Thinking Through the Creed, Part 3.2

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  (John 14:8-10).

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12).

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood.  (Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D.)

The previous post sketched out the idea of "the place of encounter," and what it means to encounter the divine.  How does Jesus fit into this idea?  For me, as a Christian, Jesus is the ultimate and paradigmatic place of encounter--the baseline model for all encounters between humanity and the divine.  This idea of Jesus as the place of encounter is grounded in the notion of the Incarnation.  If you think of Jesus as the place of encounter, then there is a logic to the Incarnation.

Let's go back to the idea of beach.  The reason why the beach is the place of encounter is that you can experience the ocean, which is fundamentally foreign to you, while remaining connected to your natural habitat of the land.  You are both experiencing a true manifestation of the ocean (i.e. the divine) and a true manifestation of the land (i.e. the physical).  The encounter is an experience of "both/and" as opposed to "either/or."

That "both/and-ness" is the defining characteristic of Jesus.  The early church fathers, culminating in some ways in the Council of Chalcedon, insisted on affirming that Jesus is absolutely human in every way we are human, and at the same time fully and completely the God of the universe.  All of the various alternative formulas that the council fathers rejected were ways to soft-peddle either the human part or the divine part, or both.  All of these alternative formulas reduced the efficacy of Jesus as a place of encounter--either distancing us from a genuine encounter with the divine, or minimizing the degree to which Jesus shared a commonality with us.

Both of these outcomes create real problems.  The humanity of Jesus is critically important, in at least three ways.  First, it makes Jesus something that we can relate to.  We are creatures of the land, and we need to encounter a fellow creature of the land in order for us to wrap our minds around us.  Jesus walked and ate and talked and laughed and cried and, ultimately, died.  Ignatian spirituality, which I mentioned in the last post, encourages you to imagine yourself walking the byways of Nazareth with Jesus, talking to Him and the disciples, experiencing the events of His life.  None of that is possible if Jesus is not a human being.  God the Father will always be somewhat abstract and unapproachable, but Jesus is directly accessible.  Losing the humanity means losing the access.

Second, it takes us out the realm of the abstract and into the concrete.  Jesus doesn't just tell us God is love and tell us to do the same--in Girardian terms, Jesus is the positive model for us to imitate.  Jesus provides some very practical notion for exactly how to love in the way God loves--to care for the poor and the marginalized, to provide hope to those who have lost hope in the future, to work for justice and peace.  This, too, "fills in the gaps" of what we are supposed to be doing.  It sounds cliche, but you could do much worse than ask yourself "What Would Jesus Do," if you are facing a tough decision or problem.

Finally, Jesus becoming human affirms the physicality of the world, and of us.  Jesus did not begrudge taking on physicality, nor does He (despite concerted efforts to shoehorn Him into this view) ever minimize the beauty and value of physicality.  Jesus is God meeting us where we are, not to condemn where we are but to show solidarity with our situation.

But losing the divine is also problematic, because it means losing confidence in a big chunk of Jesus's "Good News."  As I have mentioned before, the God of the Hebrew Bible is fundamentally inscrutable and terrifying.  Jesus, very self-consciously from the Gospel accounts, comes to resolve that confusion by showing us the true face of God--"God is love," as 1 John 4 tells us.  But, that creates a problem--is that reliable?  Can we really believe that?  It is, after all, such Good News that it sounds too good to be true.  Said another way, we have to be sure we are getting an authentic experience of the nature of the divine in Jesus, not some warmed-over version--the ocean, not a lake.  By insisting that Jesus is divine, we can be confident in what Jesus is telling us about God is how God actually is--"whoever sees me, sees the Father."

But that principle also works in reverse.  If it is the case that "whoever sees me sees the Father," it follows that it is also the case "whoever sees the Father sees me."  In other words, when we encounter the divine now, in the 21st Century, we are also encountering Jesus.  This is important, because, of course, the human being Jesus of Nazareth lived 2000 years ago, and none of us have ever met Him in the flesh.  If He was just a person, then He is a historical reality only, and not really relevant to our experience.  But, insofar as He is also one with the Father, He transcends the confines of His time on Earth, and extends into our time and our experience.   Jesus is thus the "face" of the encounter with the divine.

This raises one of the most challenging questions for Christianity, and that is the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Jesus.  If Jesus is the "face" of the encounter with the divine, does that mean that everyone who encounters the divine actually encounters Jesus?  Even folks of other religious traditions that don't recognize Jesus--Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.?  I don't have a really good answer to that question.  I suspect the answer is "yes"--that believers of other faiths are, in fact, encountering Jesus even if they are not aware of it.  This would make everyone of good will an "anonymous Christian," as the late, great Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., termed it.  I'm fine with that, but I really don't know, and I suspect no one does either.  We should leave all of this to God.

So, to sum up two long and somewhat rambling posts--I think the foundation of Christianity, one that comes before and is primary to anything else (the Bible, doctrine, church, etc.) is the individual encounter with the divine, the face of which is Jesus of Nazareth.  Through Jesus, we come to understand the nature of the divine and this encounter.  That's the beginning of the whole thing.  

One post-script, about the idea of the Virgin Mary.  First, I understand the Creed to be affirming the notion that Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus, not necessarily the Catholic and Orthodox doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.  I've voiced my concerns about the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary before, so I won't repeat it here.  As far as the pre-conception virginity of Mary, I am willing to affirm the Creed on this point, but I really don't really think it matters much.   Many people object to the doctrine on the basis of the fact that virgins don't conceive children, but that doesn't really move the needle for me--I already accept the idea that a first century Jewish rabbi was once dead and then was alive, so, as they say, "in for a penny, in for a pound."   On the flip side, the Gospel accounts seem to affirm Mary's virginity as a way to protect the idea that Jesus was truly God, and to link Jesus and Mary to a specific passage in Isaiah.  That's fine, but I don't think it is absolutely necessary to the overall story that the Gospels are trying to tell.

Put it this way--if instead of saying "in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David," (Luke 1:26-27), the Gospels said "the angel came to a woman in Nazareth named Mary, who had two kids and was pregnant with her third," that would change absolutely nothing for me.


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