Divine Embodiment and Transcendence: Propaedeutic Thoughts and Questions
James E. Faulconer
1. Latter-day Saint doctrine is that the Father and the Son have bodies: "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also" (D&C 130:22). At first glance this seems straightforward: the Father and the Son are embodied. However, it requires very little reflection to begin to wonder what that means. Joseph Smith's first vision tells us that their bodies are able to hover in the air and that they are bright beyond description (Joseph Smith History 1:17). Brigham Young and others taught that, though their bodies are bodies of flesh and bone, they do not have blood (cf. Journal of Discourses 7:163, Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History 5). Luke 24:31 tells us that Christ is able to disappear immediately from view and Luke 24:36 tells us that he can enter a room just as suddenly. Apparently divine beings do not move through space as we do.
2. The bodies of flesh and bone with which I am familiar do not shine, have blood, cannot hover, can be wounded and die, must move through contiguous points of time-space--in short, they are not at all like the bodies of the Father and the Son. So what does it mean to say that the Father and the Son have bodies? In fact, does it mean anything at all? When I use the word body in any other context, I never refer to something that shines, can hover, is immortal, and moves through space seemingly without being troubled by walls and doors. Given the vast difference between what we mean by the word body in every other case and that to which the word refers in this case, one can legitimately ask whether the word body has the same meaning in this case that it has in the others.
3. It is always possible to explain such things as divine shining and the unusual character of divine movement by adverting to the possibility of physical laws that we do not understand. However, that answer is not so much an answer as a statement of faith. It is as if to say obliquely, "I do not understand fully what it means to say that God is embodied, but I am confident that it is true." I share that confidence. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to talk philosophically about divine embodiment. My question in this essay is not whether the Father and the Son are embodied, but how to understand philosophically the claim that they are. My response will be primarily to suggest some directions I think we must take for such an investigation.
4. Of course, this problem of how to understand claims about divinity as we begin to push those claims toward their limits is not only a problem with discussions of divine embodiment. It is equally a problem when we talk about any characteristics of a divine being. God is just, but the more I think about what that clause means, the less I am sure what it means, for his justice is clearly not like mine. Equally, as an omniscient being, his knowledge is not like mine, so much so that the more I think about it, the more I wonder what it means to speak of omniscience. Each of his characteristics is sufficiently unlike mine that I can reasonably wonder in what sense the words describing those characteristics mean the same thing. However, if what they mean when speaking of God is radically different than what they mean when we use them to describe human beings, then it is difficult to understand how the terms are meaningful.
5. One cogent response to this problem has been to argue that in our talk about divinity we use analogies: I know what it means for a human to be just. When I say that God is just, I mean that he has what I call justice, but that he has it to an infinite degree. He is so much more just than I that I probably do not really understand his justice, but because I do understand justice in human terms, I can imagine something of what his justice must be like. However inadequate my imagination of his justice may be, it is not meaningless. Thus, on this view, though I don't understand well what it means to say that God has a body, I understand enough about human embodiment to say meaningfully that God has a body. When I speak philosophically about divine embodiment, I always only begin with what I know about human embodiment and extrapolate from there. My extrapolations may turn out to be wrong and they will certainly turn out to need improvement as I receive the responses and criticisms of others, but they are the best I can now do philosophically.
6. Every Latter-day Saint knows that we have more than philosophy to teach us about the embodiment of the Divine. The Lectures on Faith teach that we know of God's existence only by revelation (2:32). It may be that we learn of his characteristics only in the same way, though even the appeal to revelation is subject to the errors of my imaginings and inferences. Nevertheless, looking at the ways in which the scriptures and the prophets speak of God's embodiment may provide clues that will help us say as much as we can about it and it may provide a check on our speculations so that we are less likely to go astray.
