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Seeking a Theology of the Finite

by Donald L. Berry

Dr. Berry is professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 29, 1982, p. 953. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Members of the theological ensemble who play for one another and for their patrons from the religious establishment regard as eccentric the solos of those who urge us to take with full seriousness the theological significance of the human body. Tom Driver, Arthur McGill, Mary Daly and James Nelson remind us that we are, after all, embodied persons, psychosomatic unities, not discarnate spirits or intellects. But the conventional anthem and the traditional libretto seem to be given over primarily to systematizing the concepts and clarifying the stories of ancient texts and modern communities.

Not enough attention is paid to the concrete actualities of ordinary lived experience. The emphasis has characteristically been on “a theology of the infinite” -- an inquiry into the identity and existence of divine beings, divine activity in history and nature, the purpose and destiny of human life as these are revealed by a being called “God” to others called “persons.” The antidote for such a “theology of the infinite” is one that deals with the finite -- sex, dying, anger, commitment, love, anxiety, rebirth or reshaping of the self.

It is not accidental that the mainstream of Western theological tradition seems to have had so little to say about the empirical human situation. The structure of Christian belief received its normative character in centuries dominated by two intellectual movements that were radically dualistic and distrusted the materiality of humankind. Neo-Platonism held, among other things, that the most perfect being was the least physical, and had the least to do with the physical; that the way of salvation necessarily leads from the body, from the earthly-historical, to a realm of pure spirit.

Plotinus recast the Platonic unease with the material world in a straightforward manner: “The nature of bodies, insofar as it participates in matter, will be an evil” (Enneads, 1.8.4). “For matter masters what is imaged in it and corrupts and destroys it by applying its own nature which is contrary to form” (1.8.8).

The cosmic dualism which Plotinus’s theory of emanation had helped him to avoid appeared clearly in other perspectives of roughly the same period. In the more popular and pervasive gnosticism, the body was forever a barrier to the fulfillment of human life. The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas characterized his disciples, the spiritually enlightened ones, as “children who had settled in a field which is not theirs. When the owners of the field come . . . they will undress in their presence in order to let them have back their field” (Log. 21). In the Manichean Psalter the soul on its way to the realm of the immortals says, “I will cast my body upon the earth from which it was assembled . . . the enemy of the soul” (75:13 ff.). Our problem, said the gnostic, was that our true self has been drugged, intoxicated, imprisoned by the body. We need to extricate ourselves, by careful discipline, from all dependence on the senses.

It is not difficult to understand why, in such an intellectual atmosphere, most Christian theologians of the third through the fifth centuries were unable to hold onto the body-affirming insight of the original Jewish and Christian visions. Without the control provided by the doctrine of creation, they devalued human experience, dismissing it as having no positive religious value. Hence, celibacy and virginity became the official Christian virtues. That consequence continues to haunt Christian consciousness -- officially, in the pronouncements of some churches and those who speak for them, and unofficially, in the unenlightened sentiment of much Christian piety.

What we need is a proper “theology of the finite.” The signal for such a theology is Tom Driver’s reflective getting in touch with his body while sitting in the bathtub, and his happy invitation, in Patterns of Grace: Human Experience as Word of God (Harper & Row, 1977), for us to do the same. The motto for that approach is suggested by the title of Arthur McGill’s small book of theology of a few years back, The Celebration of Flesh.

I think this move -- from the skies to the soil, from the beauty of the sunset to the bulges of the body -- is a necessary and salutary one, and I do not want to subvert it in any way. I would, however, suggest that when we get in touch with our bodies, the messages we receive are both more varied and more ambiguous than Driver, McGill and others suggest. There are two sorts of images, not just one. That became clearer to me when I finished a second extended period of hospitalization in seven months, and embarked on a prolonged period of recuperation and restoration.

In the first place, being in touch with the body will bring us reports of sensuous pleasure, warmth, good feelings -- not to be denied or suppressed; not to be apologized for; not a source of religious embarrassment. It will bring us reports of the self’s becoming a self in essential relation with another -- not peripherally, not optionally, not accidentally, but essentially. The “other” in relation to whom we become ourselves is not an abstract, idealized other, but a particular being-with-body who reaches not just some aspect of our existence, such as the intellect, but ourself as a being-with-body.

