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God as Above Average
The human image of God is usually thought of as the image of the perfectly normal human, but raised to an even higher level of perfection. God never sleeps. "He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" (Ps.121: 3bf). God could not be thought of as suffering from upper limb malfunction or as being hard of hearing. "Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear" (Is. 59: 1). The God who is in the image of the perfect human being must possess all the faculties and members of perfect humanity. "He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?" (Ps. 94:9).God is not only thought of as a sighted person, but as being a person whose sight far extends the power of human vision. "For the Lord does not see as humans see, for humans look upon the outward appearance but the Lord looks upon the heart" ( 1 Sam. 16:7). "Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering" (Job 26:6). When God made human beings in God’s own image, inference from the normal human body suggests that God must have the normal human powers when thought of in human terms. God walks in the Garden of Eden; God does not limp (Gen. 3: 8). "Ascribe to the Lord, oh mighty ones, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength" (Ps. 29:1). If God is to have a voice, the voice of God must be louder than the voice of the mighty warriors. "The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars..." (Ps. 29:4f).
The God of the Bible is the God of the able-bodied not of the disabled. Women were not permitted to be priests (Lev. 21:16-20), and the God of the Bible is not a woman. Men with a physical defect were not permitted to be priests, and the God of the Bible does not possess physical defects.
No doubt all this is obvious and was inevitable. Indeed, that the image of God is a projection from able-bodied life is so obvious as to be generally invisible by the able-bodied. After all, sighted people do not know that they are sighted. They think the world is just like that. The world of sight is absolutised as being the only world. This sighted world must be relativised if minority groups are not to be marginalised. The biblical image of God in human likeness represents the domination of the normal, the totalism of the average.
Such language is not a mere poetic decoration. It is not to be understood on the linguistic level, as if it were a mere case of metaphor, and to classify it as anthropomorphism is inadequate, since that would be to gather up the whole of humanity within the average. The form (morphe) of the human (anthropos) is thought of as comprising only the normal. The human family, however, extends beyond the normal; it comprises many who are not average. If the word were poly- anthropomorphism, the plurality of the human forms would be affirmed, but the fact is that the human image of God in the Bible is not many-formed but is uniform.
There are signs of weakness, of course. God weeps, has changes of mind, proceeds by trial and error, and suffers parental disappointment ( Gen. 2:18f; 6:6; Hos. 11:1f), but all this is still within the range of the normal. If the God of the Bible suffers from parental disappointment and failure, it is because God’s children are rebellious and disobedient, not because God cannot strike them hard enough to maintain discipline, or cannot run fast enough to catch them. We must go deeper than the levels of metaphor and analogy if we are to understand the nature of these projections. The metaphors are but symptoms of a certain kind of embodied epistemology.
Much modern semantic theory regards meaning as residing in propositions. Only propositions are capable of carrying meaning, which may be true or false in accordance with its successful reference to the actual world. This leads to the possibility of a universal language in which reality is objectively described. The world of truth and the propositions which embody truth is distinct from the worlds of imagination and memory, which are regarded as being individualistic. As sensations or perceptions, such individual experiences are not capable of contributing to the positive or negative character of truth unless they can be stated in linguistic form. On this objectivist view of language, truth is to be found in the relationship between symbols, these in turn being spoken or printed words built into sentences. Although empirical verificationalist forms of this semantic theory insist that the meaning of propositions must be translatable in principle into certain experiences or sensations, the body is looked upon as the locus for the verification of meaning rather than the body being regarded as the source or origin of meaning itself.
This rejection of the body as the source of meaning is consistent with objectivist views of theological language. According to such views, religious or theological meaning is also found in sentences which express beliefs. Those who defend the truth-claims of religious statements against positivistic semantics usually do so by qualifying or denying the empirical verification theory, but share with their opponents the view that bodily experiences are not relevant to the search for truth. Truth resides in ideas or beliefs. Truth, it is thought, is spiritual or intellectual. Truth is stated in concepts, which are interrogated by the rational mind, to which the body makes no contribution.