7. Perhaps the first thing to recall is God's statement that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, Moses 2:26-27, Abraham 4:26-27). The discussion of that claim in the theological literature is voluminous, most of it centering on how to understand human imaging of God without attributing human form to him. The discussion is complicated by the fact that the Hebrew word translated image does not mean only "something similar to another thing." When God speaks of creating human beings, he uses two words to indicate the form that humans will take: likeness (dumuth) and image (zelem): "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Though the word translated likeness can refer broadly to anything from a vague similarity (as in Ezekiel 1:5, 26), to a mode, or to an exact copy (as in Isaiah 40:18), the word translated image is more difficult. Speaking of the word translated image, one commentator has said: "Zelem refers to the personal relationship that can only be found between 'persons.' The personality of man is placed vis-a-vis the personality of God."1 As far as it goes, this remark is helpful and in line with much traditional discussion: Genesis tells us that human beings are made in the image of God's person. However, the remark does not go far enough. The word zelem is seldom used in the Bible, but when it is used, it always suggests visual representation (as in Numbers 33:52 and Amos 5:26). In fact, the Septuagint translates zelem by the Greek word for the kinds of images and likenesses one finds in pictures or statuary (eikon). We also know that the word for image appears on a statue, referring to that statue.2 Thus, zelem ("image") is less ambiguous than dumuth ("likeness"), and it suggests more than mere similarity. It emphasizes that human beings have the form, the look, of God. The anthropomorphism of this passage is inescapable (Vawter 55), though it is more in harmony with the text to speak of the theomorphism of human beings.3 Joseph Smith spoke in the same vein in the King Follet funeral sermon: "I say, if you were to see him [God] today, you would see him like a man in form--like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man" (Teachings 345). Thus, most obviously, to say that God has a body is to say that, were we to see him, we would see a being with a form like ours.
8. The scriptures also teach that Christ's embodiment was essential to his work as our Savior. Alma 7:11-13 says:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
This adds meaning to Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-18: " For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit--and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink." Theologically, I find the verses in Alma 7 particularly interesting, suggesting as they do that were Christ not embodied he would have been unable to atone for our sins: he needed a body to take death on himself and he needed to take death upon himself in order to loose its bands; he needed to learn mercy and how to succor his people and both required that he have a body and suffer infirmities.
9. The scriptures tell us little about what it means to say that God has a body: as far as I can tell, only that he looks like us and, perhaps, that Christ's body was necessary to him so that he could show mercy and work the atonement. Latter-day revelation indicates that we must gain bodies if we are to fulfill the purposes of our Heavenly Father, but it is not obvious what that implies about divine embodiment. Philosophical reflection may take us beyond these points and may help us think about what it means to speak of divine embodiment and find ways of understanding the concept, but it remains only philosophical reflection.
10. I believe that, rather than a positive statement of doctrine, the earliest latter-day discussion of divine embodiment is best understood as a rejection of traditional Christian doctrine concerning God and the metaphysics that makes that doctrine possible and perhaps even necessary. Joseph Smith's most clear statement of God's embodiment comes as part of a denial of Nicean trinitarianism: "That which is without body, parts and passions is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones" (Teachings 181).
11. In Aristotle and after Aquinas, metaphysics is onto-theology, a search for ultimate grounds and an identification of those ultimate grounds with the divine.4 Many of Aristotle's philosophical questions deal with grounds (aitiai); in Physics as well as Metaphysics the question of grounds is the question, but it is also the historical origin of most Christian theology. The discussion of god (theos) in Metaphysics L is part of Aristotle's discussion of grounds: god is the ground of grounds, the ground of all change from potentiality to actuality. Plato's identification of the divine with the Good offers something of an alternative, but the alternative has less impact on the development of an alternative to onto-theology than one might expect. Because medieval Christian theology prior to and including Aquinas took God to be the Good rather than Being, strictly speaking it may be unfair to describe it as onto-theology. Nevertheless because theology up through Aquinas shares a great many metaphysical commitments with onto-theology, the shift to onto-theology that took place after Aquinas was not dramatic.5 Onto-theology has been the hallmark of Christian theology at least since Aquinas and, in a certain sense, it has been the hallmark of theological discussion since Aristotle.
