DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
The Incarnation

The claim in John's Gospel that Jesus was the Word made flesh has provided Christians with an ongoing puzzle: How can a human being be fully human and yet also fully divine at the same time? Mick and Rick come to very different conclusions about the matter. One holds fast to the traditional teaching of the "incarnation" or "enfleshment" of God in Jesus of Nazareth. The other maintains that if Christianity is to mean anything worthwhile in the 21st century, another way of thinking about Jesus must be found.
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Mick
I may stand on the losing side of this debate from the start - if only because the doctrine of the Incarnation is widely held throughout Christendom to be definitive. For example: 

[The doctrine of the Incarnation] is not one more matter for the free play of intellectual judgement. Rather the object itself is the judge, wholly and originally; and perhaps the test of the authenticity of any theology of the incarnation will be whether it emerges from that judgement or prefers to establish an independent colony of the mind from which to make raids on the church�s confession (John Webster in The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, 2004, p.204). 

I�m not entirely sure what Webster means, but I think he�s saying that the doctrine is foundational to Christianity, that it�s a revealed starting point - not one arrived at through debate and intellectual striving. That alone will separate me, since my starting point is that faith should not contradict reason. Faith may reach beyond reason, but it may not be at odds with it. John Shelby Spong puts it more vividly: 

The heart � cannot finally worship what the mind rejects, so in the struggle between faith and knowledge, knowledge always wins (Eternal Life: A New Vision, 2009, p.120).

 The doctrine of Incarnation derives originally from primitive Christian confessions that Jesus of Nazareth is the �Word of God� (John�s Gospel) or the �Lord� of humanity (Paul in his letters). How, it was asked later, can a man be God and yet remain fully human? The ensuing fierce debate continued for more than 600 years.

 For Jesus to be fully human requires that he had nothing of the divine in him while he was alive. Even a capacity to sin was present in his human nature. That is, Jesus was temporarily emptied of everything divine. After his life ended, Jesus reverted to being fully divine, the always-existent Word - and yet, as befits God omnipotent, nevertheless remained fully human. Starting from this point, orthodox Christians are able to say that Jesus was and is fully God and yet also fully human. Jesus is the human in whom the divine was and is incarnated or �enfleshed�.

 The above two paragraphs are a very brief exposition of the doctrine, which has not been seriously challenged until the modern era. I wonder, Rick, if it makes sense to you. What happens when you reason about it? Or do you perhaps share the position that it�s a matter of acceptance with the eyes of faith; that the doctrine can only be stated and clarified but not denied; and that denial of the Incarnation implies heresy - a view almost universally held by Christian churches?

 Rick
Denial of the incarnation
would seem to imply heresy; with that I agree. In my country, to my knowledge, no one accused of heresy is liable to corporal punishment or death as it was in the bad old days and in some other religious settings. Sanctions usually involve harsh reproof or even banishment by the organization charging heresy; a punishment of the heretic�s conscience and sensibilities, not pleasant to be sure, but endurable with the possibility of going on with life and maintaining one�s integrity. I don�t want to minimize the trauma it may cause but it is not life threatening. 

Our discussion of Incarnation once again invokes the timeless question, what is the ontological status of immaterialism or as you prefer supernaturalism and moreover, who is a competent arbiter of the question? If the answer is that there is no immaterial reality, this discussion is over right now. I choose to continue. 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13-15: 

       But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 

I may be engaging in heresy myself when I paraphrase Paul and say, �If Christ is not considered the Son of God, the Logos enfleshed, then Christianity is invalid, a hoax, as it were.� 

Thus, when I hear theologians and venerable Church Fathers defend the doctrine of the Incarnation I am sympathetic toward their motives. They are trying to defend the very existence of the Christian Church. Were I in a similar position of responsibility I would do the same. If you want logic, there it is. 

When Christ refers to, �His Father in heaven,� is he being disingenuous or, frankly, dissembling? Or perhaps you may claim he really never said that. 

That He was at the same time human and divine is an eloquent metaphor for God�s accessibility to human beings and understanding of their often difficult condition. Christ is one of us in our struggles. That is pure theological genius. 

Mick
I take issue with you that the Incarnation is a suitable metaphor for �God�s accessibility to human beings�. 

First, I agree that the doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus is a metaphor. That is, it uses a word-picture (enfleshed) to convey an idea which can otherwise be properly communicated only with great difficulty, if at all. In this case, the metaphor was designed for ordinary people in a pre-scientific age. 

Second, my position is that the doctrine of the Incarnation is no longer fit for purpose. It uses constructs (divine, Logos, heaven, Son of God and so on) which mean little today. And because ordinary people don�t have the means to easily fault it, they pass on with a shrug to something which makes more sense. The tragedy is that God then often becomes less accessible. 

