Late Night Musings: Advent and Incarnation

Follow me down this rabbit-hole:

Think of your life as a series of successive, momentary experiences. In each present moment we are faced with innumerable influences that contribute to what we do with the moment we are currently experiencing. The past is one of these influences. In other words, decisions you’ve made in the past have an obvious effect on your present experience. For example, if in a series of recently past momentary experiences I decided to walk into my kitchen, then in my present moment of experience I cannot choose to climb a tree. The options available to me in the present moment are, to an extent, determined by decisions I’ve made in the recent past.

Another influence on our present moment of experience is our environment. Let us return to the example I used above. The fact that I find myself in my kitchen in the present moment (as a result of previous decisions) means that I am encountering a number things that are unique to my kitchen (i.e. the fridge, the dirty dishes that are piling up on the counter, my roommate who happens to be in the kitchen as well, etc.). As I take in my immediate surroundings, certain options become available to me in the present moment: I can choose to open the fridge to find a snack, I can choose to clean the dishes or I can choose to start up a conversation with my roommate, for example.

The language of Incarnation can be utilized to help us understand how the influences of the past and our environment are related to our present moment of experience. Essentially, Incarnation is the idea of one thing being present in another thing. Is this not what’s going on in each present moment of experience? Indeed, as we remember our past and take in our environment, these influences become a part of, or are incarnated in, our present moment of experience.

Let us imagine that these two influences (which are really more than two influences for the past is comprised of multiple decisions that are each, in their own way, influencing the present just as our environment contains a seemingly infinite amount of stimuli that each have an effect on the present moment) are the only influences that contribute to our present moment of experience. It would seem that these influences would have a limiting effect on my present moment of experience. To return, once again, to our example: my past decisions that have led me to my kitchen do not allow me, in my present moment of experience, to choose tree climbing because there are no trees in my kitchen. Similarly, my options for the present moment are limited to some sort of interaction with the various “things” that are in my kitchen (my fridge, the dishes, my roommate, etc.). It would almost seem that these two influences determine what I do with  my present moment of experience. Could not the decision that I choose to make in the present moment be predicted with certainty by someone who had an absolute knowledge of the influences of my past and my immediate environment?

Our intuition would have us answer this question in the negative. Despite the overwhelming influence that our past and our environment has on what we do in the present moment, we still sense a certain level of autonomy and freedom to create something new in the present moment.

Why is this?

The answer lies in the fact that there is something else that is influencing us in each present moment of experience, namely, the open future.

In each present moment of experience the future is presented to us as a number of potential options for what we can do with our present moment. These potential options serve as influences in their own right on us as we decide how to actualize our present moment of experience.

I’ve come to understand God as the one who presents us with these options for the future in each new moment. More needs to be said here, however. Not only does God present us with options for each successive moment of experience, but God lures us towards the options that would lead to the most zest and adventure in that particular moment of experience. Thus, we could say that God is the one who keeps the present from merely collapsing into a reconfiguration of past decisions. In other words, God is that which allows for novelty or creative transformation in each present moment. When I find myself in the kitchen in my apartment I am presented with a number of options for the future, some of which are more creative and adventurous than others. God’s aim would be to have me choose one of these more adventurous or creative options.

Once again, the language of Incarnation becomes useful at this point. We could say that God becomes incarnate in each moment of our experience to the extent that we choose the more creative or zesty options that are presented to us in each moment.

So let’s bring this home.

In this season of Advent we remember the coming of Jesus, the one who responded fully to the lure of God in each moment. The language of Incarnation is absolutely appropriate when it comes to describing what took place with the person of Jesus for as he was responsive to the call of God in each moment God was made manifest in his loving embrace of those he encountered. When we look at Jesus we see God.

As we’ve discovered, however, Incarnation is much bigger than what happened 2,000 years ago with Jesus. In fact, Incarnation is happening in many different ways in each of our moments of experience. There are many different “things” occupying each one of our successive moments of experience (the past, our environment, the lure of the future which includes the aim of God). May this season of Advent remind us that God is attempting to be made manifest in each new moment of our own experience. As Christ was born some 2,ooo years ago, so may he be be born again this day in us.

