As story after story was shared, it became very obvious that these women…had lived many times the “no greater love” message of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John read during the servicio de la amistad. The women’s theological understanding of this central text of Christianity is revealed not in elaborated discourse but rather in thoughtful implementation. For them “no greater love” is not a matter of dying for someone else but a matter of not allowing someone else to die.
Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Mujerista Theology
The concept of the imago Dei (image of God) has long served as a cornerstone of Christian anthropology. It refers to the idea that by means of perichoresis, the entire cosmos participates in the divine reality. Humans, particularly, derive from it and are a peculiar eikon, similitude, or icon of God’s way of being God essentially and economically (Gen. 1:26-27), meaning that God’s very self is partly manifested as the God with, in, and for us. This essay argues that in being fully human, humans tangibly can make manifest this relational reality in bodily form. It follows approaches to Christian theology that view the event of Jesus the Christ as the utmost act of being a “similitude” that is, the event par excellence that makes God comprehensible bodily (Col. 1:15; II Cor. 4:4).
Given that the context of Genesis 1:26-27 is being set amidst creation accounts, and that the Second Testament testifies so strenuously to Jesus being one who was in the flesh (Col. 1:22), one might also assume that the corporeal God-image of human beings is widely affirmed in Christian theology. Yet this latter position has been neglected or rejected. For instance, Origen argued for a human likeness to the Son of God as savior, who assumed the human image, and in taking the form of a servant humbled himself to the point of death so that humans could be transfigured according to his saving form by means of repentance. This likeness into which we are transfigured is not humanly corporeal, but rather an inward or spiritual process of becoming a semblance that while it seeks to attain “the body of his glory” does not consist of mirroring any earthly form.
From the patristic era onward, the imago Dei has been almost exclusively disembodied, with a heavy emphasis placed on dimensions of the mind, soul, or spirit of the human being. With body and soul dichotomized, the body has been relegated to a secondary position, if not altogether excluded from notions of the divine image. This deep schism separating the flesh has also split humans along gender lines, with the divine image being identified more unambiguously, if not exclusively, with the male (not to mention a disregard for the nonhuman). Furthermore, any good attributed to the human flesh has been deemed extrinsic. As such, the body as qualitatively lacking in its capacity to image God is viewed as being in need of a metaphysical gift that, despite all references to divine gratuitousness, implicitly is obtained by means of an illumined mind, a form of noetic transcendence.
A number of Caribbean-Latina theologians have sought to challenge these dichotomized views by putting flesh back onto concepts of the image of God, a move which tacitly feminizes God. Among them is the late mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz, whose work is here engaged in conversation with other Caribbean Latina theologians, and as a response to early Christian thought. And while many studies have rightly focused on her notion of Latina women’s experience as locus theologicus, this essay finds in her anthropology an understudied yet significant contribution with which to offer a much needed response to classical constructs of the imago Dei, her concept of being fully human. For her, any understanding of self as human stems from knowing that one is created according to the divine image, this notion of likeness also being informed by one’s full humanity. Similarly, this essay offers insight on the divine image as manifested through the body, the manner in which the invisible reality of the divine comes into form through modes of relationality that resemble the Jesus event. This is made manifest in the human passion for justice, in the human capacity to exist in the interstices of time and space, and in the human expressions of God’s excessive love.
These body images can lead to fuller understandings of God as love. In shifting the dialectics of the doctrine in the direction of embodiment, the emphasis comes to be on the dimensions of both the image and of a God who loves passionately (I John 4:16). The main premise is that to be like God is to love in the flesh. An embodied love, often forgotten in relation to the doctrine of the imago Dei, turns the attention to the entire human—mind, soul, spirit and flesh—as theological locus for the manifestation of divine love.
Imago Dei in Theological Tradition
In the opening pages of the Hebrew Bible one reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image (tselem), according to our likeness (demuth)…” (Gen. 1:26a, NRSV). This notion of the imago Dei, though traditionally viewed in Jewish tradition as being intrinsically embodied, during the intertestamental period underwent a process of Hellenization, and by the time of the development of Christian theology came to resemble the idea of a “metaphysical gift.” This gift became the divine wisdom or heavenly knowledge fashioned after the eternal logos breathed in by God. Since the divine breath is imparted into the soul or the imperishable part of the human, the soul began to be viewed as the container, bearer, or seat of logos—the one aspect of the human that is according to the divine image. Under this impact of Greek thinking, the early Christian conception of humanity became bi-partite: spirit and body. In some cases the one who bore the image described in Genesis 1:26 was viewed as a heavenly human, while the one created in Genesis 2:7 being the earthly human made from dust. In the same manner that the body became devoid of the divine image, so the human came to be in need of something external to the body to aid it in returning to its “original” state, a grace extrinsic to it, a grace entirely other than flesh.
