|The Myths of Christianity - 4
The Myth of the Incarnation
Here's how Eusebius gushingly describes it:
Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the
entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them
the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial
apartments, in which some of the Emperor's companions were at table,
while others reclined on couches arranged on either side. One might have
thought that a picture of Christ's kingdom was thus shadowed forth, and
a dream rather than reality.
Historians have traditionally seen this event as the final triumph of
the Church and the beginning of its long dominance of European history. It
established dogmatic Christianity in a long partnership with the world of
political power that became known as Christendom, and only in our day is
it in its final stages of dissolution.
So glorious and powerful was the institution of Christendom that it was
almost impossible to see through it to the man who stood behind it, the
peasant from Galilee who had refused to cringe before the very power that
crucified and was later officially to deify him. The fascinating thing
about our day is that, as the political and theological structures of
Christendom crash down before our eyes, we can see once again, through the
rubble and dust of the centuries, a clearer picture of the prophet of
The way scholars have described that evolution from the man of Nazareth
to the God-Man of Nicaea is to talk about the movement from the Jesus of
History to the Christ of Faith. This is only one way of talking about
theological development in early Christianity, and there are those who
would repudiate the distinction that is implied in that particular form of
Nevertheless, the advantage of using it is that it captures the
historic nature of the movement from Nazareth to Nicaea, from the
flesh-and-blood Jesus to the heavenly Christ of the Catholic centuries.
One thing is certainly true: from the beginning there has been
development and change in the understanding of Jesus and his meaning
within the Christian community. As with all theological disputes, there is
no absolutely incontrovertible way of resolving the one about the true
nature of Jesus, later called the Christ.
This is where theological constructs or myths are unlike Kuhnian
paradigms. I pointed out in my first lecture that science has followed a
developing path through the use of paradigms that work until their "use by
date", and are gradually replaced in what Kuhn called a scientific
revolution. Obviously, scientific paradigms are testable in a way that
theological myths are not, but we can still make use of the Kuhnian
insight as we struggle with its meaning and application to religion.
And this is where I must show my own hand by disclosing an operating
principle that will govern what I am going to be saying in this lecture
and those that follow.
Since there is no way we can get in touch with the metaphysical or
supernatural realm that is on the other side of the claims made about
Jesus, I believe that we should use these claims to define and
characterise the way we live in this world and not as descriptions of
another world beyond this one that we can have no direct knowledge of,
including certain knowledge that it exists.
What I want to offer as a programme of action is theological pragmatism
as opposed to theological positivism.
Theological positivism claims that, through revelation, we are given
true and saving information about that reality we call "the supernatural"
or "heaven" or "the divine realm" or the "other world". The "truth" bit
does not particularly bother me. If you tell me that you know that there
is another heavenly reality beyond this one and that you know something
about what goes on there, I hope I will have the grace to listen politely
and not intrude upon convictions that are clearly important to you.
If you tell me that unless I also hold these views I cannot be "saved"
and that something awful and eternal will happen to me after death, I will
be less inclined to listen graciously. Moreover, I will detect in your
theology not just your private opinion about unknowable matters, but a
kind of religious abuse, a power-play, that is clearly designed to
pressurise me into re-arranging my mental furniture so that it can
accommodate the essential items you insist on installing there.
To use Tillich's language, if you insist that the myth of the
Incarnation has to be understood in its literal or unbroken sense, then
you are in danger of excluding me from its values altogether, because I am
unable to submit to your particular version of it, which goes something
There is a god who is in some sense a discrete and
definable being from whom we have been alienated by sin, original as
well as actual, thereby creating a state of hostile separation between
us. A long line of ambassadors from God, sent to make peace, have been
systematically rejected and many of them killed. Finally God sends his
only son to reconcile the world to himself. And he sends him to an
unknown family in a nowhere town, where he is born of a woman without
the sexual intervention of a human male. The salvation of the world
depends upon its hearing about this event and coming to acknowledge the
divine status of the child born in such remote anonymity.
Used as myth, metaphor or poetry, this beautiful story can be
interpreted in several meaningful ways; taken literally, it is not just
far-fetched, it is morally arbitrary. If God is able to pull off such an
extraordinary miracle, and some others recorded as backup to the claim,
why does he not exert his power in a more morally obvious way to alter the
evil balance of power in the world? If God does choose to intervene and
has the power to, why intervene in this way rather than in some more
I have been preaching long enough to know that highly sophisticated
answers can be given to some of these questions, but all of them beg the
question of the literalness of the myth, and thereby deprive it of its
poetic power. No matter how subtle the new theological justifications of
the myth are, they are inevitably confronted by the frankly and
unavoidably mythological and pre-scientific language of the story. In a
pre-quantum, flat-earth universe the literal details of the myth would be
easier to accept, because in the ancient world there was an acceptance of
constant traffic between the divine and the human spheres.
Let me repeat myself. Since I do not want to interfere in the devices
people use to express their religious longings and convictions, I would
not want to try to shift someone from a literalistic to a metaphorical
understanding of the Incarnation, or from the unbroken to the broken myth.
My resistance to literalists is roused on two grounds. The first is when
proponents of the unbroken myth say theirs is the only true way to hold
it; secondly, and more importantly, I resist when I am told that holding
the unbroken myth is not only "true" but "saving", that it must be held to
Humans do all sorts of things with language, with words, including the
language of religion. I simply want to make space in Christianity for
another way of using the traditional language. Let me spend what is left
of my space here to sketch in what that use might be.
