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Articulating a longing for God

The following excerpts are from Theresa Sanders’ book Body and Belief: Why the Body of Jesus Cannot Heal (The Davies Group, Aurora, Colo.)

I’m not sure why that particular photograph caught my eye. God knows we’ve all seen hundreds like it, and I might just as easily have flipped past it or missed it altogether. But there it was: “In Bosnia, the Faces of Death” -- a dump truck spilling bodies out onto the ground. The caption next to the photo explained, “Once or twice a month, in a bizarre mimicry of live prisoner exchanges, both sides meet on neutral turf to swap corpses that will eventually be returned to their families.”

The corpses in the photograph are hopelessly entangled among each other so that it is difficult to trace the lines of a single body from foot to hip to shoulder to head. Mixed among them is other debris: a wheelbarrow, a stretcher, sticks, and dirt. One man’s arm, stiffened and bent like a claw, reaches up from beneath another’s body in a parody of embrace. And to the left of the photograph, the driver of the truck glances back from the cab’s open door to see that the entire cargo has been dumped onto the ground.

* * *

“The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead,” reflects Larry in The Razor’s Edge. What distresses most is the sheer intransigence of the dead. They offer no insight, drop no hints and ask for nothing. Nor do they promise anything. A promise, after all, promises something still to come, and the dead have nothing to offer to the future except their own brute facticity.

But the body is not nothing; the swap itself shows that. This man belongs to this son. That man belongs to that woman. The bodies are not interchangeable, nor are they replaceable; one isn’t as good as any other. In some ways, bodies seem more real than the selves and voices that animated them.

Bodies seem in fact a fundament of truth. Bodies can be trusted; bodies do not lie.

Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain, observes it is this peculiar capacity of bodies to substantiate ideological claims that accounts for the prevalence of warfare. After all, there is nothing inherent in being the “best injurer” that entitles one to have one’s way in a dispute. Why does winning a war give someone the kind of power that being, say, the best chess player does not?

* * *

“He died a hero’s death,” we say of the private who was blown up in his foxhole. By invoking the word “hero,” we draw on images of Hercules and Hector and John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and thus when we look at the body blown to bits we are no longer confused by its horrible mess.

Using the body to substantiate one’s claims is a risky business. There is always the possibility that the evidence will backfire or will betray the cause that it is meant to support. One has only to think of witnesses in the Truth Commission trials of South Africa displaying their maimed limbs and broken bones, telling stories of midnight interrogations and prison rapes; the injuries were inflicted as an effort to intimidate, but in the end they serve as testimony against the ones who caused them. One can’t really predict what a body will end up saying.

If the suffering bodies of the saints, dead bodies, resurrected bodies, are so unstable in their meanings, why turn to bodies as a source for theology at this time in the history of Catholic thought?

The very possibility of God-talk is under question. At issue in postmodernity is not what Christians say about God, but the very dynamic of their saying it. In the Catholic tradition, everything in the universe has being, but not everything has being in the same way. For example, rocks, which are insentient and unmoving, have only a very limited participation in being. Plants and animals have a greater share, and the having-being of humans is greater still. In this tradition, “being” is defined as “being present to self,” so it is easy to see why human existence is fuller than is the existence of inanimate objects.

The analogy of being also applies to the existence of angels. Angels, according to the tradition, are beings who are perfectly self-present. They have no materiality and so are at the opposite end of the scale from rocks, which are nothing but material. Nevertheless, angels are still creatures, and so they must still rely on God for their being. Only God is both perfectly self-present and wholly uncreated. Only God, in other words, is God.

* * *

It is one thing to say that people are made in the image of God; it is quite another to enmesh God in the categories and likeness of a human being.

Theologians throughout Christian history have wrestled with the problems created by this gulf between people and God. How can human beings, with their limited capacities for being and knowing, speak of a God who is unlimited. Attempts to solve the dilemma maintain that we speak most truly of God when we speak of what God is not.

What is new, however, is the particular twist this has been given in the past few decades as a result of emerging philosophies of language under the influence of deconstructive philosophies that have led in part to what has been called “the death of God.”

* * *

The problem as it has emerged is this: Deconstruction charges that Western philosophy assumes that behind any system of signs lies the realm of what is signified. If I point and say “bumblebee,” for example, everyone knows that what I am referring to is the live bee that is circling the flower garden. Behind words is thought to lie the full presence of what is signified by the words. “Bee” is a signifier that points to the full presence of the real bee.

