Naturism and Christianity

By Wayne Jayes, Chairman of KZNNA.

A fairly high percentage of our KZNNA members are active Christians. That may come as a surprise to some. To me it was an incredibly pleasant surprise, and I can still recall my delight at attending a small Sunday service at my first KZNNA gathering. If you have ever wondered whether Naturism and Christianity are at odds, this post is for you!- Ed

Introduction

My two main passions in life are my Christian faith (done in the Anglican way) and Naturism; and I love to find the spaces and places where those two things intersect. Most people would think that Naturism and Christianity are polar opposites, but they are not; they intersect more often than most people including both naturists and Christians would expect.

Christianity and bodies

Many people think that Christianity is a mainly spiritual way of living. I don’t think it is. Of all the religions that I know of Christianity is the most grounded and body centred religion. Christianity starts (as does Judaism and Islam) in the Garden of Eden with a naked man and a naked woman. Christianity develops radically differently from the other two Abrahamic religions, because if we skip some thousands of years ahead we have the New Adam, Jesus coming naked into the world in a human body just like everyone of us. Theologians call this the Incarnation, God becomes flesh. An early Christian school of thought felt that God could not possibly be contaminated by becoming flesh, their belief was that the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good. They believed in a dualistic world. Early on this doctrine was rejected by the fathers of the Christian religion, they held that God created the world as one, both physical and spiritual and it was all good, after all, God said it was. To this day orthodox Christian doctrine is that God’s creation including us humans and our bodies are very good.

Christianity and nudity

Some things to think about: In chapter 3 of the book of Genesis, at the start of the Bible shortly after God had created Adam and Eve we are told that God was walking about the Garden at the time of the evening breeze. What do you think God was wearing, while he was enjoying the evening breeze on his skin? It seems inconceivable to me that He was anything but naked. And the angel who drove Adam and Eve from the Garden? What was he wearing?

The Expulsion from Paradise by Benvenuto di Giovanni  (1436–1518) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Expulsion from Paradise by Benvenuto di Giovanni  (1436–1518) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Worship

There are some strands of Christianity which hold that what one believes is the most important thing, for many Christianity is all about what is going on in your head. For me Christianity is primarily about worshipping God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, and the only thing which we can use to worship God are our bodies. We use our bodily senses, and we use the postures and gestures of our bodies as well as our voices to worship God.

With our five bodily organs and senses (eyes to see, ears to hear, noses to smell, mouths to taste, and hands to feel) we experience the transcendent and immanent nature of God. We look at stained glass windows, the beautiful vestments which the clergy are wearing, the rich silverware and crystal glass used for celebrating the holy communion. We hear the organ and the choir singing and chanting, we smell the incense wafting up the nave aisle and around the altar, we taste the body and blood of Christ in the communion, and we use our fingers to feel the texture of the Bible, prayer book and hymnal in our hands.

We use our bodies while worshiping; we stand to sing the hymns, kneel to pray, sit to listen to the lessons from Scripture. We make the sign of the cross over our heads and hearts at the mention of the Trinity, we bow our heads on hearing Jesus’ name, and genuflect at the altar.

The Naked Jesus

Next let’s consider the four pivotal moments in the earthly ministry of Jesus,

  1. Jesus’ birth
  2. Jesus’ baptism
  3. Jesus’ crucifixion and
  4. Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus’ birth

As mentioned above, like each one of us, Jesus came into this world naked. This is so obvious it barely needs stating, but it is an important theological fact. Jesus was a naked body at the very start of his life, just like us.

Jesus’ baptism

At first when we think of it, that Jesus was naked at his baptism seems surprising. A very early Christian text called the Apostolic Tradition, presumed to have been written by Hippolytus of Rome some time before 235AD, gives instructions on many aspects of Christian life and ritual including baptism in Chapter 21.

21. ¹At cockcrow prayer shall be made over the water. ²The stream shall flow through the baptismal tank or pour into it from above when there is no scarcity of water; but if there is a scarcity, whether constant or sudden, then use whatever water you can find.

³They shall remove their clothing. ⁴And first baptize the little ones; if they can speak for themselves, they shall do so; if not, their parents or other relatives shall speak for them. ⁵Then baptize the men, and last of all the women; they must first loosen their hair and put aside any gold or silver ornaments that they were wearing: let no one take any alien thing down to the water with them.

So a very early Christian explains how early baptisms were done and it is very clear that they were to be done naked, and being an early apostolic source means they were following the custom passed down from Jesus.

Many artworks portray Jesus being baptized naked, for example the centre piece in the dome of the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, Italy

Centre piece in the dome of the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, Italy
The centre piece in the dome of the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, Italy

Another is from the monastery at Daphni, near Athens, Greece.

