7 min read

Building Beyond: The Church of the Embodied Self

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

There is a totally egalitarian society that is organized around The Church Of the Embodied Self – a religion that is focused on the experience of being alive in a human body.

Anne Hueser enjoys Scottish Country Dance, choir singing and handbell ringing, reading, cooking real food, and watching sports. She's artist class so she's done lots of different things but her favorite job, which turned out to be her dream job, was stage managing opera productions, which she did happily for 13 years.

Gailey: What's this religion's origin story of the world?

Hueser: This society’s ultimate concern is that transcendence that comes when being fully open to the sense of being alive, and fully connected with one’s body. It is not associated with a named deity, but instead is envisioned as the spark of connection between one’s spirit and one’s body. The origin myth of this society is explained through stories of the first beings who fully experienced that transcendence, which came from fully connecting their spirits and their bodies. These transcendent experiences were so powerful that those beings were inspired to share with others what they did in order to feel the transcendence.

As the stories spread, some who heard them were able to connect the stories to find the common elements, and codify them into an explanation of the foundation of the spark. That allowed many to explore the ways one could reach for the transcendent experience. The importance of the quest for each individual led to the formation of a society where everyone could offer what they had, and receive what they needed, in order to further everyone’s journey toward their spark.

An example of how this might work: consider an individual who was best able to experience moments of transcendence through dance. They could feel most fully alive while performing movements to music that created a whole greater than the movements and the music individually. This individual, in the company of others who experience transcendence in similar ways, could create an experience that extends and expands their experiences of the transcendent. That connection creates a whole greater than their individual selves, which can be shared with others who are not part of the movement or the music – and yet can still access transcendence through their spirits’ and bodies’ response to the performance.

This creates a whole that completely eclipses the individual parts, but recognizes the necessity of having all of the parts present. This also allows for the inclusion of all bodies, because anyone can be part of the whole regardless of their ability to move in particular ways. The variety of the audiences’ bodies becomes part of the whole, which increases the transcendence for all involved.

Gailey: What does worship look like in this religious tradition? How does this religion's theology incorporate all kinds of bodies and treat them as equally holy?

Hueser: Worship happens when people gather to share their techniques of connecting their spirits and their bodies. It is corporate worship and varies widely among groups. Variation in bodies is considered essential to the society as a whole because only when there is wide variation does there also exist the true freedom of expression that comes in extremes. Thus, the wider the spectrum in every respect, the healthier and more joyous the society is as a whole.

Worship can include movement, stillness, physical trappings (clothes, costumes, accessories) or the lack thereof, activities that fully engage the senses, and sensory deprivation that heightens the connection of spirit and body. In other words, there is as much variation in worship as there is variation of being.

The variations do not cause discord but pleasure in the wide expressions possible. The egalitarian nature of the society enables one to move among variations as needed throughout all stages of life, both in the micro and macro. Although at first glance this society might seem to be entirely self-centered, many members achieve their highest transcendence through service to others according to their need. Entirely focusing on one’s own spark is considered limiting, but expanding one’s viewpoint to incorporate service to others allows one’s spark to connect with others’ sparks – leading to a sum that is truly greater than the individual parts.

Marianne Kirby writes about bodies both real and imagined. She plays with the liminal space between vanishing and visibility. She authored Dust Bath Revival and its sequel Hogtown Market; she co-authored Lessons from the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body. A long-time writer, editor, and activist, Marianne has contributed to women’s interest publications, and news outlets. She has been published by the Guardian, xoJane, the Daily Dot, Bitch Magazine, Time, and others. She has appeared on tv and radio programs ranging from the Dr. Phil Show to Radio New Zealand.

Gailey: What's this religion's origin story of the world?

Kirby: So, in the Church of the Embodied Self, we're very into the Birth of the World, that painting by Joan Miró, that surrealist moment of genesis. The painting becomes a hymn, a psalm to abstraction that reminds us we are not separate from the world - we are part of the world's entire organism, just a part of the sacred body.

Sorry gang, I have no idea how to describe this painting. It's surreal and abstract and while I appreciate art I'm not terrifically skilled at explaining it. I'll do my best. From top to bottom there are: some lines of disparate sizes, a black triangle, a red circle, and a yellow line connecting that circle to a black sort-of-human-ish figure topped with a white circle. All of this is on a field of uneven brown and grey color.

The world was born like any other newborn, squalling and trying to find its balance so it could feed and learn how to inhabit its limbs enough to move. The world was born and all of its parts started to stretch and grow and circulate and all of its components took different shapes except for when they took the same shapes and made them their own. We did that, too, all of us as people, part of the world and the birth of the world and all of the rest of it, born squalling in the same rush of blood and relief. There are so many parts of the world and we can't possibly know all of them - but we can learn ourselves so that, when asked, we can answer and explain.

Gailey: What does worship look like in this religious tradition? How does it incorporate all kinds of bodies and treat them as equally holy?

Kirby: We have to know ourselves, because who else is going to learn this part of the world's body? And our bodies reflect the state of the world's body. Our practice of worship is twofold, two-faced - the outer world, where we care for the world and all of the other parts of the world that are here with us, and the inner world, where we must learn to understand how to hear our own blood and find our own relief.

Worship looks like taking care of your community and it looks like taking care of the environment and it looks like growing things and finding pleasure and respecting pain and making sure the body has what it needs - the world's body and your body and my body and their body.

Because they're all the same.

We are all, no matter what our body looks like, part of the world's body. We're part of the whole and if you don't have everyone then the ecosystem starts to fail. On a practical level, this looks like seating for bodies of different sizes and shapes and places being prepared and prioritized for bodies that depend on mobility aids. On a practical level, this looks like people considering what their bodies need in a given situation - instead of being shamed for deviation. We are all playing some part in the world organism, even if we don't know what it is, so if we don't understand why someone else's body is the way that it is...we don't need to understand. The world understands itself. We only have to understand what our body is telling us and that is complicated enough! The body is trying but the body has a whole lot going on!
What we do understand is this: to hate someone else's body is to hate the world and the world's body, and thus to hate yourself, and that isn't the journey the Church of the Embodied Self is trying to take.

My religion would be based around comprehensive accommodation. In a society in which every person is valued equally, there is no reason to prioritize accommodations for any one group over any other group. Of course it is challenging, logistically and intellectually, to balance everyone's needs evenly and take every possible vector of accommodation into account. The Church of the Embodied Self makes a spiritual practice out of that challenge, finding joy in the work of shaping a world that is made for every kind of person.

All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Anne's church is the start of a meditation on different types of transcendence and truly communal spirituality. Marianne's religion represents the foundation of an exploration of duality, in which the external and internal are separate but profoundly connected. My faith tradition is the beginning of a reminagining of the classic evangelical concept of 'kingdom work,' as reworked for a society that's rooted in the pursuit of equality.

What is the foundation of the embodied religion in your society? How do people engage with worship? Is the church successful at its aims?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.