Thus the flesh is to be distinguished from the spirit. The flesh and the spirit are antagonistic to each other. The body is the source of fantasies, desires, impulses, imaginations and temptations, which far from helping us to discover the truth must continually be checked and corrected.
In seeking to understand the human image of God as a contribution to a theology of disability, we must commence not with the formal belief structure of Christian theology, which exists as ideas, beliefs and concepts in the form of sentences but with an epistemology rooted in bodily structures. To be disabled is to have a different physical or mental structure. It is these structures themselves which must be the starting point for a theology of disability, and this can only be done if the body itself becomes the starting point for knowledge, and thus for understanding the human image of God.
The question which we
must ask, therefore, deals not so much with the nature and criteria for knowledge, but with the character and origins of understanding. When we ask about how we
understand, the human questions about memory, cognition, expectation, self-deception and so on inevitably arise. Mark Johnson has pointed out that statements of human
knowledge would be incomprehensible without their metaphorical content.
‘We will have to find a way around the problem.’
The metaphors in sentences such as these are not merely decorative, nor do they merely tend to make our conversation more colourful. Rather, Johnson argues, they may be traced back to patterns of experience or schemata, in which our bodily experience is generalised. Without such fundamental experiences, which occur from earliest infancy, of distinguishing between this and that, of being in front or at the back, of going forward or being blocked, of learning about place and weight and time and so on, it would not be possible for us to make our lives in the world intelligible. Our language is the fruit of these deep roots, and thus our thinking is embodied right from the start.
This does not lead Johnson into a wholly subjective theory of meaning, for the basic bodily experiences are common to all human beings, and most of them are developed in social relations. This is why the metaphors which express bodily experiences linguistically, are confirmed in public life, and bodily knowledge notwithstanding its individual origin, remains public. Knowledge is thus produced by a combination of subjective and objective factors. It is both bodily and conceptual, situational and yet universal. This is what Johnson means by a "semantics of understanding".
Johnson’s main concern is to establish the epistemological significance of imagination, and he does this through describing the roots of imagination in physical and social experience. In his understandable concern to defend his theory of imagination from the charge of excessive subjectivity, he emphasises the shared nature of metaphorical experience, thus establishing a degree of objectivity for the imagination. In this context, he does not distinguish between different kinds of bodies. So although his work is valuable as an epistemological introduction to a phenomenology and a theology of disability, he does not take us into that specific area.
This is less true of the phenomenological philosophers and psychologists upon whom Johnson depends. Maurice Merleau-Ponty provides the heading "The Body" for the first part of his Phenomenology of Perception. My body is my point of view upon the world. My body is the perspective from which I perceive everything else, but I forget this. Instead, I come to regard my body as just one more of those things which I perceive to be in the world. Then I speak as if on the table is my book, the telephone and my hand. I situate my body in space just like the other things in the space around me. Merleau-Ponty remarks that this is misleading, since the other objects in my world may sometimes be present and at other times be absent, but my body is always there. The body is not itself an object in the world; it is that by means of which, for me, there are objects. A theory of the body is thus already a theory of knowledge. However, because what is known is dependent upon the conditions of knowledge, we become unaware of the creative intentionality of our own consciousness.
Merleau-Ponty illustrates this world-generating character of embodied knowledge by referring to the world as known by various kinds of unusual bodies. He discusses the white cane of the blind person, pointing out that as the hand of the blind person holds the cane, the hand is not aware of the cane itself, but of the ground surface as revealed by the cane. The sharp point of consciousness moves forward from the grip of the hand down to the tip of the cane. In other words, the cane becomes an extension of one’s body.
