Thursday, December 27, 2012

Some Personal Reflections Toward a Theology of Incarnation as it Relates to Jesus and the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth


Warning: Not to be read by the doctrinally certain. These thoughts reflect where I am right now in my thinking on the incarnation of the divine in the person of Jesus. This could change next week.

An incarnational theology probes into the nature of God’s presence in the world and in particular the degree to which God’s presence became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Apostle Paul and the Gospel of Mark, the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ life, say nothing that would suggest that there was anything miraculous about Jesus’ birth. Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel to be written (probably around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.) and he begins with John the Baptist. Either he wasn’t familiar with the tradition of a virgin birth (probably because it had not yet appeared) or he deemed it irrelevant.

The seven authentic letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans) were written even earlier (likely in the 50’s) and he says nothing about a virgin birth. One could argue that his letters are not essays or treatises on theological themes, but occasional documents, penned in the midst of a very industrious ministry, aimed at particular problems, issues, and concerns in local congregations, so we shouldn’t expect him to speak to this theme. While that is true, in Galatians 4:4–5 Paul says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Paul uses the common word for “woman.” If he knew or believed in a tradition of virgin birth he could easily have used the Greek word that meant “virgin,” but he didn’t.

In Paul’s opening introduction in his letter to the Romans, he summarizes “the gospel of God” as “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3–4). In Paul’s view, it was Jesus’ resurrection that gave him his divine status as Son of God and Messianic Lord. Paul was apparently unfamiliar with any tradition about a miraculous birth.

Paul’s view of Jesus’ divinely appointed lordship is similar to the view reflected in the early Christian preaching as expressed by Luke in the book of Acts. According to Acts, God raised up from the dead the man Jesus whom the religious establishment crucified, exalting him and appointing him Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:32–36).

Ironically, this writer also has a story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in his Gospel. According to Luke, Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and is therefore called Son of God (Luke 1:35). Luke’s Son of God theology is different than Paul’s. In Luke, Jesus assumes the title Son of God at his birth, whereas Paul says that Jesus is declared Son of God at his resurrection. But both Paul and Luke equate his exalted status as universal Lord and his saving role as the Jewish Messiah with his resurrection.

Paul used terms like Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ interchangeably (Rom. 8:9) and clearly believed that the resurrected/living Christ functions in a divine role as mediator and redeemer. But it is also evident that he believed that Jesus had a very human origin and acquired divine status by virtue of his resurrection/vindication by God. Paul considered Christ in his divine role to be clearly subordinate to God. In his discussion of resurrection and the eschaton in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul envisions Christ handing over the kingdom to God the Father. He concludes by saying, “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one (God) who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (see 1 Cor. 15:24–28).  

The Gospel of John, written at or after the turn of the first century represents a more advanced stage of Christological development. But even in John, the Son occupies a subordinate role to God the Father (John 14:28).

The notion of a virgin birth was apparently unknown to the earliest Messianic communities and was not deemed a necessary component of Jesus’ elevation to divine status. I suspect that it developed in a manner similar to the way extraordinary births were imagined and attributed to pagan deities and important historical figures in the ancient world. It was their way of acknowledging and proclaiming Jesus’ unique incarnation of the divine that was experienced through his life, death, and resurrection.  

I do not, therefore, believe that the teaching of a virgin birth is in anyway necessary to an incarnational theology. An incarnational theology could also be developed without regard to Jesus’ resurrection, but it would not be an incarnational theology connected to New Testament tradition. For the first disciples, God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was central to their understanding of God’s involvement in and engagement with the world.

Though I do not believe in a historical virgin birth, I do believe in a historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. By historical, though, I do not mean that his actual physical body was resuscitated and somehow shaped into a new form. But I do believe that the historical Jesus who was crucified appeared alive to the disciples in some spiritual and, perhaps, physical or tangible form. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was an extraordinary human being whose communion with God expressed his deep understanding and experience of his union in God, that he uniquely and definitively incarnated the divine presence. I believe that on account of Jesus’ incredible spiritual awareness, faith, and compassion, because of his unique mystical and spiritual life, God was able to act through Jesus in unprecedented ways.

