The Body and Being Human   /   Summer 2001   /    Reviews

The Body at Devotion

A Review of Sarah Coakley’s Religion and the Body

R. Marie Griffith

King Charles I praying. Engraving by W. Marshall, 1649. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The body has been at the core of the study of religion since its inception. While many old bromides about religion and the body have lapsed over time, the enduring fascination with corporeality has continued to prop up others. One example, still invoked even by scholars who should know better, is the alleged dichotomy between Catholicism and Protestantism: Catholicism, it would seem, is an embodied tradition, while Protestantism is decidedly not. Catholics have liturgy, a wealth of corporeal devotional practices, and the doctrine of the “real presence” in the Eucharist; while traditional Protestants, at least of the Reformed and evangelical variety, supposedly detest ritual and worship austerely in spaces devoid of sensualism. Catholics drink alcohol and celebrate food in abundance; Protestants—ever neo-Puritans—snarl at the excesses of the flesh. Other shopworn clichés invoked with greater or lesser frequency pertain to Judaism (whose bodily practices include ritual circumcision, purification rituals such as mikvah, and kosher dietary laws), Islam (which demands fasting, daily prostrations, and various cleansing rituals), Native American traditions (in which bodies supposedly lie close to nature while also enjoying intense out-of-body experiences), Buddhism (advocating bodily transcendence), and Hinduism (whose veneration of sexuality scandalized early critics).

The essays in Religion and the Body provide, among other things, a sophisticated overhaul of persistent clichés and a set of markers pointing to more fertile analytic models. This is a collection that rigorously adheres to historical particularity while quietly aiming, with admirable caution, at comparisons among traditions. To readers familiar with postcolonial criticism, the tripartite division may first read as disappointingly conventional: Part I, “Contemporary Western Perspectives,” analyzes contemporary Western obsessions with the body; Part II, “The Western Religious Inheritance,” explores the Jewish and Christian traditions on the body; and Part III, “Beyond the West,” turns to “Eastern religious traditions” and the body. What could be more Eurocentric, more “us versus the exotic other,” than this paradigm? Yet, as the collection’s editor, Sarah Coakley, notes in her introduction,

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. (2)

Indeed, while delivering a set of topics that in less adept hands could easily fold in caricature—the carnivalesque Catholic, the dour Puritan, the stern Buddhist monk, the anxious postmodern gym rat—these mostly British authors are wonderfully prepared to forsake the usual pottage in favor of patterns that highlight historical and geographic distinctiveness, as well as continuity, and enable observers to analyze religion, culture, and society from some surprisingly underexplored angles.

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