12. Marcel Gauchet has argued that we can only understand the development of contemporary democracy and practices such as science as a development of onto-theology. Though I do not share his understanding that religion is no longer a genuinely viable option (Gauchet: though individuals may remain believers, the world can no longer be understood in religious terms), I think his overall description of the role that Christian onto-theology has played in Western history is cogent. In outline, he argues that the ontological dualism of onto-theology (traditional Christian theology) made the world in arena in which it is possible for individual human beings to have power and influence and, so, created the framework in which it is possible to conceive of democratic institutions as well as made possible the observation and manipulation of the natural world. It would be difficult not to be grateful for the possibilities given us by onto-theology. One must not throw the baby out with the bath water, and the question of how to avoid doing so is one that Latter-day Saints must face, for by asserting that God has a body, Joseph Smith removes discussion of God from onto-theology with one stroke.6
13. By not defining God as "wholly Other," existing in a realm absolutely transcendent of this world and being the being on which this world absolutely depends, even for its existence, LDS thought makes a radical break with traditional thought. However, it may not break so radically, may return to or restore in some sense, something like what Gauchet, with others, has called "the mythical mode," namely the unity of the divine and the terrestrial (where unity refers, not to the unity of the traditional god with that which he has created, but the unity of a universe in which God dwells as a creative being, a multi-faceted unity, a unity in which the word unity tells us only that there is not another ontological realm, not that there is no multiplicity in the world.7 By believing in an embodied God, LDS thinking does not uncouple the natural and the supernatural.
14. The implications of that refusal to uncouple are immense. Politically, it suggests that, for a Mormon, secularism remains an impossibility. God is in the world in something like the same way we are; he is not resident in another ontological sphere. Thus, we cannot, as happened historically (giving us the framework within which democracy became thinkable) separate God's governance of the world from our own. His existence in the same ontological sphere that we inhabit makes impossible the separation of the worldly and the heavenly that secularism requires as at least a first step. Though it is not obvious how we ought to think the political, given our differences with others about the ultimate nature of reality, differences centered in the claim that God is embodied, those difference certainly raise questions about how Latter-day Saints are to think it. They bring to the fore the question of how we are to live in a world to which we are essentially alien, not alien as one might have been in the tradition, who saw himself or herself as a spiritual being living for the time being in an alien physical world, but alien as one whose understanding of what it means to exist, of what is most fundamental, differs radically (even if its radical character is not fully explicit) from the world in which we find ourselves.
15. Joseph's stroke may also remove God from philosophical discussion, not by making it impossible to speak of him philosophically, but by making it very difficult. If God is not to be understood using the concepts of onto-theology (and, as I said, I believe that most, perhaps all, Christian philosophical theology is onto-theology), then it is not clear what concepts are available to the person who wishes to think about God philosophically. We must also wonder whether we can speak of God philosophically without always running the danger that we will unknowingly import the concepts of onto-theology into our discussions. The consequences of rejecting onto-theology, in other words, the consequences of believing that God is embodied run deep in our cultural and intellectual heritage, to their very roots. As a result, some of our theological discussions may simply be wrong-headed, trying to speak of God with concepts that do not apply or at least implicitly trying to make our understanding of him fit inappropriate concepts and conceptual structures. Even if we somehow manage to escape those problems, our discussions are likely to be shot through with deep equivocation. These sorts of problems make it easier to be sympathetic to those who accuse Latter-day Saints of not worshiping the God of Christianity. If by "God of Christianity" they mean "God of traditional Christian philosophical theology," then they are right: we do not believe in or worship that god.8
16. Because of the problems of speaking of divinity at all and the problems we inherit with onto-theology, the question is one of how to proceed philosophically. As I suggested earlier, the only alternative I see is to think about human embodiment and try to imagine, by analogy, what it would mean for that to be perfected. However, such a method is complicated by the fact we also have a difficult time speaking of human embodiment: when we speak of our own embodiment, we often speak as if the body were something one owned and could, therefore, lose or sell or, if necessary, do without, like a favorite jacket. In other words, we speak of the body as if it were a thing separate from ourselves.
17. I believe this way of speaking is in large part a consequence of mind-body dualism, itself a development from traditional Christian thinking about the relation of the body and the spirit/soul. We have borrowed this way of speaking from our tradition: in the tradition, the soul (corresponding to the spirit in LDS terms) is like God in that it is, ontologically, of another sort than the body and, as a result, can be understood to possess or inhabit the body. However, Joseph Smith's teaching suggest that the ideas of possession or inhabiting will not be helpful to us when we try to understand embodiment. He says, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter" (Teachings 301). I understand this to mean that the body is not something that acts as a container for something non-bodily, for the spirit is also incarnate. In fact, in reference to bodies, there are no non-incarnate things.9 This suggests that we cannot understand incarnation as something unembodied becoming embodied. It is bodies of some kind "all the way down."
