THE WORLD AS THE BODY OF GOD

JANUARY 30, 2000
RACHEL TEDESCO


In the book of Exodus, Moses, in an audacious moment, says to God, "Show me your glory, I pray." God replies "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." But, God says, "you can see my back" and allows Moses a glimpse of the divine body (Exodus 33:20-23). This is the way Sally McFague, in her book The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, somewhat humorously introduces the concept of God’s body. It may be an outrageous concept to many of us who are used to thinking of God in purely spiritual terms: that God has a body, including a backside! But to McFague it is a useful metaphor to think about God’s relationship to the world. Her point is that God does not reject the material world or things of the flesh. In biblical Judaism, God is not separate from the world. In traditional Christian theology, God even become incarnate in the world at a particular time in the person of Jesus.

McFague points out that as human beings, we are limited in how we grasp abstract concepts. We cannot wrap our minds around such things as an "incomprehensible" God or a "God-shaped blank." Its tougher than quantum mechanics! Metaphorical images, based on things we can know, touch or feel, are necessary for people to think about abstractions. Metaphors are not meant to be taken literally, but are helpful tools.

McFague argues persuasively for a newer, postmodern metaphor for the relationship between God and the world. God, she writes, can be thought of in two interrelated ways, both as a transcendent agent which acts in the world… the Spirit of Life in Carolyn McDade’s song… and as imminent in the world… the whole world, not just in one person, nor just in human beings, nor just in animals. The entire world is God’s body. In this way, we are invited to see the divine in all creation. This makes earth and its entire ecological system sacred. It is important to think of God and the world this way when the very existence of life on the planet is threatened.

How did older, more traditional religious views of God and God’s relation to the world affect people’s concepts of the sacredness of the earth? McFague gives a quick historical overview of some major models in the western, Christian tradition. I’ll humbly try to summarize these concepts and hope I do them justice.

The First Vatican Council in 1870 expressed a view that has been a common creed in various Christian churches since the Reformation. This statement of belief describes God as the "Creator and Lord of Heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immense, incomprehensible,… who, as being one… spiritual substance, is to be declared really and essentially distinct from the world..." In simple words, God is pure spirit, above all creation. As McFague puts it, "What drives this statement is the passion to remove God from any real connection to the world." It is hard to reconcile this image of a detached, isolated divinity from the other part of the Christian creed: the God who so loved humanity as to become flesh in the form of one human being and suffer for it. She comments that many modern Christians can’t buy this dualistic thinking as believable.

During the scientific revolution of the 16th Century, another model of God emerged. This was the deistic model of God. "It imagines God as a clockmaker who winds up the clock of the world by creating its laws and then leaves it to run by itself. … It is, sadly, the view of many contemporary scientists as well as Christians, with the qualification that some Christians allow periodic, personal interventions of God in times of crisis such as natural disasters, accidents, and death." This later view has earned a nickname of "God-of-the-gaps." Among scientists, the clockmaker model encourages an arrogant, irresponsible attitude toward the world … since God isn’t present in it.

A third view is of God and the world is the dialogic model. God speaks and we respond. This is evident in the Hebrew Bible, like the interactions between Moses and God. "It has been the central view within Protestantism and was highlighted in twentieth-century existentialism." The drawback is that nowadays the relationship between God and the world is reduced to God and individuals in the I-Thou relationship. It’s a view that focuses on individual sin, guilt and forgiveness, and the interior human experiences of joy and pain. It often results in indifference to the natural and social worlds.

The monarchical view of God is one we’re all familiar with and hardly needs explaining. It’s God as King, well expressed in traditional hymns and Christmas carols. This model, too, focuses narrowly on the human world and is largely unconcerned with natural creation.

Fifth is the agential model. In the Bible, God is an agent whose intentions and purposes are realized, especially in human history. Today we speak about divine purpose throughout the entire span of cosmic history. "God is related to the world and realizes the divine intentions and purposes in the world, in a way similar to how we use our bodies to carry out our purposes." This is intellectually satisfying to many modern minds because God is seen as acting through natural processes. McFague describes the classical agential model as one which is at heart personal: God as father, mother, king, lover, friend, creator and redeemer. She favors the somewhat different image of God as enlivening Spirit .. as breath or life. This model of God as Spirit, she believes, should be joined with the organic model of the world or universe as God’s body. Together they suggest a more adequate … or what I would call satisfying… model. The world is divine, yet that is not all there is to it. There is still a transcendent divinity "out there" beyond the world.

There is also the recognition in this model that we, as aware, thinking beings, do more than just existing in the world. We share in the divine consciousness and can act as extensions of God’s agency in the world. Process theology (a branch of this thinking) emphasizes the interdependence and reciprocity of all agents, God being the preeminent one among many.