Monastery at Daphni, near Athens, Greece
Monastery at Daphni, near Athens, Greece

Other artwork depicts naked baptisms, for example, The Appearance of Christ to the People by Alexander Ivanov (1806–1858), in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Baptism of Christ, by Cornelis van Haarlem in the State Art Gallery in Karlsruhe, Germany.

The Baptism of Christ, by Cornelis van Haarlem in the State Art Gallery in Karlsruhe, Germany
The Baptism of Christ, by Cornelis van Haarlem in the State Art Gallery in Karlsruhe, Germany

The Baptism of Christ by Maarten van Heemskerck  in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Baptism of Christ by Maarten van Heemskerck  in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Baptism of Christ by Maarten van Heemskerck  in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Jesus’ Cruxifixion

That Jesus was naked at his crucifixion is not controversial, the Bible says as much, Matthew 27:27 -35 details how the Roman soldiers stripped Jesus of his clothes and then divided his clothes among them by throwing dice. And much the same account is given in Mark 15:24, and Luke 23:34. In John 19:23 the soldiers take his clothes (in Greek his ἱμάτια) and then removed his tunic (χιτών in Greek, which was the garment worn next to the skin). There can be no doubt that Jesus was left naked at this point.

Art also points to this truth: Michaelangelo’s Crucifixion in the Convent of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy, make the point very beautifully.

Michaelangelo’s Crucifixion in the Convent of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy

Jesus’ resurrection

The idea that Jesus was naked at his resurrection is more controversial. But if one takes the words of the bible at their face value it seems that Jesus would have walked out of the tomb naked, after all the grave clothes he was buried in were folded and left in the tomb. 

It becomes more obvious that he was naked when we look at the Fourth Gospel account of the resurrection (John 20:15) Mary Magdalene saw Jesus outside the tomb but did not recognize him and thought him to be the gardener. Why did she think he was the gardener? Various authors have suggested that because clothes were expensive people doing outdoor work worked naked so as not to ruin their clothes. We know that Peter worked as a fisherman on his boat naked (John 21:7). Another more convincing reason that Jesus was seen as a naked gardener is because Jesus is the New Adam (see Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-23). And of course Adam was the first naked inhabitant of the Garden of Eden.

The Resurrection of Christ by Peter Paul Rubens in the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

The Resurrection of Christ by Peter Paul Rubens in the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

Our Resurrection

The Apostles’ Creed, one of the foundational and universal creeds of Christianity states: “I believe in … the resurrection of the body” Some people think that the body in whose resurrection we believe in is Jesus’ body. But this not the full truth, the body being referred to in the Apostles’ creed is our own body. See for example the words of the Catechism in the Anglican Prayer Book 1989:

What do we mean by the resurrection of the body? We mean that God will raise us from death in the fulness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the communion of the saints.

As for me, I believe that some time after my death, at the time of the General Resurrection, my body will receive new life and my naked body of meat and bones, flesh and blood will be resurrected “in the fulness of my being” in some mysterious way which I don’t pretend to fully understand.

Naked we come into the world and naked we will leave this world (Job 1:21, 1 Timothy 6:7) and naked we will be resurrected into the new world with the New Adam.

What about naturism?

The official definition of naturism is:

a way of life in harmony with nature characterised by the practice of communal nudity with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment

The two great commandments of religion, reiterated by Jesus are:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Some parallels can be drawn between these two ideas: I take a panentheistic view of God, that is to say God is in everything, (as opposed to pantheistic view, which is the idea that everything is God), So loving God and loving (or being in harmony with) nature are similar ideas. Naturism asks us respect others, Jesus demands we love our neighbours. Naturism expect that we respect ourselves; Jesus makes the assumption that we love ourselves enough already. And while self-regard is built into us, we do know that many people have great trouble with self esteem and body shame, so in this case I do think that naturism has something to add.

Classic naturism as developed by the early fathers of Naturism (the Durville brothers, Adolf Koch, Hans Suren, Dr. Heinrich Pudor and Richard Ungewitter to name a few) emphasised physical fitness, sunlight, and fresh-air bathing, and then adding the nudist philosophy, contributing to mental and psychological fitness, good health, and an improved moral-life view. These ideas align closely with the Christian ideals of spiritual, physical and mental and social health, engendered by faith, prayer, and worship.

 Naked worship

Worshipping God, while being naked is a truly wonderful and awesome experience, meaning an experience in which one feels real wonder and awe at both God’s creation around you and the transcendent nature of a loving God, who is completely other, sacred and holy: One feels completely in this world but not of this world. On our KZN Naturist Association weekends away I lead a service of Morning Prayer on the Sunday morning of the weekend, usually in a beautiful natural spot, next to a stream or under some trees. It is a service of prayer, scripture and sometimes singing, which many of our members find deeply rewarding. I commend naked Christian worship to everyone.