Church fathers such as Origen and St. Augustine adopted Hellenized understandings of the logos, and they correlated the imago Dei with the mind. Origen viewed corporeality as being according to form, hence that component of the human in the likes of the “slime of the earth,” and not that which was made in the divine image, the latter referring to the incorruptible or the inner human. According to him, to argue erroneously for a corporeal image is “to represent God himself [sic] made of flesh and in human form.” For Augustine of Hippo, “to be is to know.” “God’s image,” Augustine avers, “is reason itself, or mind or intelligence or whatever other word it may more suitably be named by.” He proceeds with an analysis of Ephesians 4:23-24 and Colossians 3:10, and explains that Paul made it “plain enough just in what part man was created in God’s image—that it was not in the features of the body but in a certain form of the illuminated mind.” Since one transcends only by thought, the mind holds a place of superiority against less rational human parts, i.e., the body.
For the mind to receive a sense of imagery or to be shaped according to the image directly from God via illumination and so for the senses of the body not to aid in the process of illumination entails dominating or subjugating the body. In this scenario, corporality is corruptible, an obstacle to seeking truth, a “load upon the soul,” the earthly habitation that “presses down the mind.” It impedes the realization of the image in the soul. Like the description of the Platonic soul, only that which is lacking corporeality can be perfect, hence the need for it to rise above all flesh as if carried by wings when in the presence of the divine beauty and goodness. The body, while sensing the immutability and the power of the soul, and while searching for the invisible that is made visible through corporeality, is limited in its search because of its own corruptible habitation. Eventually corporeality pulls down the seeker from its initial climb, leaving only the trace of a memory.
From this perspective, not only is the body of a lower order when compared to reason, but the capacity to reason and its degrees of illumination place women further removed from being made according to the image of God. Rational life is then divided between “the contemplation of eternal truth and the management of temporal affairs,” which correspond to the rationality of men and of women. Men are able to direct their minds toward contemplation whereas women conform their minds to temporal affairs, he insists. Another aspect of humanity then becomes significant, namely the ethnic and racial difference that the dominant power constructs unfavorably towards the marginalized, whose skin tone and other physical features like hair texture are made to serve as a litmus test of their lack of intellectual capacity, hence also their limited beauty appeal to image the divine tangibly. By implication, in order for women, and especially women of color, to exercise higher reason they have to overcome their womanhood, i.e. their concern for the temporal order, and with effort reflect the image of God in spite of their bodies. Ultimately, then, noetic transcendence eradicates the female self.
The Metaphysical Gift
The concept of the mind as a metaphysical component superior to the body devalues the body and nature in favor of something considered external to them both. This something that is ad extra or extra nos is similar to Philo’s notion of the “metaphysical gift.”  This gift was the divine wisdom or heavenly knowledge, derived from the breath of God and fashioned after the eternal logos of God that according to Philo was received by the soul or the seat of logos or reason—the only imperishable part of the human. Christian tradition has viewed grace as that gift that restores the image of God in humanity.
Much of the Western theological tradition has viewed the work of grace as necessarily coming from beyond humanity, in part because it has seen little if anything good as remaining in humanity after the fall. While the notion of “total depravity” was most pronounced in John Calvin and his followers in the Reformed tradition, comparable ideas of a lack of any intrinsic value being found in human life and existence are scattered throughout Christian history. The impact of this conception of an external work of grace similar to a metaphysical gift further devalues the body as a means and a location for salvation, since the effects of grace have been viewed primarily to be upon the soul or mind where the image of God resides. The body has been assigned to a lesser role in either receiving or mediating grace due to its close associations with that which is “lower” in nature.
There have been a number of attempts in recent theology to modify, if not overturn, the notion of a divine gift that is entirely above or wholly beyond the flesh, or grace that is less concerned with the body, or that it is concerned primarily with restoring an image that is not itself embodied. The twentieth-century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, for instance, challenged this view by demonstrating the “intrinsicism” of grace (grace being intrinsic to nature) to the whole of the human experience. The full human reality is the medium proper to God’s communication or incarnation of Godself, he insists. This divine incarnation in the reality of the human is “the mystery and the fullness of grace.” It is only via embodiment in full human nature, in the incarnation, that God has communicated Godself personally to the world in the fullest of terms possible within the finitude of the created order.
