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Thursday, November 25, 2021

Does God have a body?

Over the course of the last four weeks, longtime commentator Neo has written three posts on God's transcendent nature for Banned by HWA. His central thesis was summarized in his first post (A Brief Meditation on the Transcendence of God). He wrote: "It is natural for man to seek to understand God by use of analogies.   We compare God to a created being because we are created beings and that is what we understand.  This works well, within limits, because we are in the image of God to some degree.  But it is an error to believe that God is just like us only more powerful.  Here is a vignette of issues.  God is not alive.  Nor is he dead.  Humans can be alive or dead. God cannot be either.  He is existence itself.  He transcends the categories of life and death.  God is not limited by neurology.  He does not hear or see or smell or taste or feel.  Those are properties of the created human body.  He experiences things at a level that transcends our senses.  God does not have a body or internal parts." This view is consistent with the premise of this blog that "God cannot be contained."

In his second offering on the subject (The Transcendence of God and the Ontological Nose), Neo underscored the fact that human body parts serve physiological functions which God would not need to sustain life or experience/interpret his surroundings. To illustrate his point, Neo discusses the absurdity of the existence of a Divine nose prior to the creation of atmospheric gases - before the lungs had been designed to oxygenate blood - before there were any flowers to smell. In other words, what purpose would a Divine nose have served prior to the creation of the material universe and more particularly this earth?

In the third installment in his series (The "Hand" of the Lord: A Reflection on Communication by Analogy in Scripture), Neo discusses some of the anthropomorphic references to God in Scripture. He explained: "God can use metaphorical language to communicate. He used anthropomorphism regarding himself throughout the Old Testament. That is his prerogative. That is how he decided to communicate with human beings for optimal effectiveness. Metaphors create pictures in our minds that we can understand. It’s like if someone said 'As soon as I heard the bell, I flew down here as fast as I could.' Everybody knows the person can’t fly but the image communicates, it depicts." Neo continued: "The Bible is full of literary constructs. 'The Lord is my shepherd' makes you into a sheep. But you are not really a sheep. That is only a metaphor. Otherwise, you might be just another hooved herd animal in God’s eyes."

Of course, this kind of language presents some obvious difficulties for literalists in correctly interpreting/understanding Scripture. However, for those of us who understand the use of anthropomorphisms, metaphors and literary constructs, there is no dilemma to reconcile relative to the Bible. Neo summarized this point nicely when he wrote: "A theophany or a metaphor does not make a statement about what God is in his essence. He is Spirit in his essence in the words of Jesus. The use of a theophany or metaphor does not make God a liar or the Bible a fraud. It rather makes the Bible communicate effectively to its human audience in a way that God chose."

As part of my reaction to Neo's third post, I made the point that the concept of a God who cannot be confined to a locus or corpus is completely alien to Armstrongist theology. In response, Dennis Diehl observed that most Christians think of God in anthropomorphic terms. I replied that the evidence did not support the premise that a majority of Christians shared Herbert Armstrong's notions about God. As evidence, I offered the following quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia: "Yet sometimes men are led by a natural tendency to think and speak of God as if He were a magnified creature -- more especially a magnified man -- and this is known as anthropomorphism. Thus, God is said to see or hear, as if He had physical organs, or to be angry or sorry, as if subject to human passions: and this perfectly legitimate and more or less unavoidable use of metaphor is often quite unfairly alleged to prove that the strictly Infinite is unthinkable and unknowable, and that it is really a finite anthropomorphic God that men worship. But whatever truth there may be in this charge as applied to Polytheistic religions, or even to the Theistic beliefs of rude and uncultured minds, it is untrue and unjust when directed against philosophical Theism. The same reasons that justify and recommend the use of metaphorical language in other connections justify and recommended it here, but no Theist of average intelligence ever thinks of understanding literally the metaphors he applies, or hears applied by others, to God, any more than he means to speak literally when he calls a brave man a lion, or a cunning one a fox." (https://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=5220)

I also quoted a Protestant theologian along the same lines, who likewise confirmed an earlier observation which I had made about God appearing as a burning bush, a pillar of fire/cloud and as a disembodied voice. Writing for The Gospel Coalition's article on "Theophany," Vern Poythress observed: "To some extent, we can classify theophanies into different kinds. There are thunderstorm theophanies, such as Mount Sinai. There are court theophanies, in which God appears on his throne in the midst of angelic servants (Dan. 7:9–10). There are man theophanies, where God appears in human form (for example, to Manoah and his wife). There are warrior theophanies, where God is described as resembling a human warrior (Exod. 15:3; Isa. 49:17). There are chariot theophanies, where God is described as riding on a chariot (Ps. 18:10); sometimes with mention of wheels, Ezek. 1:15–21). There are glory and cloud theophanies, when God appears in a bright “glory” cloud, or sometimes in a dark cloud. God reflects his glory in the created world, so that we can see analogy between creation and theophany (Ps. 104:1–4).
Jesus Christ, as the climactic 'theophany,' is the fulfillment of all the symbolic communications in theophanic forms."

Mr. Diehl went on to characterize these views as being characteristic of some of the religious elite within those denominations and not representative of the views of most of the laity. In response, I offered the following observation: Your view that an expansive view of the nature of God is confined to a small group of elite religious thinkers is not supported by Baylor's research into attitudes extant among the Great Unwashed of America. Indeed, their study demonstrated a wide range of beliefs out there about God's nature. Of course, we all recognize the limitations of polling and asking folks questions about their beliefs or who/what they support, but the results of this survey seem to suggest that folks aren't as wedded to anthropomorphic notions of God as your comments suggest. I'm including the links below, but notice a few of the very interesting results which apply to this conversation: If my math is correct, about 58% of folks agree/strongly agree with characterizing God as "a cosmic force in the universe." Likewise, it appears that almost as many folks are undecided/disagree/strongly disagree with the characterization of God as a "HE." (see http://www.religioustolerance.org/godnature.htm and http://www.religioustolerance.org/beliefs-about-the-nature-of-god.htm)

Hence, a large number of Christians appear to recognize the fact that an eternal, omnipotent and omnipresent God cannot be confined to a particular body. While the Bible makes clear that God has the ability to manifest a form to humans, that form obviously does not necessarily reflect the true nature of God.

The book of Genesis states that humans (male and female) were created in God's image (Hebrew "selem" - suggesting a shade, phantom, illusion, resemblance, etc.) and likeness (Hebrew "demut" - suggesting a resemblance, model, similitude, etc.) --see Genesis 1:26-27 and Strong's Concordance. Thus, while humans experience this physical realm through the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling), we can see that God doesn't need any of those senses (or the organs and appendages which make them possible) to exist or operate in either the material or spiritual realm. As Scripture makes clear in a number of places, God is spirit and is without beginning or end. Hence, while humans may in many ways represent a pale reflection of the entity known as God, we should all be able to acknowledge that God doesn't need eyes to see, a nose to smell, ears to hear, hands to hold, or a penis to reproduce or identify gender! And, just as God cannot be contained in any human temple, the Divine entity also cannot be confined to a specific form, shape or place.

1 comment:

  1. The following comment was sent to my private email account:

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    DD's comments prompted a thought: I remember reading, decades ago, a defense by a Catholic of the use of images and statues in Catholic processions, explaining that their use was helpful to humans in picturing Jesus or Mary or the saints. And I've known Catholics who thought pictures or statues were somehow holy themselves.