Sweeney’s Booknotes: Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination

Kathryn Reklis, Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Kathryn Reklis has written a fascinating study of the manner in which Edwards’ accounts of “revival ecstasies” in eighteenth-century New England created space for a corporeal way of understanding the self that countered the disembodied self of early modern Cartesian thinkers and the excessively rational self of his “Arminian” opponents. Edwards offered such accounts as an alternative to the usual kinds of theological history, “one that lives not in written doctrine and theological treatise so much as in bodily gesture and movement” (20). In so doing, he paid respect to the theological importance of people other than elite white males.

As one can tell from the preceding, this book is not for the faint of heart, the casual reader, or for those who prefer traditional modes of theological discourse. It will prove to be most useful to those invested rather heavily in late-modern theology.

A constructive theologian teaching at Fordham University, Reklis uses Edwards mainly to retrieve embodied experience, desire, and physical beauty as sources for theological reflection and Christian practice.

As Reklis summarizes the methodological import of her project, “the bodily ecstasy of the revivals can be read as a kind of kinesthetic imagination that carried, through bodily gestures, alternative ways to understand and imagine oneself as a self. . . . Interpreting the ecstatic gestures of the revivals as forming and expressing a kind of kinesthetic imagination is one way to rethink the relationship between embodied religious experience and theological meaning. Or, to put it another way, the concept of kinesthetic imagination allows one to explore how theological belief manifests in embodied experience and how embodied experience conveys and shapes theological meaning” (14).

As used in Reklis’s book, “kinesthetic imagination” is a way of referring to the transmission of meaning (remembered meaning) through bodily gesture. “What is conveyed in physical gesture, when described as kinesthetic imagination, is not simply the same thing twice, but the attempt to both remember and reinvent the original gesture and its meaning as it is imagined or desired” (4). In Edwards’ context of revival, “parishioners around the Atlantic had a way of knowing in their bodies what it meant to be swallowed up in God, to convey that truth to others, and to recognize in others the same consummation” (97). Edwards promoted this way of thinking about the experience of ecstasy as he described and valorized it in his writings on conversion (especially the Faithful Narrative of 1737). “The bodily gestures of the revivals became the means by which people were inserted into the scenario of universality such that they experienced it as both spontaneous and natural, while it also partook of the same repeatable, predictable patterns as in different places on the circum-Atlantic map. Despite significant theological and ecclesiological diversity in the congregations attesting to awakenings, the revival narratives report a remarkable coherence of experience. What these uniform narratives attest to is a powerful kinesthetic imagination that allowed circum-Atlantic subjects to enact alternative ways of being (acting and thinking) in the early modern world” (97-98).

I am not persuaded that Edwards intended to promote such communication, but I am persuaded of the utility of Reklis’s own effort to use Edwards’ revival writings to promote this kind of theology. For a constructive theologian such as Reklis, success in demonstrating the latter is more important than proving the former.

It might be worth mentioning here (as Reklis grants on p. 14) that Edwards classed bodily ecstasies among what he called the “negative signs” of a work of the Spirit of God, telling people not to focus much attention on such things when they were seeking to discern the work of God within their world. Reklis is reading and using Edwards in a way that he would neither have understood (right away) nor embraced. As Edwards wrote in Religious Affections (1746), “‘Tis no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:131). Edwards discouraged people from using bodily ecstasies to transmit theological meaning. He taught that bodily ecstasies often accompany the work of the Spirit in one’s life, but do not convey reliable knowledge of God.

Nonetheless, specialists today will find Reklis’s book a catalyst for thinking about the role of bodily movement and physical memory in theology. I’m glad to see that all kinds of theologians find Edwards a useful conversation partner.