I say the Church must now work to replace this misleading and opaque metaphor. It may be �pure theological genius� - but to me it�s not far short of pure nonsense. 

Rick
My! That is a rather gratuitous and elitist view of �ordinary people in a pre-scientific age.� It suggests that anyone believing in the Incarnation is still ordinary and pre-scientific and does not have the intellectual tools to understand the simple metaphor of God is with us in the flesh. It will be news to my fellow worshippers in a church that counts MDs, PhDs as well as other advanced degrees among its members. They seem to handle the �opaque metaphor� quite comfortably.
 

As I consider your responses what stands out more than the elitism, is the nihilism. You seem to define reason to exclude faith. As such it is really not possible to engage you in the discussion of Incarnation. You have already decided the question before raising the pen. 

Why should faith not contradict reason? Is reason so powerful, so uniformly accurate and rewarding that it should not at least occasionally be challenged? Is reason beyond self-analysis and reflection? Reason is an ideal faculty but it is ordinary, fallible (even pre-scientific) humans who try to reason. 

Mick
I�m going to stick with the issue of the Incarnation of Jesus as a viable metaphor  - in the hope that my position is not entirely bankrupt. 

The supernatural hypothesis has not worked for me. I am forced back into the world I experience. I can know that world in various ways. The scientific way begins with sceptcism and ends with provisional truths about how the world works. Other ways such as geology, archaeology and history are not as rigorous but do everything possible to approximate the severe tests of science. Then there are the more diffuse ways of knowing epitomised by music, art and literature. 

Here�s the rub: orthodox Christianity has held from the beginning that God is beyond human knowledge, that God can�t be known as I know the world. God is beyond metaphor, beyond definition, beyond description, beyond reason. 

Does that leave me with nothing on my hard-drive? Is my God-monitor blank? 

At this point I think I�m joined by many others, most of them ordinary people like me. We cannot load the Incarnation into our computers. The message �Incompatible� comes up immediately. So if we Incompatibles trust (have faith) that God can somehow be known, we must try to find metaphors compatible with our other ways of knowing the world. As you say, some Christian PCs have an operating system which allows input of the Incarnation metaphor. Ours don�t. 

Must the Incompatibles change operating systems, do you think? 

Rick
If your �operating system�, as you put it, is incompatible with the idea of the incarnation, it has a firewall against the immaterial world. As such there is no way to accommodate the doctrine of the incarnation. It is a hopeless loss to your computer. 

When someone states that faith cannot contradict reason, the argument is over without engaging it. Those whose hearts cannot fully worship what the mind rejects, raise a false standard. No one fully worships; people of faith are frequently challenged by the contradiction of doubt swirling around them. 

I could introduce the theology of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas regarding the incarnation and the intelligibility of God, but I already know these men are not amongst your favourite authorities so I won�t go there. 

It is apparent, Mick, that anyone who has read our debates knows there is a chasm separating our world views. I doubt there is a possibility of bridging our differences. 

Why or how a person accepts or rejects the idea of an immaterial reality and adopts a life of faith is something I don�t clearly understand. For my part, the ability to accept such a reality is a gift I consider priceless. 

As I have explained, reason is my method when circumstances call for it. Faith is, likewise, exercised when it is needed. I live with a foot in both camps. 

You extol reason as if it were an absolute. Given the fact that reason is exercised by fallible humans and involves a myriad of intricacies and nuances, it is no wonder that reason has not always served humanity well. We should not forget that reason is a method to seek truth and is not truth itself. 

While I would like everyone to embrace my world view, I would never arrogate to myself that it is the only view. Everyone has the autonomy to make choices of what they want to believe. If the doctrine of the Incarnation offends, so be it. It offends me not. 

Mick
I think we agree that the doctrine of the Incarnation is widely held to be essential to anyone�s claim to be Christian. We also agree, however, that it is a metaphor - one which implies the existence of a super-natural realm. You are able to use the metaphor while I can�t. It is incompatible with the way I perceive the world. You therefore see no need to change metaphor. It was good enough for Augustine of Hippo and it�s good enough for you. 

However, I want to finish by re-focusing on our point of unity - the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I think we use differing metaphors to understand him and his significance for the world as it sails through history, but that faith in his person nevertheless underpins our differences. 

We Incompatibles can do without the Incarnation metaphor. New metaphors are available. For example, the idea of Jesus as our Pioneer (Heb. 2.10; 12.2 and Acts 3.15; 5.31; Greek: archegos), makes a powerful metaphor when expanded. For Africans and others it might be changed into Jesus as our Ancestor. Metaphors remain essential to living out and energising our faith. Thankfully, they don�t separate us from the love of God. Metaphors are a method for seeking truth. They are not truth itself, and when reified they become instruments of judgement and division.

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