Phenomenology Philosophy of Religion

Embodiment And The Experience Of The Divine (James Mensch)

At the outset of Genesis, we are presented with two different pictures of God. The first depicts God as the creator of the world and, thus, as transcendent to it. This implies that we cannot understand his creative action in worldly terms. If, for example, we say that “in the beginning” God caused the world to be, causality does not have the sense of a worldly event. In the world, nothing occurs without a cause, which means that for every event that occurs, we will always find a prior one that brought it about. This objective order of the prior and posterior, as Kant pointed out, is definitive of what we mean by objective time. Since nothing occurs without something prior bringing it about, such time cannot have a beginning. Yet, the statement “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth” implies that there is nothing temporally prior to God’s act (Gen 1:1). Not having a “before,” his creative action thus cannot be located in the successive order of time or understood in its terms.

The action has, in fact, the paradoxical quality of a one-sided border. We can grasp, in a worldly sense, what follows God’s act, but not what precedes it. The same argument can be made with regard to each of our attempts to interpret God’s actions in terms of the relations we find in the world. For many philosophers, they point to the fact that God, as their author, escapes human comprehension. This, however, is what the second depiction of God by Genesis seems to deny. In a striking passage, it uses repeatedly the word “image” to describe our relation to God. It quotes God as saying: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him” (Gen 1:26-27). Here, the implication is that to understand God, we need to understand “man.” The way to such comprehension is to see God’s actions as analogous to our own. If the first picture of God emphasizes his transcendence, the second depicts him as immanent. It links the understanding of God to our self-understanding.

How can such radically different descriptions be combined? Hume, in his Dialogues, thought that they could not. For Hume, to assert the transcendence of God is to abandon all human analogy. But “[i]f we abandon all human analogy, […] we abandon all religion and retain no conception of the great object of our adoration.” [1] This means that we cannot say what we believe in. But, then, are we really believers? As Hume has his protagonist, Philo, ask: how do those “who maintain the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity differ from Sceptics or Atheists, who [also] assert that the first cause of all is unknown and unintelligible?” [2] Yet, as Hume notes, if we avoid this conclusion by embracing human analogy, we slip very easily into an absurd anthropomorphism. [3] Nothing prevents us from claiming that God has a gender, gets angry, has to be reminded of his promises, and so on.

The dilemma Hume poses is not limited to the Mosaic religions. It is felt by all who assert the transcendence of the divine.  A traditional response has been to seek a solution in terms of our self-transcendence. It is assumed that we must somehow transcend our embodiment to experience the divine. This appears to be the goal of the ascetic practices that characterize a number of religions.

The assumption is also present in Socrates’ assertion that “the philosopher more than other men frees the soul from association with the body” (Phaedo 65a). [4] This, he explains, is because the timeless ideas or genuine “realities” cannot be grasped through the body. The philosopher who apprehends them is he who, “using pure thought alone, tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from … the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth” (Phaedo 66a). [5] If we accept this, we can also assert that our being the “image” and the “likeness” of God does not refer to our bodies but only to our souls.

In spite of its appeal, the idea that we must somehow transcend the body to experience the divine suffers from an overwhelming difficulty. As philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas have pointed out, embodiment is essential to experience. There is no apprehension, sensual or conceptual, without it. If we accept this, we face the problem of how our embodiment affects our experience of the divine. How can such experience avoid the absurdities of anthropomorphism? Can it reach the radically transcendent? In what follows, I am going to argue that both are possible since the experience of embodiment is, itself, an experience of a radical transcendence. To see this, I am going to first list some of the features that traditionally characterize the divine.

The Experience of Divine in the Mosaic Tradition

The first of these is God’s transcendence. In the Mosaic tradition, this follows from God’s position as the creator of the world. His transcendence of the world is, as we have seen, a surpassing of our understanding. This leads us to assert, with Anselm of Canterbury, that God is not just “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” God is “also something greater than can be thought.” [6] The experience of the divine is an experience of this excess. It is an encounter with a givenness that cannot be given in a way that we could conceptualize. Thomas Aquinas thought of this as the givenness of existence.

Drawing a distinction between existence and essence, he thought of God as esse tantum, as existence considered in itself apart from any conceptions that we might draw from particular things with their defining essences. [7] In taking God as the source of existence, he thus took him as a cause that constantly escapes being described. [8] A similar derivation can be made of God’s unique singularity. It follows when we say that he is the self-sufficient cause of the world. Were another cause necessary, God would not, by definition, be self-sufficient. But if he is, he is unique.