18. Of course, it might still be possible to understand the body as comparable to a glove, a material entity into which another material entity, the spirit, is slipped, perhaps, for example, in the interstices of the atoms and molecules. However, such an idea multiples unknowns, so it is unsatisfactory as an explanation, even if it happens to be true. If I answer a question such as "What is the relation of the spirit to be body?" by saying "In a process that I do not understand, the material spirit is contained within the material body, though I have no evidence for such a claim," then, though I seemed to have given an answer, I have not really. In addition, if, as we believe, spirits are also embodied in some sense, then we cannot answer the question of embodiment by referring to another body. To speak of embodiment as a spirit having a body is, at best, misleading.
19. Perhaps one of the most obvious things that one can say about the claim "God has a body" is that, in some sense, it means that he exists in space and time and that he is not wholly other than human beings. However we might come to understand each of these implication, it is clear that the claim that God is embodied means that Latter-day Saints understand God quite differently than do other Christians. Latter-day Saints must think divine transcendence quite differently, for the transcendence often attributed to the traditional god, complete transcendence of being, is not possible for a being who exists in space and time.
20. Of course, both the non-LDS tradition and we assert that God transcends this world, but the ways in which transcendence can be understood are different in each, at least because of the Latter-day Saint belief in God's embodiment. What to make of transcendence is difficult in any case10; how do we speak of or understand something said to be "beyond being" or "noumenal?11 However, to say that the Divine is embodied is to suggest that divine transcendence is like human transcendence. If we understand what it means to speak of human transcendence, then we will have at least an analogy to divine transcendence.
21. With that, then, let me see what I can say about human embodiment and how that might help us think about divine embodiment by focusing on transcendence. But first a note about how I will try to speak of the body in this discussion: We can speak of a body, animate or inanimate, in terms of its characteristics, in other words, scientifically, or we can speak of it in terms of its situatedness/interactions/activities/relations (what I will call shortly, openness). However, to see the body in terms only of characteristics is tantamount to seeing it as a corpse, even if the characteristics discussed are the characteristics peculiar to a living being. To see the body only in terms of physical characteristics is to see it only in terms of the effects it produces as a material entity; its uses, its goals. It is not to see it in terms of its life and, so, it is to miss crucial aspects of what it means to be embodied.
22. My reference to life is not meant to suggest that life is one more characteristic, something we could add to a list of characteristics: "two-legged, up-right, brain of so-many cc's, etc--and living." Neither is it to suggest that living human bodies cannot be understood as material entities: in terms of skeletal, muscular, and organ structures in which successful neuro-chemical reactions take place. I assume that it is, in principle, possible to give a complete description of human existence in such terms without adding something like what the tradition has called the soul and we call the spirit, an extra but unseen entity or characteristic that imbues the material body with life. It ought to be possible to give a complete account of human being in these physicalist terms.
23. Rather, the point of talking about life is to draw attention to the fact that to speak of a living human being in neuro-chemical or other sets of physicalist terms is to speak of something other than the experience and living of embodied human life. It is to speak of the human as an object of scientific inquiry, as one would speak of a corpse or rock or plant, as something other rather than as something of which I am one. It is legitimate, even essential for certain purposes, to speak of human being in those terms, but doing so does not exhaust the possibilities for meaningful discussion of human being.12 There are other languages for understanding human embodiment.13 My discussion will attempt to take advantage of another way of talking about embodiment than the physicalist way without denying the importance or the completeness of physicalist language. At the same time, I will try to avoid reducing the other language to physicalist language.
24. Because some Continental philosophers have been more engaged in the discussion of embodiment in non-physicalist terms, I will rely on their work as a kind of shorthand.14 Rather than try to explicate their arguments and phenomenological descriptions here, I will summarize them and provide references so that those interested can pursue the philosophical case in more detail. My suggestions and conclusions about divine transcendence will be based on those shorthand arguments and descriptions.
25. As I see it, there are several things we can say about human transcendence, all of them implicitly matters of embodiment and, so, all of them candidates for helping us think about what divine embodiment means. A first is that humans are, qua humans transcendent. A second is that for human beings transcendence means openness and exposure. It means the possibility of suffering.
