Footprints From A Spiritual Journey
My Body, My Self
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During a reflective time recently an unexpected question popped into my mind: "What is the most important insight that I have gained in my lifetime?" I entered the retirement phase of my life a year ago, after some 45 years of seeking to understand, teach, and preach the Bible. In such a length of time one learns many lessons, and part of me expected a host of answers to compete for first place. However, there was only one.
That most important insight is this: I am one person. I do not "have" a body, "have" a separate soul, or "have" a mind that is still another separate entity. I also do not "have" an emotional life independent of the other functions. Living my life in a compartmentalized way does not work because I am not made up of various compartments.
I am one being with a variety of self-expressions. I am body/soul/mind/emotion. Whatever happens on one front affects all the others. At most this would seem to be Junior High knowledge, and yet I was well into my sixth decade before I was able to make use of this truth.
My growing awareness of how this "one being" business works can be illustrated in relation to food. I am a compulsive overeater, a condition that is sometimes under control and sometimes not. For years I sought control of my eating through diets, which invariably worked for a period and then failed. Then came a time when I realized that my overeating might be related to something else going on in my life. I did a quick survey, and realized that I was having a lot of stress. Would dieting reduce my stress? No, it would only make it worse. I was not exercising, so why not try that as a stress reducer? Right away my eating became easier to manage.
On another occasion I realized that my spiritual life was badly out of joint. My connection with God seemed to have disappeared. What to do? I knew from experience that prescribing prayer for myself would not work, because when my soul is sick I lack the ability to pray meaningfully.
Interestingly enough, in looking over my entire life situation I realized that I was back to not exercising. And why was I not exercising? I was depressed because I had fallen so far behind in my work, and so lacked energy. The solution was elegantly simple I spent a morning reorganizing my work so that it would come back under control. Having done that, I discovered that I felt like running again, and I pray very well while running. Soon everything was back in balance.
After enough of those kinds of incidents I finally was able to take ownership of the concept that I am one being with many forms of self-expression. Whatever happens within one form affects all others. But this stands out: if I am out of order in mind, spirit, or emotion, lack of regard for my body will be involved in some way.
As this is written the media are enthusiastically reporting the news that a fifteen-year-old girl in England has asked to have breast implants for her sixteenth birthday. She wants to succeed in life, though she has no idea at what. However, she is convinced that only women with large breasts can succeed at anything. What sort of body image is this? She isn't fully developed yet, but already she is convinced that what nature will give her won't be enough.
The greater question is how will she succeed at anything in life when she is so deeply convinced that her body, no matter how fully nature may yet endow her, is not acceptable? Her body is part of the creation that God made and called "good," but she calls it "not good." How will she build a spiritual life? How will she be free to develop her intellectual gifts? How stable will she be emotionally? Everything is tied together. She is one being.
Body shame is an international problem, but America may well lead the pack. Throughout our entire lives we are bombarded with negative messages about our bodies. Girls who may be very fit, but who have a body type other than the anorexic look of supermodels, overhear comments that they would be so much better looking if they just lost a few pounds. Many develop potentially lethal eating disorders as a result. Boys get lots of messages that real "studs" have bulging biceps and "six-packs" on their abdomens. Eventually many start popping dangerous steroids because they seek an image that the typical human body cannot achieve without chemical assistance. I believe that body shame, often expressed through excessive modesty and unrealistic expectations of how life would be better if the body changed, leads to a host of problems.
A Sauna In Sweden
Our tour group stopped for the night at a nice hotel in Stockholm. I went looking for the advertised sauna, and found that everything came in "ones": one swimming pool, one sauna, one changing room, and one shower room. The latter two suggested a clothing-optional sauna, but caution ruled: I pulled on my swimming suit before showering and entering the sauna.
There I found a varied assortment of nude and partly nude Scandinavian men, women, and children, plus an American wearing a bathing suit with a towel covering his head and face. I later learned that he had entered the sauna when it was empty, and was so upset when naked women came in that he covered his head to save himself the embarrassment of looking at them. No, he didn't stay long. How long could you remain in a hot sauna with your head and face covered?
The rest of us ranged over three or four generations in age, and came from several countries. A man from Finland had excellent English, and we quickly struck up an extended conversation. Others were equally friendly and helpful as I tried to understand the culture, though the language barrier had some limiting effect. When it came time for my first cool-down from the sauna, I removed my suit under the shower so that I would no longer stand out. Then I went back to our good conversation.
In the group there were two pre-teen girls who happily alternated their time between the swimming pool and their parents in the sauna. There was also a little boy, just a toddler, whose parents mostly played with him around the pool. However, his mother brought him into the sauna briefly, and then set him on the shower room floor to play while his father and mother showered.
The overall spirit that one felt was of a happy family gathering, various generations having come together to enjoy each other's company. That we were total strangers hardly seemed to matter. The common state of nudity mattered not at all.
How do you suppose those children are likely to feel about their bodies as they mature? Will they be so filled with body shame that they will constantly be looking for ways to present themselves as something other than what they naturally are? Will the girls want breast implants for their sixteenth birthdays?
Some things are obvious. Male and female body parts will not have the well-known power of the mysterious for them, because they will have seen them all their lives. These children will have been less subjected to the temptations of sexually provocative bathing suits, as they live in a country where nude swimming and sunbathing is commonly accepted. They will have had many positive esteem-building experiences of having been accepted exactly as they are.
