The God You Touch
There are two things said about Asians that I hear a lot.
The first is that Asians are supposedly more communally minded than others. The second is that Asians do not like touching, at least consciously, which is kind of ironic, considering that a good number would come from backgrounds with very high population densities, in which involuntary touch is commonplace. This can just as easily apply to Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh City.
Whether these notions about Asians are true will have to be the focus of another blog post. What will be the focus though, is whether there is a link between touch and communality.
At one level, touch is an outward sign of sociality. In most liberal contexts, touch between people who are unfamiliar is regarded as an intrusion. It is only between those we know, and only certain people within our circles, wherein touch is a natural expression of one’s friendship.
Yet there is something more going on in the phenomenon of touch than mere familiarity with a person. In his book Christ and Culture, Oxford Professor of Divinity Graham Ward laid out what can be described a phenomenology of touch.
Ward argues that for our bodies, touch is a precursor to our knowing in general. What we know about the world, even those parts of the world we do not touch, are framed by the parts of the world that we do touch.
What is more, our very selves become known when we are touched by others (Ward uses the term “transcorporeality” to describe this form of knowing ourselves and the world around us). What this “transcorporeality” means, in short, is that we do not “know things” on our own, but only know it through our embodied connections with others, voluntary or otherwise. There is then a deep connection between touching, community and knowing things about the world.
Taking the path laid open by the philosophical subdiscipline of phenomenology, Ward takes it one step further. When we touch, we doing something more than simply knowing the world around us in the here and now. The act of touching is an acting on a desire to go beyond the world that we perceive with our senses.
Even if we do it unconsciously, Ward says that when we touch an element of the world in which we live, we act upon an intention to enter a world in which we do not currently live, a world that escapes our immediate perception. It might be the same world in the future, and it might be another world entirely. Yet, our touch enacts our intent to cross a threshold of the world we are in now. That desire may be frustrated, and it often is, but frustration is not a denial of the existence of that desire. Touch is an act of self-transcendence.
For the Christian, Ward this phenomenology of touch has massive implications. We tend to think of the Christian faith as a “spiritual” thing involving only the soul and little else. Even if our bodies are involved, they are quite often regarded as secondary instruments, having only a marginal involvement in the more serious business of soulcraft.
However, if we are a composite of body and soul, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, then we have to give our bodies greater due in soulcraft. If a link exists between touch and communing at a natural level, then Ward’s claim is that our communing with God - mediated as it is by the God made man - should also be mediated by touch.
It is interesting that what frames his segment about touch and knowing is an exegesis on Mark’s Gospel account of the woman healed of a hemorrhage by touching the hem of Jesus’ garments. Ward gives this account incredible weight in our understanding of what salvation means. The woman’s act of reaching out to touch Jesus is affirmed by Jesus as an act of faith. For Ward, this act in Mark’s Gospel brings together the phenomenology of touch and the economy of salvation. Ward summarises it with his words:
Touch is...related to a certain discharge of salvific power...touch is reaching beyond the boundaries of oneself to find a place not yet given, a future not yet received.
This place and future is not one earned by humanity, but a place promised by God. The act of touching, done so often as to be rendered the background noise to our daily life, is charged with this divine promise.