Since nature and the gift of grace are both distinct from and intrinsic to one other, the same remains true regarding body and soul, which he understood to be fully integrated and incapable of separation. Borrowing from views that affirmed an embodied soul, which meant a step in the right direction but not enough to embrace the fullness of the body, Rahner went further, suggesting that the body makes the soul appear and be present. And since the divine life is in the world (and not merely above and beyond it), both body and soul partake in the divine reality of transcendence from within the created order and make it manifest in part. For Rahner, salvation, which entails being as much as becoming according to the imago Dei, is not a process that is concerned only with the soul or with the mind. Hence to be an icon of the divine is an event or ongoing process by which body and soul as a unified reality integrally symbolize the divine in the human. For Rahner, this process closely connects the historical actualization and self-presentation of the divine. God and human join in this process in the same manner that soul and body together form the symbolic. The image of God is found only as this unified reality.
At this juncture, the significance of reflections such as Rahner’s might seem apparent. Yet it remains relevant, as Michelle González remarks, that because women have been associated with “the body, sensuality, and emotion,” they are considered to be deficient in their reflection of the image of God. And so, “their bodies in particular, come to be linked to that which impedes the fullness of the image within them.” Placing the body of women at the heart of the doctrine of the image of God, González concludes, rejects the notion that embodiment and being woman is a hindrance. Therefore a turn to the body of love as bearer of the divine image continues to be necessary.
Communion “With/in” Selves
Grace is the impulse of love in all flesh (as with the whole of the created order) for the purposes of making manifest incarnations of God’s love here on earth. Several modes of relationality in some Caribbean Latina theologies can aid in dissecting this statement, and so in sketching a challenge to Greek notions of noetic transcendence and of the metaphysical gift prevalent in classical constructs of the imago Dei. These modes make manifest the human-iconicity of God as a possibility, affirming grace as being intrinsic to the whole of their very selves, in that bodies hold a capacity to love as communicated in the Jesus event.
A useful theological point of departure has been the perichoretic dance or interconnected way of being “with/in” others: God, humans, and the cosmos dancing with and within one and another. Relationality is distance overcome between the human (in all its rare forms) and God, amongst humans and with any human-other. In moving beyond the self towards another and returning to the self transformed, being human becomes being fully in-participation or being according to relationship. This movement of dancing about with/in God and other living beings is generated by and generates love.
We are intrinsically linked to God, and participate intimately in God in the flesh. Recounting a spiritual experience, Isasi-Díaz shares, “This sense of the divine in me and I in the divine was a bodily one: I could feel, sense God, and I could wrap my arms around the divine… this sense of participation in the divine filled me in such a way that it remains with me today.” While there is a distinction between the divine and the human, the union is an intimate bodily union that breaks free from false dichotomies between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. As she further argues, “our God is thoroughly involved with us as we are, humans who inhabit this world, suffused in materiality, struggling to go beyond the limitedness of our humanity to embrace the divinity in which we are called to participate.” Our deep intimacy with God conveys a sense of continuum in our love-experience that denotes a daily mysticism that embraces the whole of the self. One can fall in love with God and begin a spiritual journey that is long lasting because of love. We transcend ourselves through falling in love daily in a manner that touches the divine in our lives, again and again, and everywhere.
Being-in-participation is being “with” an inner propensity to move toward another, and “in” the other, for the enhancement of the good and beautiful of the other without the sacrifice of the self. We take part in or partake of an-other through love, through falling in love in a manner that touches the divine in us and connects us with other humans (and nonhumans) without renouncing who we are. Isasi-Díaz agrees: “Keeping love alive means folding oneself into the life of the beloved without losing oneself or absorbing the beloved.” Falling in love involves a deep intimacy that enacts the mutual gifting of selves, being transformed by means of this perichoretic dance (in the exchange of selves), including God.