One needs only to wander through Europe to realize that the various cultures generally share a positive attitude toward the body: There is an abundance of nude public art. Some of it remains from the Greek and Roman empires, both of which found the well-developed human body to be the highest expression of beauty. These representations were not used to sell products, so they carry with them no claims that the viewer should or can have a body that matches the artistic ideal.
The art of the Renaissance, which was integrally connected to the Roman Catholic Church, rediscovered the grace of the natural body. One result is that many churches today are rich in art treasures that exalt the nude body, both male and female. There is also much twentieth century art that celebrates the human form. In Oslo, Norway there is a fabulous sculpture park displaying the work of Gustav Vigeland, who created 192 sculptures featuring over 600 nude figures that interpret the entire range of human experience from birth to death.
One story particularly summarizes for me the prevailing attitude that European Christians have toward the body. Everyone knows that Michelangelo adorned the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with magnificent art. Because my ignorance of art is vast, I did not know until we got there that he also did the altar wall. That wall depicts the Last Judgment in a series of scenes. Starting from the lower left, dead souls rise to the judgment. Those who are acceptable to heaven continue their journey toward blessedness, while the condemned descend toward to the lower right corner where they enter Hell. A great serpent, representing Satan, winds around the final condemned man. The serpent is biting his genitals � certainly a graphic depiction of the pain of Hell! Most of the figures on the altar wall are nudes.
Our guide told us that a certain archbishop complained to Michelangelo about the many nude figures, and demanded that they be clothed. The artist kept right on with his work, but when he came to that last figure he put the archbishop's face on it. The angry archbishop appealed to the Pope. However, the Pope loved both the wall and the joke, and ruled that altar wall should remain just as it was.
I live near Sacramento, CA. Visitors here are largely safe from nude public art, though there is one notable exception. Outside one of the entrances to our Community Center Theatre, our finest venue for the performing arts, there is a bronze statue of Poseidon. It was a gift from the government of Greece, a beautiful replica of a statue from antiquity. The figure is nude, but the unknown sculptor minimized the size of the genitals so that they are an insignificant part of the whole.
Last year a Christian home schooling convention was held in the building, with some parents bringing their children. The parents were upset by the "immodesty" of the statue. They insisted that it be clothed so as to avoid traumatizing their children, who might otherwise see an actual representation of the human body. Their solution? Poseidon was nattily attired in modern dress throughout their convention, except for the day he wore a more period-appropriate toga.
According to the United Nations, the girls that I met in the sauna are growing up in a society that averages about 13 births per year per 1,000 girls 15 - 19 [all figures are from 1994]. Japan, where nude communal bathing is practically an art form, averages 4 births per year per 1,000 in this age group. The similar birth rate for countries in the European Union averages about 15. In the United States the teenage birth rate is 64 � an astonishing 4 times that of Europe and 16 times that of Japan. Many cultural differences will combine to account for these disparities, but the greater body acceptance that comes with social nudity surely makes its contribution.
A Midwest High School
Some readers may be old enough to remember the famous Charles Atlas ads featuring the "98 pound weakling." I was that person, or so I thought. Throughout adolescent years and into college I was so skinny as to seem emaciated. I was also awkward and terrible at sports. I hated my body. And one more thing: I had a distinctive genital condition.
Then came high school with its naked locker rooms and swimming pool. In our small town the only swimming pool was the indoor pool at the high school. Boys and girls swam separately. Girls were required to wear the standard tank suits issued by the school, while boys were not permitted to wear suits. If this now seems strange, trust me: this was a widespread, common arrangement throughout much of the United States. So, it was going to be necessary for me to be naked while changing and showering every day at gym class, and that nudity would extend for the entire period when we were in the pool.
Yes, I did have anxiety as the time approached when I would have to be nude around my classmates. That fear loomed large on my first day of gym, and persisted to some degree until I had showered with my fellow classmates at the end of that first class. Then it was gone forever.
What do I remember from that time? I had not yet learned to swim when I first went into the high school pool, so I was cautious of the water. Nevertheless, there was a great sense of freedom to be playing in the water with no clothes I loved it, and it seemed that everyone else did also. Swimming was just about everyone's favorite class.
Over the course of four years of high school I spent many hours naked among other naked boys. Some were as skinny as I was, or more so. Some were too fat. The perfect athletic bodies turned out to be surprisingly few. I never again daydreamed over the Charles Atlas ads, and my worries about my bony build simply went away (in later years I would have given a lot to get it back!).
There was, of course, the matter of my distinctive genital condition. As I had feared, one look around the locker room confirmed that I was the only boy in my class that was uncircumcised. As an adult I came to understand that this is the sort of difference that can be traumatizing for a boy, and can carry over into adult obsessions. That did not happen to me. I discovered from the beginning that no one cared. My "condition" was scarcely ever mentioned. The rare comment on my difference was simply in the nature of a friendly observation as boys did what boys do: compare their organs.
Yes, I did my own comparing. It was instantly obvious that there is a very large range of normal penis sizes. This was greatly reassuring to this insecure adolescent.
