Friday, December 25, 2015
The Birth of God
It's been a hackneyed trope for some time now that the amazing idea of Incarnation in Christian theology was nothing new in the ancient world -- for which citations of various permutations of demigods in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Graeco-Roman mythologies are supposed to demonstrate that the Gospel is nothing more than a pretense to uniqueness amid a welter of syncretistic dependency upon its historical milieus.
Two problems with this: One is that classical Christian theology (its gold standard the Patristic era of the first seven centuries A.D.) never denied it was syncretistic; and the mere fact of syncretism doesn't necessarily vitiate a uniquely new event in the history of consciousness. Secondly, such postmodern curmudgeons & party-poopers seem to forget the theological context in which the peculiar Man-God theophany was born -- to wit, Intertestamental Judaism growing out of a long tradition from the tree of Israel, for which any hint of lowering the Almighty to our level, in any way associating Him with Creation, was a crime of blasphemy meriting the death penalty.
In this theological context, the Incarnation was not only new, it was a shocking marvel. Certainly, as subsequent centuries unfolded, many Christians deeply conversant with Graeco-Roman philosophy (many of them Greek or Roman philosophers themselves who became converts to this new religion) tried to fit the strangely shaped peg of the cross into the round hole of philosophical theology. This then generated a complex confusion of heresies with genuine attempts to bring the wonder of the Incarnation into the light of noetic understanding, as the latter navigated the narrow strait between the Gnostic extremes of self-divinization on the one hand, and on the other hand an alienation from an Alien God who no longer logically has anything to do with a Creation deemed to be the evil source of suffering and death.
Although Muslims in their sly Dawa (the Islamic version of proselytization) affect a "respect" for the "Prophet" Jesus (he is considered a prophet in Islam, along with all the other Old Testament prophets), when one gets beyond the facile propaganda (and when they become candid), they express a profound aversion, if not disgust, of the idea that God could, and would, have become human. This aversion is couched in crude terms such as "so your god urinates and defecates? he sweats and gets tired and has to eat food and drink water? what kind of a ridiculous god is that?" and so forth. This aversion in Islam is based on what I call their "Macho God" theology, where the monotheistic divinity has to be some powerful Sultan in the sky, where the power, the omnipotence, is paramount, and is therefore threatened by any implications of humanity immediately connoting weakness.
Yet they are correct about the weakness -- that being on one level the whole point of the Incarnation. There is a wealth of theology demonstrating this, from the Patristic era, grounded in the four gospels. There was, for example, Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), Archbishop of Constantinople and patristic theologian, whose formula -- What has not been assumed has not been healed -- refers to God "assuming" (in the old sense of the word, to "take up as one's own") our humanity. I.e., God condescended to our level, and took up our limitations. God didn't just do this off the cuff willy nilly, so the theo-logic goes; this event was the way He saves us. But even this way of formulating it is liable to be misunderstood. One has to "reverse engineer" it, so to speak, and try to wrap one's head around the concept that an event occurred, it was received by tradition (handed down as an eyewitness narrative) as the outlandish notion of God "walking among us", being born, growing up, living, suffering, and dying -- and in the process, so the story goes, imparting memes of wisdom about the meaning of life -- and this event itself somehow enacts our salvation.
Unfortunately, the complexity is only beginning to be unfolded. For what exactly does "salvation" mean? A modern evangelical Christian would glibly sail right past that one, as though his audience already knows. More than likely, his arrogantly modern, skeptical listeners do know (i.e., think they know) what the word means -- in terms no less historically illiterate than those of the preacher whom they snidely dismiss. I recall many years ago, when I had a beer in some bar in Cambridge with Chip Hughes, a grad student in Boston who told me he had touched the very hem of the garment worn by the great philosopher Eric Voegelin: he had actually sat in his office and asked him questions about philosophy & theology! Chip recounted how he earnestly articulated some anxiously tortured, long-winded question about "soteriology" (the study of the concept of salvation in theology); and when he was all done, Voegelin just looked at him and snapped, "What do you want to be saved from?" And Chip confessed to me that the bluntly apposite question threw him for a loop.
However, after years of studying Voegelin (my favorite philosopher), I know that old codger was being cleverly disingenuous, with his snappy retort hoping to cut through the intellectualizing verbiage to the heart of the matter. For he knew very well what Chip wants to be saved from, no different than what we all want to be saved from: what Voegelin has termed the "Hesiodian ills", referring to the great pre-Socratic Greek mythologizer, Hesiod (circa 700 B.C.), who put the problem in a pithy way. As I wrote a few years ago in my essay on Dante:
Obviously, what disturbs happiness in this life are the Hesiodian ills -- disease, injustice, pain, loss and death. And, though a rich and/or a lucky man may be able to pull off a long life free of most, or all, of these ills, sooner or later the end of his happiness will catch up with him, if not also one or more of his loved ones before he dies (and if he has a conscience and compassion, he will be disturbed by the suffering of others).
The larger point Voegelin is making (and anthropologists such as Mircea Eliade and Thorkild Jacobsen back this up) is that all cultures are aware of this basic problem of existence, and they all have the same concern to be saved from this problem. That's nothing new, nor is it peculiar; it's just a universal feature of mankind, expressed in a diversity of cultures and religions.
The Christian response to this perennial human predicament, in mythological terms, remains the most singular -- combining the most intense monotheism to date (that of Jewish theology) with an interpenetration of the divine and the human of a degree unprecedented: God became human. Literally, and fully. (Which isn't necessarily to say the particulars of the story need to be believed literally.) I.e., one would be "cheating" by tweaking either pole of this wondrous paradox -- make the "God" pole not so grand; or elevate the "human" pole as already capable of divinization anyway. Thus the paradox, the tension, would be botched, by being too easily solved. The point of the paradox is that logically, the two poles contradict each other -- given the cultural context of the meanings of those respective symbolisms. And thus it becomes recognized as an unresolvable mystery. And at that point, we need to realize that not all useful concepts are obligated to be resolvable; sometimes a disturbing mystery moves us in ways we cannot fully explain to a deeper insight than superficial logic delivers.
What exactly that deeper insight is, I'm afraid I can't impart to my readers, given how deep, rich and complex the phenomenon is. Perhaps "the Gospel" is a lifelong adventure, and involves many different approaches, navigating the narrow channel between respecting paradox, but not fetishizing paradox -- particularly, at this juncture in my essay, the paradox between taking the Incarnation seriously in a dogmatic way, and submerging that symbolism into a vast diverse cultural sea of symbolisms. The key would be to avoid both of these extremes; but precisely because such a tack would avoid their simplistic solutions, it becomes complicated.
Then there's the paradox between complexity and simplicity; for on one level salvation or enlightenment is simple, yet on another, it is obviously not. One here as well doesn't want to overemphasize the complexity and get lost in abstruseness, nor succumb to the seduction of the zen meme that would require a lobotomy to ignore the evident evils (the Hesiodian ills) that remain.
Somehow, when God was born, when there occurred the "intersection of time and the timeless" as T.S. Eliot put it, it was a real "leap in being" in the history of consciousness (as Voegelin calls it). What this means, however, is up to each individual to learn for themselves, not because it would be rudely dogmatic for me to tell them what to think -- but literally because it has to be a personal discovery, where one has faith that the individual is not merely the sum of the parts around it, but is a unique instance of transcendence.
Getting there, however, as I said, involves -- or is -- a lifetime.
Dante's dual ultimate
Ubi es, bene es
The shortest sentence in the Bible