The experience of the phantom limb reported by patients who have suffered amputation is particularly significant. The foot itches although it has been removed. We should understand this strange phenomenon not in terms of neurological conditioning, e.g. your brain has always been used to receiving sensations from that part of your body and it goes on regardless, but we should instead interpret the phantom limb as representing the acceptance on the part of the entire body as living in a certain world. The body has a certain way of relating to that world. The refusal to acknowledge dismemberment is a way of insisting upon remaining in that world. One represses the knowledge that one’s body can no longer be at home in that world. If one accepts the mutilated body, then one’s world becomes fractured. The task of building up a new world as a new relationship between the dismembered body and the world is more painful and challenging than the other option: preserving one’s normal world and denying dismemberment.
The visual parallel to this is Anton’s Syndrome which takes place when patients are unaware of their own blindness. They behave as if they can see, and even confabulate visual experiences. When this condition is generalised to include the denial of any impairment or disability, it is called anosognosia. Sometimes a patient with a double impairment is aware of one but not of the other. I acknowledge that my world is fractured in this respect but not in that respect.
We may distinguish phenomenal consciousness from access consciousness. Phenomenal consciousness means that I am aware of realities. Access consciousness means that I know that I have this awareness of realities. The object of phenomenal consciousness is the world itself, but the objects of access consciousness are symbols, words and thoughts. This distinction is well-established in the experimental literature, where people deny that they have seen the flashing of a light but can point to the area from which the light flashed. "Studies of blindsight strongly suggest that the processing of visual stimuli can take place even when there is no phenomenal awareness of seeing them". In other words, information can be obtained from visual areas in spite of the fact that there is no conscious visual awareness. Amnesiac patients who are shown a range of pictures may later on be unable to remember that they have been shown the pictures or even taken part in such an experiment, but may be able to distinguish between pictures which are familiar to them and those which are not. There appears in such cases to be phenomenal memory without access memory. A sleepwalker who safely negotiates a window ledge has phenomenal consciousness but no access consciousness.
These cases of malfunction are relevant to the general phenomenon of world projection from the body. Gender is a case in point. Gender so thoroughly permeates my perceptions and interpretations of myself and of the world that it becomes invisible to me. As a man, I may become unaware of my masculinity; to me, that is just the way things are. My phenomenal awareness is so taken for granted as the basis of my experience that I do not possess access awareness of it. It is the task of gender training which combats sexism to raise phenomenal awareness to the level of access awareness. We can now understand why it is that most sighted people do not know that they are sighted but just think the world is like that. They have phenomenal awareness of sight but little access awareness of it. Only when the clock stops ticking do you realise that you have been hearing it. Only when you become blind do you realise that you were living in a sighted world. So it is that most sighted people, who have perhaps never experienced disability or had occasion to empathise with a disabled loved one, do not acknowledge a plurality of genuine human worlds. To them, there is the commonsense world to which some people do not have access. Thus there is the world of normality and there are disabled people who have the misfortune to be excluded from that world. The world of childhood is also inaccessible to this kind of global totalism. Relativisation is the key to pluralisation, and pluralisation is the key to mutual understanding and acceptance.
Nowhere is this monism of the majority more obvious than in the biblical references to the face of God. "When He (God) is quiet, who can condemn? When He hides His face, who can behold Him?" (Job 34:29). "They think in their heart ‘God has forgotten. He has hidden His face. He will never see it’" (Ps. 10:11). "As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied beholding your likeness" (Ps.17: 15). "May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us" (Ps.67: 1). "So Jacob called the place Peniel saying ‘for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved’" (Gen. 32:30). When Jacob had become reconciled to his brother Esau, he said "for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favour" (Gen. 33:10).
