In the field of religious studies, there are two main ways to think about what “body” means and why it matters. There is “the body” in the singular, as an idea and an ideal. The body can work as a metaphor, symbol, or generalization about the physical parts of what it means to be human. And there are “bodies,” plural. This second conception reminds us that there are individual people, each with their own distinctive bodies. For analytical purposes it is helpful to see each in its own light, yet these two modes of thinking about the body can and often do exist together within single studies.
There is also a third possibility, and that is not to consider the body at all. It can be tempting to think about religion apart from bodies. We can see this assumption in popular culture when we use “faith” or “belief system” as synonyms for religion: these terms suggest that the essence of religion is what a person believes or feels. But when we think about what happens in a person’s heart or head—in spite of those embodied metaphors—we can easily focus attention on textual sources and beliefs. Religious studies scholar Kent Brintnall writes, “it is easy to forget the body.” And some bodies are easier to forget than others.
Yet there would be no religion without people, and people have bodies. These bodies, moreover, are not merely incidental to religious practice, or even belief. How, then, should a scholar attend to bodies? It won’t do to ignore texts, beliefs, or nonhuman material things. The best studies that focus on the body or bodies embed those in a wider story that includes the other material and nonmaterial things with which bodies interact. These are the best studies because they can tell us how and which human bodies come to have meaning. They are stories about discourse, and they are also about flesh. They are also stories that include both marked bodies and unmarked bodies—normative bodies and non-normative ones.
Bodies don’t arrive with prearranged meanings. Nor do body parts. A penis doesn’t have a meaning by itself in isolation, but it means something significant (though not always the same thing) in most cultures. A circumcised penis means something, too. Facial hair doesn’t have a meaning by itself either, but in the context of Sikhism, or in the context of a woman’s face, it becomes clear how much it can mean. Skin color does not have essential meaning, but it can have deep cultural meaning, as theologians such as Kelly Brown Douglas and James Cone have shown in their classic works.
Even “the body” in the singular doesn’t come with a given, natural meaning. Is it good? Is it gendered, or genderless? Is it raced? Is it able-bodied? And what are its attributes and boundaries: Is it merely a meat sack for the soul? Does it include the mind? Is it a basically-unconscious medium for human existence? Should we see it primarily as the locus of desire? Do bodies reflect the inner dispositions, or even quality of faith, as in some Islamic traditions? The answers to these questions differ depending on the culture or the person imagining the body, and sometimes these meanings aren’t entirely transparent to the imaginer. The body also has metaphorical and symbolic meanings. As Mary Douglas wrote, “Just as it is true that everything symbolizes the body, so it is equally true that the body symbolizes everything else.”
Some religious traditions frame the body as sinful and fallen, such as the fourth-century African bishop Augustine. Most Buddhist communities see the body as a necessary component of a person, but its desires can also be targets of disgust. Other religious traditions frame the body as (mostly) a good thing. For Latter Day Saints, as one member explains: “you are more like God with a body than without.” Judaism’s embrace of human creation in betzelem elohim or “the image of God” also implies some godliness in the human body. Within each of these traditions, members dispute what the body means and whether it is good.
Even with a commitment to pay attention to the body, it can be easy to forget certain kinds of bodies, such as those that are trans, disabled, of color, female. What does it mean—to take the primarily Christian and Jewish example—that people are made in God’s image? Are all people equally Godlike? Or is it easier to imagine that a person who is able-bodied is more Godlike than someone who uses a wheelchair or is blind? Is it easier to imagine that a human body with a penis is more Godlike? When scholars ask questions that do not intentionally attend to bodies, it can be especially easy to overlook these marked bodies.
But it can also be easy to forget unmarked bodies because we take them for granted. White, cisgender men’s bodies often register for many Westerners as the default, and so the meanings of those bodies may not initially strike us as noteworthy. This is why gender is so often assumed to be about women, trans people, or genderqueer people: they are not the norm. For example, Carolyn Walker Bynum has famously shown how Christian women were told that having bodies, being physical, was their problem in particular. Marked bodies are special cases, and so when we are looking at those cases, it can be easier to see the body and to ask questions about what it means.
The key to understanding the body and bodies is to ask questions about their meanings: what those meanings are, how they came to mean what they do, how meanings are maintained, and how people challenge them. By attending to these questions, we can refuse to take those meanings for granted—and we can refuse to forget otherwise overlooked bodies.