26. Martin Heidegger makes the first point this way: "When I go to the door of the lecture hall, I am already there, and I could not go to it at all if I were not such that I am there. I am never here only, as this encapsulated body, rather I am there, that is, I already pervade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it" (Vorträge und Aufsätze 152). The point is a point against Cartesianism: I am not trapped in my body, looking out at the world via my sense organs. To assume that I am so trapped is to assume that I am essentially unembodied. For if I am essentially embodied rather than a being merely inhabiting a body that is ontologically distinct from that being, then my bodily perception of the world is not a mediation of myself on the inside of the body and the world on the outside. Instead, perception is my contact with the world itself; it is part of my life in the world, not a bridge across my encapsulating flesh to that world that lays beyond. To be a perceiving being is to be open to the world; it is always already to be touched--to be being-touched--and it is to be ready to be touched perceptually by the objects in my world.
27. This point has also been made in terms of intentionality: To be a subject is to be oriented toward objects. Without objects there is no subjectivity at all. Consciousness, the most obvious form of subjectivity, is always consciousness of something. If there is nothing to be conscious of, then there is no consciousness. Thus, the Cartesian question of how one can know that there is an exterior world is a bad question. It assumes that it is possible that the subject exists without objects, without an exterior world, though the subject is, by definition, related to objects. Thus, to be embodied--for humans, to be a living subject--is to be transcendent. It is to be a center of knowledge and action that is always engaged in a world around one (a center that Heidegger described with the German word for "existence," Dasein).
28. Merleau-Ponty takes Heidegger's point further, arguing that to be embodied is to inhabit the world in a particular way:15 "We must ._._. avoid saying that our body is in space, or in time. It inhabits space and time" (139); "to be a body is to be tied to a certain world" (148). I would translate this by saying that to be embodied always includes having an attitude (in the literal sense of that word rather than the psychological: "fittedness; disposition; posture.") To be a body is to take a position in the world, where the word position refers not only to a spatio-temporal position that we can fix by specifying a series of coordinates and world refers to more than the set of physical objects that surround us. To be embodied is to be oriented physically, mentally, socially, culturally, etc. I "have" a body like I have an idea or a fear, not as a possession or characteristic, but as the way in which I project myself in living and in relating to others and other things (174 fn 1).
29. If we use our understanding of human embodiment to think about the transcendence of an embodied God, what can we say? I have already made the first point, namely that in an LDS theology, God cannot be transcendent of the world in the same way that the traditional god is transcendent of it. As understood by the theological tradition, God is without perspective on the world. Being unembodied, he sees and understands from every perspective, both temporal perspective and spatial, and that aperspectival character defines his omniscience. Thus, if we wish to talk about the omniscience of God from an LDS understanding of him as an embodied being, we will necessarily understand his omniscience differently than does the tradition.
30. If we can understand divine embodiment by extrapolating from what we understand of human embodiment, then we will have to understand omniscience in such a way that it is modulated by God's orientation in the world (where world means "that which environs him" rather than merely "our world"). How to do that without implicitly or explicitly importing the concepts of onto-theology is the challenge that those wishing to do LDS theology face, a challenge that I am not prepared to address, but to which David Paulsen has made significant contributions. However, I think we can at least say that it must include an understanding of the Divine as situated and situating in an already-given context to which he responds.
31. The flip side of transcendence as openness to and contact with the world is the possibility of suffering. As an embodied being I am exposed to others, capable of suffering in the root sense as well as in the ordinary sense. In other words, I am capable of passivity. The tradition has explicitly rejected God's passivity; he is not only without body or parts, but also without passions, in other words, he is not at all passive. The desire to avoid attributing passivity to God is understandable, especially given the metaphysical commitments of traditional theology. If he is the all-powerful Creator and ontologically other than any other thing, then it seems that one must suppose that he cannot be affected by anything. However, if he can be affected by the acts or existence of another being, then a number of things follow. For example, if God is not radically ontologically different than those things that impinge on him, then he is one of the beings there are rather than being itself or the ground of being. Thus, he is also in a world with other things rather than outside of any world. And, if God can be affected by others, then it will also be necessary to understand omnipotence differently than does the tradition.
32. To my mind, the primary problem with the non-passive nature of the traditional god is that the passion of Christ becomes even more difficult to think about. If the Son is embodied and can suffer, then what does it mean to say that the triune god is without passion? One can respond that the mystery of Christ's passion is no deeper than the mystery of his embodiment or the mystery of the Trinity as traditionally understood--and I would agree, but come down on the other side: I am unwilling to reject the embodiment of God and accept the additional mysteriousness of Christ's embodiment and consequent passion. As I see it, the LDS understanding of God allows us to make more sense of Christ's passion and the Atonement than does the theological tradition. In fact, one could make the argument that, from an LDS perspective, the passion and Atonement require that we believe that God's embodiment is essential to him. If the body is not essential, then how is the suffering of the Atonement essential? It seems not to be. Of course, the answer can be: it is not essential; it is a free gift offered to unworthy sinners and was not required in any sense.
