The Protestant Body: Reflections on the UMC decision

With great sadness and dismay I have read not so much the justifications as the explanations for the United Methodist’s decision to exclude GLBTQ priests from their communion. It is a much broader and more diverse communion than my own Episcopal Church, specially as we move outside the North Atlantic region. Granted. However, in my view, the problem runs much deeper and strikes at the core identity of Protestantism.

Diane Butler Bass captures the right tone when she counts the mass exodus from our churches and seminaries evidence of a fourth Great Awakening. Since the beginning, Protestantism has been Janus-faced regarding the body (and, obviously, the Body). In my Weber and the Persistence of Religion (London 2006), I show how this binary has been the Protestant signature since the sixteenth century. Secular bodies, divine souls.

Among Europeanists, this is uncontested. When in 1324 the abbot of St Pierre, in Ghent, ordered the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently erected by them, he set in motion a cascade of fatalities the likes of which had never before darkened history. For the first time anywhere, the value of productive human activity would be measured in equal units of abstract time. The good abbot could not have known it at the time, but his order was the signal event in the birth of capitalism, a social form that rests on the isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance. Clocks had been spreading throughout Western Europe since the twelfth century. Wherever there was a monastery, there was need for accurately announcing times of prayer. But it was not until the fourteenth century that clocks began to find a different use: measuring the value of productive human activity.

Until then nominalism — a philosophy that isolates meaning from bodies — was an overwhelmingly minority opinion among theologians and philosophers. The practical isolation of abstract value from the bodies that produced and the bodies produced by productive human activity gave quotidian embodiment to and confirmation of the isolation of abstract value from its material forms of appearance. Over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, religious practitioners became accustomed to differentiating the value of bodies from their material forms of appearance. When Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, the revolution whose authorship he claimed was already two centuries old. Faith and works; spirit and flesh; grace and merit — these pairings, already clothed in mystical Stoic clothing in the first century — won a new lease on life. Freed from the substance metaphysics that had dominated spiritual practice and reflection since forever, capitalism gave renewed vigor to the isolation of spirits from the bodies they merely occupied.

Only among sociologists of religion — and, today, only in America — is this scholarship contested. Protestantism — its fragmentation, to be sure, but also its dynamism — mirrors the creatively destructive movement of the capitalist social formation itself. Bodies — thinking, speaking, declaring, confessing, candle-illuminated , beclouded in incense, robed, kneeling, rising, crossing bodies in time and space — are sacrificed to their abstract, transcendental God. Anyone the least familiar with first century Jewish piety knows with absolute certainty that this isolation of bodies from spirits is completely foreign to biblical Jewish and Christian thought and practice. Bodies and their sacred character are central to both traditions.

When Protestants pull free from bodies, when they liberate themselves from bodies that weigh them down — traditions, customs, practices, relationships, words — and set their hearts upon things that cannot be seen, they show themselves to be handmaids of the capitalist social form whose forms they embody. This is specially so in their experience of the Holy Sacrament, but it also apparent in the disappearing wounds of Christ in iconography after 1500, and the simultaneous eroticization and androgynisation of Mary’s body, whose breasts are no longer permitted to feed the Church after 1500. M Foucault misunderstands the practical, social production of capitalist misogyny. But he absolutely grasps the oppression to which it gives rise.

There are simply too many studies from the high Middle Ages to overlook the broad sexual palette that informed Christians, say, in 600. And it is simply impossible to read Hebrew and Christian sacred texts without arriving at a similar conclusion.

On the one hand, this means that hostility to LGBTQ sexuality is a feature of neither Judaism, nor Christianity. It enjoys neither biblical nor historical foundation. It is, to the contrary, a product in its entirety of the capitalist social form and its immanent hostility to the body (and to the Body).

The tragedy is that many of us who are otherwise sympathetic with the LGBTQ community have bought into the narrative that fills its sails. Insofar as capitalism was the handmaiden to Protestantism at its birth, I believe this doctrinal error is a uniquely Protestant sin. We are uniquely troubled by bodies (and Bodies).

I interpret the UMC decision through the lens of this doctrinal error. Whenever we oppress bodies “spiritually,” we overlook and oppress the Body of the Spirit. For twelve centuries, the Church enjoyed a far deeper, more complex understanding of Bodies. Beginning in 1324, we began to elide bodies. It is the most serious doctrinal error committed by Protestantism. It has a future. It has a history.