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)



... 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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The Myths of Christianity - 4
The Myth of the Incarnation
Richard Holloway

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 Nazareth.

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 words.

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 like this:

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 obvious way?

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 avoid damnation.

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 about them.

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 [8].

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 crucifying.

Crucifying, yes.

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?

[1] Raymond Brown, The Emergence of the Christian Church, Welcome Recordings, 6 Upper Aston Hall Lane, Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales, 1998.
[2] The Gospel of John: 11.47-50. The King James version.
[3] The Gospel of Matthew 18.22.
[4] Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Books, New York, 2000, p.17
[5] John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1995, pp.26, 30, 51, 123.
[6] The Gospel of John 1.10-11.
[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p.103.
[8] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, Penguin, London, 1999, pp.xxii-xxiii.

Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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