Relearning the importance of touch
A few moons ago when we were studying theology, some of us wondered what relevance, other than historical curiosity and help with understanding Paul’s letters, Gnosticism had?
The rules of the world based on a philosophy which saw a disconnect between body and spirit, the physical and the spiritual, seemed a million miles away from our common-sense, Christian-saturated, Western society.
No more. As our societal elites have given up on Christianity, so the old Gnostic heresy has returned with a bang. We now live in a world where you cannot say what a woman is unless you are a biologist, and you will not say what a woman is if you are a biologist. The body doesn’t matter. What you feel is what you are.
The return of the plague to Western society has also shaken our foundations. Do we need physical presence (in church or at work) when we can have disembodied meetings via Zoom? Do we need physical touch? Are handshakes, man hugs and greeting one another with a holy kiss to be relegated to an ever-diminishing past? Last year I was walking down a wide path and came across a woman who shrunk back from me in horror, lest she come within 1.5 metres of me. I doubt this was because of the MeToo movement, but more likely the prospect of being in the vicinity of a possibly plague-carrying human being!
I find it interesting to reflect on what the Bible has to say about touch. It was not God who said ‘do not touch’ to Adam and Eve; it was Eve who added that embellishment to the command ‘do not eat’ (Gen. 3:3 and 2:17). It seems that there is a particular part of humanity which seeks to make ‘do not touch’ a key part of our rituals. ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’ (Col. 2:21).
There is a time when it is right not to touch. Uzziah stretched out his hand and touched the ark unlawfully (2 Sam. 6:1-7) – and so he died. Sometimes in church it is not appropriate to greet someone with a hug, because their previous experience of physical abuse has made them understandably concerned about physical contact. But we should not make the exceptions the rule.
Jesus certainly not only knew the importance of touch. Imagine how it must have felt being an untouchable leper, touched by Christ! McCheyne told his congregation the story of the Moravian missionaries who went into a leper colony in South Africa. Every time one of them died, there were others waiting on the outside, prepared to go in. Because physical presence matters.
What about when people brought babies to Jesus to have Him touch them? Rather than dismiss that as pure superstition, Christ welcomed them – and rebuked His disciples for seeking to obstruct them (Luke 18:15). Contrast that with Disney World, which forbids children to hug Micky Mouse, but wants to encourage them to dissociate from their bodies in order to find their ‘real’ selves!
Think of Jesus appearing in the midst of the disciples after His resurrection: ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ (Luke 26:38-39). He is no disembodied Saviour. There is nothing more counter to the current anti-body ideology of progressivism than the fact that the Son of God had, and has, a human body.
When touch is only about sex we are back in pre-Christian pagan times. The Netflix series Black Mirror (not recommended) gives a bleak picture of a dystopian future where human bodies matter less than computer programmes. The popular Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus predicts a world in which humans will break free from our carbon-based biological chains and become pure mind. C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength warned us of the consequences of such illusory fantasies.
We need to learn again what it is to greet one another with holy kisses and unmasked faces. We need to understand and affirm that we are a physical as well as a spiritual religion. Of course, we reject all perverted and evil misuse of that for sinful purposes. But we don’t let the devil control the agenda.
When I was 21 years old, I wrestled long and hard with the decision to apply for training for the ministry. I received many answers and confirmations, but none more precious than the day after I appeared before the elders who agreed to put me forward. At the prayer meeting that evening, Mrs Ross, the minister’s wife, came up and gave me a hug and kiss and told me how joyful she was. It was a felt token from the Lord, and meant as much to me as anything else!
‘When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him’ (Acts 20:36-37).
David Robertson is the Director of the ASK project in Sydney and blogs at http://www.theweeflea.com
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