Why Body Parts?

Copyright © Michelle Voss Roberts. All rights reserved.

As I have investigated the image of God, my friends, students, and colleagues have raised a series of questions that demonstrate how crucial it is for Christians to understand this teaching. Their questions also indicate why practicing the image of God must go hand-in-hand with thinking rightly about it.


One question is why I would talk about bodies in relation to the imago Dei at all. This

question reflects the inherited wisdom that the image lies the mind, the intellect, or

the disembodied essence of the self that is known as the soul. After all, doesn’t scripture

say that “God is spirit” (John 4:24)?


I want to challenge this received wisdom because it has often been used to justify the idea

that some human beings have “less” of God’s image than others. Women, children, and

people with a range of disabilities have all been considered intellectually inferior to able-

bodied adult ruling males—and they have been treated as less than fully human. Much of

Christian thinking about being human is actually built in the image of a particular kind of

body and excludes those who do not meet the ideal.


When I share this rationale for bringing the body back into the equation, someone usually

objects that injustices result only from distortions of Christian theology rather than from the theology itself. I agree that there have been significant distortions; but rather than resorting to an invisible God beyond gender, race, and other human differences, another avenue in contemporary theology seems more likely to challenge the gender inequity, racial injustice, and inaccessibility that remains the norm in many Christian institutions.


Contemporary feminist theologies, liberation theologies, and theologies of disability are expanding the range of metaphors for God beyond that of a ruling male (Lord, King, Father). Their God-talk derives from the diverse images for God in scripture, in the theological tradition, and in human experiences of the sacred—especially the experiences of people who have been marginalized by the dominant images. Many have found acceptance and empowerment in relating to God as Mother, the Black Christ, the Disabled God, and other vibrant ways of naming the holy mystery. These theologies similarly invite us to reconsider what it means that humanity is created in God’s image.


What other “parts” of humanity might reflect God’s image? God took flesh as a particular human being. If we take the incarnation seriously, then the full humanity of Jesus reflects “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Not only mental or spiritual capacities, but all the parts deserve consideration as imago Dei.


Interreligious dialogue with Hindu traditions has encouraged me to take up this audacious claim and to consider a broader set of features of human existence as God’s image in us. How might the elements, the organs of sense and action, features of subjectivity, limitations, and a range of states of consciousness reflect the divine? What openings do we find in the Christian tradition that might lend assistance to this thought experiment? ​In Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology, considering the two traditions together enables us to think about the embodied image of God in new ways.


A final question comes from a theologian familiar with the aspirations of liberation theologies: does changing our ideas about God and humanity really change how we treat one another? This question is why I offer the following set of exercises. In order for expansions in God-talk to change our relations on the ground, we need more than helpful ideas. We need practices that enable these ideas to migrate from our heads to the rest of our fully embodied selves. I invite you to undertake the practices linked to each set of “body parts” in order to encounter the divine image in yourself and others.