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On Worshipping an Embodied God

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Grace M. Jantzen*
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford


Might God have a body? The overwhelming answer from within Christian orthodoxy is a resounding “No”. A concept of God adequate for sophisticated theism must, it is held, involve the notion of incorporeality: any being which had a body would, on that ground alone, be disqualified as a contender for the title “God” irrespective of other considerations.

Part of the reason forth is insistence on God's incorporeality is that God is held to be the being who is supremely worthy of worship. Now, if God were embodied in the manner that the Greek gods were conceived to be, it is alleged that such a “Zeus-like” deity would not be worthy of worship. Therefore either we must dismiss all thought of an embodied God, it is urged, or else we must cease to worship him, thus in effect dismissing Christianity. And there is an additional ingredient: if we choose the former course, and declare the doctrine of the incorporeality of God, then although we preserve the concept of a God who is worthy of worship, we preserve it at a very great cost.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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1 The interesting exception here is the period of the Incarnation, which is not, I think, taken seriously enough by those alleging the incompatibility of worship and embodiment. Would they really wish to maintain that Jesus the Christ was unworthy of worship in his embodied state?

2 The term “Zeus-like”, and the argument that an embodied God is inadequate for sophisticated theism, can be found in Nielsen, Kai Scepticism (Macmillan, 1973), pp. 91-92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar And lest Nielsen be considered hardly representative of orthodox theism, cf. Copleston, FrederickMan, Transcendence, and the Absence of God” in Thought 43 (1968).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 See for instance Nielsen, Kai Scepticism;Wiggins, David Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity (Blackwell, 1967);Google Scholar Williams, Bernard Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1973);CrossRefGoogle Scholar Penelhum, Terence Survival and Disembodied Existence (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).Google Scholar

4 This is not meant to imply that I am convinced that there is no other way; perhaps the second could also be successfully attacked, but for purposes of this paper I have chosen to restrict myself to the first.

5 For a fuller (but still not complete) account, see my “On Worship”, presented to the American Academy of Religion, May, 1977.

6 The illustration is borrowed from Smart, Ninian The Concept of Worship (Macmillan, 1962).Google Scholar

7 For an elucidation of this point, see Underhill, Evelyn Worship (Harper Torchbooks, 1957).Google Scholar

8 Of course, unconditional obedience to a command acknowledged to be of divine origin is not equivalent to unconditional acceptance of the claim that the command is of divine origin. Thus moral autonomy and rationality are not abandoned in worship. See Quinn, PhilipReligious Obedience and Moral AutonomyReligious Studies 11 (1975).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Findlay, J.N.Can God's Existence be Disproved?” In Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology (SCM Press, 1955), pp. 47–56.Google Scholar

10 Indeed, it is entirely arguable that to be disembodied would be a far greater limitation than to be embodied. See for instance Terence Penelhum, Survival and Disembodied Existence.

11 For an elaboration of this argument, see my “Omnipresence and Incorporeality”, Religious Studies 13 (1977).