Gym classes can only do so much As an adolescent and young adult I had my full share of anxieties and issues to work through. However, my impression is that I have consistently lived more at ease in my skin, less concerned to seem to be other than what I am, than many others of my acquaintance. My work made it desirable to know myself better through counseling, and my counselors have suggested that I am more comfortable with my own sexuality than is the case with many of my profession.
So I look back at those high school days in the pool with great fondness. Not only is swimming nude today a wonderfully free experience in its own right, but it allows me to feel again the adolescent delight of innocent, energetic play with my classmates. In a simple, enjoyable way that high school pool brought much lasting good into my life.
Before leaving this section, I will digress to note that younger readers can scarcely imagine the advances that prudery has made in the United States over the last thirty years or so. Women have always had a different experience, but for boys and men skinny-dipping used to be taken for granted. My university did not have a swimming pool, so I went frequently to the YMCA. Swimming suits were never used. I was past thirty before I ever swam with a suit in a "Y" pool. Now, at least in some places, it is routine that high school kids do not shower after gym, or even after a football game, so that they can avoid having their nakedness seen by others.
Social and Faith Concerns
After I had done a few years of pastoral counseling with individuals and couples, it became clear to me that our society is truly sick with respect to body acceptance, sexuality (maleness/femaleness), and sex. I discovered that it is not unusual for women not to become orgasmic until their late thirties or early forties, if they ever do achieve that happy condition. I encountered men who believed that sex was only for producing children, and who left their wives without the emotional support that comes through physical closeness. I have known husbands and wives who were so shy about their bodies that they went to great lengths to avoid letting their spouses see them nude. I came to realize that both men and women may have so much body shame that they expend large amounts of time, emotional energy, and money to appear to be something other than what they are. To what purpose? To impress people that they have never met before and will never see again.
Most of the people whom I counseled were to some degree involved in a church. I became convinced that the churches of America have made great and terrible contributions to developing what is surely one of the most perverse societies in the industrialized world, so far as misuses of sex and sexuality are concerned. I came to believe that what the churches communicate verbally and nonverbally has little to do with what the Bible teaches about our creation. Our churches do not address Biblically our nature as sexual beings inhabiting bodies that have male and female characteristics. The connection between sexual health and spiritual health is exceptionally close, as great saints have recognized for centuries, but the church that addresses this helpfully is rare indeed. In the churches we may also fail to display Biblical compassion and forgiveness, either for ourselves or for others, when the ideal slips from our grasp. Sometimes I have wondered if we might not have a more healthy culture today had the Puritans stayed in England and sent some Scandinavians in their place!
In any event, ours is a culture that constantly titillates as it uses barely clothed bodies to sell products that can never satisfy the urges upon which they prey. Attire at beaches and parties is commonly designed specifically to highlight sexuality. At the same time that better nutrition and health care are causing our children to enter puberty at ever-earlier ages we also encourage them to delay marriage longer and longer. We urge teenagers to refrain from sex until marriage, but typically no Christian permission is provided for relief through masturbation. There may be direct teaching against it, and there will certainly be great silence about it, even though the Bible says not one word on the subject. Healthy adolescent sexual interest becomes loaded with conflicts and guilt, preparing the way for an adult lifetime of diminished pleasure or outright problems.
Earlier societies, including especially those presented in the Bible, made provision for the natural needs of developing men and women to be met through marriages that occurred not long after puberty. We have gone completely in the opposite direction, while subjecting our hormone-laden youth and young adults to continual stimulation through dress, advertising, movies, and music. No wonder we have a tragic teen birth rate and multitudes of mixed-up adults. Can people of faith believe that this is what our loving Heavenly Father intends? Surely not.
A Crucial Personal Decision
My personal journey through life was helped immensely by a decision I was able to make in my young adulthood. I have always believed that the foundation for it was laid in those teenage times in the swimming pool.
After leaving school and working for a few years, I found that I was in a personal crisis. My perception was that my congregation wanted their pastor to play an asexual role, functioning as the one person on the scene who never had a sexualized thought or deed. I experienced strong inner conflict as I sought to please those around me and live out a role for which I was in no manner suited. I am a relentlessly heterosexual male, never good at pretending otherwise.
I finally faced up to my inner turmoil through a combination of reflection and Bible study. I then declared my conclusion to myself. My maleness is God-given, and was part of that original Creation that God called "good." The window through which I look out on the world will be forever shaped by the fact that I have a pair of glands not found in women. There is nothing that I can do about that, should do about it, or want to do about it. I acknowledged that I am pleased and happy to be a male, and sincerely hoped that women everywhere might have the same pleasure in their femaleness.
Several benefits flowed from this insight and decision. It contributed greatly to my inner peace and self-confidence. It helped me remember every day that I must guard myself to maintain appropriate boundaries wherever I go, but most especially with people who put themselves in my care. I never again sat across from a woman and said, "I know just how you feel." I did, however, sometimes say, "As a man I'm not able to know how you feel, but you are very important to me." Women appreciate the distinction.
As a private sign to myself I began to do a few things that are mostly regarded as male activities. Initially I had some fear of how my revised self-presentation would be received by those with whom I lived and worked, but it gradually became clear that the more I accepted myself the more they accepted me. The more I trusted my own nature, the more others trusted me.
As stated previously, I am convinced that the self-acceptance articulated so plainly to myself began in that swimming pool so long ago. There were years of growing up still to go, but the necessary resource was there when I was ready for it.