Imaging God means incarnating or enfleshing the divine dance, hence the divine relations and dynamisms of love in relationship with the rest of the created order. It denotes that love, being the most significant divine and human aspect internally shared between living beings, partly in-corporates the other in the self and images the other through the self because of love. In this, there is an embrace of the whole of selves. And so physically, because the body is intrinsic to the embrace, their shared love constitutes their being humanly transformed by the other visibly or tangibly. Furthermore, the inclusion of the many selves in their corporeality with their varied expressions of being fully human points to a dissonant harmony, meaning a dance amongst heterogeneous and variegated shapes of being according to love simultaneously partaking of divinity.
A Divine Kindom of Relationships
What I am challenging here is a disembodied understanding of the Jesus event that devalues grace in nature (the natural work) that has been occurring since creation, of the redemptive capacity inherent to the temporal order that Jesus incarnated through his life, works, death, and resurrection, and so of the tangible divine-cosmos expression of loving relationality. Jesus enacts the divine relationality of love in this world order; Jesus demonstrates how the divine reality does not “‘pass’ through us without being affected by us and affecting us as well.” By being human according to an alternative to the empire of Caesar, Jesus became a unique mediator and icon of the divine mission of love. Similarly, those who imitate Jesus the Christ can reincarnate the divine relational-reality as human beings. By becoming more fully human, human beings can essentially and economically put on display God’s way of being love.
The fullness of humanity active within/in the continuum of the created order can help mediate such semblance of the divine relationship in this temporal order by helping transfigure it. For Isasi-Díaz, mediation then can come through other human beings (alter Christus): their choices and commitments in dealing with reality and in modifying it. I agree with Isasi-Díaz that a useful term for capturing the divine relationality is “the kindom of God.” On the one hand, there is an idyllic vision of the future being challenged in the use of this metaphor. The divine reality, while infinitely unique from this world, cannot be entirely apart from it, or be like a kingdom descending from an unchanging dimension (the heavens) putting an end to all history by means of a world-replacing process permanently achieved solely by God. On the other hand, neither can it be the same makeup to the point of being confused with and subdued by the church and political powers, for it would easily become prey of earthly forms of dominion.
The divine kindom speaks of fullness of life, the shalom for entire communities and the created order; still, according to Isasi-Díaz, more specifically it refers to what lies at the core of being human, as in being in relationship. Relationality itself grounds the whole of the human communal experience and contains the love ingredients with which tangibly to unfold a fullness of life. And so the divine kindom that permeates the whole of earthly reality would be not defined by bloodlines, in particular traditional definitions of family such as the patriarchal family, and heterosexual and biological parents. Furthermore, since it is not conflated with structures of domination, this relationality would mirror much less the accumulation of capital and progress, and be inclusive of “bonds of friendship, of love and care, of community” at the borders of systems of production and exchange value. It would instead mirror interdependence shaped as a prism of relationships and multitudes and be inclusive of all societies. It would provide the needed support and would communicate the responsibilities to replace “exploitation and abuse” with the wellbeing of all. This relationality translates the we/nosotras into “‘we others,’ a community of otros [and otras], or others.”
As illustrated in the incarnation of the logos in the human figure of Jesus, in our dance with God, and in embodying love according to the divine relationality, God can become manifest as a grandmother, suggest Isasi-Díaz. The Christian God is “a God that exists in relationship.” And so ourselves, embodying God and one another as Cheo, another example, can be viewed as one participating in the lives of others, in the family or in the streets, those who are sick and in need, the impoverished and homeless, the viejitos or elderly, the stranger and undocumented, a neighbor. One can come to realize that one’s acts of love amongst them “is not separate from knowing God for through them God is known.” God and others “with/in” comes to be encountered “in more and more places, in new and different ways.” In a story told by Ivone Gebara to Isasi-Díaz we read the following,
“God visited me today.” Ivone was surprised and started talking to the woman trying to find out what had happened. A neighbor had turned over to the woman the money she had earned that day so she could buy medicine for her sick son. For Ivone’s friend this neighbor had become God, had become Christ. This generous neighbor did not merely “represent” Christ, but was indeed Christ made present in a poor neighborhood of Brazil in our days.
This multitude of divine embodiments of love amongst humans (and nonhumans) dancing about one another bear the semblance of a “dissonant harmony.” Our participation in God and others is a multifarious perichoresis that, while harmonized because the diverse dancing partners involved maintain their differences, shows forth as dissonant. A way to illustrate this apparent dissonance can be Caribbean Latina ethnicities that inform a relational complex of love according to an imago Dei of varied elements harmonized without the loss of selves—distinct shapes and colors.