I’m not a true pluralist even though I believe God acts through many different mediators to reveal and communicate God’s will and redemptive presence. The reason I am not a true pluralist is because I see in Jesus of Nazareth the quintessential mediator and the archetypal image of what it means to be fully human incarnating the divine presence.  

I do not believe that Jesus is God, but I do believe that he is a mediator unlike any other. So while I believe in the saving efficacy of other mediators and other religious traditions, I see Jesus as the prototypical, ultimate embodiment of the divine, the exemplar reflection of the image of God.

At the very least, this is how the early disciples perceived Jesus. It is understandable then that these early disciples would begin to equate the image of the living Christ with the Divine Spirit/Presence/Word. It’s not possible to know what they were thinking, but I suspect the connections they made were more spiritual than literal. I’m not sure they even thought through the implications of attributing divine status to Jesus. Later, that line of thought evolved even to the point of calling Jesus God, which becomes the basis for the metaphysical, Trinitarian formulations in the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds.

While I do not literally regard Jesus as divine or make Jesus equal to God, Jesus of Nazareth functions in my faith as the great quintessential image of the divine and as the definitive, unique expression of authentic humanity. I see Jesus as the embodiment of the kingdom he proclaimed in both its present and future aspects. I view Jesus as the supreme revelation of the grace and truth of God (key elements in John’s incarnational theology). I see the image of the living Christ as the goal for humanity—what we are destined to become. I interpret the New Testament image of the indwelling Christ/Spirit of Christ as a metaphorical way of speaking about the divine which resides within each of us and the potential that human beings possess to actually become what we are, the daughters and sons of God.

Therefore, to know Christ is to know God, though I do not equate Christ with God in any metaphysical, ontological, or literal sense. To live as Christ involves a relationship to the divine presence/Spirit whereby the character of Christ/God is formed in us. This is what it means for Christ to live in us (Gal. 2:20), for Christ to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and for us to walk/live in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–26). The living Christ is actually the Spirit of God/the divine presence at work in us. Christians know the divine presence as Christ; other religious traditions will know the divine presence by different names.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Way of Peace


“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78–79)

Years ago a soldier who had fought in the trenches in France in the First World War explained how one Christmas a truce was made for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A British soldier broke the quietness of Christmas Eve night as he began to sing a familiar Christmas carol. Then, across the way, a soldier from Germany familiar with the hymn joined in, singing in German. The two voices beautifully harmonized.

Early on Christmas morning, some British soldiers climbed out of their trenches into no man’s land carrying a football. Even in war, the British took their teapots and their footballs. It wasn’t long before some German soldiers had joined them. Right in the middle of the bloody battlefield in France they kicked that ball around and had a pick up game.

But then, the next morning the carnage began again, with machine gun fire and bayonet fighting. In the words of the storyteller, “Everything was back to normal.”

That’s a telling phrase isn’t it? Everything was back to normal. The peace of the kind that the Messiah brings offers us a different kind of normal, a new way forward. The way of Christ breaks upon us with the hope of a new normal. We need more than a magical feeling or a mere pause in the fighting and killing that is our normal.

The Messiah-Jesus embodied a new normal and calls us to follow. One large obstacle we must overcome to make progress on the way of peace is that of a religious, political, social, or communal life driven by fear and exclusion. It is a great temptation because it offers some immediate rewards. It can give one a sense of being in control, of feeling superior and having secure boundaries.

A religion or politics of fear and exclusion can give us a kind of false peace. I think Jesus was talking about this when he said on one occasion: “I did not come to bring peace, but division.” That sounds like a contradiction. But what Jesus is talking about is dismantling our false sense of peace—peace based on our supposed exceptionalism or superiority.

This is one of the most difficult roadblocks to peace because it is the ultimate disguise. It allows us to feel good about our enmity. It allows us to be exclusionary and mean-spirited without any guilt because we tell ourselves we are doing it for God or country. We convince ourselves that we are standing on the moral high ground. We become just like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” This is what psychologist Scott Peck called, “People of the Lie.”