These and many other similar passages reflect a sighted person’s view of the world, including relationships with other human beings. The projection from the human face to the face of God is particularly clear in the way Jacob addresses Esau. Not only is this perfectly natural; it is almost impossible to imagine that it could have been otherwise. However, when the unconscious and taken-for-granted preference for the world of the sighted person is accompanied by an equally unconscious but all-pervasive prejudice against the world of blind people, we have an ethical problem, a problem of inclusion, a problem of the absolutisation of the normal to the exclusion and disadvantage of the minority. Throughout the Bible blindness is a symbol of ignorance, sin and unbelief. We find this metaphorical use as early as Exodus 23:7-9: "Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous" (Compare Deut. 16:18-20). "All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant to their own shame" (Is. 44:8-10). "Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs; they cannot bark..." (Is. 56:9f). "Leave them: they are blind guides" (Matt. 15:13). Blindness is generally regarded as a punishment inflicted by God (Gen. 19:11; Deut.28: 27-29; 2 Kgs 6:18; Acts 13:10-12).
It is the references in the gospels to blindness which display most vividly the prejudices of the sighted world and are the cause of most distress to blind people. The healings of blind people are generally regarded as symbolic of discipleship. This is particularly clear in the story of Bartimaeus (Mk.10:46-52). As a result of his faith, he followed Jesus along the way (v.52). The symbol of blindness as unbelief and sin occupies the central place in the Gospel of John, where the discussion at the end of chapter nine, following the restoration of the sight of the man born blind, reveals this clearly. "Jesus said ‘for judgement I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind’" (v.39).
Some of the most vivid passages in which the sight of the human face is used as a symbol of spiritual progress and enlightenment appear in the letters of Paul. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12), "and all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18) and perhaps the most beautiful and significant of all such passages, "For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor.4:6).
What does the human face mean to a blind person? At this point, I must speak rather personally, but I know that other blind people share my experience. In the months that followed my own loss of sight, I began to notice that the people in my acquaintance fell into one of two possible groups. There were those who had faces, when I conjured up their image in my memory, and there were those who did not have faces. The first group were those whom I had known before I went blind; the second group were those people whom I had met since my loss of sight. At first, I could not help imagining what these people might look like, and vivid impressions of various facial appearances would flash before my imagination. Gradually, however, as I entered more deeply into the blind condition the vivid imaginations faded. After some years, I had reached the point where I was so naturalised into the world of blindness that it was only with a slight shock of surprise I could remember that people looked like anything. I had not only lost the images of the faces of particular people; I had lost the entire category of looking like anything. I had to make an effort of memory to realise that to sighted people there was something called ‘look like’ which was very important to them.
No doubt it is difficult to imagine the world in which other people live. If you, as a sighted person, were to close your eyes, and think of one of your dear friends or loved ones, the picture of the face of that person would irresistibly come to mind. Try it now, and see if you can prevent the image of the face appearing in your imagination. Some of the sighted people that I have asked tell me that they can manage this feat for a few moments by concentrating on the shoes of the friend or by imagining that they are staring hard at a button or at the handbag which the friend is carrying. However, this seems to be difficult if not impossible to maintain: the face keeps coming into view. For a blind person, on the other hand, there simply is no face. Nothing comes into mind of a pictorial nature which represents the features of the face. The memories which a blind person has of someone else gather first around the name of the person and then around the memories of everything which that person has said and done. In the presence of the other, it is the voice which expresses the person, not the face.
One must also remember that although the senses are unified in subjectivity, the experience offered by one sense is incommensurable with another. One may tell a person blind from birth that the colour red is like the sound of a trumpet, and although this will convey the notion that redness is bold and challenging, it will not actually convey the slightest impression of redness itself. If you are my close friend, I may, perhaps, be invited to touch your face. This, however, will give me very little information about what your face looks like. Certainly, I will learn that you have a beard, but I do not remember what a beard looks like; I only know that it is short and bristly. This is most true in the case of the eyes. In the first place, it is difficult to touch the human eye. Even if you close your eyes and invite me to feel the roundness of your closed eyelid, it bares no resemblance at all to the radiant colour and fleeting emotion and the sense of inter-personal subjectivity which sighted people get through eye contact.