33. Unlike some Latter-day Saints, I am quite sympathetic to that characterization of the Atonement. However, I would say that though the Atonement was not required by us or by our situation, it was required by the character of God. (Such a position saves the majesty and grace of God without removing the necessity of the Atonement.) Alma 7 teaches that Christ learned mercy so that he could work the Atonement. Presumably it was necessary to his divinity. I do not understand the Plan of Salvation as one of many possible ways in which God could have saved us, but as the only way he could do so. In that case, the atoning sacrifice was necessary to his being as God ("This is my work and my glory--to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man": Moses1:39) and it follows that embodiment and, therefore, passion and suffering are necessary, essential, to divine being.16
34. Thinking about human embodiment and what kind of transcendence is part of that embodiment suggests that we can rethink divine transcendence in terms of openness and that we must rethink at least divine omniscience and omnipotence. The traditional concepts of these two divine characteristics will not help us understand the God we worship. However, there is another aspect of human transcendence to consider, though I am unsure what to make of it in relation to divine transcendence: the body is dense, opaque, a site of resistance to my will--to my understanding, to the wills, and understandings, and lives of others, even to objects. Nietzsche repeatedly reminded his readers that it is a philosophical oversight to reduce human being to the being of the mind. We are also a stomach, liver and kidneys, arms, legs, feet, and hands. They are as essential to my existence as is my mind; they are as much me as is my consciousness. But they remain opaque to the mind, operating and acting beyond the reach of consciousness. On the one hand, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine life without this opacity, this existence of some part of us that always lies beyond consciousness. On the other hand, it is not clear what to make of this with regard to divine existence.
35. But the non-mental body is not the only site of opacity in human being. Consciousness itself is opaque, has an unconscious aspect. One need not understand the unconscious in Freudian terms (or, if one does, one must rethink the meaning of those terms).17 Nevertheless, The mind is not exclusively intentional and, to the degree that it is not intentional, it is probably also not conscious. The tradition has equated the being of God and the mind of God. LDS belief refuses that reduction. If we are true to that refusal, what are the conceptual consequences? If, as LDS doctrine assumes, his being is not the same as his mind, in other words, if he is not, essentially a plenitude of consciousness, then it is unlikely that we should assume that his body is completely transparent to his mind. And what about his mind? Can we understand God to have an unconscious? Perhaps we can do so, though I am less prepared to say how we might do so than I am to discuss the implications of embodiment for omniscience.
36. The scriptures and the teachings of Joseph Smith allow us to say little more about divine embodiment than that God has a body with the same form as ours. From that I think we can also infer that the ontological gulf between ourselves and God cannot be as wide as the tradition assumes, whether the tradition takes God to being itself or to be the Good (and, so, beyond being). Though it is difficult to go confidently beyond that negative conclusion, two things seem to follow: First, the Latter-day Saint understanding of what it means to be in the world is, implicitly, radically different than is the understanding of any other Christian group, though it is not at clear what additionally follows from that difference. Second, our experience of the body, the only standard we have for understanding embodiment, suggests that to say that God has a body is to say that his omniscience and omnipotence must be understood in ways quite different from traditional Christianity because embodiment implies situated openness to a world. In other words, divine embodiment also implies that God is affected by the world and by persons in his world. This means that the belief that God is embodied implies that he encounters the world and that he is, in some ways, passive with respect to that which he encounters, and his passivity may include some notion of unconsciousness. Some of these conclusions may not seem radical, especially to Latter-day Saints for whom they are but variations on well-known doctrines, but they are quite different than the conclusions of the onto-theological tradition and, so, require that we think carefully about what they mean. They require that we know the onto-theological tradition well so that we can seek to think other than it.
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Young, Brigham. "Want of Governing Capacities Among Men--Elements of the Sacrament--Apostacy, Etc." (20 May 1859) Journal of Discourses, vol. 7. Liverpool: Amasa Lyman, 1860, 160-166.