Thus, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all assert that there is only one God. Unlike numerical singulars, which exist as one among many instances of their kind, God, they maintain, exists in only one example. Aquinas expressed this insight by noting that existence (esse) as such is not diverse. What distinguishes entities are the essences that their definitions express. As distinct from essence, esse tantum has no particularizing features that would distinguish one example of it from another. It is, thus, inherently uniquely singular.

A further characteristic of the creator God is his status as the Mysterium Tremendum. This, Patočka writes, is the mystery before which we tremble. [9] The trembling shakes us loose from our everyday world in a much more radical sense than that imposed by philosophy. For Patočka, the questioning initiated by Socrates brings about “an upheaval aimed at the former meaning of [our] life as a whole.” It confronts us with “the problematic nature, the question of the ‘natural’ meaning” we previously took for granted. [10]

The result is a shaking of our world-view. Socrates, for example, makes us ask why we have understood the world in the way we have rather than in some other way. Why have we arranged our lives, our politics, our societies in the ways we find them? His invitation is to ask, politically and culturally, whether the reasons we give can withstand examination. But, despite its radicality, this inquiry remains on the level of the world. The perspectives it calls into question are those of the world. Socrates invites us to pass from one such perspective to another. By contrast, the shaking induced by the Mysterium Tremendum calls the world itself into question. It confronts us with a perspective that is radically non-worldly. It allows us to ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?”—a question that could not occur to the ancients with their belief in the eternity of the world. The question directs us to the cause of the world—a cause that exceeds our understanding. As such, the thought of such cause is experienced as a shaking of all our worldly categories.

Coincident with our experience of God as transcendent, as uniquely singular and as a Mysterium Tremendum, there is also a felt sense of the sacred. We can find this sense in the Greek root of the Latin word, sacer.  The root, σῶος (soös), signifies “safe,” in the sense of kept apart or reserved for the god. [11] As consecrated, the sacred cannot be used by us. One cannot, for example, cut down and use the timber of a sacred grove. The trees forming the grove are inviolate. One should not, in fact, even enter the grove.

Thus, as Sophocles has a stranger say to Oedipus who has strayed into a sacred place, “It is forbidden to walk on that ground … It is not to be touched.” [12] A similar sense of the sacred is present in God’s encounter with Moses, when he is bidden to stop and remove his sandals. [13] The sacred cannot be entered or used. It is what is withdrawn from the “earthly economy”—that system of exchange by which we live. It is not something that can be bought or sold or used in any form of exchange. Its transcendence of the economy can also be thought of in terms of God’s being prior to creation. As prior, he is, by definition, set apart. To experience him as set apart is to experience the sacred in the sense just defined.

If our experience of God were simply that of his transcendence, we would, in Hume’s words, be left only with “the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity.” We could not say what we believed in. The Bible, however, also emphasizes the carnal intimacy of God’s relation to us. This emphasis ill accords with the supposition that our soul, as opposed to our body, is what makes us an image of God. For Plato, the contact with the divine was that of our intelligence to the intelligible.

It was exemplified by our attempts to grasp, first, the eternal ideas and, then, “the Good.” [14] By contrast, the Bible’s preferred metaphor involves the bodily relation of God to his people. Isaiah, for example, writes: “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you” (Is. 62:5). Hosea, another prophet, has God say, “I will betroth you to me forever” (Hosea 2:19). The Apostle Paul picks up this carnal relation—though without the erotic implications—in speaking of Christians as forming the body of Christ. He writes, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body (I Cor. 13).

This emphasis on the body is also present in the Apostle’s Creed, which includes the affirmation, “I believe in … the resurrection of the body [σαρκὸς ἀνάστασιν].” In such examples, the intimacy of our relation to the divine is understood in terms of the relation of flesh to itself—the very flesh, σάρξ, that is resurrected to “eternal life.”

