Incorporeality / Immateriality of God

The idea of the incorporeality of God is present in the Abrahamic religions. It means that God has no physical body or is without physical substance. Christianity has an exception to this rule with the incarnation, Jesus who became flesh and therefore had a physical body. However, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit were conceived as all being incorporeal, with the incarnation as an exception. This exception is one reason for the tension with the other two Abrahamic religions. In the ancient world, divine beings were sometimes physical and could be found in the rivers, groves and seas of the world. Incorporeality distinguished the notion of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God had an immaterial reality. A corporealist is someone who believes God has a material reality while an incorpoeralist maintains that God is immaterial.

God’s immateriality or incorporeality is maintained by philosophers for a number of reasons:

First a number of attributes are given to GOD which imply immateriality or incorporeality. These include his necessity, eternity, immutability and omnipotence. For example, no part of the physical world is eternal so God cannot be part of it if he is also eternal. The same can be said of mutability and omnipotence.

Second a number of arguments for the existence of God assume immateriality or incorporeality (the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments all do this). In the case of the last of these, were God to be the grand designer and yet at the same time a corporeal or material being it would imply he had designed himself. In the case of teleology, he could seem to be an effect caused by something else, were he to be immaterial or incorporeal.

Both these arguments for the existence of God, and beliefs about the nature of God are connected to a belief that he is immaterial or incorporeal. There is incompatibility between features of the nature of God, arguments for his existence and the belief that he is anything other than immaterial or incorporeal. In effect, God would be limited in some way without this belief. God would no longer eclipse creation but be a part of it.

There is a connection between this belief and dualism, which locates the divine with the incorporeal, and the profane with the corporeal. Some ancient religions say that escape from the physical is the journey towards the spiritual. Vestiges of these ideas may be found in the ascetic traditions which deny the self. Here the doctrine of the incarnation presents an interesting challenge, for in becoming human God may seem to have compromised immateriality or incorporeality. Yet Jesus is not believed to be a compromised aspect of GOD and indeed plays a pivotal part in salvation. Equally, other teachings of the Bible question the association of physical reality with non-spiritual or non-good. In creation, God declares his work to be good and makes human beings in his image and likeness.

However, it could be argued that no person could be without physical reality yet the Christian God is a God of three persons. Personal agency seems to imply physical being. Furthermore, the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions describe God in terms that are full of vivid corporeal imagery. These have to be explained away as metaphorical. Some have argued that, in fact, God is physical but invisible in some way, perhaps he is found in all physical matter (as the ancient Gaia belief associated GOD with the world) and many forms of new age religion see God in the physical.

An additional argument suggests that if it is to be possible for GOD to be meaningfully understood then he must exist in the corporeal world in some form. This leads back to questions about the incarnation for Christianity and the possibility that God may be or become one with a physical being. In addition it connects to ideas about God’s immanence. If God is thought to be concerned for the world, to take pleasure in some parts and displeasure in others, to suffer with those who suffer for example, then how does this sit with arguments about immateriality or incorporeality? Would such a God be too remote to be a truly immanent God as well?

Some of these arguments might be influenced by developments in science, especially quantum physics, where knowledge and understanding of energy and matter are raising new questions about the nature of the physical universe. If corporeal reality is not as straightforward as we think, we may find further questions about what incorporeality means.

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