If this coming-to-be of the self in relation is something like the abundant life of religious concern, then the Song of Songs emerges as the most religious text in the Jewish and Christian canons. The presence of this lovingly erotic poetry in the Scriptures, in which a man and a woman revel in each other’s physicality, is a testimony to the power of religious intuition. Later rabbis and theologians tried to deal with their embarrassment in working with this literature by the subterfuge of metaphor: the love in this poetry is “really” the love of God for Israel, or of Christ for the church. We should, nonetheless, be everlastingly grateful that this body poetry not only was retained but also was kept in the canon. Its presence there, however mistakenly justified, serves as a continuing corrective particularly to ascetic Christian tendencies, and to an otherworldly view of Scripture and biblical faith in general.

One of the most fascinating episodes in contemporary literature of the healing, life-giving power of touching occurs toward the end of Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel Island (Harper & Row, 1962). Will Farnaby, a British journalist, is shipwrecked and stumbles upon Pala, an island community in Southeast Asia whose citizens are dedicated to a version of the contemplative or meditative life. Will eventually gives in to the self-indulgence of nourishing his own feelings with the aid of moksha-medicine, and is glad to have civilization and its sickness left behind. But in that self-absorbing, inward-turning mysticism, he moves further and further away from an openness to other people. Near the end of the novel he is nearly lost in the private “high” of his own sense of infinity. Then the woman Susila begins to touch his body.

She moved her hands, and the contact now was no longer with nails but with skin. The fingertips slid down over his brows and, very lightly, came to rest on his closed eyelids. For the first wincing moment he was mortally afraid. Was she preparing to put out his eyes? He sat there, ready at her first move to throw back his head and jump to his feet. But nothing happened. Little by little his fears died away; the awareness of this intimate, unexpected, potentially dangerous contact remained. An awareness so acute and, because the eyes were supremely vulnerable, so absorbing that he had nothing to spare for the inner light or the horrors and vulgarities revealed by it.

The fingertips moved up from his eyelids to his forehead, moved out to the temples, moved down to the cheeks, to the corners of the jaw. An instant later he felt their touch on his own fingers, and she was holding his two hands in hers.

Will opened his eyes and, for the first time since he had taken the moksha-medicine, found himself looking her squarely in the face [pp. 286-288].

The way of touching is the way back to reality, back to the interpersonal as the characteristic human way of becoming a self and of being in the world.

A “theology of the finite” will regard seriously, in a nondefensive way, the intimations, the signals, the clues our bodies provide -- not simply our bodies as human beings, but as male beings and female beings. That calls for a vaginal theology and a phallic theology, at the very least, which will regard as significant, central and irreducible data for theological reflection the experience of being female or male, including but not confined to genital sexuality. (Contrast again the recommendation of the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas with respect to life in the Kingdom in which all sexual differentiation was to be obliterated:

“When you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female . . . then you will enter [the Kingdom]” [Log. 22].)

But these male and female bodies with which we are concerned are living at this historical moment and in the present sociopolitical context. Consequently, a proper “theology of the finite” will have to incorporate a respect for the ways in which women and men perceive their femaleness and maleness -- however distorted and partial those perceptions may eventually turn out to be. For women, it will surely include, as Mary Daly observed, the absence of the power of self-definition -- a psychological and emotional discrimination which makes heavier the economic and social.

For men, it will surely include the prison of extended immaturity and misogyny, both of which are fed by powerful remnants of the Jewish-Christian tradition in practice. Immaturity: the idealization of women as mothers or virgins keeps men from having to grow up and to relate in an egalitarian way to other sexual beings. The exclusion of women from being theological classmates with men, except perhaps in religious education, has been a powerful factor in accounting for male reluctance to support ordination and deployment of women as priests, and power-sharing with them as clergy colleagues. Misogyny: the sense of male inferiority before an all-powerful God image is compensated for in male hostility toward women -- as the crudest forms of pornography clearly indicate.

To regard the ordinary embodied experience of men and women as theologically significant in a positive way is to receive all these images of physical delight, of beauty and ecstasy, of human growth and nurture, of the contact between human persons that the touching of bodies can make possible.