Flesh and Transcendence

Given its emphasis on transcendence, why does the biblical tradition choose the body to describe our relation to the divine? Is not carnal experience opposed to the encounter with the transcendent? To answer these questions, we have to turn to the concrete experience of our flesh. Flesh, in such experience, exhibits itself as uncannily similar to the transcendent God. For the Israelites, the chief characteristic of God, the creator, is his unique singularity. When the book of Deuteronomy proclaims, “Hear, O Israel: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is affirming that he is known in only one example (Deu. 6:4). The same uniqueness holds for our knowledge of our flesh. It appears in the fact that our flesh is at the basis of our being ourselves rather than someone else.

As embodied, no one can eat for you, sleep for you, or perform any of your bodily functions for you. The organic privacy of these functions shows that each of us experiences our embodiment in only one example. The flesh that we directly encounter is not one among many, but uniquely our own. This very uniqueness causes our embodiment to show another characteristic of the divine: it makes it transcend our conceptualization.

Thus, the flesh we directly experience is not like apples in the store. Having many instances of this fruit, we can draw from them a number of common features and express them with common meanings. We have, however, only one example of the flesh that incarnates us. Because of this, it cannot be defined in Aristotle’s sense. It cannot be specified in terms of species and genus. We can only directly sense it. [15] It is, in fact, inexpressible in the common meanings of our language, which, by definition, apply to more than one object. This inexpressibility makes flesh transcendent. Its inability to be conceptualized recalls Aquinas’s description of God as esse tantum, as existence considered apart from essence.

Flesh also gives itself as escaping conceptualization, i.e., as apart from any defining essence. There is, moreover, a parallel with Anselm’s description of God as “something greater than can be thought.” The experience of the divine is an experience of this excess. It is, we said, an experience of a givenness that escapes our comprehension. The same holds with regard to our encounter with our flesh. It is an encounter with a radical uniqueness. In this uniqueness, its givenness exceeds the properties that it shares with the flesh of others—these being, for example, the common properties that make it an object of biological and medical studies. The excess, here, is its uniqueness as our own existing flesh.

Because of this uniqueness, our flesh shares with the divine the sense of being sacred—that is, the sense of being withdrawn from the earthly economy. Our economic relations consist in the exchange of goods and services. The latter are the acts that we can perform for one another. Such acts cannot include those that comprise our organic functioning. As I noted, another person cannot eat my meal for me. His being satisfied does not alleviate my hunger. The same holds for the death—the cessation of functioning—that, as Heidegger remarked, each us must privately undergo. [16]

A similar withdrawal shows itself with regard to the exchange of goods. It is, perhaps, best illustrated in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, with its account of Shylock’s inability to collect on his debt of a pound of flesh. The exchange economy consists of substitutable items, with currency serving as a universal substitute. But flesh as such is inherently non-substitutable and, hence, incapable of serving as a currency. As Shakespeare’s example illustrates, its experience is that of the interruption of every system of exchange. We experience the interruption as a withdrawal. The experience is one of the sacredness and moral inviolability of flesh.

A similar resemblance holds with regard to our experience of God as the Mysterium Tremendum, the mystery before which we tremble. Like God, flesh also exhibits a givenness that escapes our comprehension. It, too, directs us beyond the givenness of the world to that which is responsible for such givenness. Thus, God’s causality is external to the world. As prior to the world, he is not bound by its temporally. Outside of its temporality, he acts on what is temporally within it. This implies that both the beginning-point and the end-point of his action display the paradoxical quality of being both inside and outside of time.

Thus, in terms of what follows it, the beginning-point is in time. But in terms of what precedes it (and which could temporally condition it), the beginning point is not in time. The same holds, in reverse order, for the end-point of his action. What follows the end is not in time and, hence, is not conditioned by what precedes the end. Both the beginning and the end thus have the paradoxical quality of being one-sided borders. The same holds for our birth and death. They, too, share, phenomenologically, this paradoxical quality.

Behind this is the fact that our flesh is basic to our making sense of the world. Through its senses, it provides the material for the syntheses that result in apprehension. Not that we are passive observers—we rely on the motility that our body affords us to manipulate and move around objects and, thus, register their different sides. Otherwise, we could not synthesize or put together what we see so as to grasp objects as identities that show themselves first from one side and then another. The role of flesh in our apprehension of the world is, of course, a common phenomenological theme. Its essential point is that the givenness of the world is founded on the givenness of our flesh—i.e., on the giving that it provides through its senses and actions.

