Friday, August 21, 2009

Self-Emptying: The mystery of the Incarnation

In my last blog post I talked about these two miracles: the healing of the bleeding woman, and the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and I tried to make the case that miracles can and do happen. In this post I want to go into more detail about something I find interesting about this passage, and what it tells us about the mystery of the Incarnation.

What did Christ mean when he asked, “Who touched me?” Did he know the answer to this question, and was he simply trying to get the woman to confess her need? Or did he really not know? For that matter, what are we to make of the numerous instances in the Gospels in which Christ asked questions? As Christians, we believe that Christ was fully Divine (as well as human) to the same degree that the Father was divine, as the Creed of St. Athanasius says, “Equal to the Father as touching His Godhood, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.” As it is said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). But we generally think of God the Father as all-knowing, however you qualify that. If God knows all things, and if Christ was fully God, then how could He ask a question to which He didn’t know the answer? And there are certainly, it would seem, things that Christ claimed not to know, most notably the day of the resurrection: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

The question only gets more difficult when we consider that at least on one occasion, Christ appeared to make a statement that contravenes what we know of biology: “24Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). We know, today, that seeds are not ‘dead’ in any sense of the word: if they are dead, they can’t germinate, end of story. An omniscient God would know this- so if Christ was God, then why didn’t Christ? Even if we dismiss “Who touched me?” as a rhetorical question, we cannot dismiss the occasions when Christ appeared to concede that there were things He didn’t know, or simply showed us that He didn’t know things that science was to discover centuries later. What are we to make of this? Must we conclude that Christ was not omniscient, and therefore Christ was not truly the Son of God (or, alternatively, that God is not omniscient?)

The medieval Zoroastrian scholar Mardanfarrokh e Ohrmazdad certainly thought so. In a lengthy polemic against the various rival religions of his time and place (Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Manichaeanism) he argued that Christ’s confession of ignorance showed that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was false. His arguments, incidentally, are rather interesting- so much more so than the tiresome arguments of the modern day antireligious intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens- precisely because he and the Christians shared so much in common. Mardanfarrokh didn’t doubt the reality of virgin births, angelic incarnations, miracles, saviors, heaven and hell, or an everlasting struggle between God and the Devil: in fact, his religion believed in all of these things. He simply doubted that Christ was the fulfillment of them, and he made closely reasoned arguments to that effect (he quotes liberally from Scripture, though given that we are presumably reading an English translation of a Persian polemic against a Syriac translation of the Greek New Testament, his Gospel citation sound extremely garbled to a western reader- almost like you fed the Gospels into Babelfish and then back out again).

Some would (on good grounds) quibble, right away, with the word ‘omniscient’ I used above. They would argue that no one, not even God, can know all future events with perfect accuracy. Rational beings have free will, and are able to choose between alternate courses of action- in other words, between alternate ‘futures’. This means that if free will exists (which it clearly does) then the future is not ‘determined’, and therefore doesn’t really exist in the strict sense, and therefore God cannot know it- omniscience, to these thinkers, would mean knowing all things that are knowable, not knowing the answer to every question that can possibly be posed. God cannot know the last digit of pi (since it doesn’t exist), nor can He know who you will choose to marry, since that depends on your free choice.

Now that’s a compelling argument (to me), but it doesn’t answer the question of Christ’s seeming ignorance. Even if God cannot know (perfectly) all future events, surely He knows all events in the past and future. And the question of who touched Christ, or whether seeds are dead or alive, was a question concerning the present, not the future.I found this question baffling for a long time. Recently, though, I found what seems to be a compelling answer to this paradox. It was put forth by Charles Gore, the Anglican bishop of Oxford, in the 1920s. Bishop Gore had a relatively liberal approach to the Old Testament, but in matters of tradition and morality he was staunchly conservative (he was a high-church Anglo-Catholic, and opposed divorce in all circumstances, and devoted his last two years to strongly condemning contraception, which should please those of you who oppose contraception!) So he cannot be dismissed as a loosey-goosey, wooly-headed hipster postmodernist Christian.

Gore argued essentially that when “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), he emptied himself of those of his divine attributes which were incompatible with taking on a human nature. What the Incarnation meant, in terms of the sacrifice of His divine attributes, is described here: “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Christ humbled himself, and being a perfect being (i.e. God) He humbled himself perfectly. What could it mean for a Divine being to become ‘humble’ while still retaining His Divine knowledge and His divine power? How could a being who could bring worlds into being and blot them out, who could know the fall of every sparrow from every tree (Matthew 10:29), take on the form of a servant except by (temporarily) giving up those attributes?

The essence of Christ’s mission to humanity was one of sacrifice. He became a man in order to make a perfect sacrifice, once and for all, of himself. But a perfect sacrifice would have to touch not only His death, but also His life. While living on this earth, for thirty years, Christ voluntarily gave up His awesome, ineffable, unfathomable abilities and powers, and accepted the role of a humble carpenter.