But there is another set of images or “clues” that we must deal with if we are to attend not just seriously but honestly to the concrete actualities of our embodied existence. We are reminded not just of our strength but of our weakness as well; not just of glory but also of misery; not just of pleasure but also of finitude; not just of warmth and the coming-to-be of the self in relation with others, but also of limitation and isolation; not just marriage but divorce; not just trust but betrayal and desertion; not just good feeling but pain, suffering, daily reminders of mortality, impermanence, the inevitability and the necessity of death.

A body theology must, in short, include, in a non-masochistic way, a theology of pain and suffering, a recognition that time and the healing powers of nature are not always efficacious; indeed, that in the final analysis, they are never more than temporarily successful. Such a way of doing theology must, of course, avoid the suggestion that sacred sorrow is at the center of faith, that self-flagellation by whatever sophisticated technique is to be encouraged. (A metaphysics of process -- dealing with growth, development and decay -- thus may in the long run prove more useful to the theological enterprise than a metaphysics of being; Whitehead and Bergson over Aquinas and Mascall.)

A hideous parody of the painless view of life is exemplified by an advertising brochure for a series of self-help tapes developed by the popular author and lecturer Wayne Dyer. The advertisement arrived on my fourth day home after an extraordinarily uncomfortable ten days in the hospital. I was very conscious of the dark side of human physicality, the fragility of flesh, and was quite unprepared for Dyer’s grotesque invitation: “How to Be a No-Limit Person.” There is, of course, no gainsaying the common-sense psychological wisdom contained in a program to enhance one’s self-image, to develop and utilize our highest potential for creativity, for mental and physical health. No one wants to be a self-defeating neurotic, or even one who just manages to cope. But there is something demonic in promising that “if you choose to, you can be the master of every aspect of your life.” The sickness of this invitation to be a “No-Limit Person,” to be God, in effect, is readily apparent if you have ever been, or have been with, a person hospitalized with a serious illness, or one who lives daily with an irreversible physical handicap.

Some evaluators of the human situation -- for example, H. Richard Niebuhr -- have suggested that the root of the human malaise is our giving in to the idolatrous desire to become just such a “No-Limit Person.” All attempts, Niebuhr reminds us, to regard any of the genuine goods of the world as the bearer of infinite meaning eventually collapse and have their partiality uncovered. In that crisis we discover and recognize that the self is never an adequate god for the self. Faith comes, then, as a gift of the ability to trust in that power which endures in the passing of all the gods we have made as an expression of our delusion of being a “No-Limit Person.” Faith comes as the gift of accepting ourselves as “a person with limits” -- not grudgingly, not spitefully, but gratefully.

So it is that both the dark and the bright sides of our embodied existence must be attended to if we are to regard our finitude as theologically relevant.

There is one further point to be made, however, to bring these remarks into relation with the deepest insights of the Christian tradition in its best moments, and into relation with the convictions of the wisest men and women -- past and present, in our own family, of our own acquaintance or within our own awareness and observation.

I have argued that a fully developed “theology of the finite” must accept and affirm both the pleasure and the pain of human physicality, since we are not free-floating spirits or intellects but embodied persons.

We are not who we are without our bodies. But our bodies do not define or exhaust who we are. The body is the locus of meaning for us, but being or becoming a full, self-expressive person is independent of the limits of the body in some way. The body gives meaning, but it is a limited gift, for the meaning it gives cannot be complete or final. Who is there among us that does not know and love those whose sense of self is caring and giving although

* their alcoholism goes unchecked, or

* their metabolism makes weight control a near-impossible  task, or

* their deformities or birth defects reduce their mobility, or

* their blindness or deafness shuts them off from much of the world. or

* their beauty leads others to regard them as empty-headed, or

* their plainness turns others away.

We are not who we are apart from our bodies, but the final meaning of our life does not depend on our body’s delights and limitations. This mystery of human selfhood, with its connection to but also its freedom from the body, is the best evidence I know for the presence of transcendence in our world. Reinhold Niebuhr used to speak of the freedom of the self as the capacity for self-transcendence. A “theology of the finite” thus has a special openness to the in-finite, not to another realm of beings divine or other-wise, but to another dimension of human meaning.

I know no more eloquent testimony to that openness, to that transcendence, than these words written a few days before her death by a close friend of a faculty colleague: “When the time of our particular sunset comes, our thing, our accomplishment won’t really matter a great deal. But the clarity and care with which we have loved others will speak with vitality of the great gift of life we have been for each other” (Clare McCarthy, S.C., July 5, 1980).


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