Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reconciling Tradition follow-up: The concepts of incarnation, deification, and panentheism (part one)

In another follow-up to my recent series critiquing and  exploring some of the concepts often considered traditional and essential to modern Western Christianity, especially the more fundamentalist or legalistic varieties, I fleshed out and added support to my critique of the abuse of the atonement and appeasement models for the crucifixion. In this regard, while I may be at odds with large portions of Western Christianity descended from the Reformation movements, I am not outside of the broad flow of Christian tradition. If there is anything in my critique and rephrasing of Christian concepts which breaks with the majority of Christian tradition, it is in my framing of the nature of the incarnation and the process of deification, a perspective which is based on my take on panentheism.

Before getting into an attempt to clarify and expand on what I have been discussing on the nature of Jesus, let me say that I think that theology is about 5% poorly and imprecisely expressed insight and 95% speculation. This is not intended as a belittlement of the work of theologians, it is just that they are hampered by the fact that what they are studying is very difficult to parse and break down into the kind of thinking disposed to linear descriptive prose, consistent formulas or neat outlines. Yet that is how most have them have been trained to think about and express themselves when it comes to their subject matter.

There are two major frames at work in the human mind and in the debates over religion. One wants certainty, clearly defined phenomena contained in rational and readily described categories, things which are uniform and predictable and easily subjected to the grossest forms of empirical verification, phrased in math and historical statements; the other allows for ambiguity, creativity, and paradox, engenders humility and wonder, allows for things beyond our ability to fully grasp, pin down, or control, phrased in metaphor and poetic language. While the latter is generally most appropriate for spirituality and religious insight, theologians tend to try to employ the former in their work.

I mention all of this because I don't think that any amount of speculation in terms of theories and comparative categories can adequately describe or resolve the paradox inherent in the nature of Jesus as presented by the Christian tradition. This is why there were so many arguments and accusations of heresy concerning this topic over the centuries. To wade into this topic is always a risky proposition in terms of offending people, but honestly that doesn't concern me. Too many people are too certain of their own pet theory and too territorial about the topic. If ones views are threatened by the hint of scrutiny, even indirect scrutiny, then those views aren't serious.

My take on the nature of Jesus comes from my take on panentheism, which is the core of my spiritual model. In my understanding of the panentheistic model: God appears to be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, present in all things yet not limited to this presence; God is the source, substance and sustainer of existence, not the first cause or first link in causality, but the shape of such links, their material and the space in which they exist; God is beyond personal versus impersonal, exploding our limited categories trying to define God as a person or non-person; God is the ultimate reality, or ultimate nature of reality, and encompasses the historical dimension of reality (bounded by time and space) as well; God is the raw potential out of which phenomena arise and of which they are comprised. Other popular images include a comparison in which God is water and phenomena are waves. Hence my understanding of all religious imagery and narrative is appreciated and interpreted with this understanding of the divine.

It immediately rubs up against the traditional phrasing of the nature of Jesus. Many key theologians and doctors of the Church have talked about humans being or becoming divine. Here are some representative examples:
"If the Word is made man, it is that men might become gods." St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies

"He [God], indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God." St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God

 "The God who was manifested mingled himself with the nature that was doomed to death, in order that by communion with the divinity human nature may be deified together with him." St. Gregory of Nyssa

"[W]e abandoned the true God, by whose creative help we should have become gods, but by participating in Him, not by deserting Him." St. Augustine, The City of God

These expressions of deification seem to support the idea of humanity being intimately linked to God, but there is an important distinction to be highlighted. In my understanding of panentheism, the difference between Creator and created is one of emphasis and degree, that is, part of the whole versus the whole. God is more than the sum of the divine parts, but we are by nature included as divine parts, like cells in the divine body to use an analogy.