What deconstruction states is that to say, to think or even to experience “bee,” whether the linguistic one or the one in the garden, is to find oneself in a nexus of relations characterized by difference. The bee, in other words, can only be recognized as a bee because it is not a flower and is not a ladybug and is not myself or a spot of thin air. There “is” and “can be” no bee-beyond-language because the moment such a creature is even imagined, or is even begun to be imagined, it already is entangled within a structure of differences.

And what is true for the bee is true for God.

* * *

Language cannot signify what is beyond language because what is beyond language can only be thought linguistically. “God” cannot be thought outside of the structures of difference and absence and limitation. And if God cannot be thought outside of those structures, then “God” no longer can mean what it is supposed to mean. In that case, theology has lost its foundation. ... Postmodernity points out that the self that thinks, and the self that thinks about the self that thinks, are not identical. There is a small but significant breach between the two. We are not perfectly present to ourselves. We are not self-contained subjects. There is always a difference between who we are and who we think we are: between our inaccessible “self” and subjectivity.

The claim of postmodernity is that we have lost the sense of a master story: of one complete, overarching plan that governs the march of history toward its denouement. We are left instead with partial narratives and with isolated anecdotes that may or may not be woven into a larger fabric of meaning.

Not just history has been fragmented, but Christian History has come to an end. When Augustine wrote in The City of God that “human kingdoms are established by divine providence,” and that “God can never be believed to have let the kingdoms of men, their dominations and servitudes, outside of the laws of His providence,” he was expressing a faith in the workings of events that few of us can share today. Christian History has been replaced by a tangle of histories, some beautiful and some despicable, whose outcome is uncertain at best and disastrous at worst.

Which brings us to yet another casualty of postmodernity, the belief in a stable structure or principle that guides not only history but nature and human nature as well.

With the end of faith in a divine ordering of history, the law that once seemed natural now appears as a cultural projection: as an ideological creation rooted in a will to power or in an unthinking desire to dominate. The notion of the Book, of an orderly, stable vision of the True and the Good written into the structure of the world and into its inhabitants, is supplanted by partial literatures that make no claims to completion and confess at the outset their biases and bents.

Moreover, as the philosophical Book has been critiqued by postmodernity, the Christian Book has been called into question as well. Words, it turns out, are not an unassailable bedrock. They have histories, and those histories are replete with interpretation, misinterpretation, corrosion, misuse and loss.

* * *

When ideas have lost their power, they appropriate the power of materiality. This accounts for the nearly obsessive interest in the body exhibited by postmodern scholarship.

Yet the truth is that the body is no more stable a source for theology than most of the other possibilities being considered.

How then to understand the Eucharist, the broken body of Jesus, in a postmodern context. Catholic theology insists that when the faithful receive Communion, what they receive is not “merely” a symbol of Jesus’ body but is in fact the very presence of that body.

By insisting that in the Eucharist nothing less than God is received, theologies of transubstantiation appeal to an absolute otherness that prevents idolatry of the self. And when this idol is shattered, a way is opened toward compassion.

* * *

That compassion has historically been symbolized by the pierced heart of Jesus.

The power of Sacred Heart symbolism is missed if the wounds are read simply as injuries to be healed by the ardent devotion of the faithful. Rather, the perpetual wounds of Jesus make evident the brokenness that unites us as humans. They invite us to become “infected” by others’ longings, sorrows, and loves.

Becoming so infected is the work of the saints. The saints, I suggest, are those most keenly aware of the absence of God from the world. Pain becomes a kind of anesthesia that blocks the saint’s knowledge of the distance of God from the world. It is precisely when God seems nearest that the saints find themselves in anguish.

* * *

Pain leaves us speechless and unable to think, these losses given by the saints as mute offerings toward the God whom they love. The final loss is, of course, death, and the deaths of the saints have played an enormous role in Catholic tradition and piety.

The dead body of the saint is venerated precisely because it has surrendered all claims to signification -- because it has risked final meaninglessness. Death is the ultimate kenosis.

In the Christian faith death is not the last word; “If Christ be not risen our faith is in vain,” preached Saint Paul, and Christians have spent no little effort imagining down to the last detail just what resurrection means for our earthly bodies. What we see over and over in theologies of the resurrection is a concern that no part of the body be lost in the transition from death to new life: that the body be raised whole and entire.

What I suggest is that Christians not envision resurrection as the restoration or even the initiation of a final wholeness. The body of Jesus, after all, still has holes in it.

Those holes, like the holes in the body of a saint, articulate a longing for God.

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001