Such relational dissonance challenges notions of sameness. The Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous alongside the European in us re-image the divine in shades of color that bear the marks of our peculiarities. Shades of white, of white and black, of brown, of black, show proof of a mixture of peoples out of love. These ethnic elements added to our harmony in unexpected ways account for differences and struggles of past and present inequalities that are prevalent in our communities. The mixed loving unions of our ancestors embedded in our skins darken the divine image through our willingness to live out our ancestry and across ethnic barriers, become hospitable to the dark stranger. For González, “a fundamental reality that colors our human existence and our relationship with the divine,” would also mean keeping in step with a concept of dissonance resulting from what she regards as “an anthropology that takes seriously how race and racism have functioned within theology.” Fullness of humanity “will not be realized until we cease denying who we are and how we have marginalized those in our community who do not fit racist constructions of identity.”
Awareness of the differences in imaging God can also awaken selves to dissonance that exposes the “ugly” components of harmony or the common good presumed to be existent universally. Inequalities inevitably will result from improper forms of relating to the other, of moving towards another for the purposes of dominion, or by selfishly returning to the self un-transfigured (indifference), as in the negation of mutual giftedness and sharing of selves across social borders or nations. For instance, the tangible iconicity of the dispossessed can loudly challenge the inhumane conditions many undocumented persons are enduring, as those most distant from the centers of society. For Daisy Machado, any concept of the imago Dei would need to account for the foreigners and outsiders, the unprotected and vulnerable women crossing our borders. At times, many of them endure “rape, violence, and even torture” at the hands of the local police and national military personnel in their countries and across borders. The unjust afflictions that they suffer are “an affront to their humanity and dignity but also a challenge to our own gender-based discourse about justice and self-worth of women across the globe.” To think of the imago Dei as embodied love is to go beyond the self and be transformed by means of seeing and touching, giving of the self and receiving from the dispossessed-other. This means tangibly loving the dismembered, raped, maimed, disfigured, marginalized, and the exiled.
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Hence being an icon of God assumes a position of intimacy that challenges Greek dichotomizations of spirit and flesh. Its transcendental noesis no longer remains the primary component of the self imaging God, once the human flesh is viewed as intrinsically harboring the divine grace or quality of love that draws the self beyond itself, towards another, and that pulls the self back to itself transformed. Its rare forms that seek to embody the divine love according to this relationality grant significance to the one falsely deemed less than human. The dissonance of multiple realities of embodied love in the jarring sense of melodious rhythms can enhance appreciation for difference as much as sensitivity for the one in need of enjoying fuller forms of humanization. Therefore, relationality manifested in this way de-romanticizes the notion of community or things being according to sameness and as universally held in common, and can kindle a passion for fuller manifestations of God as flesh here on earth—the transfiguration of the whole created order.
The Body of Loving Flesh
Bodies love intellectually, spiritually, physically, and soulfully. And because love is a passion, loving involves as much logic and reason as desire and sensuality. This last point is particularly important because many of the desires of the human body have been closely associated with sin and hence as diminishing the human capacity to image God. To develop an embodied theology or a theology of embodiment requires that we reflect theologically upon the desires of the flesh. As María Clara Bingemer states, “reason, science, and systematic rigor have their role and their place but they can never suffocate desire, never tame the divine pathos that, from all eternity, has broken silence and become a loving word, kindling an irresistible desire in the hearts of women and men.” In theology, desire becomes significant since love is arguably the ultimate expression of being human in the image of God, for “God is love,” says 1 John 4:16.
Love Kisses Justice
Love, inclusive of human bodily desires and passions, embodies the divine relational reality essentially and actually. Hence one can posit that God as love also desires passionately. God becomes not only our object of desire; rather, inasmuch as God desires, so do we. We see a primary example of how being with/in others makes manifest the essence of God in the divine desire to become human, to live amongst humans, and to suffer and die as a human. By means of the Incarnation, God participated in humanity in accordance with a self-love that equally loves another. Desire pushes theologically beyond the traditional view of God, beyond the confines of a transcendental logos and a metaphysical gift that permeate theology, by emphasizing a bodily love, a love of flesh that grounds humanity in this earthly existence.