A Journey Into Naturism
Since childhood I was aware that there were places where whole families gathered and everyone took off their clothes and went naked. I never thought of social nudity as wrong, but I also never thought that it belonged to my world. That was for someone else.
In the early 1970s I spent seven summer weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area to work on an advanced degree. One sunny day my roommate and I decided to drive to the ocean for a change of pace. We drove along Highway 1 for some time, and then agreed that we would like to stop and walk down to a beach. Soon we came to a turnout where several cars were parked by a trailhead. There was no sign. We hiked down the hill, and were quite startled to find a secluded beach populated by people who wore no clothes. Men, women, and children were playing happily in the surf and along the beach, and not a swimming suit among them! Entirely by accident we had found the famous Red Rock Beach.
Curiosity drew us forward, even as I had visions of the police swooping down to arrest everyone in sight. I actually asked a couple of people, whom I was carefully looking directly in the eye, if they were safe from arrest. They promised me that it was not a problem.
We decided to stay among them a bit. My original intention was to remain dressed, but that quickly became impractical: With my clothes on I seemed to be a voyeur, and that felt dirty. I slid my shorts off, hugging my knees to my chest to avoid exposure. However, I soon began to relax and enjoy the day.
My roommate did not care to return, but I went back a couple more times. Each time I found it to be a lovely scene of families and friends enjoying themselves in nature. Initially there was also a mixture of loneliness and sexual stimulation. I had been away from my family for weeks, and I missed them beyond words. I wanted my wife to share this beautiful place, and I wanted to make love to her. For her part, she was hundreds of miles away and totally unaware that I was on a nude beach. When I got home I told her about the beach, and she joined me in wishing that she might have been part of that experience.
However that was it. I was soon back in "my" world, and it did not include nude beaches. Those special times in the sun were largely forgotten in the press of work. Once in a rare time I would think of them fondly, always supposing that there would be no such occasions again.
Some years later we moved to California. Our entire family hoped that we would be able to afford a home with a swimming pool, and our hopes were rewarded. An added plus was that our backyard was totally private within its fence. We could have dispensed with bathing suits then and there, but we did not. We had teenage boys, and family nudity was not a part of our lives.
Eventually the boys grew up and moved out, and then I saw no need not to return to what has always been my most enjoyable way to swim. It took my wife some time to join in, for her early experiences had been just the opposite of mine. Her repressive upbringing had left her with a huge burden of body shame. Eventually she did imitate my example, and not bother with her suit. It took some time for her comfort to develop, but eventually it became her favorite way to be in the water. Late summer afternoon swims, when we could come back together after work, became precious moments that heightened our intimacy, both spiritual and physical.
Too soon she was struck down with illness that ultimately ended her life. In God's good time another life partner came my way, and I once again found myself living in a house with a pool and a totally private backyard. Swimming nude and enjoying the sunshine and warm breeze without hindrance of clothes was natural to both of us, and enhanced our enjoyment of our home together and of each other.
A few years later we moved from "her" house to "our" house. This time the totally private backyard and pool was no accident: we made it a requirement. We actually found an urban home with total privacy on all four sides. We shared so much enjoyment in our natural state that we began to describe ourselves as backyard nudists. We joked with each other that when we retired, we would move to a deserted island, and, as our boat approached the shore, we would throw all of our clothes overboard.
But that was just us. We still did not anticipate that we would ever be the ones to enter into a socially nude situation, though I had begun to believe and to share with my wife that it might in fact be enjoyable to do so.
We love romantic places, and decided to vacation at a lovely Jamaican resort for couples only. There was an offshore island reserved for nude sunbathing. I wanted to try it out, but would not propose it for fear of pressuring my wife into a situation that might be unpleasant for her. On the other hand, she did not want to deprive me of the opportunity, so she overcame her own reluctance to suggest that we give it a try.
It turned out to be enjoyable for both of us, though also slightly intimidating for her (she too was brought up in a highly restrictive environment). For me it was instantly natural. Lying nude in a hammock in the tropical sun with a Caribbean breeze caressing your skin is about as close to heaven as we are likely to get in this life � especially when you add a good book and a cool drink to that picture. Congenial people around us to chat with completed our enjoyment.
Too soon our time there ended, and we agreed that we loved the resort. The one negative for me was that I found it hard to strike up conversations with people anywhere except on the nude island. We thought it might be due to the fact that in a "couples only" setting people may have just been so locked into their companions that they did not have much interest in others.
Two or three years later we decided to return to Jamaica, this time at a resort that offered both "textile" and nude areas and was open to everyone. We started out on the traditional side. Outgoing person that I am, I started trying to get some good conversation going. Everyone was polite, but only one man seemed interested. He was sitting at the bar, and kept repeating to me the remarkable number of drinks he had put down. It was information that I did not care to have.
At lunch we met an older, devoutly religious couple who told us they had discovered that the nude beach and pool were both much nicer, and encouraged us to try it. I tried it first, and quickly found a group of congenial, open people. Soon I was sitting at the swim-up bar learning about Jamaican politics from a former member of the Prime Minister's cabinet. Then I had a short course in day trading from a successful trader. And so it went.
My wife chose for some time to keep her suit on, and we both alternated between the two sections of the resort. Before our time came to an end, she did join me in swimming nude in the ocean, a beautiful experience for both of us.
