I am not sure where I’m going with all this. When my friend asked why I am still a Christian, I actually started writing the story/explanation below about why I haven’t gone the “spiritual but not religious route.” But then I stopped and wondered if I was really getting to the issues that frustrated me so much about my experience of Christianity. By relying so heavily on my own interaction with scripture as the basis for why I considered myself a Christian, wasn’t I once again pull out the evangelical stops? What if I was just reverting to the old, gutted belief that beliefs themselves are what make a Christian? Am I again engaging in the very bibliocentrism that I’ve tried so hard to get away from?
Maybe so. Still, this seems to be what I have. Here I am: Pope Rebekah. Me and my exegetical tools and my imagination. I offer you what may in fact be a contradiction to the story I have told above.
This is the story that makes sense to me.
God's Missing Body
A friend asks me why I am still a Christian.
Maybe I shouldn't be. There might be any number of compelling reasons not to be. Couldn't I just be "spiritual, but not religious"? Active, thoughtful, not tied to religion?
I don't begrudge those who go that route. It might even be necessary for some folks. Sometimes religious trauma can only be dealt with by leaving the structures that housed the abuse. And maybe stepping away from evangelicalism (even if not from Christianity as whole) is a similar kind of divorce.
But that's not where I am. The Bible education that has proven so toxic for many young Christians (I know this from many, many conversations with peers who graduated with a Bible degree) has been my lifeblood.
If I hadn’t been so textually-oriented from the beginning, things might have been different. But I’ve loved words and interacting with stories ever since I was a little girl. My mother encouraged me from a young age not only to write, but to engage life creatively, generatively. Words have been my life.
My mother’s creative bend laid the groundwork for the handful of college professors (some of whom were later ousted from their teaching positions–go figure) who opened my eyes to the dynamism of Judaeo-Christian scripture and its history of interpretation. The Bible was not a static, monolithic body of text or monologue, but a constant dialogue back and forth.
And gradually, the girl who used to bunker down and wait for the world to end caught sight of the world outside her dugout and stepped out into. God grew bigger, and the earth did, too.
But the bigness of God was only one side of it. The scope of my world, my self, my God–all this grew in relation to God's smallness. And it still does.
I keep coming back to the story of a God who has legs, skin, hands, eyes, teeth. The story of Jesus' incarnation–God becoming human in a specific person–is what takes me beyond the god of the apocalypse. God's body, God as organic matter, is the definitive affirmation of this-worldly existence, hinted at from the beginning of Hebrew scripture and climaxing in Jesus.
You can read the stories of the Bible different ways, and the fact that it's stuffed the gills with lots of different metaphors and stories is an open invitation to do so. (It's the classic problem of trying to write a comprehensive biblical theology–there are so many themes and so many threads, you can't just pick one and say it's the central theme.)
The story that's always stuck with me, though (if I took it into my head to attempt a biblical theology) is the story of God's missing (or hidden) body. It's this story that fuels my passion to live, to create, to build the world we long to inhabit.
You can feel God's absent body hovering everywhere in Hebrew scripture, a sharp breath from an unknown deep rippling across its surface.
The writers of Hebrew scripture have always been a bit squeamish when it comes when it comes to depicting their god (Yahweh by name) in corporeal terms. They engage in a deliberate and difficult dance between talking about Yahweh using pictures and metaphors from human life, while at the same time insisting that Yahweh is not reducible to these verbal images. And while verbal anthropomorphisms abound, visual depiction, specifically the making of cult images of Yahweh, is strictly forbidden.
The peoples of the ancient Near East had no such reservations when it came to depicting deities whether it was in literature or visual representation. The faces of gods could be seen all across the ancient world, from the sacrosanct cult images that lay hidden in the great temples most of the year, to the statues sitting in the shrines that dotted the hills, to the small images of household shrines. Gods had arms and legs and heads like humans and beasts, sometimes wings or claws or talons. Gods ate and drank and had sex.
But did Yahweh, too, have a body?
“The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.”
“His hands formed the dry land.”
“The eyes of Yahweh search the whole earth.”
“May Yahweh make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.”
Mouth, hands, eyes, face–if Yahweh’s body could be envisaged in verbal form, why this resistance to visual depiction?
We could spend years and volumes trying to answer that question (many have). But let's just approach it through one doorway, one theme: creation.