What does the Bible know of this experience? Very little, if anything at all. Particularly in the Psalms, God is described as hiding his face from Israel. This makes sense to sighted people, for they refuse to have eye contact with people from whom they are estranged, and to look away is a gesture of dismissal, if not contempt. In the world of sighted people, you cover your face in order to disguise your identity. So the bank robber wears a mask, and so do the people at a fancy dress party. A blind person, on the other hand, does not know whether your face is masked or not, although your voice may sound muffled. Blind people can certainly tell when you are looking at them, because your voice is projected directly towards them. It is the voice to which they pay attention, not the face.
The Bible, however, comes from a sighted world in which it was natural to speak of the human image of God in terms of the appearance of God as prefigured in the relationships which sighted people have with each other. In this context, the face is of supreme importance. "If we are born alone, it is through the face that we first experience things out there that are like us, that respond to us, and which by making faces we can influence". "The sharing of life and of experience, which is the joy of parenthood, begins in the face". The evolution of consciousness is difficult to understand without the face, for the face is the main access to the mind. We are biologically prepared from birth to respond to facial expression. Infants only a few days old are capable of imitating adult expression. Although facial expressions might convey slightly different emotions from culture to culture, the way these emotions are recognised in, for example, movements of the eyebrows or the mouth, retain their significance across cultures. Experiments with computerised facial images, where either the sound of the voice or the picture of the face could be omitted or varied, show that the content of a message is better understood when the face is visible. "In face to face communication, perception of speech does not necessarily result from just the sound but somehow emerges from the sound and sight of the face collectively".
Of course, blindness is not the only human condition which introduces a variation on the theme of the face. People with autism are not cut off from the sight of the face but are profoundly severed from the emotions and the mind behind the face. "Autistic subjects actively avoid the face, to avoid complex signals of mood in other people, which on the one hand, they can hardly decipher and, on the other threaten to overwhelm them". Jonathan Cole interviewed people with many different kinds of facial loss or disfigurement and concluded that it is the world of the autistic person rather than the world of the blind that is really a world without faces because there is no theory of mind, the mind of the non-autistic person. The only glimmering of understanding into others on the part of an autistic person is into another person with autism. Mention should also be made of prosagnosia, a condition in which people are unable to recognise the faces of their loved ones or friends. A remarkable feature of this strange condition is that the prosopagnostnic patient can often recognise various features of the face, such as the gender, age or hair colouring, but is unable to identify the possessor of the face.
In his remarkable book about the face, Jonathan Cole says that he could have interviewed film stars or well-known politicians, people whose beautiful or famous faces are always before the public eye. However, in order to probe the meaning of the human face, he decided to go to those who had in some sense lost the face, whose faces had become immobile, disfigured, palsied, blinded, and amongst these people he had discovered a revitalisation of deep life".
It is surprising, perhaps, that on the whole those who write books on theology and the philosophy of religion do not follow the method of Jonathan Cole. When they seek to describe human responsibility and human relationships, using the face as the focus of their writing, they assume the sole reality of the sighted world. This becomes almost ironic when the subject of discussion is the miracles of the New Testament in which Jesus is described as restoring the sight of the blind. In approximately twenty such articles written over the past fifteen years, I have not found a single concession to the fact that these stories express a sighted point of view, nor any awareness of how the stories might strike a blind reader. No doubt there are plenty of articles written about the healing miracles of Jesus which do display such sensitivity; it just happens that I have not come upon them.
The role of the human face is particularly noteworthy in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. Transcendence breaks into our lives when we take responsibility for our fellow human beings and "such a responsibility is a response to the imperative of gratuitous love which comes to me from the face of another". The abandonment of being into existence, and the unique election of each individual is viewed in the face. It is the face of the other that summons me to this responsibility. For Levinas, the nakedness of the face represents the vulnerability of each human being, for whom there is no defence or covering. The core of the infinite is "a summons which comes to me from the face of the neighbour", "here I am: under your gaze, obliged to you". When I relate to another "it is not the knowledge of his character, or his social position or his needs but his nudity as the needy one, the destitution inscribed upon his face. It is his face as destitution which asks me as responsible, and by which his needs can only count for me". Yes, but all this presupposes that one can see the face of the other.
