Incarnation — Divine Descent — advent commentary

Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth, has been published by Abingdon Press.  This is a Christmas book, a means of reflection upon the mystery and the wonder of Incarnation.  Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.


Divine Descent

Jesus the Christ (“Christ” means “Messiah,” “The Anointed One”) was a human being born in a human family, attended parties (No one ever accused him of being too spiritual or too pious; critics sneered that he was a vulgar glutton and drunkard.), moved constantly around the area of Galilee, ran afoul of governmental and religious authorities, taught through homely but disconcerting, pithy parables, did a number of surprising and utterly inexplicable “signs and wonders,” and eventually was tortured to death in a horribly cruel punishment which the Romans used against rebellious trouble makers.  

A few days later Jesus’ astonished followers went public with the proclamation that Jesus had been raised from the dead and had returned to them, commissioning them to continue his work here and now. 

         While these are roughly the historical facts of Jesus from Nazareth, the raw facts don’t tell the whole story.   From the first many knew that Jesus was not only a perceptive, challenging teacher (“rabbi,” teacher, was a favorite designation for Jesus) but was also uniquely God present (“Emmanuel,” means “God with us”).  In a very short time Paul (whose letters are the earliest New Testament writings) acclaimed crucified and resurrected Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, the Christ, the full revelation of God.  Jesus was not only a loving and wise teacher; Jesus was God Almighty doing something decisive about the rift between us creatures and the Creator, infinity become finite, God with us, the key to God’s nature and intentions for the world.  Jesus’ people were unified in their conviction that they had seen “all the fullness of God was embodied” in him (Colossians 1:19), a life completely at one with and fully transparent to God.

God in Action 

            In Jesus the reign of God broke through to the world.  He doesn’t only make the reality of God’s Reign visible but also makes it possible.  He not only healed people as sign of the future Kingdom’s coming, but he also invited sinners and outcasts to join that kingdom now. He rendered God’s coming kingdom not as some fuzzy future possibility, but as a raucous party in the present. To participate in that kingdom was to be in the company of Jesus and to trust that what Jesus said about God and us was true, to live lives that showed that this God─ rather than any of the then popular godlets of the age like Dionysius, Artemis, Mars, Venus, Psyche, or Caesar ─ was in charge. 

            When they “believed in Jesus,” they did not simply believe that he had some good ideas; but that by his action and his invitation he had made a decisive difference in human history.  God is doing what Jesus does. In Jesus God was not only revealing but acting. Thus Stephen, the first Christian martyr, without hesitation prays to Jesus  (Acts 7:59) as he dies.  Those fervent Jewish monotheists who had woken up each morning and prayed the beautiful Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one…,” now routinely prayed to Jesus as the same, one God.  They now gave answer to those who had asked, “Who is this that the winds and waves obey him?” or, “Who is this who presumes to forgive sins?” 

Who is this?  None other than God, the one and only God of Israel, with us, God doing for us that which we could not do for ourselves.

            If, simplistically, we say that Christ is “only human,” then he has no more to tell us about God than the average, well-meaning, inspired spiritual teacher.  On the other hand, if Christ is only God, then he has little relevance to this frail, finite, fragile thing called human life.  Once God Almighty so unreservedly joined humanity in Jesus Christ we were forced into complex conjunctive thinking – Jesus is both human and divine.

Try to evade the deity of Christ by making Jesus another victim of human injustice nailed to a cross, and you leave God in heaven, a distant deity trapped in godliness.  Belief in God becomes difficult; belief that God is concerned with your life becomes impossible. To fail at conjunctive thinking and loose the deity of Christ also means that we lose faith in humanity.  It is one thing to believe that humanity is created in the image of God; a much more blessed thing to believe that in spite of all our sin God, God preserves that divine-human bond.

            Christian theology is an ages-long attempt to keep the faith as complicated and conjunctive as it must be in order to do justice to the God who has met us in Jesus Christ.  For instance, G. W. Hegel (1770-1831) was a philosopher who attempted to grapple with the intellectual challenges the modern world posed for the Christian faith.  Christianity is true, said Hegel, but it is true in much the same that a picture is true.  Christian theology is a human representation or depiction of a truth, a reality that is other than that which the picture struggles to present. 

            Hegel said that the birth stories of Jesus are not accurate historical reports.  They are pictures of the unfolding of God’s life in our space and time (from primitive thesis, to challenging antithesis, to a better, higher synthesis). Judaism, said Hegel, was a first step in which God is depicted as an oriental potentate, distant and fearful (thesis).  In the next phase God becomes a particular man, Jesus, who disrupts our notions of God (antithesis) so that we can progress to the final phase, “religion of the Spirit,” in which God is spread to all and we come to understand the gradual unfolding of history as the working out of God’s benevolent intentions for the world (synthesis).  Don’t get hung up on the Jewishness of Jesus, the miracles he performed, or other primitive (according to modern thinkers like Hegel) hindrances to belief; Christian theology is a pictorial way of speaking about deeper, constantly progressing spiritual realities. 

            Reacting against the rather paltry results of nineteenth century historical research’s attempts to recover the real “historical Jesus,” Hegel postulated that what was really significant about Jesus was not the crude historical (human) facts of his life and work but rather Jesus as a forward advance in the unfolding of a grander, deeper (divine) Age of the Spirit. 

            Hegel’s philosophy of religion later became known as “panentheism,” or in its American version, “process theology.”  Pantheism has long taught that everything in the world is divine.  Panentheism is a bit more sophisticated in teaching that everything is in God and that God can be found in all things.  In pantheism God is no longer the Creator of the world, distinct from the world God has created, but rather God infuses all the world.  God’s engagement in history is less important than God as an idea above the grubby particularities of time and space. 

            Even as I attempt to describe the basics of Hegel’s panentheism, you may be thinking that you have previously encountered Hegelianism and didn’t know it.  Much of what passes for “Creation Spirituality,” or “New Age Spirituality” these days is panentheism in new garb.  If we are thinking about God, or matters of the spirit, there must be a way to think without recourse to the grubby particularities of earthly matters Hegelians of every age have argued.  Religion progresses (or more accurately, recesses) into ever more vague platitudes, ever more distant from the death and decay of worldly existence. 

            Kierkegaard smirked that if Hegel was right about the Spirit’s unfolding in history, ascending up a vague, philosophical set of misty ideas, isn’t it odd that when God was born among us God chose to be born as a rudimentarily educated Jewish peasant and not as a modern German philosopher!

            Against the Hegelians, Kierkegaard countered that Christianity is rooted and takes its stand in a bloody cross, an historical fact, not some high flown philosophical idea.  The crucifixion of Christ was not a primitive (Jewish) stage that we have at last risen above, not another miscarriage of  justice by a despotic government; the cross is the God ordained summit beyond which no one can ascend, the deepest truth to be told about the heart of Israel’s God.  There is no God hiding behind events of the life and death of Jesus.  There, on the cross, is as much of God as we ever hope to see.  Jesus is more than an insightful teacher who was the highest and best product of human aspiration, up through the First Century.   Christians know him as the decisive, conclusive presence of God with us, God as God is, God self-disclosed, not our highest concept of God but rather God’s lowest descent to us.

Will Willimon

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