Some theologies are written in words, others are embodied in touch. A mother's kiss is of the latter kind; and it is offered throughout the world, countless times a day, by mothers who kiss their children. Through the touch of lips to cheek they are saying: "I love you" and "You are safe" and "I will never abandon you." In the kiss a deep and cosmic Tenderness is revealed: a tenderness that is not all-powerful but is indeed all-loving. In the kiss the love of the tenderness is not a lure toward action but rather an act of faithful companionship. The tenderness is God the companion, and it is enfleshed in the kiss.
For in that touch, a universe resides.
A mother's kiss
In a realm of tender love's embrace, My mother's kiss, a sacred trace, Upon my cheek, a gentle touch, A language known, my mother's touch.
From the perspective of process theology, every moment is a concrescence of the entire universe. This includes the moment when a mother kisses her child. In that moment, too, a universe resides.
The meaning of a mother's kiss depends on the mother's intentions and how it is felt by the child. It also depends on the circumstances of the kiss and its cultural context. Not all kisses are loving. Some cultures prefer hugs to kisses. But when the intentions are loving, a certain kind of theology unfolds, and the theology is in the kiss itself. It is embodied theology. It happens through the lips and on the cheek. It happens through touch.
What is communicated in the kiss is "I love you" and "You are safe" and "I will always be with you." No words are necessary. The touch is enough.
Theologies do not need to last forever to be theologies. Nor do they need to be written in books or words. They can be like songs that are sung again and again, whenever needed. They are implicit not explicit. A mother's kiss is this kind of theology. It is articulated countless times a day all over the world. It gives hope to children and hope to the world.
There is a Tenderness that embraces the whole world. It is not all-powerful but it is all-loving. It is incarnate in each mother's kiss as a comforting, loving presence. It has many names, none necessary but all helpful in different circumstances. In a mother's kiss the names are transcended by a more palpable presence: a touch, a kiss, a hug. In a mother's kiss the Tenderness becomes flesh.
A Little More Technical:
Often, when I hear philosophers speak, I miss the body. They emphasize ideas but not bodily experiences: thinking but not kissing.
There are exceptions to this: for example, Jean Luc-Nancy's haptic ontology as developed in Corpus (1992). "Haptic" means tactile. ChatGPT explains Nancy's perspective this way: "the haptic dimension is characterized by a direct, intimate, and reciprocal relation between the body and the world. It is a mode of perception that involves a tactile engagement with the world, where the body is not just a passive receptor but an active participant in the process of perception. The haptic dimension is not limited to physical touch but extends to all forms of bodily engagement with the world, including movement, gesture, and proprioception."
Kissing, then, is a small but significant part of the haptic dimension of life. There are various types of kissing: romantic, sexual, ritualized, aggressive, and affectionate. Each is important. More needs to be written on all of them. But here I am focusing on affectionate, parental kissing, that of loving mother kissing her daughter on the cheek, as in the image above. William Blake is famous for saying that we can learn to see heaven in a wildflower and the universe in a grain of sand. I would like to add that we can also learn something about the universe through an affectionate kiss.
It is not surprising that philosophers have given little attention to kissing in general and affectionate kissing in particular. Influenced by Platonic traditions, western philosophers unconsciously inherit a bias against sensory experiences, especially smell and touch. Even when they turn their "gaze" in empirical directions, they typically rely on visual experiences rather than tactile ones. They speak of seeing the truth but not touching it, of world-views but not world-touches.
An affectionate kiss is a world-touch. It tacitly reveals what already exists, namely an existing connection between two people, and then adds something new to the connection: an element of trust and affection. The trust and affection are in the kiss. This new addition is what the philosopher AN Whitehead calls a "subjective form" or an emotion. A mother's kiss is the mother's way of sharing her emotions.
My point here is twofold.
First, it that the world of touch, as revealed in the tactile dimension of life. holds ontological significance. It is a tactile revelation of relationality. In process philosophy, relationality is not merely a matter of objectified causal connections in a visually perceived field. It is not about one "object" impacting another "object" on a billiard table. Relationality is something immediately felt by a recipient, given by another. Whitehead refers to this feeling as prehension. A mother's kiss is her prehending her child with her lips, and her child prehending her mother through her cheeks. Second, in this prehending there is a transfer of energy and feeling. When we are affectionately kissed by another person, we feel their emotions through the kiss. And when we kiss another person, we share our own feelings with them. More specifically, we do so through our bodies, our lips.
Whitehead states that the primary form of experience, moment by moment, is bodily experience. He calls it "experience in the mode of causal efficacy" because it involves one subject being moved and affected by another. Our own immediate bodies affect us in this way; we feel the sensations of what is happening in our limbs and internal bodily states. The bodies of others do the same when they kiss us.
Affectionate kisses have a special significance for process theologians, because they reveal something about God's nature as well as the universe. In process theology, influenced by A.N. Whitehead, a primary characteristic of God is tenderness. If we think of God as the soul of the universe, experiencing each and all with sympathetic care, then God, too, has emotions. Tenderness is among them. God loves the world with, in Whitehead's words, a "tender care that nothing be lost."
Many open and relational theologians say that God does not have a body of God's own, and that divine agency can only occur through our agency, our bodies. As John Cobb puts it, we are God's hands. Here we add that we are God's lips.
If God truly loves the world with tender care, as Whitehead says, then something of this love is communicated directly to the world through affectionate kisses, such as a mother kissing her daughter. The mother is, as it were, lured to kiss by the Holy One. God becomes enfleshed, incarnate, in the kiss.
Process theology adds that God has a receptive side. Whatever happens in and to the world is felt by God directly, affecting God. This includes our own bodily actions. When we affectionately kiss another person, or are kissed by them, the kissing and the being kissed become part of God's life, enriching it. God feels the feelings of the child being kissed and of those of the mother giving the kiss. God is pleasured by the kiss.