If we are to make progress on the path of peace we need to be liberated from the fears and insecurities that drive this need to condemn or control others and to realize that we are all God’s beloved children. We are each one loved with an eternal love and are all sisters and brothers in the same family.

Progress in the way of peace also requires a firm conviction that we can evolve and change. Too often we lock people up in ready made judgments that do not give them room to become something different.  

There are many factors that impact our capacity to evolve: our circumstances in life, the way we are socialized into our families and communities, our natural gifts, inclinations, and capacities, the love we receive or fail to receive from others, these along with many other uncontrollable factors affect our readiness to change and our receptiveness toward God’s grace.

Not every relationship that is shattered can be restored. But forgiveness can occur if we work at it. A woman said to her pastor, “My ex-husband has done everything he can to make my life miserable—before and after the divorce. I am so eaten up with anger and bitterness that it has affected my health. The only thing left for me to do is forgive and forget him and hope to God that I’ll be done with him and he will be done with me, so that I can get on with my life.”

Given the many ways we can hurt one another, maybe that’s the best we can do sometimes. But I believe that growth is possible for all of us on some level, no matter how much the odds are against us. We are not all in the same place on the spiritual journey. But we can all change. Not at the same rate. Not in the same way. Not to the same depth. But we all can become more than we are now.

Critical to our progress along the way of peace is our commitment to the nonviolent, compassionate, inclusive way of Jesus. It’s a commitment we must reaffirm everyday. We must, each day, say “yes” to the way of Christ in the world, even on those days when it seems foolish or irrelevant, or even after we have failed miserably and can barely pick ourselves up.

Sometimes we have to rest for a while to replenish our energy. Sometimes we lose our way and we have to find the path again. Sometimes the wind and the rain make traveling difficult. Sometimes we fall into misfortune and we have to take some time to be healed and restock our supplies for the journey. But we keep going. We stay on the path. 

There was a small Jewish town, far off the main roads of the land. But it had all the municipal institutions: a bathhouse, a hospital, and a law court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen—tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons. One trade, however, was lacking; there was no watchmaker.

In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down, and ignore them altogether. There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran, they should not be abandoned. So they wound their clocks day after day though they knew they were not accurate.

One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks. But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running—the abandoned clocks had grown too rusty.

It’s important to keep winding the clocks, to stay on the path, to keep pursuing the way of peace and practicing the principles that make for peace, just as Jesus our guide did all the way to the cross. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Signs of Advent


The Gospel reading this year (Year C) for the first Sunday of Advent was Luke 21:25–36. My Lectionary study group didn’t want anything to do with preaching that text, instead they decided to focus on the reading from Jeremiah. This text in Luke is part of a larger apocalyptic passage linking the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans with the apocalyptic discourse of the coming of the Son of Man.

If we can get past the apocalyptic worldview that dominated the first century Jewish world and the sensationalism and literalism of modern day apocalyptic interpretations like those expressed in the Left Behind books, this passage yields some profound spiritual truths. Apocalyptic language is great poetry, and if we can read apocalyptic texts with a poet’s mind and heart and imagination, these texts can bring forth life.

Jesus chided the religious authorities of his day for their failure to see the signs of the inbreaking reign of God. These were signs of healing and restoring grace that mended broken bodies and brought wholeness and peace to tortured souls. These were signs of accepting and forgiving grace expressed in such ways as an open table that welcomed all manner of “sinners”—the very ones excluded by the religious establishment.

But in addition to signs of grace, there are also signs of terror that show us that the reign of God has not come in fullness. There is much to be done. Luke mentions disturbances in the heavens and on the earth, of nations being in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea, of people fainting in terror.

Our family spent Thanksgiving in Gatlinburg this year and one night Sophie, our 30 month old granddaughter who had went to sleep lying between my wife and I, awoke crying. Well, actually she woke us crying, but she wasn’t exactly awake. Jordan, our son, was in the living room sleeping on the hide a way bed. He roused up when he heard Sophie crying.