Christ came to earth, in part, to model what a perfect Man should be. He took on human nature so that human nature could, once and for all, be perfected and redeemed. Thus Christ had to have all possible human virtues. Yet one of the important human virtues is faith: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Now where there is perfect knowledge, there can be no faith: for faith by its essence involves a leap into the unknown, a willingness to believe what is revealed to us or handed down by those we are bound to trust. If we knew all things perfectly, there would be no need for faith. For “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). In order for the man Jesus Christ to have faith during his 33 years on earth, He had to (temporarily, at the moment of the incarnation) be stripped of divine omnipotence.

This, of course, gets to a more important point. The essence of human nature is limitation. All of the virtues that we associate with being human, all of the traits and attributes that we admire, stem in some way from the struggle against suffering, adversity and evil (or as it’s often put, against the world, the flesh, and the devil). We develop muscular strength by lifting weights, by running, by exerting ourselves against resistance. And as it is with the body, so it is with the soul. In a world in which there was no scarcity, there would be no meaning to generosity. We admire doctors and nurses for their hard work, often at personal risk, to save the lives of others and to heal the sick: but in a world without sickness, there would be no hospitals and no doctors, and no such virtues for us to admire.. In a world in which there were no wars and wild animals to fear, there would be no point to courage. In a world in which there was no deception, there would be no meaning to honesty. And in a world with no death, love itself could not reach its highest expression, for as it is said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give up his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

People with dreams of a technologically advanced future sometimes imagine that in the future, machines will do all the work, and human beings will be free to enjoy all their time in leisure. That dream was largely smashed by the looming fossil fuel crisis, but even before that, sensitive people realized that it was not a dream but rather a nightmare. Human beings derive meaning in their lives from work, and work is a great part of how we create our identity. A society in which nearly all farming was done mechanically would be a society in which we had lost our connection to the land. That is why Berdyaev, last century, said that utopias are now technically feasible and the great question is how, at any costs, to prevent utopias from becoming reality. Limitation, suffering and adversity- and the struggle against them- are the root of all the human virtues, of all the talents, abilities, and excellences that we admire. Some of the most admirable people I know personally- I’m thinking of a half-dozen or so in particular- are those who faced terrible adversity, and hard conditions in life, and through it all kept their ability to love intact. It was necessary for Christ to be perfect in virtue: to surpass the most virtuous ordinary human. And therefore it was necessary for him to suffer, and to experience limitation: as it is said, “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered, and was made perfect” (Hebrews 5:8).

Christ had to share our nature in order to redeem and glorify it, and that means He had to share our limitations too, including our powerlessness and our lack of knowledge and vision. Before the Incarnation, and after the Ascension, He shared every bit of His father’s power, glory, and wisdom. But for those thirty years that He walked on earth, for that single moment in time that “the Word was made flesh”, He took on a human form, with human limitations and abilities. Over a half century before Christ, looking into the far future, Isaiah saw just what sort of human He would become: “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3).We have a glimpse of what Jesus was like before and after the Incarnation. We know that through Him heaven and earth came into being: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). And we know that at the end of the world, He will appear in glory, crowned with many crowns, and able to effortlessly destroy evil on earth, as St. John the Divine tells us.

Imagine having all that power, glory, and ability, and choosing to give it up, and to become a suffering servant. During that thirty year span of time, the powers that He had came from His father, working through him. When He was tempted to escape crucifixion, He did not say, “Don’t you know that I could destroy Pilate and his men with a flick of my fingers?” No, He said “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53). When He suffered in the garden, He shared not only our pain but also our weakness and powerlessness, and that is why “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him, and being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:41-44). I found this passage baffling when I read it: how could the Son of God be “weak”, and why would he need an angel to strengthen him?

We are almost compelled to acknowledge that during those thirty years, He had stripped himself of His divine powers, and had emptied himself of all power except that which His Father chose to give him. He loved us so much that, though He was possessed of unimaginable power and authority, equal in every way to His father, though He was the one “through [whom] all things were made” in heaven and on earth, He chose to strip himself of all that, and become the son of a carpenter, born in a stable, dying with vinegar on his lip, a fatal wound in his side, with thorns on his forehead, under a hot Jerusalem sun. He had stripped himself of His perfect wisdom, His perfect foresight, His perfect vision, His perfect power, His perfect ability to create, His perfect ability to destroy, His perfect ability to overcome the laws of nature. In His human form, he had left to him one reserve of perfection that He retained of His divine nature: his perfect virtue, and his perfect love. And through retaining His perfect, divine ability to love, even when subjected to human limitation and human imperfection, even when the future was veiled from him, when he was subjected to the lack of scientific knowledge of his time, even when he had deprived himself of the ability to know who had touched him or when the world would end, He perfected human nature through His own human form, and won for those he loved an eternal victory over death, evil, and the world.

“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”

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