation and separation. Many people try to cure their loneliness through spiritual practices that attempt to eradicate the sense of self. The positive message of this thought-provoking book is that as we experience the enlightenment process we actually simultaneously uncover our authentic selfhood and our sense of connection to others and the world.

Using a set of simple but effective meditational and physical exercises for "subtle self’ work, Judith Blackstone clearly and expertly indicates the way in which we can deepen our spiritual awareness, develop our capacity for contact with other people and reconnect with the world. Her lifetime of experience in depth-psychology, bodywork and kundalini yoga gives this book a distinctive authority and clarity. This remarkable work offers practical guidance and profound understanding to those in search of spiritual wisdom, and contains information on:

Ÿsubtle self work

Ÿmeditational and physical exercises

Ÿspiritual realization

Ÿclarifying current confusion on the concept of spiritual selflessness

Judith Blackstone, an innovator in the field of contemporary spirituality, developed "subtle self’ work and teaches it in classes and workshops throughout the United States. She is also a psychotherapist and director of Realization Center in Woodstock, NY. She is author of The Subtle Self and co-author of Zen for Beginners.

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