Becoming a Temple (instead of a demigod)

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July 27, 2017 by jmw

John Mayer may think that the body is a wonderland but long before him the apostle Paul preached that our bodies are the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16). In fact, long before Paul and Jesus, the ancient Hebrews taught that human beings have a nephesh (soul) located in the throat through which God’s ruah (breath / spirit) flows. Obviously we know that there is no literal soul in our throats, but the imagery is profound: here is the nexus of our body and the source of life; the place where God’s life enters into our being. Think of the creation story of Genesis where God breathed life into humankind (Gen. 2:7).

No matter which images or scriptures we choose, there is a common motif throughout Judeo-Christian tradition that invites us to think of our own bodies as a temple for God. But I wonder if we have forgotten the implications of this kind of thinking and I worry that we are prone to diluting it into a comforting [gnostic] impulse.

There was a time when such scripture was read with purist eyes and to be a temple meant abstaining from all the “bad” things like sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. But those days are long gone; and with it any sense of shame about our bodies.

These days we are obsessed with our bodies – and understandably so. Science and technology have led to exponential increases in knowledge of our bodies. New approaches to exercise and nutrition have created entire industries around how to keep our bodies healthy. And on top of all that, we have lightning fast access to the largest database of images and videos of human bodies in the history of the world (the internet). The freedom to express ourselves through our bodies –  hair colours, tattoos, piercings, sexuality, health, – is central to our culture.

In the midst of all this, the words of St. Paul (“You yourselves are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit dwells within you”) resonate well with our gnostic impulse. We talk as though every person contains a spark of the divine (“Baby you’re a firework”) and act as if divinity is something we inherently possess and control. In the end, we see ourselves and our bodies as more god-like than temple-like. But what happened to being a temple?

If we are to understand Paul’s wisdom then we need to think more seriously about what happens in a temple and how our bodily existence can become a temple for God. Whether we liken ourselves to an ancient temple or a modern cathedral, imagining our bodies as these sacred spaces is a helpful way to think about what it means to be a dwelling place for God.

Is our bodily existence an act of worship? Are we a place of thanksgiving? Are we oriented beyond ourselves to Something/Someone greater?

Are our bodies a sacred space? A safe sanctuary for others? A link between heaven and earth?

Are we a house of prayer? Do our hearts rise to God in prayer like the unceasing incense of a temple?

Have our bodies consumed the wisdom of our sacred scriptures? Have we allowed our tradition to speak into us?

Do the songs of our forebears echo in our bones like choirs through the nave of a cathedral?

Are our bodies broken and blessed and given like the bread of communion?

. . . . . . .

The analogies could go on but the point is made. We weren’t invited to become demigods; we were invited to become temples for the one, living God.  To understand this we might not only imagine the purposes of temples and cathedrals, but look also to the One whom John writes became the temple of God par excellence. Jesus seems to exemplify what it means to become a temple of the Spirit of God as he embodied both the dwelling presence of God and the functions of the temple in day to day life. Prayer, thanksgiving, healing, forgiveness, celebration – this was all temple business and Jesus made it his personal business wherever he went.

When Paul says, “You yourselves are God’s temple,” he’s not just making a statement about how special or divine we are; he’s inviting us to become temple people who, like Jesus, take the presence and purposes of the temple wherever we go.

We are a temple for the Lord;
the Spirit of Christ longs to dwell.

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