When pushed, most people will admit that God has no body, but they will still think that he does, and how could they not when they think him a "he." For popular piety the learning of the theologians is neither here nor there, let alone the teaching of the church's mystical tradition that if we are to understand God we must begin to abandon the images by which we strive to comprehend God. We must learn to let them fall away, like the rope that helps to hoist a glider aloft, and which the glider must release in order for it to spiral upwards on nothing but rising air. Unless the rope is released the glider will never rise, but fall back to the ground. In order to know the God of the Bible we have to let the Bible go. When Augustine and his mother Monica looked out on the garden in Ostia, and, through their conversation, ascended together to the divine wisdom, they did so by moving beyond - if only for a moment - the words and bodily images by which they climbed, and with which Augustine afterwards recalled their ascent in his Confessions (9.10.24).
Step by step we climbed beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself, where sun, moon, and stars shed light on the earth. We ascended even further by internal reflection and dialogue and wonder at your works, and we entered into our own minds. We moved up beyond them so as to attain to the region of inexhaustible abundance where you feed Israel eternally with truth for food. There life is the wisdom by which all creatures come into being, both things which were and which will be. . . . And while we talked and panted after it, we touched it in some small degree by a moment of total concentration of the heart. (Augustine 1991a: 171)
The description that has done most to establish God as a body, as an old man with a white-beard - an image of patriarchy with an almost pathological hold on the popular imagination - is that of the Ancient of Days in the Book of Daniel. "His clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool" (Daniel 7.9). William Blake's 1794 picture of the Ancient of Days engraved this image on the modern mind. It shows a strong, naked deity, half-squatting on his haunches and leaning forward to set the bounds of the firmament with his compasses, while his white hair and beard (which is not directly mentioned in Daniel) streams in the winds of creation. This is Daniel's Ancient turned into the Creator God of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667/1674), who comes forth, "golden compasses" in hand, "to circumscribe/This universe, and all created things" (VII.224-6). Milton, as Blake saw, had turned the Creator into a demiurge, who comes forth from heaven in order to calm and order the "vast immeasurable abyss/Outrageous as a sea" that washes up against the shores of heaven (VII.210-2). For Blake, Milton had succumbed to the newly forming sci-entism of the seventeenth century, that reduced the world to the material and measurable, and which Blake associated with John Locke and Isaac Newton. As named in Blake's Milton (1804-8), the God of these deists had become "Satan": "Newton's Pantocrator weaving the woof of Locke" (I.iv.11; see further Raine 1968: II, 53-83). The path that would lead from the unseen God of the Bible to the demiurge of modern deism was taken as soon as people began to imagine the Bible's God as an old man in the sky.
The Bible is very reticent about seeing God. But instead of refusing us sight of God's body, it shows it variously, first one way, then another, so that in this way - a via positiva brimming over with images - the Bible becomes a via negativa, obscuring (and so revealing God's hiddenness) by showing us too much; too many fragmentary images. In Deuteronomy (4.12-24), the Israelites are reminded that they cannot picture God because God has no form to be seen. Moses, in the Book of Exodus (33.20-3), wanted to know God (da'ath 'elohim; Exodus 33.13) - like the men of Sodom, who wanted to know Lot's visitors (Genesis 19) - a subtle, or not so subtle, intimation that to know God is to sleep with him. But Moses is told that he cannot see God's face and live, so that when God makes his "goodness" to pass before Moses, he covers Moses with his hand, so that Moses sees only God's departing back (see also Judges 13.22). And yet Moses has already seen God and lived, because only a few verses before he was in the tent of meeting, speaking to God, "face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Exodus 33.11; see also Numbers 12) - up close and personal - and a few chapters further back, Moses, and Aaron and Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders, sat down and ate a covenant meal in God's presence, and they all saw God and lived (Exodus 24.9-11).
