Body Parts

A Theological Anthropology

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Michelle Voss Roberts
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , December
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How might Christians rethink the doctrine of the imago Dei—the notion that human beings bear the image of God—in more inclusive ways? That is the driving question of Michelle Voss Roberts’s Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology. The traditional Christian approach to the imago Dei defines the doctrine by looking for a special human trait that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation. Overwhelmingly, Christian theologians identify that special trait as the human capacity to reason. Traditional interpretations of the doctrine thereby fund a mind/body dualism to devastating social and ecological effect. For example, persons who see themselves as possessing superior powers of reason have found in the doctrine a ready justification for dehumanizing persons with supposedly weaker minds (witness the transatlantic slave trade). Likewise, by excluding the physical aspects of being a human from the imago Dei, traditional interpretations of the doctrine have made it easier for Christians to devalue the earth on which our physical existence depends (witness apocalyptic theologies that celebrate climate change as a harbinger of humanity’s real home in heaven). What’s more, the traditional interpretation suggests that one could lose the imago Dei at any time (if, say, one falls into a coma). Voss Roberts wants to expand the imago Dei so as to avoid such racist, antienvironmental, and ableist implications.

But redefining the imago Dei as some other single trait would reproduce the logic of the traditional approach (elevating one thing as divine) and so carry the same structural problems (marginalizing those who allegedly lack that one thing). Accordingly, Voss Roberts questions the way the imago Dei works as a metaphor instead. She does so by comparing Christian talk of the imago Dei to talk of pratibimba (the reflection of divine consciousness in creation) in one Hindu tradition: specifically, two commentaries attributed to the 10th-century scholar Abhinavagupta on The Goddess of the Three, a tantra from the Trika school of non-dual Saivism. Abhinavagupta explains creation as the deity’s emergence from the undifferentiated unity of pure self-consciousness into differentiated awareness of self and other, a process that unfolds in thirty-six degrees. Put simply, the deity Siva “perceives all of reality into being,” opening his eyes and limiting his universal consciousness to make room for individual creaturely centers of consciousness to exist (37). Thus, “limits belong to divinity and the divine image” (79). That is to say, human beings reflect God “in their various degrees of perception,” including the physical senses, the emotions, and even deep sleep (9). If the imago Dei is a mirror, one flat surface that reflects God in one way, pratibimbais a many-faceted jewel that reflects the deity in many ways.

Body Parts is an excellent example of how a theologian working within one tradition can open up new possibilities for interpreting that tradition by examining the conceptual resources of another. The point of Voss Roberts’s comparison between Christianity’s imago Dei and non-dual Saivism’s pratibimba is to eradicate “dualistic patterns of thinking” from contemporary Christian theological anthropology (86). The point, in other words, is not to “appropriate” non-dual Saivism for use in the Christian faith (xxxii), but rather “to spark the Christian theological imagination” (6): that is, to see whether one can find in Christianity itself a warrant for picturing the imago Dei as a jewel rather than a mirror. Does viewing the imago Dei through the lens of pratibimba open up possibilities for interpreting the imago Dei in ways that forestall “traditional projections of a single age, ability, or appearance as the telos of the divine image” (152)? Voss Roberts’s answer is a resounding yes. 

For instance, the first of the thirty-six stages of divine consciousness in non-dual Saivism’s account of creation is Siva’s opening his eyes. Voss Roberts notes that the first stage of the Glasgow Coma Scale (a medical metric for assessing a person’s conscious state) is also opening the eyes. It follows for her that pratibimbaincludes persons with profound intellectual disabilities. She sees possibilities for a similar interpretation of the imago Dei in Meister Eckhart’s and the beguines’ apophatic talk of a God who exists outside language, concepts, and the “reflective activity” that “interrupts and distances” subject and object (23). She goes so far as to say that “those of us with profound intellectual disabilities may in fact be more able to image God in terms of unmediated awareness than people with higher levels of intellectual function” (24). Theologians should see in persons with profound intellectual disabilities not a “lack” but a “distinct” facet of the jewel of the imago Dei (24). Other facets of the jewel include (a) human limits in general (that Siva limits his own consciousness, power, knowledge, satisfaction, and body to make room for other beings opens up the possibility of basing the content of the imago Dei on process theology rather than classical theism); (b) the human sensorium (when human beings perceive the world through the senses, they reflect “God’s attentiveness to creation” [106] and “Christ’s embodied relation to the world” [109]); and (c) the earth itself (the horizontal structure of pratibimba opens up the possibility of tipping over the vertical metaphysics of Neoplatonism so that all things participate non-hierarchically in, and hence non-hierarchically reflect, God).

My one criticism of the book has to do with its aforementioned discussion of profound intellectual disability. Voss Roberts takes pains to say that she does not want to “romanticize disability” (24). But to claim (as she does) that a man who lacks access to language does a better job of manifesting the oneness of God’s pre-reflective consciousness than people who speak and write is to make a symbol of someone who cannot communicate his acceptance or rejection of such objectification. Voss Roberts’s intention, to be sure, is to remove ableism from the content of the imago Dei. Yet disability theorists such as Tobin Siebers, Eliza Chandler, and Robert McRuer have shown that this type of claim paradoxically reinforces a preference for ability by turning disability (cognitive impairment) into a special ability (a spiritual asset). 

That said, Body Parts is an otherwise compelling rethinking of the imago Dei. Its comparative methodology dismantles the exclusionary logic of the traditional approach to interpreting the imago Dei. Its presentation of non-dual Saivism is accessible to non-specialist readers. And the range of its Christian interlocuters is breathtaking (Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Pseudo-Dionysius, the beguines, Charles Hartshorne, Jürgen Moltmann, John D. Caputo, crip theory, and feminist theology, among others). Body Parts would make for great reading in a graduate or an upper-level undergraduate course in theological anthropology or comparative theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Olivia Bustion is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michelle Voss Roberts is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Her earlier books include Tastes of the Divine: Hindu and Christian Theologies of Emotion (2014), which received the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion (Constructive/Reflective Studies) from the American Academy of Religion.


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