In recent years I have become fascinated by the theme of the hidden God
and the unknown Christ. Encounters with the unknown Christ are
surprisingly frequent in the New Testament. In the resurrection stories we
have several accounts of Christ appearing to uncomprehending disciples who
think he is an interesting stranger, such as on the Road to Emmaus in Luke
or on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in John.
And there are occasions in the teaching of Jesus when the same point is
made. The most dramatic version of this is found in the great parable of
judgement in Matthew 25. At the end of history people are separated into
two groups, both of whom are surprised by the verdict that is delivered
On the one side are those who thought they were paid up believers in
Christ, who find themselves excluded because they have not served him.
When they express their puzzlement at this perverse judgement, by reciting
creeds and rehearsing their membership in various organisations for the
defence of the faith, they are told that because they have not clothed the
naked, fed the hungry, visited prisoners or given cold water to the
thirsty, they are not on the side of Christ.
But the surprise of the pious is as nothing compared to the surprise of
the other group. They have had little or no time for religion in their
lives. They think it makes too many unverifiable claims and is responsible
for too much hatred. They themselves don't really know what to believe,
except that cruelty and indifference are curses upon the world. So they
don't make many claims for themselves, but they volunteer a couple of
times a month to feed the homeless, and some of them write to black
prisoners on Death Row in the Christian State of Texas.
They are as suspicious of politicians as they are of clergy, but they
keep up the pressure on parliament to do something for the people who are
not doing as well out of the economic system as they are. They don't much
like the way the Church has turned the compassionate anger of the young
prophet of Nazareth into dogma, but they admire the man himself and
sometimes wonder if they haven't rubbed up against him at the odd demo
against Third World Debt and the Arms Trade.
I used to try tried to place myself prudently on both sides of this
judgement divide. I was theologically conservative and socially radical. I
remember trying to get the slogan "incense and drains" accepted as a motto
for the Catholic Renewal movement, because I thought both worship and
decent housing were important for people. Theologically, I was pretty
intense in those days and now I think I know why.
In the late Sixties I emerged from a period of radical doubt about the
whole Christian doctrinal system and fell into a very common trap: I
reacted against my own uncertainties by attacking doubt and uncertainty in
others. A closet sceptic, I condemned in others what I was too afraid to
look at in myself.
My first book was an attack on the kind of theology I myself now write.
All along, I can now see, I was my own enemy, the opponent of the other
self within I could not live with, the person who doubted that theological
propositions actually represented metaphysical realities, actually
described the situation in the heavenly realm.
My anxieties about all of this caused me to engage in a classic
projective identification and condemn in others what I secretly believed
in my own heart. It is one of the deepest ironies of my life that I have
ended up the kind of bishop in my sixties that I attacked when I was a
priest in my thirties. "The whirligig of time brings in its revenges", as
Mr Shakespeare well knew. As another poet put it, I have ended up where I
started, but now I think I know the place for the first time.
I am telling you all this because I think a liberating truth underlies
it. I have come to believe passionately that we can treat a belief as "a
habit of action" rather than as an accurate representation of metaphysical
reality, to quote Charles Sanders Peirce .
People who adopt a pragmatic approach to Christianity because they are
agnostic about the reality status of theological statements, ask
themselves what action this or that belief commits them to, not whether it
accurately represents the home life of God.
This is what William James called establishing "the cash value" of
religious beliefs. And it brings us back to the parable of judgement in
Matthew 25 and all those other stories of the unfound Christ, such as the
story of the fourth wise man who did not make it to Bethlehem on time,
because he went to the aid of a poor widow. Each time he thought he was
getting close to the Christ child, another unfortunate person would demand
his assistance. Worn out with all his wandering and care of the suffering,
he discovers that he has been in Bethlehem, worshipping the Christ child,
all the time.
To demythologise the myth of the incarnation is not to dilute it, but
to charge it with a profound and daunting ethical meaning. It calls us to
a recognition that God is now to be found in the human, especially among
the worldless, the disregarded ones, such as the Holy Family and the poor
who welcomed them.
To claim belief in the Incarnation is to commit ourselves to a radical
commitment to the meaning of God not in verbal propositions, but in human
lives, their joys and sorrows. If our talk does not serve this end, does
not have a radical ethical imperative, then the Word that was made flesh
in Jesus is simply made word again in the Church.
It is a chastening experience to realise that you have largely given
your life to talking about Jesus, weaving words round the mystery
of his meaning, rather than trying to walk in his footsteps. "Poor little
talkative Christianity" said E M Forster and, my God, he was right.
And it is not just the boring talk, though there's been an ocean of
that, it is the cruel talk, the judgement talk, the superior talk, the
dismissive talk, the "I have the truth and you don't" talk that is so
I know it's a bit late to have made the discovery, but isn't it time we
dismantled all the calvaries our words have built for Christ and simply
tried to follow him, preferably in silence?
 Raymond Brown, The Emergence of the Christian Church, Welcome
Recordings, 6 Upper Aston Hall Lane, Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales, 1998.
 The Gospel of John: 11.47-50. The King James version.
 The Gospel of Matthew 18.22.
 Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Books, New
York, 2000, p.17
 John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus, Harper Collins, San
Francisco, 1995, pp.26, 30, 51, 123.
 The Gospel of John 1.10-11.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame
Press, 1981, p.103.
 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, Penguin, London,
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