But what did they see? Perhaps they saw only a part of God? "Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. . . . [T]hey beheld God, and they ate and drank" (24.10). Perhaps they saw only God's feet? Perhaps God can be seen only in parts? As in other visions and sightings of the deity (Amos 9.1; Job 42.5; 1 Kings 22.19; Isaiah 6.1-2; Ezekiel 1.26-8), divinity is oddly indistinct or dismembered in the strange stories of Moses in the cleft of the rock and eating with the elders and God; a pointer, it might be thought, to the metaphorical nature of God's body.
For Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, in his Summa Theologiae, God is not even a being, let alone a body, and so the Bible's bodily metaphors for God - including references to God's eyes, arm and hand (Psalms 33.16; Job 40.4; Psalms 117.16) - have to be taken as symbols of God's power (1a.3.1 ad 1; 1a.1.9). "Parts of the body are ascribed to God in the scriptures by a metaphor drawn from their functions. Eyes, for example, see, and so, we call God's power of sight his eye, though it is not a sense-power, but intellect. And so with other parts of the body" (1a.3.1 ad 3; Thomas Aquinas 1964: 23). God is no more a man, or like a man, than he is a lion or a bear or a rock (Hosea 13.8; Deuteronomy 32.4).
But there is something uncanny about these stories, as also about the story of Jacob wrestling throughout the night with the man he meets by the Jabbok (Genesis 32.22-32), and whom he takes to be God (32.30); the man/God who gives him the new name of Israel (32.28). Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has argued that the reason why Moses is only allowed to see God's back, and why those with whom God eats only see his feet, is because to see more, or to be told more of what they saw, would be to see, or to be told about, God's front, and so God's sex: the divine phallus. God's member is often intimated, but never seen, and this despite the fact that God's relationship to Israel is like that of a cloth that clings to his loins (Jeremiah 13.11). Ezekiel, who does not hesitate to tell us about the Egyptians "whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions" (Ezekiel 23.20), is teasingly coy when it comes to his vision of God, his sighting of the "something that seemed like a human form." He tells us what every part of this body looked like, except for its loins.
Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was splendour all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. (Ezekiel 1.27-8)
The Bible, and later rabbinical commentaries, hesitate over God's sex - Ezekiel looks upwards and downwards from God's loins, but not at them - and this is because to see God's genitals is to remember that the divinity who commands his creatures to reproduce (Genesis 1.28) does not himself do so. God has no consort, and so no use for the genitals that he yet gives to his human likenesses. It was in order to solve this conundrum - Eilberg-Schwartz argues - that ancient Israel imagined herself as God's consort. The patriarchs of Israel are wife to God's husband, who has entered into a marriage contract with them - as the prophets Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel testify - and who ravishes them. God has watched over Israel from infancy, when no one else would have her. And when she is old enough, he "takes" her for his own.
[O]n the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. I passed by you, and saw you flailing about in your blood. As you lay in your blood, I said to you, "Live! and grow up like a plant of the field." You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. (Ezekiel 16.4-9)
God washes away the blood of Israel's "deflowering"; and male circumcision becomes the mark, in her flesh, of God's possession; the mark, on each man, of his deflowering. Prudish commentators overlook the euphemism of the spread cloak (see Ruth 3.3-9), and like to describe God's "bedding" of the girl Israel as a marriage. It is, but it is more nearly a rape than a willing seduction; Israel becomes more nearly a "kept woman" than a wife, dressed in fine clothes and adorned with jewelry - bracelets on her arms, a chain on her neck, a ring in her nose, earrings in her ears, and a crown on her head (16.10-13). She herself becomes a piece of jewelry: the girl on the arm of her "sugar daddy," reflecting his power back to him. "Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of my splendour that I had bestowed on you, says the Lord God" (16.14). But this girl is Israel - the men of Israel; and this solution to the problem of finding a use for God's sex now has the result of queering Israel's men - as we might say, but they could not. The men of Israel must either acknowledge that they are like men who sleep with men as if with a woman (Leviticus 18.20), or imagine that they are women. It is then this dilemma that is partly overcome - hidden - by hiding God's phallus; by averting one's gaze.
