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#TheologyinIsolation 8 - 'Losing Touch'

09:11 02/04/2020
#TheologyinIsolation 8 - 'Losing Touch'

Andrew Graystone reflects on the nature and meaning of touch in a time of social distancing.

No-one has touched me for almost two weeks. I need to qualify that. My three year-old granddaughter is too young to understand social distancing, so she still throws herself onto my lap without a care. And in the absence of government guidance, my wife and I are still negotiating what appropriate touch means in a time of Coronavirus. But essentially, along with almost everybody else in the UK and around the world, we have lost human touch from our daily lives. We dodge each other on pavements, and manoeuvre down the aisles of supermarkets as if we were trapped in a giant game of Pacman. We treat every human hand with suspicion, as a potential carrier of a deadly disease. Many people are dying untouched. This seismic change in human social interaction has happened within a matter of weeks.

Even before COVID-19 entered our lives, our society was struggling to understand where touch belongs on the specrum between care and abuse. The intimate touch of a doctor was OK – but several recent cases of abuse by medics have complicated that relationship. We no longer approved of adults touching children in order to chastise them, but touching children for restraint or to express affection or encouragement were grey areas that kept many teachers awake at night. As a society we are deeply confused about touch, and that confusion will linger long after the Corona virus becomes less potent.

While we are out of touch, at least for the time being, perhaps this is a good moment to think about how we understand the nature and meaning of touch in normal times. My understanding is that the sense of touch is uniquely constitutive of human personhood; that it is the only truly reflexive sense, and the only sense without which it is not possible to be human. Those are assertions that would take too long to back up here. But we could perhaps note the way that the people of Early Israel saw touch as constitutive of the community of faith, and the way that Jesus transformed that understanding.

Gerhard von Rad describes the emergence of Jahwism as distinctive amongst the cults of the Ancient Near East.  It was characterised by the rejection of magical thinking and a turn toward “the material force of what was holy or unclean, and to the possibility of its transmission.[1]”  In other words, the emergent Israel was constituted by laws that focussed on the material boundaries of the community, defined by a complex body of sacral regulation. Who and what the people touched, or avoided touching, was the marker of their membership of God’s people.  As the community became more settled, the permissablity of touch was codified in intense detail. Sometimes human touch was part of a ceremonial action that could take place in public or in private, but it was always laden with meaning.  It signified an actual transfer, either of sin or of blessing. In that context it was inconceivable that God should touch a human or vice versa, except in a metaphorical sense.

The conception of touch in the gospels is strikingly different from that of early Israel.  In the ministry of Jesus, “laying on of hands” is strongly associated with healing. The expression occurs 40 times in the gospels, predominantly in connection with miracles performed by Jesus and the apostles. There are approximately 22 instances in the synoptic gospels of Jesus initiating touch. In at least 17 of those instances, the touch is associated with healing. Jesus rarely healed without touching, and the touch itself was construed as a sign of the arrival of the new covenant of the Kingdom of God. In every single recorded case, Jesus’ touch was transgressive of religious norms, such as in Luke 5:13 where Jesus reached out to touch a man suffering from leprosy, and in Luke 13:13 where Jesus laid his hands on a crippled woman to heal her.  In summary we might say that the ministry of Jesus appears to have instituted a change in the understanding of touch, from transferring contamination to transferring blessing.  Here was God, taking the initiative to touch his human people – and under the new covenant, that touch extended beyond Israel to include women, the poor and the sick.

Since then, the relationship of the church to human touch has been confused. Parts of the church have continued to appreciate the constitutive nature of healing touch in the eucharist, and some churches express it in liturgy, for example through the passing of the peace. But parts of the church have re-instated cultic restrictions that had been overturned by Jesus – for example by making human touch an essential part of ordination and confirmation. And whilst much of the church cult still understands the hands of a priest as a vehicle of blessing, wider society has heard too many tales of abusive male clergy to understand them as a means of grace.

If the touch of another person is central to what makes us human, what are we to make of the current situation, where once again touch has become linked in our minds with contamination, and individuals coming too close to each other can even be subject to police action?  Might it be that Christians now and in the future are called to lead the way in transgressive touching? I don’t mean that we should be reckless or self-indulgent during the national crisis. But perhaps Christians should be the first and last to break the new social norms by embracing those who are sick, outcast or dying, taking the same risks that Jesus did to demonstrate and enact the humanity of the otherwise untouched.

[1] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, volume 1, trans. by DMG Stalker (London: SCM Press, 1975), 34.

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Andrew Graystone is a theologian and broadcaster. His book Too Much Information? Essential questions for digital Christians is published by Canterbury Press.  A second book, Faith, Hope and Mischief will be published in the Summer.