“We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity…. But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.” – Meister Eckhart

 

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6 responses to “Late Night Musings: Advent and Incarnation

  1. I like most of this, a lot. I think, however, that if the Bible has anything to say about the aim of God, that his aim is deeper and more profound than simply having us choose ‘more adventurous or creative options’… unless you define creativity and adventure very well, at least. I would suggest that it is more precise to say that the aim of God is to have us choose the option that leads us into a deeper relationship with himself and with our fellow human beings.

    This is an adventure, and requires being highly creative, but I think is narrower in scope than simply ‘adventure and creativity’.

    The other thing I question about the way this is phrased is your perspective on Jesus – does this leave room for Him to be somehow different than your average, run of the mill human being, or are you suggesting that he simply was able to align himself better with the aim of God than the rest of us – in other words, closer to Buddha than the traditional view of Christ? I’m not really sure if that’s what you’re saying or not. I think that there is still tremendous value in recognizing Jesus in the traditional way – that is, both mysteriously man and God.

    • Jordan, thanks for your response. I was intentional about my description of the aim of God as adventure and zest precisely because I think those terms are broad in scope. As you’ve said, to choose love and faithfulness in relationships is most definitely an adventurous option. However, to say that the aim of God is deeper relationship with others and with God doesn’t help me when I’m, say, in the heart of a great forest by myself. What would it mean to love God or love others in this moment when no one is around to love? It is for this reason that I think adventure and zest are better descriptions for God’s aim in each moment. Love and relationship are incorporated in adventure but adventure as an aim is, I think , broader and more far-reaching. What’s more, I like “adventure” and “enjoyment of experience” as descriptors of God’s aim because it makes more sense of the evolutionary process. If relationship is the aim of God then we are forced to say that 99% of the earth’s history was spent merely preparing the way for creatures (humans) who are capable of what I think you’re getting at with the term “relationship.”

      Secondly, I don’t find much value in affirming the traditional paradoxical view of Jesus’ nature that says he was somehow ontologically human and divine at the same time. I think there are metaphysical options available to us (ones that were not available to the early church when they wrote the creeds) that can help us better understand how God was present in Jesus.

      I still hold onto the uniqueness of Christ, however, I don’t think his uniqueness is found in some ontological difference between himself and the rest of humanity. I think Jesus was a man just like you and me. Rather, I think Jesus’ uniqueness is found in the degree to which Jesus was open to the lure of God in each moment. I would even go further than this and say that at certain points throughout Jesus’ life he was so in tune with the lure of God that his own selfhood was constituted by that lure. That is, the “I” of Jesus was one and the same with God’s own self. We see this in passages in the gospels that seem to indicate that Jesus was speaking on God’s behalf. Such an occurrence need not come at the expense of Jesus’ humanity, however.

      This is obviously a really complex issue but I hope that what I’ve said here helps to at least clear up some of the issues you’ve raised in your comment.

  2. Thanks Garret – I appreciate your perspective, and the wrestling you’re doing, but I can’t get on board with it. Again, two big things I would focus on.

    First, I think that humanity is unique in the scope of evolution/creation/whatever you want to call it. For whatever reason, God chose to have a unique relationship with humanity, as opposed to any other species. That is, if we believe the Scripture is still relevant as a guiding text in this journey. I think it is, and I think if that is being abandoned in favor of an entirely natural theology (vs. any kind of special revelation), then we lose any common footing with the tradition of the people of Christ. Which is fine, I suppose, but I think that if we give up all special revelation (ie scripture and the Spirit as compliments to revelation through nature), I would start to ask why bother with theology at all, and why not just go an entirely naturalistic route. A silent God is not much use to me.