We are frequent travelers who rarely return to any place. This time we quickly agreed that we had found a wonderfully romantic, elegant spot that we should visit again. We were in a gem of a setting, with great scenery, food, service, and entertainment. It was a perfect place to celebrate our love.
We returned last year. We made our reservations and paid for them months in advance, so it was an unwelcome surprise to learn that we were not expected and they did not know what to do with us. In Jamaica the maxim is "No problem, Mon," as they assured us that they would find a solution. They suggested that we go get some lunch while they sorted out the problem. However, before we got across the street the desk clerk came running out to ask if we would be willing to accept an upgrade to a suite. Somewhat nervously she explained that it would be on the au natural side.
I left it to my wife to decide, for above all I wanted her to be comfortable and happy. She had the same concern for me, so gulped a couple of times and said, "Let's go for it." Thereupon we were led to a lovely third floor suite with a view over the ocean and along the shoreline that any right-thinking person would pay many additional dollars to obtain. "No extra charge, mon. Enjoy."
We quickly unpacked, and then the lovely wife of my later years said, "I suppose we'd better just do it." With that we got out of our clothes, secured beach towels and went to a fabulous tropical beach that we had nearly to ourselves. Of course we had it to ourselves: the wind was blowing a gale, and life on the beach was miserable.
It was only a few minutes until we agreed that was not going to work, so we moved out of the wind to the sheltered swimming pool. There we met warm, friendly people who were quick to include us in their conversations and in poolside activities. Literally within our first hour of starting to work on our all-over tans, my wife began a sentence by saying, "Next time we come�."
So began a most wonderful week of celebrating a marriage that we believe to be a rare gift of God. We laid by the pool and read; we laid by the pool and slept; we floated in the pool and tanned; we exercised and swam; we had many delightful conversations with other guests; and we joined in pool volleyball and many other games organized by the resort staff. We found it to be so enjoyable to live clothes-free in that idyllic setting that we ate nearly all of our breakfasts and lunches on the au natural side. On the day we left we put our traveling clothes in our carry-on bags and took them to the poolside so that we could enjoy the last possible moments. We just did not want to get dressed.
The resort staff includes the "Fruit Lady." She is a genial Jamaican woman who patrols the beaches and pools with a basket of fresh fruit and ready conversation, both of which she offers to guests in generous portions. She does not initiate talk about her own personal life, but if you ask her she tells you that her "main thing" is singing in her church's Gospel Choir. If you show interest in that, she will sing a gospel song for you. So it was that a group of naked Americans and Canadians sat around the pool bar and listened with rapt attention as she sang a simple song of the profound faith that sustains her in a difficult life. It was a wonderful spiritual moment, clearly moving to many of us.
Since then we have shared an additional experience at a clothing optional facility, and have a couple of others scheduled. But this is enough to indicate our journey into naturism.
Questions, You've Got Questions
Now I wish to address some questions that may occur to others who have not had such experiences, particularly Christians.
How can you go to places that are filled with lust and sexual activity?
We don't. There is no activity at the places we have been that you would be embarrassed to show your mother or your pastor. The resorts that we visit have very clear rules: sexualized behavior will result in your immediate departure. It simply does not happen in public.
So far as lust might go, it was interesting for us to observe that the resort games on the clothed side are much more sexually provocative than on the au natural side.
How can you pretend that it is not sexually arousing to be around naked men and women?
Some things have to be experienced to believe. Skimpy bathing suits are provocative and arousing. Naked bodies are neither. The chief sex organ is the brain, and it really goes to work when "forbidden" parts are left covered. Some naturists report a degree of arousal for the first few minutes (that did happen to me many years ago), but that is quickly gone and does not return.
The sheer joy of sun, breeze, and warm water on my unrestricted body leaves me feeling more alive and vital, and that often increases my desire for my wife. When you are sixty-five and deeply in love, an increase in interest can only be a mutual blessing. However, I do not experience any difference in that phenomenon whether I am swimming nude at home alone or in a resort pool surrounded by people.
How do you keep people from finding out who you are and what you do?
All of my life I have preferred to enter into social situations without leading with my occupation. I prefer to meet people with as few barriers as possible. On the other hand, I never hide my vocation. If someone asks what I do, I report that I am a Baptist minister. I also give them my real name and tell them where we live.
Aren't they shocked?
I am not aware of ever meeting anyone in a nude facility who was shocked to learn that they were talking to a naked minister. After all, they were not wearing clothes either.
There often is surprise, and sometimes delight. It has always turned out that there are other Christians in the facility who are deeply involved in their respective churches. Most often those have been conservative, evangelical churches, and the people sharing the time with us were major leaders in their own congregations.
This openness sometimes leads to valued friendships, and predictably leads to discussions about how we Christians do or do not live out the freedom we have in Christ. Last year we had lunch in the sun with a genial couple from a most conservative denomination. They had enjoyed one of the best weeks of their lives, looked forward to doing it again, but were seriously concerned lest someone at their church or in their family should find out what they had been doing.
Some people in any church would not understand. What if your secret gets out?
I believe that every person is entitled to a private life, but a secret life is not usually a good thing. We tend to be secretive about activities of which we are ashamed. If we are doing something shameful, we should stop it and ask God's forgiveness.
