Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God

Mayra Rivera Rivera
January 20, 2009

PSR assistant professor of theology Mayra Rivera Rivera’s first book, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), explores the relationship between God’s otherness and inter-human difference, engaging the contrasting models of transcendence espoused by “radical orthodox” theologians and Latin American liberation theologians, as well as the challenges and contributions of postcolonial and feminist theorists. Here we present portions of the preface and chapter seven.


From the preface...

Divine transcendence is a theological idiom referring to God’s otherness. It is also a controversial concept, of which progressive contemporary theologies are rightly suspicious. Transcendence is often associated with hierarchical distance. Thus, the most common images and concepts that Christians have used to describe divine transcendence convey the idea that God’s otherness entails separation from creation. This assumption has negative implications for our visions of God and the created world because it sets up real difference as antithetical to close relationships. Perhaps the claim that modern attempts to imagine God’s otherness have often produced disappointing results should not surprise us, for dominant modern cultures have had serious difficulties dealing with otherness in general. Contemporary critiques of dominant Western thought consistently denounce the cultural tendency to privilege sameness over difference, which has led to deficient models of relationship with those identified as Others. For instance, the world is commonly imagined as clearly divided between “us” and “the Others.” The “Others” are expected to assimilate into an overarching sameness (“us”) or to remain excluded from “our” community. In practice, we have too often failed to respect otherness and live peacefully and responsibly with our differences. The limitations of our models of interhuman difference stem from our difficulties envisioning divine otherness. This book examines the challenges of imagining God’s otherness by engaging recent theologies of God as well as theoretical sources about otherness which analyze the shortcomings of prevalent models of interhuman difference and propose constructive alternatives. These perspectives interlace in this constructive theology of God, grounding its critical and affirmative moves.

The Touch of Transcendence stages a dialogue between theological and nontheological discussions about transcendence to uncover not only its problems, but also its promises for theologies concerned with social justices. What would divine transcendence look like if we revised our conceptions of difference? What if we no longer assumed that difference entails separation? What if transcendence were not understood as that which radically distances God from creatures, but rather as a theological concept that makes differences significant, especially our differences from one another? Through its engagement with contemporary theological models of transcendence espoused by radical orthodoxy and Latin American liberation theology as well as with models of inter-human difference from philosophical, feminist, and postcolonial sources, this book develops a model of relational transcendence—one that affirms not only the irreducible difference of God from all creatures, but the complex differences among creatures as well. 

From chapter seven...

The Glory of God

The glory of God is the human being fully alive.
—Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies

Creatures are the very brilliance of God’s coming to presence. Jean Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural

A turning on the basis of the face of the other, in which, at the very heart of the phenomenon, in its very light, a surplus of signification is signified that could be designated as glory.
—Emmanuel Levinas

Human beings,we have been saying, are never fully present to us. There is always more to the Other. We do encounter Others: we hear their voices,ee their faces, and touch their bodies, and yet in the very encounter we also hear, see, and feel that there is more. The gleam of transcendence in the flesh of the Other, an “elusive mystery” that envelops the other person,evokes that which cannot be made present. The experience of that mystery goes beyond the recognition of some strangeness that merely compares differences and calculates their threats. It induces in us a feeling of wonder, surprise, and astonishment in the flesh of the unknowable, which is also quite ordinary. Theologically,we may imagine this brilliance as manifestation of the divinity of creation, “the love and the glory of God . . . deposited right at the level of what is created.” Not something through which an external divinity shows itself, but the very brilliance of God. The glory of God may be seen as the manifestation of the intrinsic tranendence of creatures. A sign of the luring excess of the Other, as well as of his/her unappropriable otherness, glory “crosses the divide between aesthetics and ethics.”

What does it mean to see the glory of God, to see a thing or a person illuminated—while realizing that there is much that one cannot see? The glory of God reveals while concealing—or rather makes visible something while signaling that something else escapes that vision, that there is always more that has passed by. The glory of God manifests the divine presence here and now, in the flesh, as well as the fact that there is always more, a surplus that overflows every here and now.

The glory of God shines in the bodies of all created beings, as a sign of their participation in God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” celebrates the psalmist. “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” And yet as Wisdom and Word flow incessantly from the created world, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Biblical references to glory frequently allude to the transfiguration of the ordinary in its encounter with the divine. Recall the burning bush or Moses’ own illumined face. The metaphors of light used for glory imply that, like light, glory is “not the visible thing, but that by virtue of which visibility may be.” MacKendric calls attention to the interrelation between word, light, and flesh in the Gospel of John. Word is also light and flesh, she observes. Just as word must become flesh, light must also become flesh for us to see the glory, for “flesh makes possible the shining of light.” Thus the glory of God is always encountered as flesh. Whether it is human or nonhuman, flesh “seems to be essential to the glory of Word and of Light.”

The body of the Other makes possible the shining of light, while simultaneously revealing the unsurpassable mystery of creatureliness. This mystery encompasses the complex history and multiple relations through which a person branches out to other times and places, forming an infinite, irreducible web of relations-across-difference that constitute the living creation. In Jesus’ transfiguration, the disciples behold both the brilliance of Jesus’ glory and his relationship to those prophets who preceded him: Elijah and Moses. Past relations leave their marks in our bodies.

The Other’s face, her/his skin, indeed her/his whole body bears the marks of past encounters—siagns of renewal as well as scars. These scars are never absent from our encounters. When we see, hear, or touch the Other, we touch upon the Other’s scars. As self and Other emerge from the interhuman encounter, as they come forth as new creatures, scars become transfigured in the divine embrace. Again, and again, and again.

Each creature’s glory is thus a manifestation of divinity enveloping its unique transcendence: its brilliance tailored to the creature’s shape. In its own singularity, a creature’s glory does not cover over its history and relations, but it transfigures them. In Christ’s glorification “those most material marks, the wounds in his hands and his side, become most evident. They too are glorified.” Similarly God envelops each and every one of our new births with divine glory, transfiguring,without obliterating the marks of their passions. It is a transfiguration that never bypasses the body in its complex historicity, but transubstantiates matter into divine flesh: “into a more subtle, spiritual, even divine, matter. To illuminate it so that it enlightens he, or she, who gazes upon it, who contemplates it.”

In our glorified singularity we encounter the Other, as persons already blessed by divine love, without which we could not love the Other in her or his transcendence. Enveloped by God, “illuminatedilluminating,” we seek that contact with the Other. We aspire to give and receive that which may open for us new paths for continuous liberation: a love that renounces its consuming impulses while opening itself to be touched by the Other.“[O]verflowing” our own worlds “in order to taste another brightness.” Glowing with the touch of transcendence.


 Excerpted with permission from The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God by Mayra Rivera, published in 2007 by Westminster John Knox Press. Order Information (provided by request of publisher).