Without partial fulfillments of love in history, there can be no manifestation of the imago Dei. A requisite is for love of self to serve as “the measuring rod for the love of neighbor required by Christian Scripture.” If relationality aims at participation in the reality of another in the act of being with/in one another in reciprocal manner, then the “active involvement of those who are in relationship” will be manifested historically when there is mutual giftedness of selves—none being far superior, beyond, and wholly other. As indicated above, to image God is to be passionate. So being human is an ongoing divine incarnation or embodiment being made manifest through desire or love, which entails participating in God and the realities of other humans, what continuously “constitutes the fullness of humanity.” Arguably, then, the “fullness of being” or “being fully human” makes manifest the imago Dei in terms of tangibly demonstrating one’s desire for the good of another as much as for the self (love for the self and neighbor). For Isasi-Díaz, the continuous move from alienation to an intimate relationship with God and others is love shown in justice.
Invariably, loving tangibly will remain in tension with inordinate desires, those arising from the self as well as those of others (rationally and bodily). A body that loves according to mutuality will be longing for the good of the other as for the self despite its impulses toward an inordinate drive to amass power over others, or devalue the self and other selves in the community, resulting in acts of racism, sexism, ageism, and enablism, among others. Longing to create a better future for oneself and others also can expose inordinate desire made visible in societal structures and in people’s acts of injustice. It can offer another possibility for life beyond oppression caused by systemic violence, exploitation, marginalization, cultural imperialism, and powerlessness.
Hopeful expectations of “the next world” in this world, hopes for the kindom of God to be realized in our time and space, might help give birth to liberative structures amidst struggle with the present conditions. Desire is a revolutionary expression of love, the starting point or source of passion that takes us from the reality where we are to the reality we imagine, and so is an impulse in the struggle to turn a utopian vision into reality. It sets in motion and continues to fuel the human striving to build God’s kindom concretely. While acknowledging that it cannot be fully realized in history is essential to the process of partial fulfillments, enactments of these “eschatological glimpses” can progressively contribute to the unfolding of the kindom in our world. The “now but not yet” expressed in hopeful activity begins to make real “what one passionately desires,” states Isasi-Díaz.
Because of desire, eyes see and courage is found to denounce situations in which the fullness of life is not being realized. Love, as Isasi-Díaz defines it, challenges oppressive systems and human actions, and announces a space for the expression of full humanity in the self and others. Love is “not a matter of dying for someone else but a matter of not allowing someone else to die.” The emphasis is on an option for the fullness of life for others as much as it is for the self.
The Third Space of Love
The body that desires, that loves the self and others, makes manifest the “in between” components of divine and human reality and exposes the falsehood of a colonized notion of the imago Dei. In-betweenness is not about being in one space versus another, but about being in a “third space” of participation that exposes the heteronormal dimensions of the God who is love in history. Because of its incarnational nature, as indicated above, love can fall prey to inordinate desires, and so historically take on forms of unequal relationships and selfish ways of being with/in others. Yet divine love continuously aims for heteronormativity (continuous transfiguration) with which to decolonize relationalisms of absolute power or dominion, noetic superiority, dehumanization, and exclusion.
For Caribbean Latina theologians, God’s interstitial love transforms love of neighbor in the shape of loving the stranger or an-other unlike the self. To love is to free the self from habits of self-preservation at the expense of others unlike the self, strangers, that more often than not are born of fear. Preservation of the status quo at all cost reifies norms grounded in and grounding superiority and exclusion. Transformation comes by means of multitonal bodies making manifest human participation in the yet and not yet of history, meaning the in-between of historical events of imperial colonization of bodies. Bodies of love after colonization darken the divine image with their fluid identities, cultures, religions, and ways of loving. For those who live hyphenated lives, being a divine icon in history means living at the interstices not just within a community but in-between histories, economies, political agendas, social groupings, sexualities, and ethnicities not bound to dominant definitions of selves.
For instance, the imago Dei as embodied involves love expressed through sexual desires yet beyond colonized definitions of being sexually human and of constructs of the erotic God of love. With reciprocity of love in mind, part of the process of imaging God will entail regaining “our pleasure-loving selves” whereby a fully incarnated and embodied love embraces sexuality in a manner that also pays attention to desires for a “fullness of life-liberation.” If having in mind Latino/a sexual orientations or sexualities not according to the norm, the imago Dei can be recognized in queer modes of being in-between. And so when the full humanity of segments of our communities are not recognized due to their sexual orientation, the desire to love must overcome deep-seated homophobias, and likewise embody the interstitial love of God by incarnating a passion for the justice of inclusion. As with racism, for Nicholasa Mohr the need is for cleansing oneself from hatred of others, “to wash away those aspects of ourselves which no longer do us justice, that no longer affords us, as women, as Puerto Ricans, as Latinos/as, as humans, a proper appreciation of what God has created and to enjoy that creation fully.”