There are many parts of my everyday life that I maintain in privacy. I would not discuss my increasingly frequent need to visit the bathroom in a sermon, nor tell the church how much money we have in the bank. However, I would discuss those topics with the appropriate person at the appropriate place and time. I am not ashamed of these things, and do not consider them secrets.
Concerning our naturist practices, our close friends and family have known for years that it is better to phone ahead before ringing our doorbell, especially in the summer. After our last Jamaican trip, my wife found a wonderful additional way of letting people know without making them or us uncomfortable.
One day the resort provided a talented professional artist to do high quality body painting at the nude pool. We each provided the canvas for a tropical painting on one of our "cheeks." We took close-up pictures of each one, and my wife put the photos in our trip album. They show nothing embarrassing, and yet it is clear what part of the anatomy was painted. Many people have seen the album. Those that want to talk about it do, while others merely turn the page without comment.
It is still hard for me to think that Christians would participate in public nudity.
First, be clear about what is meant by "public." We are not going to our local mall without clothes. This discussion concerns enjoying the freedom of living clothes-free in settings where everyone there has that expectation, and is doing the same. In those settings it is remaining clothed that is likely to be considered offensive, especially for men (women are often granted more latitude).
Second, this is not a new thing among Christians. In many earlier eras and cultures there have been Christians who were comfortable without clothes, though it is fair to say that they may have been in the minority. As with many matters relating to ancient times, there is disagreement among scholars as to how prevalent the practice actually was among Christians.
In 2000 Nova did a program on Roman baths, showing that changing areas, toilet areas, and the various baths were all shared simultaneously by men and women who were without clothing. However Graduate Theological Union Dean Margaret Miles has argued that these practices varied among the Romans. She holds that originally the sexes were separated in the baths. That practice gradually changed as different emperors issued changing edicts, so that mixed bathing was the norm by the fourth century.
It is known that some Christians owned baths. John Kundert, editor of The Fig Leaf Forum, has cited an archeological discovery:
At one bath there was an inscription that read, "I Thomas, (acting) for the sake of all property owners, have given this bath, presenting this memory. What is the name of the bath? Health. Through this entering, Christ has opened for us the bath of healing." [see The Fig Leaf Forum,#60]
However, this is not in itself evidence that Christian men and women shared the baths at the same time.
When dealing with historical issues, sometimes we learn that a practice existed because there are warnings against it. There are several early warnings against mixed bathing, including Jerome's opposition to it in the case of a "Christian virgin." The fact that use of the public baths, which everyone agrees were commonly shared by the sexes by the fourth century, was debated within Christian circles is evidence that there were Christians who found the practice acceptable. I personally think it likely that their numbers were substantial.
I am aware of no scholarly disagreement that there was a significant period when Christians, male and female alike, were baptized nude. This may have been less a reflection of the secular culture and more a spiritual act with roots in Judaism. That religion insisted on extreme modesty, and yet believed that there were times to go naked for spiritual reasons. The Old Testament has its stories of kings and prophets who appeared naked in public to express spiritual joy or messages of doom, and it is known that at the temple in Jerusalem ritual bathing was done nude (but single sex only).
Third, Christians today participate gladly, happily, and without it even being thought worthy of discussion in many parts of the industrialized world. It only becomes an issue if one assumes that the majority American culture is the "gold standard" that judges the rest of the world. After visiting nearly thirty countries, I do not hold that view. Rather I believe that the United States, wonderful land of opportunity that it is, yet has much to learn from other countries and cultures.
Moreover, even the American view of public nudity is changing. I recently saw an industry claim that the fastest-growing segment in leisure travel is nude recreation. Millions of Americans visit nude beaches, parks, and other recreation areas annually. Newsweek recently reported that nearly one American in five has skinny-dipped in mixed company, and thirty new nudist resorts, clubs, and campgrounds have opened in the past two years.Christians appear to be well represented among them. As stated above, we seem to meet other Christians every time we visit a naturist resort.
What if I would like to try nude recreation, but my spouse is opposed?
This is a common situation, and it was ours. There is much Internet information on the subject of nudism and naturism, including Christian web sites and web pages directed toward women's issues. Some of it directly addresses this question. Beyond that I can only share my own experience.
My wife's happiness is more important to me than my opportunity for nude living. From the beginning she has been entirely comfortable with my nakedness in the house and yard, and free to join in as she wished. Had it been otherwise, I would have restricted myself at home.
We practice open communications, and at each step of our slow journey into naturism we have talked both about what I would hope to try next and about her concerns. This is not something that she needs or would seek out, and left to herself it is not something she would try. Typically she has needed lots of time to become comfortable with "next steps." We kept the conversation going and waited until she was ready. As a result she has had a series of experiences that were enjoyable for her as well as for me. Had she not reached that place of comfort, we would not have taken that step. Since I have cared in this way for her comfort and enjoyment, she has reciprocated by supporting my interest.
There was a time when she simply gave me permission to go by myself to engage in social nudity, preferring that to accompanying me. It seemed to me that this could bring distractions into our marriage. It is easy for one who has not had the experience to imagine events or motives that did not occur. From the beginning I saw social nudity as something that we should share together or forego altogether. Therefore, I declined the opportunity.
