Searching for Our Human Face: The Liminality of Body

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

The body of Christ is the transformative key. But let us step back for a moment and simply consider the strangeness of the body and the unique qualities of human bodies. John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock co-authored the chapter on touch in Truth in Aquinas. It is a remarkably rich reflection that in nuce indicates the altered ontological and epistemological modes of nuptial reality in the eschaton. They remark first upon the liminal nature of the human body as itself a crossing of thresholds: “what Aristotle has already discovered . . . long before Husserl and Merleau-Ponty . . . is that the body is not just another object in the world of which we are aware. . . . it is, as body, quasi-subjective, and is also the mysterious sphere of mediation between subjective and objective, psyche and hule” (p. 73). The body is both a condition of possibility for awareness and a mode of interpretation through which the uniquely personal is both known and manifest: “we touch things bodily; bodies, however, do not themselves touch, since then there would be no mediation and no touch; therefore it is the soul which touches through bodies” (p. 73).

The deft hand, the delicate touch is the signature of knowing approach, the most fitting appreciation and acknowledgement of otherness. “Hypersensitivity of touch and intelligence are inseparable” (p. 75). Wisdom may be oddly tied to human nakedness. “Aquinas, directly following Aristotle, insists that human beings are the prudentissimum of all animals, because they have the strongest sense of touch: presumably this is related to our nakedness (relative lack of body hair), as well as to our handedness” (p. 75). This assertion ties back to something we saw in the reflections of Martha Nussbaum on Odyssean excellence. “For Aristotle and Aquinas to say that the person of most sensitive touch is also the person of most intelligence, is tantamount to saying that the most secure life is purchased at the price of the most exposed life. Understanding . . . is only to be acquired through extreme empirical encounter, which always risks self-destruction” (p. 76). Pickstock and Milbank discern here an epistemological signpost, analogy that could not be recognized apart from revelation. “Only what might entirely die, entirely and indestructibly lives. (Even for Aristotle, intelligence is a kind of resurrection.)” (p. 76).

Yet touch, by itself, is insufficient. “For Aquinas, one must supplement the link of human intellect with touch, with a link to vision, since certainly with respect to its exclusiveness (though this also permits its greater engagement), touch is deficient” (p. 82). Though immediately, this reservation is overtaken by paradox. Vision is not truly separate from touch and divine vision is both a touching and a making. “If we allow that for Aquinas, vision is also a mode of touch, then we can see how for him the divine intellectual vision as touching is also an encounter, a shaping, a making, a contriving” (p. 82). All this invites even more synaesthetic fusion. Thomas “specifically mentions the power of the human tongue, which has a far more exact sense of taste than with any other animal” (p. 75). Now taste and speech and touch and vision are joined. And suddenly, we leap beyond anthropology to Christology that transforms our knowledge of the human. Christ’s advent as both bridegroom and Pantocrater suggests creation is only fully known as a flourishing reality in a state of eschatological fullness. The language of wedding, of joining and ecstatic knowing, is anticipated in the momentum of Christ’s adventurous coming. “One can also mention again here that the Incarnation provides, for Aquinas, a ‘foretaste’ of the beatific vision, implying that this vision is also a tasting, the most intimate touch” (p. 82).

The foretaste of the kingdom is most astonishingly present in the sacrament of sacraments. The eighth day leavens the bread of heaven. And though it has often been remarked, it is also frequently missed, the unique exchange, the reversal of ordinary transaction that occurs. But notice, also, the expansion beyond the restrictions of finite being and exclusive love:

Ordinarily food and drink become us; here we are to become this food and drink. And in this case, at last, the exclusiveness of touch which permitted its penetration, is conjoined with that generality and commonality hitherto peculiar to sight and hearing. For when we touch the body and blood of Christ, we touch everything, and infinite others may touch all the same points of this body at the same time . . . In the Eucharist, touch as taste ceases to be restrictive in its exclusivity. Instead, from now on, if we wish to see the universal, to see God, we must aspire to touch and shape in truth, along with all other people, every last finite particular as included within and disclosing the body of Christ. (p. 84)

I will stress this again and again. “Henceforward, the journey to God is equally the journey to the God-Man, and so equally to all creatures, and no longer away from them” (p. 84). Milbank and Pickstock assert a definitive change; the knowing of flesh is not a temporary measure, a second best for the weak and the dumb. Intellect is not superior in the form of deracinated angelism. “And since God is now revealed as touch, the new ontological exaltation of the sensory over the intellectual is no mere pedagogic means, but an appropriate new disclosure of the ultimately real” (p. 87).

(Go to “Healing the Unclean”)

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