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Monday, April 24, 2017

Finding God in the Body: A Review

Finding God in the Body by Benjamin Riggs is the book about almost everything my conservative Christians friends worry I might believe. That doesn't automatically make it a bad book (neither does it automatically make it a good one) but it certainly made for an interesting read. On one level, Finding God in the Body is a well written, frequently insightful book containing some really useful spiritual practices and perspectives; on another, reading it felt a little like reading a caricature of myself, drawn by one of those more conservative friends. Whatever else it was, this book certainly was a good reminder to me that Christian theology is not the binary we like to make it into, but large room with a lot of shared furniture.

Because my overall reaction to the book was fairly complicated, I want to address a few aspects of it independently and will try to finish with a broad gestalt impression.

The writing

Riggs is a talented author and Finding God in the Body clearly benefits. His thoughts are well organized, he takes a warm, usually non-challenging, tone, and skillfully weaves narrative moments into his broad argument. While the ideas are deep and certainly challenging the read in itself is easy and quite compelling. While I did get a little bogged down in two of the thirteen chapters, the book as a whole is fundamentally read-able.

What I agreed with

There are several great insights in Finding God in the Body (not the least of which is that God is to be found within the Body). Riggs' overall project seems to be to represent some of the best of western and Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, insight and practice, in the idiom of Christian mystical and monastic/contemplative tradition. As such, the book participates robustly in the conversations around the relationship between eastern wisdom philosophy and Christian theology (I caught particular resonances with Thomas Merton, Joseph A Loya, and Heiromonk Damascene). Without launching into a defense of God's working in all peoples throughout history, I want to affirm Riggs' basic project here; we should all welcome attempts to bring the best of eastern and western thinking  into conversation with one another.

Not only does Riggs participate in the conversation, he adds to it significantly. The overall premise of the book is that we can benefit from paying attention to the the body as such beyond our thought-life (what Riggs refers to as the "false-self") and Riggs helpfully expounds quite a few techniques drawn from both eastern (primarily Buddhist) and western mystic traditions. He combines the practical directions well with the "why" of these practices, Chapter 11 How to Meditate with the Body is particularly good in this regard. Before laying out a helpful contemplative practice, Riggs explains the need as follows:
Busyness is the false-self's response to shame and insecurity. If our spiritual practice is to be transformative, then it cannot be characterized by this busyness. We cannot think our way out of  disembodiment. This is where many of us throw our hands up in frustration. We get mad because thinking about things is all we know. We feel stuck. 
The false-self system is a closed circuit system. It ignores any information that does not originate within itself. It disregards emotion, intuition, inconvenient truths, and challenging points of view. A closed mind cannot feel, listen trust, be still, or be silent. It is so closed off that it only sees itself. This breeds corruption. The mind keeps turning to itself to solve problems that it created. In a disembodied mind, the criminal is in charge of the crime scene. If we hope to escape this cycle, we must find another vantage point.
This overall project, insofar as it comes down to encouraging spiritual pilgrims to listen to, value, and honor the body—to find that the body is an image of God—is one I heartily approve of. It strikes me as a vital corrective both for contemporary western Christianity and for western culture as a whole, which has tended towards the modernist error of isolating the intellect as "true person" and the only final subject of improvement. Further, I cannot get over how happy I am that he offers practical advice for the reader wanting to develop a habit of body-mindfulness.


At the end of the day though, I part ways with Riggs on a basic level. He seems (ironically to my mind) to have accepted far more of the modern, western understanding of the world than I do, or could think wise. In focusing on the body Riggs somehow has managed to ring himself in as a deconstructed materialist. I am confident that he would dislike and want to challenge this characterization but I am tempted to say that Riggs ultimately rejects the transcendent (I suspect that he believes he has found it and that the natural is, in and of itself, the transcendent).

Benjamin Riggs
Riggs seems like a
neat guy...
Our disagreement comes down to this: I am a supernaturalist and, so far as I can tell, Riggs is not. Where I want to argue that the body (and the mind) are images which have value in themselves, to which even more is added by the fact that they also point beyond themselves to God, Riggs seems content (and insistent) to say that the body points to itself alone. He he has found God in the body but seems to have concluded that God cannot therefore exist outside the body. As a result, his treatments of Jesus (chapter 8) and myth (chapter 7) suffer significantly. Where I believe that myth is an image of transcendent Truth clothed in particularities of history, culture, and story, Riggs claims "The primary function of myth is to move beyond the surface and penetrate our inmost core, laying bare our human nature" and so, his reading of myth focuses on the wrapping and mistakes it for the substance within. 

So too, when Riggs turns to talk about Jesus, he dismisses all accounts of the supernatural as literary and poetic licence (oversimplifying the text and thereby making the equal-and-opposite mistake of the fundamentalist who insists on an entirely literal reading of the bible). The result is a Jesus of Nazareth who is no more or less divine than any human person and who works well as a model, and maybe even savior-by-example, for us but not at all as a friend, or Lord. At the risk of sounding too damning, Riggs knows a good deal about Jesus but doesn't even claim to know Jesus. In fact he worries that those of us who do make such a claim, are committing the idolatry of worshiping that which is outside of ourselves (Jesus) in place of the divine within ourselves. My only real response to him there is a total acceptance of the accusation. I have given my allegiance to Jesus as external to my own being.

Bringing it all together

My final characterization of Finding God in the Body is that, while it contains a useful, and even necessary corrective to the culture and Christianity of our day, the book ultimately suffers from a pendulum like over-correction based in Riggs' rejection of the transcendent. He has read his Joseph Campbell but not his C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; he has recognized myth but not realized that it might be fact at the same time. Ultimately I would argue that Finding God in the Body represents an important voice in the conversation about spirituality, philosophy, and being, and we are the richer for having Riggs as a part of it, but he has missed the main thing and his work suffers for it.  

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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