A particular concern for me was that I not lead us into a practice that would violate my wife's moral principles. We discussed this several times, and it became clear that her reluctance stemmed from the extreme modesty common to women who are raised in repressive homes and who have body shame reinforced at every stage of their lives. It was not an issue of morals, but of personal comfort.
Beyond that I would not want to offer general advice. I have the good fortune to be in a mature and caring marriage covenant. We have each learned that the other can be trusted to do everything possible to provide for happiness and fulfillment. That opens so many doors for each of us. However, we know that each marriage is different, and each situation requires mutual wisdom and caring.
Want more Christian information? I recommend the web site of seminary professor Dr. Gary Pence. Scroll the page down to the personal activities section. Also look through the materials on the courses he teaches. In addition to his own material, there are many helpful links.
Many Biblical texts make a contribution to understanding the appropriate Christian relationship toward our own bodies in particular, and toward social nudity in general. A few of these have been particularly meaningful to me as I sought and found confidence that what I do is within the range of liberty permitted to Christians.
The Bible begins with the story of creation (Genesis 1 - 3), an account filled with bounty and grace: Adam and Eve were provided an idyllic existence with all of their needs and nearly all of their wants provided, with beauty all around, and with no shame for their naked bodies.
The two people (not just the woman) were disobedient to the single restriction placed upon them, and the perfection of creation was shattered. The consequences of disobedience to our loving Heavenly Father, Creator of the Heavens and Earth, plague us still today. But notice the first consequence: they were suddenly ashamed of their nakedness, and that fact is presented as the immediate signal to God that sin had occurred (Genesis 3:7-11).
The Old Testament describes the subsequent development of early society among the chosen people of God, a feature of which was a high level of body modesty. Eventually a complex system of religious laws developed among the Jews that prescribed the smallest details of life, including a very modest manner of dress that fully covered the "shame" of the body.
Sometimes people want to pick out one single feature of Old Testament life, perhaps a single law, and use it as an argument that one should or should not do something. There is a huge problem in this practice. The person doing this immediately assumes the obligation to explain why Christians today should observe this law but not all the others (Romans 2 teaches several important lessons about the law, one of which is that those who depend upon the law must observe the entire law).
In the New Testament Paul instructs that women must dress modestly for worship (I Tim 2:8-10), and he clearly assumes that men will do the same. But modesty is always relative to the occasion and the social expectations of the group involved. What we today judge to be modest attire for church may not quite fit in at the supermarket, and will look ridiculous at the basketball game or beach. Today we see the absurdity of early New England missionaries putting Hawaiian women into Mother Hubbards on the assumption that only so could the Hawaiian converts become modest. They were already modest when they were naked. It was the imposition of New England expectations upon a place and culture for which they were not suited that was immodest.
Galatians 5 contains a pair of admonitions that exist in tension, and I have frequently struggled to live appropriately between them. "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (Gal 5:1) On the other hand, this counsel comes just a bit later: "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Gal 5:13) This latter verse couples neatly with advice given in Romans 14:21: "�it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble."
I was raised in a home where the parents were extremely concerned with what others might think. I grew up in a congregation where not doing anything that would give offense was a high priority. My seminary training included specific training in how to conduct myself so as not to give offense. The various ministry positions that I held over forty years all had rules, some written and some unwritten, by which we knew what behaviors would not give offense and which ones would.
Perhaps my childhood training made me more susceptible to fear that my own "self-indulgences" would offend others, or perhaps I was experiencing a universal fear of not being liked. In any event, I was very good at "becoming slaves to one another." There were many things I might have done that I never believed to be wrong, but did not do them because someone else thought they were wrong. I missed a lot.
Growing up in the faith is a lifelong process. Somewhere along the way I paid more attention to the beginning of that Romans passage, where it is clear that it is only those who are "weak in the faith" who have problems eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul is not saying not to do it; he is instructing only that it should not be done at times and places that create problems for others. Moreover, he specifically chastises those who presume to make judgments about others with a freer conscience. (See Romans 14:1-12)
Once I developed a more mature understanding of this passage, the way opened for me to pay more attention to the "For freedom Christ has made us free" text. I came to believe that Paul actually meant what he said, i.e., that we should live in freedom, and that we should not let others set rules for our behavior. Our behavior must be responsible, but the Spirit within grants amazing freedom to enjoy life.
Where then do all the rules that are so much a part of most churches come from? I believe that many come from those who interpret Paul with little reference to Jesus.
Paul was trained as a member of the sect of the Pharisees. After he became a Christian he not only gave up the legalism characteristic of his day, but fought mightily against it. However, he retained the manner of speaking and writing in which he had been trained. It is very easy to take Paul's letters and interpret them as rules for others to follow. Since the spirit of legalism lives on in every generation, setting rules for others on the basis of Paul's writings has been quite popular. The corrective is to always read Paul through the lens of Jesus, but that is often not done.
In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul states the expected outcome for a person who lives in a proper balance between exercising the gift of freedom that comes from Christ and exercising proper concern for others. That outcome is what Paul called "fruits of the spirit": love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Therefore, I have learned to judge any activity in which I participate by such questions as these: "Does it add to the joy of my freedom in Christ?" "Does it bless others?" "Does it cause an increase of the fruits of the spirit in my life?"
