On March 10-11, we are hosting Redeeming Food and Body, a two-day conference engaging our relationships with food and our bodies through an integration of theology, therapy, and nutrition. The event’s interdisciplinary teaching staff will include a mental health therapist, a dietician, and a theologian, who will lead us in a vital and timely exploration of both our personal narratives of health and the broader cultural messages about health and wholeness. Here, one of the facilitators—Kate Sweet, an ordained minister and MDiv graduate of The Seattle School—talks with us about the intersection of theology and our bodily experiences, and about why she is looking forward to the workshop later this month.
First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do?
I come to this work with a passionate belief that the Gospel invites us to live with freedom and peace in the relationship with our bodies and food. I graduated from The Seattle School with a Master of Divinity in 2013 and trained as a chaplain with UW Medicine in Seattle. As a chaplain I specialized in the fields of mental health and maternal/infant care. In addition, as a minister ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I seek to engage with others the way that God’s love is revealed through all of our embodied experience. My family and I recently relocated back to my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, so these days I’m reacquainting myself with the Midwest, with the playful presence of my young son as a guide.
One of the unique things about Redeeming Food and Body is that each of the presenters is coming from such different realms of practice. How does your work as a theologian and a pastoral presence shape how you approach this conversation?
This sounds cliche, but it’s really all about Jesus. One of the most shocking aspects of the Gospel story is the claim that God had the audacity to take on human form, with all of its messiness and uncertainty. The Incarnation speaks to me of God’s total embrace of our embodied life. And so this is what I bring to the conversation: a continued insistence that we need to keep turning back to God’s blessing of our physical experience as a foundation for this work. This hope in God’s continued presence with us, in all of our physical and emotional experiences, is what has kept me going as I’ve held vigil with people at the ends of their lives, or prayed with families in crisis, or even prepared to preach in front of a community.
It’s so easy to put boundaries around our faith and assume that it’s separate from certain other parts of our life. How do you see faith, and our identities as Christians, intersecting with what we eat and how we treat our bodies?
I believe that God made us with bodies on purpose; it wasn’t a mistake. We are made in God’s image, and in some mysterious way these bodies of ours help us to glimpse something of what God is like. Because of this fact, I don’t think that it is possible to separate our faith from how we eat or treat our bodies. We enact what we believe about the world, about life, about God, through our physical life; there is no other way! In fact, the way that we treat our bodies, and the bodies of others, is often a clearer example of what we really believe than the words we say about what we profess to believe. For example, I might say that I believe in God’s grace and mercy, but what happens when I overeat? If I punish myself whenever I enjoy a great big piece of cake after the end of a large meal—when I try to escape the feeling of fullness and pleasure commingling in my body—this might reveal my tendency toward self-hatred and a rejection of God’s grace and mercy. In this case, repentance, or turning toward God’s way, might mean learning to notice, sit with, and accept the feelings of fullness and pleasure that I get from eating that big piece of cake. This acceptance could begin to move me toward grace and the reality that it is okay to overeat once in a while; feelings of fullness and hunger are natural human experiences that come and go, and we can learn to enter into these experiences with joy. As we get to know what it feels like to live fully in our bodies, we can better learn how to treat them with honor and respect. To honor and respect our bodies, and the diverse bodies of others, is an essential part of what it means to live out Jesus’ greatest commandment, to love others as we love ourselves.
How do we go about forming, individually and as communities, a fully embodied expression of faith—a theology of the body?
I think that it has to start from a place of joy and gratitude, of recognizing the gift of the body. In her book Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice, Stephanie Paulsell, a theologian and minister, says that honoring the body requires us “to learn to see our bodies and the bodies of others through the eyes of God. To learn to see the body as both fragile and deeply blessed. To remember the body’s vulnerability and to rejoice in the body as a sign of God’s gracious bounty.” This idea is foundational for me. Vulnerability and gift go hand in hand. We need worshipping communities that recognize this—we need to create space to mourn the ways our bodies have failed us, and celebrate the ways that our bodies are beautiful and awe-inspiring. But this only happens when theory and practice go hand in hand. For many Christian communities, this could be a re-imagination of the significance of familiar, sacred practices such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Or, it could be an integration of forms of worship that engage the whole body and all of its senses: forms of prayer such as labyrinth walking or breath prayer, engagement with art, eating full meals together, yoga, walking in the woods, anointing with oil, etc. It also means engagement with the spiritual practice of physically caring for our bodies and the bodies of others, especially those who are weak and ill. I recognize that these are not new ideas—honestly, the Church has been doing all of these things since the beginning. I think that there is a desire and a need to re-engage with physical practices as part of our faith experience.
Why is it that you think a conversation like this might feel so foreign in a lot of churches?
There are many reasons why this may be the case in a lot of Western Protestant churches. In the modern period there was a prioritization of the life of the mind over the body. Intellectual consent has been the primary expression of faith and belief in the North American Protestant context. Layered on top of this is a dualistic interpretation of scripture that focuses heavily on the body and bodily desires as a primary source of sin. This leads to a distrust of the body and a complete ignorance of how our created forms reflect the glory of God. Added to this mix is the reality that our embodied experience is inherently messy and not black-and-white. Our bodies respond in ways that we cannot always control or anticipate. It may often feel easier to try to ignore our bodies and work with what we can “know” through our minds—though I would argue that we can’t actually separate our bodies from our minds, so this is a false dualism.
Our embodied experience is inherently messy and not black-and-white.
What are some of the obstacles and fears that might keep us from entering this conversation with courage and vulnerability?
We live in a time of transition, especially in the Church. There are more Americans than ever calling themselves “Nones” or “Dones” (referring to those who do not have any religious affiliation or who are tired of their religious affiliation). I think our distrust of religious institutions is a big stumbling block, and it seems easier just to strike out on our own. However, there is a trap in the individualism that we often see in spiritual experience today. It is hard to go at this life alone; the reality of our bodies is that we need each other. We cannot fully embrace our vulnerability or the giftedness of our human experience without a community of people to help hold us in difficult times, and to celebrate with us in good times. I think another huge obstacle in our American context (especially speaking from my own white, Protestant, upper-income and educated social location) is the desire for control, power, and dominance. Our society’s blessing of this desire is almost impossible to get away from; it feels like a primary undergirding of the “American Dream” framework that is just present in the air we breathe.
Anything you’d like to add about why you’re looking forward to Redeeming Food and Body?
It is an honor to be able to have these conversations with participants, and it brings me great hope. Last year during our workshop, I was deeply moved by the array of stories that people shared about why they came and what they hoped to get out of it. There is a yearning out there to see God’s redemption of the relationships that we have with food, body, and each other. It felt like holy ground, and I’m confident that this year will be no different.
This is a crucial conversation, and one that we rarely have the opportunity to engage in a way that invites our entire presence as spiritual, psychological, and physical beings. We hope you’ll join us March 10-11 at Redeeming Food and Body.