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Lectionary Commentary

Musings on Incarnation

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

There is little dispute that the affirmation of incarnation is central for Christians. There are, however, major differences in the way it is understood. Many Christians understand it to mean that a God, who is otherwise “other” and remote, once broke into history to reveal a nature that is otherwise hidden and to act for our salvation. Some of those who interpret incarnation in this way affirm it quite straightforwardly as a supernatural event. Others assume that it is a mythological teaching. Of these, some reject it accordingly; others find rich meaning in the myth.

Still other Christians, and this includes those of us influenced by process thought, understand Christianity as an incarnational faith, meaning that it affirms that God is incarnate in the whole world. For us “incarnation” does not point to a single supernatural act of God. It points to the basic nature of God’s relation to the world, a relation that is made fully manifest in Jesus.

For the first group, the background idea, shared with those who wrote the classical creeds of the church, is that each entity is fundamentally self-enclosed. Philosophically, we can think of every thing as a substance, in Greek, ousia. The problem is that substances can act on one another only from without. No two substances can occupy the same space at the same time. Accordingly, the divine substance cannot occupy any of the space occupied by the human substance of Jesus. God and creatures, including the human Jesus, can only be external to one another.

Despite this fundamental conceptual problem, the early church was convinced that God was incarnate in Jesus. This suggests that the divine substance occupies the same space as the human substance of Jesus. To avoid saying what could make no sense in their categories of thought, some theologians proposed that some part of the human substance was replaced by the divine. An early suggestion was that while the body of Jesus was human, his soul was divine. Fortunately, the church rejected this idea. Other efforts of this sort were made. The last such proposal that occurred during the formation of the creeds was that in Jesus the divine will replaced the human will. We may be thankful and proud that the church fathers were not willing in this, or any other way, to regard the human substance of Jesus as lacking anything. They insisted that Jesus was fully human as well as divine.

The effort to locate God in Jesus by denying some human property to Jesus continued despite the creedal affirmations. It expressed the impossibility of making sense of incarnation given the metaphysics of substance that everyone accepted, consciously or unconsciously. Sadly, there was a final proposal, never debated in an ecumenical conference, but widely accepted in both East and West. It was that the “person” of Jesus, what Jesus meant when he said “I,” was God. Jesus’ humanity was lacking in this unifying personal center. It was “impersonal.” The church has suffered greatly from this denial of Jesus’ full humanity.

I rehearse this history to indicate the consequences of trying to understand incarnation in the categories that still, unconsciously, shape the thinking of most Western people. The positive way of putting the result is that the incarnation is a “mystery.” In my view, however, the common doctrine of incarnation is a mystification and distortion made necessary by the philosophical assumptions of those who developed it. I certainly do not blame them for having had only those categories to work with. Given that fact, I marvel that they so long steadfastly held to God’s real presence in a real human being. I keenly regret the subsequent qualification of Jesus’ humanity which, for many, has led to the supposition that Christians see Jesus as God in impersonal human form rather than as a true and genuine human being in whom God was incarnate.

In the twentieth century, I am glad to say, there has been much talk of incarnational thinking. This is a way of viewing the world in which God is not seen as remote but as present in us as well as to us through other creatures. This picks up on Paul’s vision that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Also the Spirit is in us. But even in the twentieth century, most interpreters of Paul have preferred to emphasize “justification by faith” as central to his thought, since this did not involve ideas of real participation in Christ. Substance metaphysics still influences Christian teaching and blocks appropriation of biblical ways of thinking.

Whitehead’s thought provides us with an alternative conceptuality that removes these obstacles. For Whitehead a moment of human experience is to be understood as an example of what is. This is not a self-enclosed substance but an ingathering and creative synthesis of the world that is inherited. It is constituted by its inclusion of others. To be is to take others into oneself.

One of the others incorporated in each moment of experience is God. Thus God is quite literally present in every experience. Such incorporation can be called immanence. It can also be called incarnation. Thus this philosophy provides us with an incarnational view of all things.

The fit with the Bible is far better. However, one can argue that those who hold an incarnational view of the world can no longer see anything distinctive in the incarnation in Jesus. The New Testament account speaks both of the continuity between Jesus and others and of the difference. Process thought can do that also.

The New Testament passage that played the largest role in shaping the understanding of the incarnation in the early church is found in the first chapter of the gospel according to John. Some scholars believe that what is here identified as “Logos” had earlier been called, in the language of Paul among others, “Sophia.” Would that that naming had been kept! However, I will stay with “Logos” for our present purposes.

According to this passage, there was from eternity a divine reason that grounded order and meaning in the world. According to Whitehead, there is a divine envisagement that provides order and novelty in the world. Whitehead calls it the Primordial Nature of God. According to the gospel nothing was created apart from the Logos. According to Whitehead nothing comes into being apart from the Primordial Nature. According to the gospel this relationship is especially manifest in life and in mental activity, as the light that enlightens all people. The same statement describes reality as explained by Whitehead.

John does not explicitly say that the life and light expressive of the working of the Logos are immanent, but surely that is the most natural interpretation. For Whitehead life and light express the immanence of the Primordial Nature of God. When we move to specific statements about Jesus, these close parallels end. Although Whitehead makes some very positive statements about Jesus, he writes as a philosopher and not as a Christian believer. He does not talk about God’s specific relationship to Jesus. However, let us see how John speaks of it and consider John’s formulations from a contemporary process perspective.

There are two key statements about Jesus in John. The second is the most famous. John 1:14 asserts that the Logos became carne (flesh) and lived among us. The word “incarnation” derives from this verse. It means enfleshment. Carne has a range of meanings, but in this case it is generally, and rightly, understood to be a fully embodied human being. The verse can hardly mean that the Logos in entirety was transformed into a single human being. The cosmic functions of the eternal Logos did not cease. But John understood the way the divine Logos was present in Jesus to be distinctive, and that the difference was very important.

The earlier formulation in verse 9 may help us to understand how John thought both of the continuity and of the difference. “The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” Clearly the true light, which is the Logos, is already functioning in the world before, and apart from, Jesus, enlightening everyone. The Stoics thought there was a spark of the divine Logos in every human being, and John suggests something of this sort. But neither the Stoics nor John thought that this spark sufficed to make all people recognize or understand the truth. The light struggled with the darkness. Then in Jesus, John was convinced, it burst through in full glory, expressed in the fullness of his very flesh, his fully embodied humanity. No one has ever seen God, but Jesus has made God known.

Today a Christian believer who adopts Whitehead’s way of thinking must be wary of some of John’s formulations. John wrote at a time when Jewish followers of Jesus were struggling against other Jews who rejected him. John belittled the extent of knowledge of God these other Jews had from the shared scriptures. Nevertheless, as twenty-first century Christians we can join John in affirming that it is the fullness of incarnation of the light in Jesus through which we know God.

It is also through the incarnation of the light in Jesus that we discern its presence in everyone. No one is without the life and light that is the divine presence in them. However much the darkness of sin and ignorance and prejudice obscures that light, it does not quench it altogether. The reality and new possibilities of life and goodness are always there. Through Jesus we learn to approach each person in terms of the divine promise that works within them rather than in terms of the distortions that too often seem to dominate human thought and action.

As Whiteheadians we enthusiastically follow John yet another step. John distinguishes living things and especially human beings from the inanimate world. But the Logos is at work there too. There is no creation apart from the Logos. Today the lines between the animate and the inanimate are blurred. We see more continuity than was visible when John wrote. But John also saw one and the same divine reality creatively at work in all things. His was an incarnational vision. To preserve and to develop that vision have never been more important than today.