In the struggle for the colonized body of Caribbean Latina women to make manifest the image of God, as Isasi-Díaz explains, the choice can be about how to stand in that in-between space and raise questions, and in so doing to lay claim to forms of “denunciation of all destructive sense of self-abnegation.” Standing with/in holds the potential for participation with “the oppressed as protagonists” in creating realities unlike present colonizing ones. It does not mean standing beyond, apart from, of above history as a sovereign subject, isolated from others in one’s historical subjectivity, but being with/in others in a collective project. As Isasi-Díaz writes,
I want to capitalize on the interstices … I want to stand on the ‘in-betweens’ fully conscious that it is not only a matter of acknowledging that this is where I am, but also knowing that I have to decide ‘how’ I stand there and ‘which way’ to turn. I stand in these spaces as a protagonist – a non-sovereign sujeto histórico – needing to contribute to the ‘meanings’ operative in society and wanting to resist any attempt to leave me out of this enterprise.
A body being and becoming a divine icon in the “in-between” of histories is a dis-placed body of love, not fully belonging to a particular place, especially a colonized prescription of being human, including ethnos as defined by the colonizer. Rather living as having “un pie a cada lado” it participates in the process of transformation and novelty in history. Never fully at home, the movement is one from here to there that allows for creativity in a multi-sited spatial configuration. In the back and forth movement, space becomes “a place that harbors spaces,” states Isasi-Díaz. As the daughters of the Europeans, the Africans, the Asians, and the pre-Colombian Americans, of conquered and conqueror, of masters and slaves, of North and South, East and West, the body is in relation to each as part, to some extent defined by mestizaje y mulatez, in the present as living memory of the past in and as expectation of the new in history.
Imaging the Excessivenes of the Divine Love
Such manifestations of embodied love therefore indicate that desire is more than wishful thinking. The desire to seek the good for the self and others partakes of a transcendental divine reality that is excessively relational in the here and now, what is not yet but can be according to divine love that transforms the present. The being and becoming in the imago Dei or icons of the divine love in history, is fluidly manifested materially and yet is beyond calculation. It is always in the making.
The divine image even as embodied maintains its quality of excess in the economy of mutual givenness. As a mode of love, relationality has the resilience not to give up. Tangible changes are desired in spite of the possibility that one might never see them become a reality or receive a response. It may be that one does no more than embody an unquenchable passion for the good of self and others. Embodied relationality, furthermore, though intentional, remains beyond agendas, a “working relationship” based on a “common” cause—thus a materiality of love based on a sterile contract or value-exchange agreement, for example. Though there can be expectations involved, embodied relationality surpasses any goal. Ultimately, love is shared by partaking in the lives of others without the enforcement of a specific plan or without it being contingent upon the obedience of rules. It can go beyond the law for love is beyond obedience, since relationality does not subordinate itself to any calculus of caritas.
Because the excess of the divine love takes on an interstitial embodiment or locates itself at the in-betweens of the not yet, and as it takes as its cue the principle of dissonance in harmony discussed above to relate to matters of mutual participation or being with/in, one can argue that in the dance with God, selves bring along others unlike themselves. What is more, in the embrace of “radical immanence of the divine in us,” I argue, there is an act of justice that is dissonant love. Without ignoring the well-being of each part of the community, this love is the power to create without the exercise of control and domination of one over another, as in seeking to make others become an exact mirror image of the self. The excess is such that love expands the relational network in which the imago Dei has been perceived rather than shrinks it. The radical immanence of God in-between temporalities and contexts expands the traditional limits by interrogating and challenging that which had been considered normative, and leads to understandings of divine love that are more heterogeneous and fluid. Sameness being challenged with diversity makes for a dissonant-harmonious way of being humanly divine.
Such embodied love would be before and beyond the womb, Mayra Rivera reminds us. The flesh remembers the histories of wonder and pain of our ancestors. Their histories of alienation make possible the desire for a justice today that continues to be redefined in new modes because of, not despite, their wounded bodies. Rivera avers that the memories of our ancestors open us toward “unforeseeable becomings.” While in welcoming the other one retains the past in moving forward, the past active in the present is likewise a future yet to come. In this we engage in a “politics of memory,” in “the disruption of the stability between the ‘there’ and ‘not there,’ between the past and the present” that opens up the possibility for a different future. We see things that are unseen, relate to “other persons, other places, others who are no longer living and not yet living, with the cosmos.”