    As for my own perspective, I still hold ‘relationship’ as a better term, because I think it fits better with the story we find in scripture, and it fits better with our experience as communal beings. Can you experience God alone, in the wilderness? Yes, but I would argue that this experience is less complete than if others were there as well. We don’t do well on our own for extended periods of time – we were made (for lack of a better term) to be communal. And besides, even in the wilderness by yourself, you are still able to experience relationship with God in a real and powerful way. Without others to discuss, challenge, affirm, and befriend, however, I think we lose the path far too easily. I think I also dislike zest and adventure as defining terms precisely because those terms are so subjective. What if my idea of adventure is a new sexual conquest every night? This is certainly adventurous, but also relationally damaging, and I would argue, out of line with the aims of God.

    As for Jesus, I think the biggest problem with letting go of a unique ontological distinction is that it opens the door for anyone to be Christ – not just like Christ, but completely Christ. Now, I do believe that we can all be Christ to others – that is, we can be the face of God to someone who desperately needs to hear from Him. I have definitely had people be Christ to me, and I think I’ve had the chance to be Christ to others at times as well. But if we say that Christ was purely human, and simply accessed the divine by being completely in line with him, we have to

    A) throw out a good chunk of scripture which seems to say there was something unique about him (the birth narratives, most of John, some of James, others as well I’m sure)

    and

    B) open the possibility for others to access the complete will of God in the same way – perhaps Buddha, or perhaps someone not yet born.

    Both of these offer serious problems if one wishes to remain within any stream of orthodox thought. I think one of the things that keeps me sane is knowing that I am, in fact, not God, and never will be. I can speak for God at times, I can show God to people at times, but the entirety of being God will never be on my shoulders. In fact, if I start to think that I can be God, I think I fall into the same trap that we read about in the beginning of Genesis – which is true, I think, whether it is literal or not. The central conflict of the ‘fall’ is this: Is it better to submit to God, or is it better to attempt to be God? All attempts throughout the ages to be God have failed miserably – in fact, I think this striving to be God, rather than to accept that we are not God, is the basis for what we call ‘sin’.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see real, personal value in the idea of a God who became human, rather than a human who attuned himself to God. In fact, I think that it was only God who could go to the cross – If it were a human on the cross, blood sacrifice is an option for atonement again, something I completely disagree with. Rather, at the cross I see God, a God who knows intimately what it means to be human, and rather than offering condemnation from a throne of glory, offers forgiveness from a throne of wood, nails, and blood. A God willing to suffer to show what always happens when we attempt to be god – we always cause the hurt and pain of others. Our attempts at being God cause pain and suffering in others, always. If Christ were human simply in tune with the Divine, He would not have the ability to offer a statement of eternal forgiveness from the cross.

    That’s how I see it, anyway… hope this makes some sense.

    • Jordan, this exchange has been invigorating! Thanks for being willing to go to this depth of theo-nerdiness!

      (1) I don’t doubt that humanity’s relationship with the divine is unique. I would just describe this uniqueness in terms of degree rather than kind. Humans are the most complex life form that exists (at least that we know of) and are, thus, able to experience and relate to God in ways that are not possible for less complex organisms. The Bible witnesses to the complexity of this relationship that exists between humans and God. It also witnesses, however, to the fact that God is in relationship with all of creation and that in some ways humans are not unique (take, for example, the fact that in the Gen. 1 creation account humans are created on the same day as other land-dwelling creatures). I acknowledge that my theology is one that takes what we know about the world very seriously but I don’t think it excludes the possibility of the Bible being in some way especially revelatory. It’s really a matter of what’s emphasized in the biblical narrative.

      (2) Whereas you critique my theology for it’s reliance on natural revelation, I would critique yours for not taking it seriously enough. As I said before, evolutionary history would be diminished if “relationship” (and I’m assuming by “relationship” you mean an engagement with God that is only possible for creatures that have achieved a level of complexity that includes consciousness) was the thrust of God’s aim. How did pre-human life forms engage in “relationship” with God? Was God simply waiting for billions of years, hoping that eventually a life-form would emerge that is capable of engaging in what you call relationship? Thus, the reason why I choose “adventure” and “zest” and “enjoyment of experience” as descriptors of God’s aim is that these terms do not diminish pre-human evolutionary history. Plus, you get relationship thrown in.