My slow and cautious journey into naturism has added many benefits to my experience of life, to my joy in creation, to relationships with new acquaintances, and to my ability to express the very traits that Paul called "fruits of the spirit." Is this then within the range of the liberty permitted to Christians? Absolutely.
What might Jesus say? What is there in his teachings that assure us that this is a right understanding?
Jesus was more life-affirming than many Christians ever realize. He was a frequent guest at parties and banquets, so he must have been fun to be around. He made more wine when the wedding host was running short, and John said that this act to keep the party flowing was the first evidence that showed his heavenly origin (see John 2:11). He loved to tell stories, and the people loved to hear them. He was frequently funny. In short, he lived an abundant life among us. Those who teach that the body is evil and that the flesh must be denied do that without much help from Jesus.
When I was in my late 30s, I was far along the way toward becoming a full-blown workaholic. I was so busy doing "God's work" that I was typically exhausted, and therefore irritable around my family. Not that it mattered much, because my family did not see me that often. I had little time for my wife or children, and next to none at all to just enjoy being alive.
The Spirit visited me with a profound spiritual impact in an experience that continued in stages over several months. I have spent the rest of my life trying to practice what God taught me during that time.
It began with a question that came uninvited into my mind. "Did Jesus mean it when he said, 'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.'?" (John 10:10) Well, of course he meant it.
"You're a pastor, a Christian leader. Can you call the life that you have "abundant"? No way. I'm too busy working for God and the church to have a life.
"What do you have to offer your people? You are telling them to find something that you have never been able to find for yourself." Could we change the subject?
"Isn't that dishonest?" Yes, it surely is. I am living a dishonest life.
It was made clear to me that if I had the largest and fastest-growing church in town (which was in no real danger of happening), it would not mean a thing if my wife was divorcing me and my children hated me. In the truest sense of the word I had a conversion experience. Learning to live a more balanced life took a long time and much patience on the part of those who love me, but I did give up the compulsive work orientation and learn to live with enthusiastic enjoyment of life. What a gift!
In this I am a radical: I believe that Jesus meant what he said. Particularly I believe that he meant it when he sprinkled his teaching with a few succinct statements that sum up what he was about. All of his teachings are important, but some encapsulate the heart of his mission. One such summation is this: "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly." This is what Jesus was about.
In the churches we are fond of exhorting people to live the abundant life. We command them so do so. We praise such a life. We explain that everyone can have this wonderful experience. We praise the abundant life from end to end.
None of this has anything to do with actually living such a life. Jesus modeled a way of living that entered wholeheartedly into life's experiences, laughing without restraint in the happy times, and crying when his heart was broken. He walked right through the most stringent barriers in his society in order to enjoy being with people, many of whom were by no means respectable. His followers ate when they were hungry, and never mind that they were not supposed to harvest grain on the Sabbath. In the churches we are prone to talk about what Christians do not do. Jesus showed us that his followers were the freest of all.
But what does "abundant life" have to do with the body? Frequently interpretations focus exclusively on the spiritual possibilities of this saying, passing over any discussion of what this might mean for the body to which we are so intimately connected. To understand the inadequacy of this approach, one needs only to consider the many ways in which the Good News that Jesus incarnated expressed loving concern for the physical needs of people. He fed bodies, and he healed bodies. He cared for tired bodies. He restored dead bodies to life. Should we then conclude that the cross had no benefit for bodies?
Since Christ has redeemed us and we are set free from the effects of sin, may we not expect to taste once and again some of the wonders of life in the Garden of Eden? After all, that was the intended place for humanity to live. More accurately, that was the intended state in which we should live. Has Christ restored us to that possibility? My answer is clear. Since God has created us as whole persons � body, mind, spirit, emotions making up a single unity � we who live in Christ surely can trust that our tangible bodies are redeemed along with those intangible parts of which we more traditionally speak.
I believe with all my heart that it is so. Christians have no need to live in shame of their bodies. At appropriate times and places we have the freedom to enjoy the delight of sun, breeze, and water. If we choose, we may do that in the company of others, and the fellowship adds to the pleasure.
The expectations of the various Christian communities so bind us to conventional behavior that even a taste of life in Eden eludes many Christians. That is merely further evidence that sin is alive and well, and its deadly effects are still being played out. Jesus offers us more. He offers us freedom from the effects of sin. He offers us the pleasures of life that God intended for us from the beginning.
Remember that last trip that my wife and I made to Jamaica? When we were sharing that beautiful setting with others, enjoying what I can best describe as a life-affirming experience, a thought popped into mind that has come back to me many times. "Everything here is beautiful, everything is for our enjoyment, and no one is ashamed of their nakedness. Isn't this our time in the Garden of Eden?" Yes, for that moment it was. If we are open to it, there can be many more such times as well.
I intend to stay open.
 Margaret Ruth Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West, Beacon Press, 1989. See pages 27-28.
 The Fig Leaf Forum is a monthly newsletter delivered by email or Postal Service. The archives are not searchable online, but can be obtained by subscription. The web site is at http://www.escape.ca/~flf/
 See Miles.
 Newsweek, February 5, 2001, p. 9.
Charles Daney's Religion and Naturism Links:
Wholesome Nudity Page: http://www.geocities.com/cwillc.geo/
 All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
 We may not see the humor in his stories because we do not understand either the language or the culture.