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This Corruptible Temple 
by Amy Hassinger

When I was a girl, I had a habit of sucking in my stomach so that it formed a concave bowl beneath my ribs. Then I’d press it against a countertop, trying to hold it in place that way. My body then was an assemblage of parts, some of them fetching, most of them faulty. My hair was thin and flat; in the winter it clung to my head like a helmet. I liked my cheekbones and eyes, but the light mustache above my upper lip mortified me. My breasts were embarrassing in a leotard, which I wore a few times weekly. My butt and thighs were too big, and my calves too muscular. I dieted constantly, cheated constantly, and made a sport of sizing up other girls’ bodies, evaluating where I stood in comparison.

My liberal Protestant religion -- Congregationalism, to be specific -- told me I should honor my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. I liked this idea, and in my more pious moments, tried to keep it in mind when I felt tempted by another cookie or, later, a beer or a toke. But my will almost always failed me. There was too much pleasure to be found in crunching through an entire bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, in drinking Rolling Rocks until I was giddy. And then came the inevitable cycle of guilt and remorse.

Every morning, I’d conduct my own self-flagellation ritual. I’d wake up feeling vaguely guilty, and as I showered, I’d riffle through my memory of the previous day, trying to pinpoint what I’d done wrong. When I lit on the offending memory -- cheating on my diet, getting stoned after vowing not to -- I’d berate myself until I felt like the low-down, no-good sinner that I was. Once again, I’d failed to honor the temple of my body, and had thereby failed God. It was only when I’d held my sin to the morning light like a squirming parasite extracted from my intestine that the anxiety would fall away. I’d make another resolution, and this one I’d be sure to keep.

My transgressions weren’t even so terrible. I was just your garden-variety mildly self-destructive teenager. I had plenty of friends who behaved far worse than I did: cutting class, getting high at school, dealing drugs, stealing. I was a goody-goody in comparison. Still, I couldn’t forgive myself. Guilt was my God, a tyrant who expected only Christ-like purity from me, and who waited, whip at the ready, for me to fail to achieve it.

Now I realize I can’t entirely blame my masochistic adolescent misbehavior on my religion. But I do think there’s something in the Christian worldview that encourages that cycle of confession and forgiveness, that upholds guilt as productive for the soul. I buy into the notion myself. I believe in the wisdom of the conscience, the ability of my wiser selves to let me know when I’ve screwed up. But when the cycle of sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness becomes addictive, then you’ve got yourself a problem.

Sin and punishment, body and spirit, God and Satan, heaven and hell: Christianity can seem like a bipolar religion. Either you’re saved or you’re a sinner; either you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal savior or you’re doomed to eternal damnation. Your spirit resides within the temple of your body, but your body is untrustworthy, concupiscently inclined. It’s this mode of thinking that’s led to such grand old Christian traditions as mortification of the flesh, as well as celibacy and its unlovely bedfellows, misogyny and homophobia.

Where does this dualistic thinking come from? Is it the ancient notion of the Sky God, a pure and perfect being who dwells solely in the heavens, light years away from our sorry, corruptible earth? In traditional Christian thought, we humans may live on earth but we are not of it, unlike the rest of creation. We have immortal souls, which must be protected from the corrupt tendencies of the flesh in order to be saved for the pure light of eternity.

But this is the twenty-first century. Science has chipped away at this notion that the soul, or at least the emotional life, is an exclusively human possession. Octopuses demonstrate distinct personalities, elephants grieve, apes can learn grammar, and African grey parrots can understand the concept of zero. Rats, apparently, laugh. We’re intimately related to mice and watermelons. Our bodies do in fact come from dust -- as well as sun and rain -- and we have yet to discover a discrete location within the human body of the mind, let alone the immortal soul. In fact, consciousness may not be limited to the brain; it may permeate each of our cells in the form of tiny waving microtubules. Spirit, it seems, or what we commonly conceive of as soul -- consciousness, emotion, human spiritual response -- cannot be easily separated from the body.

Just as we cheat the earth when we claim not to be of it -- poisoning our water with nitrates, our atmosphere with fossil fuel emissions -- we cheat our bodies when we pretend we are not of them. As if we could live apart from the rush of blood through our arteries, from our own moment-by-moment ritual of inhalation and exhalation. We are not either/or. We are not pure souls imprisoned in the rotting houses of our flesh. We are both/and, or rather, all: cells, blood, bone, the elusive wind of thought, the moments between our breaths and the breath itself, constantly teetering on the brink of non-existence and yet existing, jubilantly alive in this world. We smell the wet soil on a spring morning, we taste a good glass of wine, we luxuriate in the sensation of a baby at our breast or (heaven forfend) an orgasm, and we are spiritually transported. We experience the holy physically: the arms of God enclosing us, the sound of an angelic voice just discernable in a summer wind.

I return to that admonition from Paul now with a different perspective. Our spirits -- whatever they may be -- may house themselves in mortal temples of bone and flesh, but a temple must be visited, must be used for it to be of any practical value. A temple that no one uses is a temple empty of bodies -- bodies that pray, light candles, burn incense, and weep, bodies that yearn and ache, bodies that age, sicken, and die. And while an empty temple may be clean and pure, it is eminently unable to bring anybody closer to God.

I am thankful now, in my thirties, for my own flawed and corruptible temple, for all its deficiencies and its gifts, and for the simple and moderate pleasures its use affords me.