The manifestation of embodied love, because it is relational, creates a dynamic set of interrelations that are open and becoming. Since the embodied image of God is love in continuous movement within and beyond the self towards another, the embodied human participation in the divine and others that results in acts of justice reflects a sense of the “undone” or becomingness within and with others in relation. Hence the imago Dei is selves being love and of selves in the state of becoming love.
Lastly, as already implied, love embodied is not coercive. With love being primary, the emphasis shifts from the will to obey to having and cultivating a passion for justice. When the concept of the “will” translates into “desire” and “obedience” as “justice,” love can also be bodily and be incorporated into the whole of the self (desire). Also rather than imagining obedience to be something external imposed upon the self, the argument is for a passion for justice that is nurtured from within. Justice hence becomes intrinsic to anthropology—not something lost or in need of being regained (in its original or perfect state)—and so an innate expression of embodied love.
As Teresa Delgado suggests, the will defined as desire can point to “genuine and mutual relationships based on love and respect rather than on fear and power.” Being “the most human as intended by God” would become manifested because of an innate “will/willingness to love.” And since being according to the imago Dei is to “love justice passionately,” as Isasi-Díaz argues, a justice that comes from love is sustained by love. Love embodied in the interstices decolonizes our conceptions of being human. It is love beyond demand for it makes it possible to welcome the rejected, strengthen the weak, include the excluded in our midst, and embrace the unlovely, even the oppressor. Participation in the life of God and others is intended also for those with whom relationship is not yet right but can become so through incarnational love amongst equals. The imago Dei as love will entail mutual and non-coercive participation in the liberation process of the whole of humanity, and this embodies a passion for justice.
Implications and Conclusions
The embodiment of the image of a God who loves passionately, the body that loves as God loves, or the embodiment of God as passionate love, does not allow for a simple categorization of parts of the self that allocate an even distribution of and allocation to spirit and body. Bodies of flesh that in loving make manifest God’s relationality in semblance of the Jesus event can challenge constructs of a lost image as a result of the fall that voids the intrinsic good found in bodies also composed of dust. Bodies participate in God’s relational essence and thus can innately desire the good for the self and others.
That is why the underpinnings of the works of Caribbean Latina theologians such as that of Isasi-Díaz continue to be essential in feminist efforts towards recognizing the varied earthly tones of the divine gift of love, hence the bodily fullness of the image of God in us. For theologians like her, incarnation, en la carne, or what I call embodiment, entails the lived experience of the whole of “the mystery of existence.” Reflection upon the mystery entails “the senses, desires, flavors, pleasure, pain, imagination.” These embodied forms of understanding the imago Dei are fluid and dynamic, multifarious and multitonal, and they offer a wider glimpse into the relational complex of selves that embody the divine love. This embodied love would be beyond measure and so will incarnate a decolonized image of God in its in-between expressions of love and justice.
How can we continue to construct a God that images our mixed and hybrid selves, in-between selves that might continue to be too queer and other? How would the statement “God is love” come to be defined according to the not yet of the divine kindom? How could our particular theological insights on the imago Dei enable us to theologize concerning the image of God in a manner that is faithful to the human-cosmic complexity and diversity? I believe that this notion of the image can open the path to insights on a theology of iconic symbols. Human beings share in the reality to which they point—God. Iconic symbols, furthermore, would also point to an excess of that reality. An adequate theology of symbols might lead us to a better understanding of human beings as icons of God’s presence, traces of the mystery of God here on earth, with a wealth of theological content yet to explore.
The starting point is for understandings of the imago Dei as the embodiment of love expressed through relationality from within a Caribbean Latina theological perspective to be able to challenge notions that devalue nature and the body, that devalue the bodies of women and of diverse human beings, and from there also of nonhumans. The body is the site of multiple desires and locations in terms of space and time, and these enable the self to love and seek the well being of self in relation to the many others. Love desires the inclusion of the disenfranchised, seeks the transformation of the ugly without “whitening” it or “perfecting” it, cherishes the intimacy between bodies whether human, nonhuman, or divine, and promotes loving relationships in multitudinous historical contexts. Since God is love, we are capable of love, and we are thus also able to image God as God images us—as the embodied capacity to be in relationship passionately.