Here are additional expression which emphasize this apparent difference:
"The Word could never have divinized us if He were merely divine by participation and were not Himself the essential Godhead, the Father’s veritable image." St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God

"For to them gave He power to become the sons of God. If we are made sons of God, we are also made gods; but this is by grace of adoption, and not by generation." St. Augustine

"Augustine hastens to add that this means that we shall be God’s image in the sense in which a man’s reflection in a mirror is his image inasmuch as it is like him, not in the sense in which a man’s son is his image inasmuch as he is actually what his father is ‘according to substance’." G.W.H. Lampe

 "To be deified is to be called back from human sinfulness to God’s own state. Through the birth of the Holy Spirit in the believer, God adopts the person, and brings them up to his own state." Martin Luther
 This apparent difference was summed up by a friend and commenter, Kristen, who wrote:

[T]hinking about what you said about the immanence and the transcendence of God-- I think it makes sense to think of the Trinity in light of that: that the Father is in some sense the transcendence of God, while the Son and Spirit function in two different ways, as the immanence of God. I do think that Jesus did more than connect fully with the Divine; I think Jesus was, in some way, an embodiment of the immanence of God into a human form, with a nature that was both human and divine. I know you would say that our own human nature connects to and arises out of the Divine, and thus in some sense we are divine too-- but I think that the Christian tradition intentionally makes a distinction between us as smaller, individual consciences and the Foundational Consciousness-- whereas Jesus Christ IS the complete presence of the Foundational Consciousness in a human form, made one with a human consciousness in a way that is unique and that no other human can achieve. In other words, that we are distinct from the Divine Consciousness in a way that Jesus is not.

I think the Trinity can be described as three distinct centers of the Foundational Consciousness, Each functioning in such a way that It can inter-relate with the other Two. We humans can connect to that Foundation, but we are not that Foundation, whereas Jesus in some way IS one of those three centers of Foundational Consciousness. This is different from "a piece of God in a human suit" because Jesus is not just a "piece" of that Consciousness but one of the three Centers of It-- not just embodied in flesh, but mingled with a fully human consciousness so as to become one human-divine individual. Our humanity tapping into the Divine, does not give us humans that Incarnational aspect.
Because she so succinctly and aptly described what I see as representing a traditional perspective, I will attempt to better represent my own view by comparing and contrasting it with her own statements.


  1. "she so succinctly and aptly described what I see as representing a traditional perspective"

    Thank you for the compliment! I will think some more about what you are saying in this and the next post and respond when I've had more time to figure out what I think about it (it feels awkward because I feel myself agreeing with what you're saying AND with what I'm saying, and that I need to try to reconcile any discrepancies-- but since, as you say, the categories themselves are better expressed poetically and with respect for their mystery, I'm not sure I can-- or should).

  2. Take your time. The only one who I know has written much about a view that really sounds like mine is Marcus Borg, an Episcopalian, who discusses his take own take the historical Jesus and the cosmic Christ. Just a warning though, that Googling "cosmic Christ" by itself may get some odd results. But I did find a link to something by Roman Catholic priest who I have become a fan of by reading snippets of his work in daily emails. Here is what I found by Fr. Richard Rohr (in case the link is changed/goes dead):

    In this teaching Fr. Richard gives a profound insight into the nature of the historical Jesus and what the resurrected Christ really means.

    We are reminded that the material and spiritual worlds are part of the same universal reality. As the Body of Christ we are all called to participate in relationship with the Divine Trinity. Fr. Richard uses plain language to make this life-changing view accessible:

    "You were created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity from God is never taken back from God’s side. It’s an eternal covenant.

    The anointing that has been given to Christ has been given to you. That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me”. We have to walk the same journey.

    When you say that you believe in Jesus Christ, you include absolutely everything, including yourself.

    Only the Spirit can teach you that this is true."

    This presentation was a week-end conference held in Houston, December 2008.

    Length: 3 hrs 11 min.

  3. [I]t feels awkward because I feel myself agreeing with what you're saying AND with what I'm saying, and that I need to try to reconcile any discrepancies...

    I can' recall any quotes off of the top of my head, but such dialectic tension, seeing the wisdom in what appear to be two distinct propositions, this kind of paradox has been said to be of the most important value in one's spiritual/philosophical development.


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