Meaning in Our Bodies

Sensory Experience as Constructive Theological Imagination

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Heike Peckruhn
AAR Academy Series
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2017.
     328 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190280925.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Meaning in Our Bodies, Heike Peckruhn offers an important contribution to body theology by attending more closely to how we make meaning within our bodies, and especially in perceptual experiences: “Body theology as analysis of human experience places bodily experience and expressions of the embodied subject in time and space at the center of meaning-making, and frames bodily experience by attending to sensory perception, the interplay of bodily experience and the complex productions of culture, and inherent power dynamics within which both are found” (25). Peckruhn begins by developing, with Marcel Merleau-Ponty, her main claim that the human being as embodied existence engages with the world through perception, both as an active perceptual being reaching out into the world from an embodied situation, and as a being passively perceptually addressed by the world: “I and the world are enmeshed with each other, and what pervades this interrelation is perception” (85).

In the second part of Meaning in Our Bodies, Peckruhn unpacks the entanglement of subject and world further by discussing several key phenomenological notions in relation to her concern to think about meaning-making in perceptual experience. A basic concept she uses is the pre-reflective perceptual “terrain” shaped by culture in which we find ourselves placed as experiencing beings. Further, Peckruhn discusses intentionality in terms of a bodily perceptual extension into the world, and the ways in which the sedimentation of perceptual habits aligns us with particular bodily orientations. Finally, language is analyzed as a means of engaging with the world in which we are perceptually implicated. As Peckruhn further develops these concepts, she uses perceptions of gender, race, and difference/normalcy in order to further understand our being in the world as perceiving and sensing.

This leads Peckruhn to formulate several “commitments for body theology” in the third part of Meaning in Our Bodies: the basic commitment to the meaning-making capacity of bodily experience in its perceptual dimensions; the openness of body theology to ambiguity and paradox; and body theology’s epistemological humility regarding its own pronouncements. Returning to the body theologies of Carter Heyward and Marcella Althaus-Reid critiqued earlier in Meaning in Our Bodies, Peckruhn shows how these commitments can help to move body theological approaches further, anchoring them more deeply in sensory perception.

What sounds like a highly theoretical and rather disembodied project is given substance by Peckruhn’s interweaving of theory with her own sensory perceptions of her embodied situation as a German-Thai woman now living in the US, her bodily perceptual experiences with her late German grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and with her Thai mother, a migrant in a small German village. Ideas of difference as perceptually experienced and constructed become meaningful when Peckruhn describes the strange scents of Thai cooking entering the space of dominant German culture in their home, and how this sensory presence has been a way for her mother to negotiate her situation as a migrant. The notion that we are perceptually enmeshed with the world is made palpable in Peckruhn’s account of her grandmother’s continued meaning-making in the world she shares with her granddaughter through her embodied presence, even though the older woman is no longer consciously aware of herself. Historical and cultural comparisons with other perceptual orientations and alignments—for example, cultures that organize their worlds olfactorily rather than visually—underline the fact that we make worlds as we perceptually, bodily engage with them, and are then made by the worlds we perceive.

As bodies that sense and perceptually engage in the world and thus both receive and make meaning of this world, we reach beyond our bodily situation when we are most anchored in it, experiencing difference as a way to sense what is “home.” Perception is thus, as Peckruhn describes it, a continued experience and construction of difference that dynamically disrupts and transcends our embodied situations. In this, Peckruhn finds god as the “terrain”: that which enables perceptual orientations, yet at the same time always disrupts and confuses and transforms them. “What we say and articulate about god is (ought to be?) always transforming (already changing as I write this), it always demarcates a ground of divine revelation and interrelations whilst simultaneously revealing inconsistencies and disconnectedness, a holy flux of visceral beckoning and repelling, claiming and excluding experiences” (278). Given the danger of body theology slipping into a merely metaphorical use of body, or being used to theorize about body rather than within our bodies, Peckruhn’s continued return to sensory experiences, scents, movements, and bodily orientations is most helpful. This is perhaps the dimension of her book that is most inspiring as an example for how we do theology as embodied beings, making theological sense in our sensory experiences.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stefanie Knauss is associate professor of theology at Villanova University.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heike Peckruhn is assistant professor of religious studies at Daemen College in Amherst, New York.

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