The World as God’s Body

August 4, 2013

I ran across an article by Sallie McFague that, while it doesn’t talk about God-language specifically, has some interesting points and some positive repercussions if the described metaphor were taken seriously. A little housekeeping first, since the article was published back in 1998: Sallie McFague is now Distiguished Theologian in Residence at Vancouver School of Theology (linked below).

Here are some excerpts:

Different imagery is needed in order to express Christian transformation in different times. There is a basic point here that needs stressing. Images of God do not describe God but express ways, experiences, of relating to God. We must use what is familiar to talk about the unfamiliar; so we turn to events, objects, relationships from ordinary, contemporary life in order to say something about what we do not know how to talk about — the love of God. This is what biblical language about God is as well: It was contemporary to its time, relevant and secular — God as shepherd, vinekeeper, father, king, judge and so forth.

How should we image God and the world in an ecological, nuclear age? If not in the monarchical model –God as king and the world as his realm — what other possibilities are there?Earth from space

Needless to say, there are many, for no metaphor or set of metaphors can exhaust the varied experiences of relating to God. But I would like to suggest very briefly an alternative to the picture of the world as the king’s realm: let us consider the world as God’s “body.” While that notion may seem a bit shocking, it is a very old one with roots in Stoicism; it tantalized many early Christian theologians, including Tertullian and Irenaeus: it surfaces in a sacramental understanding of creation — the world charged with the glory of God, as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. Moreover, remember that a metaphor is not a description. To say that the world is God’s body is to use the same kind of language we use in saying the world is the king’s realm. Both phrases are pictures, both are imaginative constructions, both offer ways of thinking about God and the world.

And later:

What this experiment regarding the world as God’s body comes to, finally, is an awareness, both chilling and breathtaking, that we, as worldly, bodily beings, are in God’s presence. We do not have to go to some special place –a church, for instance –or to another world to find God for God is with us here and now. This view provides the basis for a revived sacramentalism – that is, a perception of the divine as visible and palpably present. But it is a kind of sacramentalism that is painfully conscious of the world’s vulnerability. The beauty of the world and its ability to sustain a vast multitude of species cannot be taken for granted. The world is a body that must be carefully tended, guided, loved and befriended both as valuable in itself — for like us, it is an expression of God — and as necessary to the continuation of life.

Needless to say, were this metaphor to enter our consciousness as thoroughly as the royal, triumphalist one has, we would live differently. We could no longer see God as worldless or the world as godless. Nor could we expect God to take care of everything, either through domination or through benevolence.

Some food for thought, eh? The above was just a snack. For the full meal you can use the links below.

“The World as God’s Body” by Sallie McFague

Sallie McFague’s Faculty Page


Here’s another quote from “A God Who Looks Like Me” by Patricia Lynn Reilly. See the previous post for the first one.

The following insights inform our woman-affirming spirituality:

We have come to believe that the ultimate truth, wisdom, and mystery of the Universe is far deeper, higher, wider, and richer than any name or image we use to refer to it. We know now that every name and image has its limitations and must be held loosely. Mystery cannot be confined within a language.

We have come to believe that elevating only one image of the divine is idolatry. It limits the vast potential of our imaginations. We have looked squarely at the wounding of women as a result of the dominance of male God language. As we have begun to glimpse a God who looks like us, our healing has deepened. We are now free to choose which aspects of the God of our religious past we will weave into our unfolding spirituality. God the father has become one among many potentially healing images.

a god who looks - bookI’ve let this passage simmer in my mind for a few days. I love most of the ideas, especially the part about mystery being greater than any label. I also like calling an elevation of an image idolatry. However, if “elevating only one image of the divine” is idolatry, how is a movement to multiple images not idolatry, too? This is the problem I have with any gendered — any anthropomorphic — image. If the use of multiple images is not idolatry, it is at least misleading, in my opinion.

I should be clear at this point that I’m not trying to wrest anyone’s personal, meaningful metaphors away. It’s when we are attempting to educate, to advocate and stimulate growth, and to encourage maturation that I think we should lobby for moving beyond gender language. To say that the sacred may, at some time, FEEL like a mother or father or whatever, is one thing. To
teach that the divine actually possesses any anthropomorphic attribute is to encourage the latching-on to that attribute. Which is precisely what Patricia Lynn Reilly eloquently argues against when she writes that our images “must be held loosely.”

There is a fine line here that is easy to cross, and I’ve been lamenting the following for YEARS. See if this scenario sounds familiar: Someone is speaking about some theological and/or spiritual topic. They are questioned about the particular words they are using. They respond with something like, “Of course I don’t literally MEAN [such and such], but you know what I mean.” Well, piffle! (as my grandmother used to say) Why don’t you (we) just go ahead and USE THE WORDS THAT MEAN WHAT YOU’RE SAYING???

For a long time the Church has been teaching things, especially to children, that parents or the church have to reteach later saying, “Well, no, that wasn’t literally true.” Progressive Christianity will not ever be truly progressive as long as this happens.

What are your thoughts on all this? Make a comment!


A quote from “A God Who Looks Like Me”
by Patricia Lynn Reilly

July 22, 2013

I realize that I’m on dangerous ground when I call into question the exclusively male language and imagery for the divine that permeate our religious and cultural life. For many the male God of traditional religion has been a rich and meaningful concept. And the roots of these God-words reach deep into the Hebrew and […]

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God of Contradiction: On Language and Liturgy
by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

July 9, 2013

This article was originally published in “Zeek”, an interesting online magazine. Reposted with the author’s permission. In my early 20s, I began having a certain kind of experience that was so intense, remarkable and strange—call them mystical encounters or whatever other label you’d prefer—that I found myself calling into question what was, by that point, […]

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God-language and Meat for Idols

July 1, 2013

A few years ago I had the joy of attending a series of workshops/presentations by Andrew Harvey, who has been called a modern mystic. Two memories stand out. One is his excitement when talking about the Sacred. The other is how his excitement caused him to sometimes stumble over words when referring to the Divine. […]

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Rabbi Shais Taub on God and Gender

June 23, 2013

“Whenever we use any name for God, we are not describing the Indescribable but our paltry and entirely subjective experience of divine “Otherness” — that which is beyond us.” “These words just mean that in a given context, we who are finite, experience God through our awareness of one of those qualities.” Read the whole […]

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Christmas in Summer (Part One)

June 22, 2013

I think summer is a great time to discuss Christmas. With the holiday about six months away, maybe conversations about God-language, myth and the like can be held with less rancor and panic. Here’s a link to an article I found a while back about arguments among Germans regarding God and gender. I’m posting this […]

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God is Not a Guy, and Neither Am I!
by Jann Aldredge-Clanton

June 5, 2013

More and more I find myself responding, “I am not a guy,” to waiters in restaurants, to educated people at conferences, and even to people in progressive churches who refer to groups of women and men as “you guys.” Sometimes these are groups of all women, and still they call us “you guys.” So the […]

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Patriarchy as Idolatry

May 31, 2013

I ran across a good article written by Sarah Moon. Here’s a quote and links to her blog. Our images of God should challenge oppressive power structures, rather than simply providing a mirror for them to gaze into. Those images of God should free us to speak and to serve and to love, not simply […]

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From “She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse”

May 29, 2013

Book by Elizabeth A. Johnson While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, yet the daily language of preaching, worship, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or […]

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