How can we apply these concepts of the world as the body of God … therefore sacred… and us as co-agents of God in the world? How as UU’s do we act in a world that faces tremendous ecological problems and the dilemmas of the maldistribution of wealth? Let us leave these questions for a moment and look at some of the realities.

Fact:
Microsoft has a net worth of some $18 billion, roughly equal to the total annual economic output shared by 11 million people in Zimbabwe, according to one expert on corporate America.

Fact: Per-capita energy use in the United Stated is now as high as it was in 1973, the year before the ‘energy crisis.’

Fact: The United States, home to just five percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 40 percent of the total consumption of global resources.

The following story has been in the news recently. Ben and Jerry’s, that funky, counter-culture, environmentally-conscious ice cream maker, is being sold to an international conglomerate, probably Nestle’s Corporation, for much needed cash. Will this threaten the Vermont’s company pro-environmental, anti-corporate way of doing business? Will this mean loss of local control? What does this mean for other similar companies which try to pursue responsible, ethical goals where profit isn’t the bottom line? We can support Wavy Gravy and the other demonstrators in front of Ben and Jerry’s in downtown Boston this week, but I fear the takeover may be inevitable and the company’s independent corporate culture may not survive a takeover.

Critics of American corporations say that they suffer from a short term focus on profits and the creation of wealth... and ignore such issues as their impact on the environment and economic justice. But we as consumers are also responsible. Urged on by corporate advertising and the present prosperity, we are engaging in an ever increasing spiral of consumption.

At the last UUA General Assembly in Salt Lake City, the delegates overwhelmingly passed a study/action issue on "Responsible Consumption as a Moral Imperative." The vote was 88 to 8, the highest of the five study/action issues. The statement reads, in part: "Irresponsible consumption endangers our future as it wastes raw materials and precious resources, depriving people in other countries as well as our own future generations. … The United States and Canada, although technologically advanced countries, are among the most materially wasteful societies in the world. We are caught in a consumption treadmill that is morally questionable and not sustainable; … yielding to the blandishments of the marketplace, we buy, build and consume more than we require – frequently many times what we need…

"Some economists have joined ecologists in suggesting that by the end of the twenty-first century, given our present rates of population growth and consumption, the entire world will be short of food, water, and housing for its inhabitants. Unitarian Universalists should take the lead in alerting consumers, business persons, and political leaders to the consequences that flow from aggressive and irresponsible personal consumption." (For complete text of the study/action issue visit www.uua.org./ga/agenda.html#5-3, at the UUA website.)

The message is clear. As the world population passes six billion—which it did this summer, we as a world community face the double bind of an increased human burden on the planet and decreased standards of living for people in the poorest countries and the poorest levels of society. We must start to address how we can reverse the trends and be better stewards of the earth. Human beings, particularly those of us living in the affluent countries of the West, are responsible for the ecological deterioration. We as reasoning, intelligent people with power and influence in the world can work to reverse it. How? How do we reintroduce reverence for the interdependent web of life that many in our world seem to have lost? One way is to follow the suggestions of the UUA statement on responsible consumption. These include promoting the current movement for voluntary simplicity, which was described so beautifully in the articles by Bella English and Steve Watkins in the September/ October issue of the UU World magazine. Here are other suggestions listed in the "Responsible Consumption" study/action issue:

As consumers we could use our buying power to redirect the economy toward producing goods of greater quality and longer life span, as well as toward new technologies that allow us to conserve the resources of the world and ensure their fair distribution at home and abroad.

Let’s not be naïve. Problems of the ecology and economic justice are extremely complex and interrelated. Fixing them won’t be easy… maybe not even achievable. We know it’s already too late for some extinct or endangered species and that it’s not possible to reverse some of humanity’s destructive effects on the environment. It will require a real and sustained commitment to work on these problems. Our Western "fix-it" mentality must give way to humility. We are totally dependent on nature to live and we must try to comprehend and live by the "house rules" of nature. We must stop trying to dominate and control the world and try instead to adjust our needs and desires to these "house rules."

Spirit of Life, who is divinely in the world --
May we through our meditations deepen our awareness of the sacredness of the earth and all life … human and non-human… that dwells herein.
May we reconnect to the natural world and rediscover with awe its the beauty and its wonder and with sympathy its pain and its suffering;
May we not feel discouraged and say that the world is too big a place and the problems are too complex for us to solve…
May we begin locally, in our places of worship… and in our homes, our schools, workplaces, and communities to do what we can do.
May we commit ourselves to lives of voluntary simplicity.
May we love the earth as a manifestation of the divine, the world as God’s body.


1. Sally McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 131.
2. Study/Action Issue on "Responsible Consumption as a Moral Imperative," passed by the 1999 UU General Assembly.
3. World; The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Vol. XIII, No. 5, September/October 1999, Boston, Mass.