In both ANE literature and the Hebrew Bible, creation is linked to rulership. The god who creates the world is enthroned over it and determines its destiny. But we also see this rulership delegated in various ways. In ANE literature, the "image" of a god is tasked to be the god's reigning presence–an extension of the god, not just the god's legal authority, but its real presence (scholars debate on how exactly to tease this out). In the ANE, sometimes the king is referred to as the "image of god," and other times "image of god" refers to the god's cult image housed in its temple. In Genesis, however, the divine image is not cult statue of wood or stone nor is it the king. The image of god is humankind.
The Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, sees the “image of god” as a statement not just about the god and its image, but the fate of Israel (and ultimately the cosmos). Through a series of polemics against the making of Babylonian cult images (Isa. 40:18-25; 41:6-7; 44:9-20; 46:1-7), the writer of Isaiah 40-55 insists that making cult images is an attempt to supplant both humans and Yahweh, thereby subverting or denying the power of both to act and change the course of history.
The human craftsmen (who, in the context of Isaiah, appear to typify both the other nations and Israel itself) try to make an image that resembles a god, but they actually end up making an image that resembles a human being. The very humans that are themselves the image of Yahweh, tasked to advance the destiny of the cosmos, use their creativity to make their own replacement image to rule instead. The cult image, in turn, ends up being conflated with a god, and receives the worship due to Yahweh. In reality, the prophet insists, these other gods don't have the power of the Creator and thus cannot act in Israel's history or save them. Yahweh, by contrast, is the god who formed Israel and can rescue her from her oppressors.
This is one way of looking at the mystery of God's missing body. It isn't so much missing as it is hidden in plain sight. We are God's body. Humanity is God's image, God's "son." Just as Adam fathered a son in his own image and likeness (Gen. 5:4), so God "fathered" humankind in his image and likeness. The image has the power to create, to shape the world.
This power comes with a responsibility. The image must emulate the the Creator's own generous spirit, for God shaped the earth, filled it with creatures, and provided food for all. "Multiply, fill the earth, subdue it." Don't let an obsession with militarism distract you from the richness of these words in their context. What we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is actually two creation stories juxtaposed to one another, which have two kinds of language to talk about humanity.
First, we have the regal view in Genesis 1: humans as monarchs, exercising dominion and spreading throughout the world. (In this first story, humans and God are both regal: God creates the world by speaking, by giving commands like a divine king: "Let there be light!" and the cosmos obeys.) In Genesis 2, we see humans as people of earth, tenders of the garden: "Cultivate and keep." (God, too, gets dirty: he doesn't create humans by speaking, but by forming and breathing into them. This God is a gardener more than a king.)
By placing these two stories together, Genesis qualifies the kind of kingdom to be advanced by and through humankind: not a rule of plunder and pillage and scorched earth, but of tending, tilling, and cultivating.
If you've read the rest of the stories of the Hebrew Bible, you know that the images of God struggle to embody this kind of generative rule. Genesis 3 shows us the images of God staging a mutiny, trying to usurp the place of the very deity who made them. They are sent into exile outside the garden of God, away from Yahweh's presence.
God's body goes wandering, estranged from the Creator that formed and animated it.
That's not the end of the story, of course. God keeps reaching down, searching for images who want to embrace their divine resemblance, lean into it, to be the gods he formed them to be. He appeared to Abraham and proffered a similar gift: land, descendants, and blessing. The land itself wasn't cosmic in scope, but the reach of it's influence was meant to be: God told Abraham that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. And Abraham, unlike Adam and Eve, believed God would make good on his promise, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of God reaching down and humans reaching up. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in many ways. Through the prophet Moses and the giving of the Law. Through Elijah and Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Through the prophets whose names have been obscured or forgotten.
But in these last days, God has spoken to us in his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. This son is the radiance of the glory of God, the spitting image of his nature.
In Jesus, the mystery of God's missing body reaches its zenith, collapses, and rises again. At the very point in time where God is reunited with his estranged image–the moment of power when the image flawlessly embodies its Creator–he surrenders his body, gives it over to death. By leaning into death, Jesus fulfills humanity’s generative destiny.
By participating in humanity’s corporate fate of death (brought on by humanity’s rebellion) despite his own individual innocence, he simultaneously inhabits the corporate body and prophesies against it. Instead of insisting on his rights as God’s faithful heir to forgo the suffering brought on by the human rebellion, he suffers with humanity and so embodies the kind of self-offering righteous rule that God desires. At Jesus’ resurrection, the body of God that has gone into hiding emerges from behind the veil.