Odds Bodkins: Reflections on God’s Body, or Lack Thereof
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, contributing writer
This semester, I’m teaching two sections of Art History Survey One—what I like to call “Caves to Cathedrals.” Of late, my lectures have been teeming with references to historical conceptions of whether or not God, Christ, the angels and saints should be depicted with naturalistic bodies. As Joseph Campbell and others have rightly pointed out, in surveying the major world religions (Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) one can find elements of both: the ephemeral, or immaterial (Neo-Platonic), school of thought and its opposite, the more material (Aristotelian) school. In other words, some philosophers frame God as a divine mystery—invisible and seen only through a murky, worldly veil. Conversely, others believe that God is part and parcel of every living being on Earth, that our divine souls are truly manifest in our humble, yet sanctified bodies.
In the classroom, reaction to this philosophical and artistic dialectic has been interesting. Mostly, students are excited that they can make sense of the duality of highly abstracted imagery of divinity on the one hand, and its antipode, corporeal realism, on the other. Some even seem to have used this age-old question to embrace their “inner art historian.”
On a recent exam, for example, one student referred to a stern, abstracted Byzantine image of Christ Pantocrator (Christ as “divine judge”) against a golden, heavenly field as “his ass up there looking down on us.”
Perhaps like most academics, my knee-jerk reaction was to think, “Whoa! How crass!” Then, it occurred to me that while admittedly the response was completely un-Byzantine in its sentiment, the very corporeal metaphor for God or Jesus just might have some legs in another context—the context of Western European sacred parody.
Such happenstance is extremely useful to me as I’m concurrently busy preparing a paper proposal on “Holy Laughter”. Isn’t it funny when serendipity strikes? In my research for that project, I’ve been reading about the incarnation of Christ as a truly bodily event—a celebration of “God as mud” as it were. Instead of thinking of the holy as something intangible, as the Eastern Orthodox Church fathers did—or the whole of the Protestant Reformation, for that matter—some medieval Western European philosophers, and most common folk historically have thought of our humble selves as worthy of the description, “just a bit lower than the angels.” After all, to them the mystery of the incarnation in Christianity requires that one come to grips with God made flesh. And, imagine what fun it would be to consider a supreme being clothed in humanity with all of its physical functions and limitations. What a philosophical conundrum! What an opportunity for festive humor concerning the lower bodily strata!
As many scholars (such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Harvey Cox and M. Conrad Hyers) have written, Medieval Period bawdy festivity and parodic inversion of divinity were heartily embraced as part of the human quest to understand past, present and future, to grapple with change and to find his place in the cosmic order. Such play and release of energy required the temporary inversion of high and low social and cultural strata, much like the true expression of communitas as described by the anthropologist Victor Turner. According to Turner, communitas is the very spirit of community demonstrated by equality, solidarity and togetherness. Communitas is most acute in periods of inversion and change, as in a rite of passage, one that brings common understanding and transient humility.
These rites of passage have been likened to the ancient tradition of carnivalesque feast days in the Catholic Church—for example, the feasts of Epiphany and Easter when earthly kings are toppled in favor of poor babes, or physical death is overcome by a miraculous physical resurrection. (Deeply resonant themes, incidentally, shared by many world religions both East and West as enumerated by Joseph Campbell in The Mythic Image.) These inversions made God substantive and present to each and every person, be they noble, priest, merchant or peasant.
Implicit in these parodic, sacred celebrations are the shared dualities of human existence each person must come to know: hunger and satiety, wealth and squalor, power and powerlessness, birth and death. These are distinctly human concerns. Indeed, it seems human beings have constructed ritual and festivity to make sense of the impenetrable, the unknowable and the unfair. And, yet, many cultural leaders have tried to disassociate from the physical, from revelry and excess, especially our Puritan forefathers to whom we owe much of our current distaste for fun and release.
In his recent book God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Christopher Hitchens has hitched his own wagon to a flippant, broadly dismissive, secularist viewpoint. As a monolithic whole, he categorizes “religion” as wish-fulfillment, imposed sexual repression, maximal servitude and solipsism, and a deliberate misrepresentation of the origins of man and the universe. As I’ve mentioned, it wasn’t always so. His picture of “religion” as a grand larceny of personal freedoms and intellect is a short view, mostly informed by post-Enlightenment thought.
Like most Post-Modernists, Hitchens has thrown out history and spirituality without plumbing the valuable resources of traditional festivity and comic ritual; in past generations such parodic festivity served to remind us of what we share—who we are and where we come from, and how we might properly proceed.
Only since the iconoclastic Enlightenment movement came on the scene in Western Europe have human beings have found reason to ponder whether or not “God is dead.” If humanity cannot begin to belly-laugh at its pathological seriousness, so, it would seem, are we.
Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph. D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.