As Eilberg-Schwartz notes, the same kind of discomfort afflicts Christian men who are enjoined to think of Christ as their bridegroom (Ephesians 5.25-30; Eilberg-Schwartz 1994: 237). If only at a symbolic level, all Christian men are queer, as when St Bernard and his monks yearn for the kiss of Christ. This truth can be occluded in several ways. The early church's enthusiasm for celibacy (see Clark 1999) - enjoined on those who would be perfect, if not on all - enabled the use of erotic language and imagery, its spiritualization being underwritten by the celibate's spiritualization of his or her own body through chastisement of its fleshly desires. And when celibacy lost its attraction, and marriage - especially in Protestant Christianity - became more desirable, the homoeroticism involved in men loving a "male" God was secreted away by an increased discernment and destruction of all sodomitical bodies. This is why twenty-first century debates about (male) homosexuality and same-sex marriage are so unsettling for the Christian churches.
Christian men also learned to avert their gaze, while peeking at the same time. In the Western tradition of Christian art, Christ's infant genitalia were constantly exposed in order - so Leo Steinberg argues - to establish his full humanity, as against any lingering docetism. The Christ child is really male, really human. But the tradition also sought to show, while concealing, the genitalia of the adult Christ. Certain pictures of Christ crucified, entombed, or as the "man of sorrows," display his erect member through the elaborate folds of the cloth by which it is covered. Like Ezekiel's God, nothing and everything is to be seen. In the absence of explanatory texts, Steinberg suggests that this sixteenth-century motif -especially favored by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) - was intended to show Christ's perfect humanity; for Christ, unlike fallen man,4 could excite himself by will alone, even in death. "[T]he necessarily voluntary erection in the Ghent Man of Sorrows [Heemskerck 1532] triumphs over both death and sin. It is the painter's way of writing Paradise Regained on the body of Christ" (Steinberg 1996: 324-5; compare Balthasar 1979: 151-3). Steinberg describes these images and their possible meanings with relish, as also the anxieties they occasion in modern historians, who would rather look the other way5 But even Steinberg draws back from noting the obviously (homo)erotic interest - to speak anachronistically -that these pictures must have had for at least some of their viewers, and, more importantly, the manner in which they figure the unspoken - unspeakable - fears and longings of a religion that understands union with God as a bridal mystery, a nuptial intimacy. The queer-ness of Christian culture is shown in its pictures of the aroused (resurrected) Christ.
Once men can marry men - can lie with a man as with a man - the relationship between men and the "male" Christian God is fully revealed as queer. (This is why Balthasar is such an unsettling theologian, for he can even locate "sodomy" within the Trinity when he imagines the Father "fertilizing" the Son; Balthasar 1990b: 78.) Once gay relationships are allowed, the pretence that a man can really only lie with a woman, and a woman can really only lie with a man, are revealed as pretences. But these pretences are but modes of an even deeper pretence: that women depend on men, as Israel depends on God in Ezekiel's tender but terrifying vision. This, finally, is the deep pretence at the beginning of the Bible, in the story of woman made from man. It is the great mystifying reversal at the heart of all biblical cultures and their secular successors: the myth of a man without an omphalos. Which is to say, the myth that man is not dependent on woman, does not really need her; the fear that man is no more than woman - her offspring rather than she his; the fear that what he does to woman is - will be/has been - done to him by the God to whom man is woman.6 Christianity, of course, rewrites this myth by finding Adam but an image of the true man - Christ - who is indeed born of a woman. But then Christianity makes the woman dependent on a "male" deity, to whom she is of course "actively receptive." It reinscribes the myth differently. It is only when Christianity acknowledges that incarnation is not one but two, and not two but many - in the co-redeemers of Mary and her son, and in those incorporated in him and so in her (see D'Costa 2000: 32-9, 196-203) - that God can be released from the constraints of the heterosexual regime (the differential valorization of sexed bodies), and men and women from sexual hierarchy. And this is what is at stake in acknowledging that men can lie with men as men, and women with women as women.
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