This implies that flesh’s own beginning and end cannot be grasped in terms of the world. Since we lack the requisite experience—the experience of an occurring before we were born or after we die—we cannot directly constitute (or know) the sense of our own birth and death. What we confront in flesh is thus, once again, akin to Aquinas’s esse tantum. We confront a giving that is prior to our categories, a giving that supports and yet escapes our conceptual categorizations. Such giving mirrors on an individual level the causality of God. The Mosaic tradition derives God’s transcendence, unique singularity and sacred character from his creative causality. The same qualities, however, also follow from the causality of our flesh, i.e., its providing the basis for our access to the world

Transcendence and the Intimacy of Flesh

If we accept this, we cannot say that carnal experience is opposed to the encounter with the transcendent. Such experience exhibits both intimacy and transcendence. In fact, such transcendence is a function of the intimacy of embodiment. I experience this intimacy each time I touch myself, when, for example, I place my hand on my cheek. Doing so I feel myself being touched. This feeling distinguishes my flesh from what is not itself. Thus, when I touch some inanimate object, I do not feel its being touched. Only my body affords me the sense of self-touch. The intimacy of self-touch flows from flesh’s being both subject and object.

For example, my hand, functioning as a subject, feels my cheek as a surface with various tactile qualities. For the hand, it stands as an object. But my cheek, in feeling itself being touched, also feels the hand. As a place of disclosure, it exhibits the hand’s roughness or smoothness. Paul employs the intimacy of this relation in his descriptions of the body of Christ. According to Paul, every member of this body is both subject and object. Being both, each acknowledges and shares in the other members’ experience.

To see how such intimacy involves transcendence, we have to turn to Merleau-Ponty and his description of the inner alterity of our flesh. He begins with the fact that when the right hand touches the left hand, the left hand becomes an object. The left hand can also, however, function as a subject. It can feel the touching hand and regard it as an object. In his words, “When my right hand touches my left hand while [the left hand] is palpating the things … the ‘touching subject’ [the left hand] passes over to the rank of the touched.” It “descends into the things, such that the touch is formed in the midst of the world.” [17]

The alterity of flesh exhibits itself because when we apprehend our body as a sensible object, we lose it as a sentient subject—and vice versa. There is, in other words, never a merging of the two. We can never directly apprehend both together so that the one could be identified with the other. As Merleau-Ponty describes this failure, “If my left hand is touching my right hand, and if I should suddenly wish to apprehend with my right hand the work of my left hand as it touches, this reflection … always miscarries … the moment I feel my left hand with my right hand, I correspondingly cease touching my right hand with my left hand.” [18]

As he elsewhere writes, what we face here is “an ambiguous set-up in which the two hands can alternate in the function of ‘touching’ and being ‘touched.’” [19] There is “a sort of dehiscence” or bursting open that “opens my body in two,” splitting it “between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching.” [20] This bursting open is an expression of the body’s inner transcendence. It is inherent in the intimacy of its relation to itself.

The transcendence that appears here is, in fact, the same as the transcendence that occupied Hume: it is an escape from conceptualization. The escape appears in my inability to simultaneously grasp “my body touched and my body touching.” The dehiscence or bursting open of the two confronts me with a gap, an alterity that offers no object for thought. The alterity appears in my inability to grasp flesh in its character of being both subject and object. The apprehension of it as subject excludes its grasp as an object, and vice versa. This inability is not practical, but rather ontological. It follows from the fact that my flesh is the only sensing subject that I can directly experience. As such, it has, like God, the status of being a unique singular.

As touched, however, it becomes an object; it “descends into the things.” Here, it becomes one of the many objects that we can encounter. It has the status of a numerical, as opposed to a unique singular. In this guise, it offers itself to conceptualization. The flesh that stands as object can, for example, be the subject of a science and be exhibited in medical textbooks. This exhibition, however, is one with the withdrawal of its unique singularity. In this, it mirrors the withdrawal of God when we try to delimit him in terms drawn from the world—for example, when we make the sacred part of the earthly economy of exchange.


Hume’s dilemma works by radically opposing transcendence to immanence. For Hume, God’s transcendence is such that he becomes totally other and, as such, unknowable. Any attempt to regard him as immanent, that is, to describe him in terms of our experience, cannot overcome this transcendence. Because of this, it can only lead to an anthropomorphism that, at best, is inappropriate, and, at worst, absurd. Believers thus face the choice of speaking nonsense or admitting that they have no conception of the object of their faith.