Having studied psychology now for a couple of years, he quickly offered us his expert diagnosis. He said, “She’s just having a night terror. Lots of kids have them.” Of course, he did nothing to drive the terror away, but he was proud of himself that he could name the demon. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

There are harsher night terrors than a bad dream. There are terrors that threaten our physical, mental, and emotional health, terrors that threaten our relationships and our livelihood.

There is not just one end to the world any more than there is just one coming of Christ to look forward to. When Jesus was killed, the disciples believed their world had ended. Their dreams were dashed and their hopes crushed. When several decades later the Romans besieged Jerusalem, those Jewish disciples that were caught up in the fury of the wrath of the Empire thought their world had come to an end. In a manner of speaking, the world might end any day of the week for any of us with a grim diagnosis, a sudden accident, the death of a loved one, a debilitating injury, the loss of a job, or a notice of divorce.

When the heavens are shaken and the sea roars and the foundations of the earth split asunder, our best hope is to keep looking for the coming of our Lord. We don’t have to look far, because he is already here. The Spirit of Christ is with us and for us and among us. Christ cannot fix all our problems or stop all our pain or replace all our losses, but he can walk with us through the night terrors, through the pain and suffering. He can share the load and accompany us on the journey.

I don’t know why it is, but it seems that almost all significant growth in our lives occurs when we go through the crucible of suffering, when we find ourselves in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. It seems as though it takes a certain amount of chaos and turbulence and hardship to move us along the path that leads to personal maturity and spiritual growth.

Ronald Rolheiser, the author of The Holy Longing and The Shattered Lantern, was asked after a lecture if significant spiritual growth can occur without suffering, without walking through some fiery trial. He thought it possible, but extremely rare.

He recalled the time when he was in college at the University of Alberta. A well known and well respected psychologist who was recognized in his field and had written a number of books was on campus giving a talk. After the talk someone asked him if it is possible to experience a deeper level of maturity and personal growth without going through a time of intense pain and crisis.

The psychologist, who was also a deeply spiritual man, said that it is possible in theory. But then he added that in his 40 years of work as a clinical psychologist he had never seen it happen. Apparently, it takes some degree of pain and loss to break down the walls we build around our fragile egos.

Perhaps you have noticed that this time of year many of us either begin our day in the dark or we go home after work in the dark. The daylight is getting shorter and the darkness longer. The shortest day of the year, which is also the longest night of the year, will occur on December 21. Then, after the winter solstice, the days will start to inch their way forward and our nights will gradually shorten. Advent teaches us that it will get darker before it gets lighter.  But by watching and waiting in hope, we grow up. We mature. We learn what is really important. We discover the “more” to life.

Luke says, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth.” We cannot control the roaring and tossing of the sea. But what we can do is be ready, be watchful, be awake and alert and prepared to endure with hope, so that we can escape spiritual collapse and experience the power and glory of the coming of the Son of Man.

We experience such power and glory by confronting our fears and facing our terrors with an ever growing and expanding love for all of life. The power and glory of the Son of Man is the power and glory of the divine, magnanimous, unconditional love of God radiating through our frail humanity.   

If we are watchful we can see signs of Christ’s love all around us. We see it in a child’s smile, a mother’s touch, a friend’s encouragement, a prayer prayed in heart-felt passion, an act of forgiveness. If we are awake we can see God’s love expressed in a thousand different ways. That’s the miracle of incarnation.

And what will it take for us to be a sign of God’s love to others? When, with faith and hope, or even without faith and hope, with whatever spiritual strength we can muster, we offer our time, attention, resources, and service, our very selves in the interest of and for the good of others, we become a sign of God’s glory and power.  

These signs—the roaring and tossing of the sea, the shaking of the heavens and earth, the coming of the power and glory of the Son of Man—are all happening right now. They are happening all around us, to us, through us, within us. Let us lift up our heads, our redemption is drawing near.