It is clear from what has been said about Levinas that his use of the human face, although very individual and concrete, referring as it does to my presence before the specific other who claims my response, remains a symbol. Levinas is not interested in the psychology or physiology of the face. He seldom refers to the face as having any characteristics, except that the eyes of the other gaze upon one. For Levinas, the face does not smile or frown, it is not a face with a specific gender, nor is it a singing face. In that sense, the use of the face in Levinas is quite similar to its use in the Bible. The face of God indicates the presence of God. Nevertheless, everything depends upon being able to see the face, and the fact that Levinas so often emphasises the muteness of the face of the other heightens the visual presuppositions of his style.
In the case of David Ford, although the symbolic character of the face becomes more apparent as his book on Self and Salvation proceeds, the much more detailed descriptions of the face suggest a deeper involvement in the particularities of sighted life. The opening sentence of the first chapter is "we live before the faces of others". "Words have their primary context in faces". The Christian Church might be described as "the transformation of facing before the face of Christ". "Christianity is characterised by the simplicity and the complexity of facing: being faced by God, embodied in the face of Christ; turning to face Jesus Christ...being members of a community of the face; seeing the face of God reflected in creation and especially in each human face, with all the faces in our heart related to the presence of the face of Christ; having an ethic of gentleness…towards each face...". In this opening chapter, we are presented with an unrelieved visual theology. To be "faceless" is to be anonymous, to be a non-person. Although rich and beautiful in its descriptions of the face, there is no relativisation of facial experience.
This does not mean that David Ford is not sensitive towards the other senses. Chapter five deals with the singing self, and shows a rich sensitivity to music and to sound in general. However, even here the significance of singing lies very largely in its face to face character. "Singing is seen as a desirable form of face to face address between members of the community, and between singers and God". "I sing before the faces of those before whom I have learned to worship, and whom I call to worship". There are no references to deafness.
The discussion by David Ford of the face of the dead Christ is both tender and profound. We are led dramatically into the realisation of the dead face. After speaking from the Cross, breathing, and crying out, we are then left with a dead face (p.192). This is the projection of a sighted theology. From a blind perspective, when the breathing and crying have stopped, we are left with silence. Ford imagines nothing between the living, glorified, speaking worshipping singing face and the dead face. There is no place in his theological imagery for the disfigured face, the immobilised face, the face afflicted by a stroke, the scarred and the blinded face. The face is tortured and bloody, but it is dead. It is as if there is only normality: the normality of life, the normality of suffering and the normality of death. From death, and Ford emphasises with a fine theological insight, that the death was a real death, and that the resurrection was a rising from the dead, not just a delayed coming down from the cross. Always, however, the face is seen.
Does it matter? Must majorities always take minorities into account? Cannot sighted people enjoy their world, theologise about their world, speak to each other in that world without blind people nipping their heels? After all, the principal source of Christian theology, the Bible, acknowledges blindness, deafness and other disabilities only to marginalise and denigrate them.
It matters because such attitudes reinforce the central core of Christian exclusivism. Even in the writings of such enlightened and insightful sighted people as those I have been discussing, such attitudes lend support to the core of that exclusivism which, amongst other things, ignores other religions, only grudgingly comes to accept the ministry of women, supports an ideology of uniqueness, and of the normality of the superior which has brought disgrace upon the Christian tradition throughout the world. It matters because in this world of approximately three billion people, there are about six hundred million disabled people, and the gospel is for them also.
Strangely, there is one aspect of the face of Christ which Ford does not refer to. It is the blindfolded Christ. The dead face of Christ witnesses to the laying down of his life in the nothingness of death. The blindfolded face represents the living Christ who enters into the experience of literally blinded people, and becomes their brother. While sighted people may quite naturally behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, blind people may just as naturally respond to the glory of God in the face of the one who was blindfolded for us.