The dilemma, I have suggested, grows out of philosophy’s age-old contempt for the body. Its argument does not consider the transcendence that is inherent in our embodiment, a transcendence that proceeds ontologically from numerical to unique singularity, from flesh as conceivable to flesh as surpassing all conception. This transcendence signifies that our own bodily experience can serve as a basis for a grasp of the divine. Not all attempts to describe God in terms of our experience lead necessarily to an absurd anthropomorphism.

Of course, one can always counter this by asserting that our supposed experience of the divine is simply a projection of our carnal experience. Our characterizations of the divine are projections of the transcendence and unique singularity we experience in our embodiment. The alternate position is to see in such carnal experience an openness to the divine—an openness that sees in flesh the presence of the divine. Christianity chooses this alternative. In its doctrine of the Incarnation, it asserts the presence of the divine in the flesh of Jesus. This presence made the incarnate God subject to the vicissitudes of embodiment. In his crucifixion, he was but one of many who suffered this degrading punishment.

But the presence of the divine made him more than this. It marked the unique singularity of his person and his sacrifice. For Christians, this uniqueness points to the personal resurrection that followed his earthly existence, a resurrection that he also promised to his followers. Belief in this is, of course, is a matter of faith. As philosophers, we can only speak of the transcendence, the escape from the economy that makes our embodiment an example of the sacred. Embodiment appears here, if not as the image, then, at least, as the ethical trace of the divine.

James Mensch is a full professor at the Faculty of Humanities at Charles University in Prague.  He is also a member of the Central European Institute of PhilosophyHis book, Patočka’s Asubjective Phenomenology: Toward a New Concept of Human Rights was published by Königshausen & Neumann (Orbis Phaenomenologicus Studien, vol. 38) in 2016. The previous year, his monograph, Levinas’ Existential Analytic, A Commentary on Totality and Infinity, was published by Northwestern University Press. Currently, his book, Selfhood and Appearing, the Intertwining, is in press with Brill. Mensch has been the recipient of four Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grants and has served as a member of the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council  Insight Grants committee as well as on the boards of a number of journals.

Featured image: Horia Varlan, “Painting detail of cracks on Mother Mary’s hands.” Flickr. CC 2.0 License.

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1966), 71.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] See ibid., 40-42.

[4] “Phaedo” in Plato, Five Dialogues, trans. G. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), 101.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] “Therefore, Lord, not only are you that than which nothing greater can be thought, but you are also something greater than can be thought (quiddam maius quam cognitari possit). For since it is possible to think that there is such a one, then, if you are not this same being, something greater than you could be thought—which cannot be” (St. Anselm’s Proslogion, trans. M.J. Charlesworth [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965] 137).

[7] Le « De ente et essentia » de S. Thomas d’Aquin, ed. M.-D. Roland-Gosselin, O. P. (Kain, Belgium: Le Saulchoir, 1926) p. 35; see also Aquinas, Scriptum super Sententiis, distinction 8, quaestio 1, articulus 1.

[8] See Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, ch. 32 in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book One, trans. Anton Pegis (Notra Dame: University of Notra Dame Press, 1975), 143-145.

[9] Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, trans. Erazim Kohák, ed. James Dodd (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1996), 106.

[10] Ibid., 141-2.

[11] A Latin Dictionary, eds. Lewis and Short (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 1610.

[12] “Oedipus at Colonus,” lines 36ff, trans. Robert Fitzgerald, in Sophocles I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), 81.

[13] As the Bible relates their initial encounter, “… God called to him out of the [burning] bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground … And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus, 3:4-6, in The Torah, The Five Books of Moses (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962), 102).

[14] See Plato, Republic, 508d-509b, 518c.

[15] “But when we come to the concrete thing, e.g. … one of the individual circles … of these there is no definition, but they are known by the aid of intuitive thinking or of perception; and when they pass out of this complete realization [of being perceived] it is not clear whether they exist or not” (“Metaphysics,” 1036a, trans. T. D. Ross, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 799).

[16] “Keiner kann dem Anderen sein Sterben abnehmen” (Sein und Zeit [Tübingen: Max Niemeyer 1967], 240).

[17] The Visible and the Invisible, trans. A. Lingis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 133-4.

[18] Ibid, 9.

[19] Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 93.

[20] The Visible and the Invisible, 123.

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