1 Gutman, Dat Umadda (Religion and Science) 265. Quoted in Leibowitz 2.
2 I am grateful to Paul Y. Hoskisson for pointing this out. See Dohmen.
3 Given the historical and cultural context of ancient Israel, I think that we can go so far as to say that the biblical text is arguing against the anthropomorphism of its neighbors' gods in its claim that humans are theopomorphic. (See Fishbane 50ff.)
4 Following Plato, in medieval philosophy until after Aquinas, God was not identified with being so much as with the Good. For Aquinas, the gap between the esse and the ens commune of God is so great as to make the esse of God unknowable.
5 The discussion of the creation in the Theatetus makes the similarity of Plato's god, the bonum, to Aristotle's god, esse, clear: by mirroring the ideal world (69d), the created world owes its being to the ideal world. Though Plato asserts that god is the Good rather than being, it turns out that the Good gives being. In sum, the difference between god as the Good beyond being and god as ultimate being is philosophically significant, but it is not clear that the result in theology has made the theological understanding of God any less a matter of onto-theology.
6 Heidegger has made a similar point when he argues that though theology has identified God with being, that is a mistake; God is a being ("Theology" 6-7; as background, see also Being and Time §§20-21 and Basic Problems 81-82, 148-152 and 176).
7 This restoration of the mythic in Latter-day Saint understanding (where the division is between "origin" and "present instantiation" rather than "other world"and "this") may explain, at least partially, why so many LDS thinkers have been drawn to the works of Mircea Eliade, such as The Sacred and the Profane.
8 Similarly, if by rejecting the onto-theological tradition, Latter-day Saints are assumed to reject the concept of God (as may be the case for those who see no alternative to onto-theology), then we are not only not Christians, we are also atheists. However, it might be better to write that word with a hyphen--a-theists--to note that what we reject is not God, but the theos. Our a-theism is tantamount to an accusation that the tradition is involved in a kind of idolatry, as Joseph Smith's remark about the unembodied God suggests.
A note on my usage: When referring to the God of the prophets, I will, as per convention, capitalize the word God. In most cases, I will give Christian theologians the benefit of the doubt and assume that even if their notion of God is incorrect, they intend to refer to the same being to whom we refer. However, when I wish to make the point that the concept referred to is not the God the prophets worship will I write the word with a lower case "g."
9 This is how I read the Prophet's seemingly tautologous statement that there is no immaterial matter.
10 For a philosophical discussion of transcendence in historical context and with arguments for understanding it in terms of intentionality, see Heidegger's Basic Problems.
11 For Kant, the answer is, "We don't." But the theological tradition has enlisted a number of resources for doing so--such as analogy and negative theology--and it is not obvious that the Kantian analysis devastates them. Jean-Luc Marion's book, God without Being, is one of many books in the Christian tradition to address the problem.
12 I have in mind here Davidson's discussion of the mutual irreducibility of neural talk about minds and other talk about them. (See Davidson, "Mental Events.")
13 Some languages mark this difference in ways of thinking and speaking about the body by having different words. For example, German uses the word Lieb for the living body and Körper for the dead.
14 I am quite willing to grant that other philosophical traditions may also make similar points or could do so. I do not use the Continental tradition because it is "the only true" philosophical approach, but because it is the one I know best.
15 One reason that I find Merleau-Ponty's discussion helpful is that it echoes Paul's way of talking about what it means to be a Christian. See, for example, Romans 7 and 8, where it is clear that the change that occurs in a Christian is not a change of characteristics or obedience, but a change of being, of how one inhabits the world. (Compare 7:22-23 with 8:8-9.) For Paul, the division is not between inner and outer, or mind/spirit and body, but between living by the Spirit and living according to one's will, i.e., living according to the world. For Paul, to be a Christian is to inhabit the world in a particular way, not to subscribe to a particular set of beliefs (though beliefs will follow from the fact that one inhabits the world as a Christian). See also 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, especially verse 28, where Paul speaks of the saints as "non-being," suggesting that the difference between Christians and non-Christians is a matter of their being. This suggests that the problem of the body is a problem of its being, not a problem of its materiality.
16 Moses 7:28-29 show a case of God suffering apart from the suffering of the Atonement, suffering for his children. See Eugene England's discussion of this idea in his essay in this volume.
17 For more on how to think the unconscious in non-Freudian terms, see my "Levinas: The Unconscious and the Reason of Obligation" and "The Uncanny Interruption of Ethics."
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