      What’s more, I would say that God seeks to bring about the enjoyment of experience in everyone which would exclude the possibility of him luring me towards an option that would diminish another being’s enjoyment. Thus, love, cooperation and concern for the other are all a part of God’s aim.

      (3) I would say that although the principles guiding God’s aim (adventure, zest, etc.) remain the same in every instance, how this aim looks is different for everyone. In other words, God will not (indeed, God cannot) call you to “become” Christ in a literal sense because you aren’t a first century, Jewish rabbi. Thus, we can say that God’s lure for Jesus was unique to Jesus and has had an especially unique effect on the rest of humanity because of the degree to which Jesus was responsive to that lure. I would say that even if another human being manifested the lure of God to the same extent that Jesus did then the effect would still not be the same because of the unique role that God had in mind for Jesus.

      Additionally, manifesting the call of God in each moment does not make us God (at least in a way that would diminish our humanity). Rather, it makes more sense to say that God is revealed through us when we choose adventure, love, cooperation, etc. So we could say that what God did fully in Jesus in every moment of his life, God is attempting to do in every moment of our own lives although if this were realized it would look radically different for us than it did for Christ given our different histories and/or contexts.

      Finally, Christ would indeed have the ability to offer an eternal statement of forgiveness from the cross if his statement of forgiveness was inspired by and a direct manifestation of the divine lure in that moment. This is indeed what I affirm.

      • hmmmm….. a couple things to pick up on here… might find some more as I write, we’ll see.

        I guess it might help if I lay out some ground rules for my ‘filter’.

        I believe in a trinitarian view of revelation – that is, God is revealed to humanity in three distinct but interlocking ways. First, and primarily, God is revealed through Christ, who I maintain was God-who-became-man, fully God and fully man, rather than a man in tune with the Divine. He is the Word of God, and everything else must be filtered through that lens. Second, God is revealed through what we could call natural revelation, but I choose to refer to as ‘creation’ – that is, the existant world in which we find ourselves. I believe that God speaks through nature, if we have ears to hear. Third, God is revealed through the Community of saints – those that see his presence in nature, understand the importance of Christ, and believe that they have been given the Holy Spirit. In this way those that claim to follow Christ are unique – not in a diminishing way, but much in the way that the Jews were unique – unique in order to share the good news with others. And I believe it is good news, because I believe following Christ is both countercultural and the best way possible to live in harmony with God, other humans, and nature.
        All three ‘C’s inform each other – we get an imperfect view of God when one is excluded. Christ, Creation, and Community. The scriptures, therefor, are the record of God’s working in Community, in the midst of Creation, for the purpose of drawing us into relationship with himself – something best and most fully revealed in Christ.

        Ok, now that you have a better idea of where I am coming from, I can try and tackle some of this.

        1. I would argue that God’s relationship with humanity is unique by kind, rather than simply degree, but I think I know what you’re getting at. God is indeed in relationship of a sort with all of creation, but humanity is the only species (that we know of) capable of responding in kind. We alone are able to petition God, and God responds solely to our petitions. We are in some inexplicable way linked with the Divine in something more than a simple servant capacity. I think this captures part of what the Imago Dei is – we are in his image, and can commune with him – and he desires this. This is not to exclude the rest of creation, but to say that it is different with us than it is with any other species (that we know of). If Artificial life one day rises to the point where it can question whether it has a soul, or if we discover sentient life off of Earth, than I would probably be forced to revise this at least a bit, but I think the core still stands… I would probably revise it to ‘God has a special and unique relationship with sentient life – a relationship which involves both a call and a response.’

        2. I think that in some ways, yes, God was waiting for us – but I also do not believe that we were a fluke. I’m fine with evolutionary theory up to a point, but to say that God is a silent watchmaker in the creation process I think goes to far. I see a God who is intimately involved in his creation, and is in the process of creating – He is a creative God. Yes, God has a relationship with all creation, but my theology is decidedly anthrocentric. I take seriously the idea of the Imago Dei, and think that in humanity God is indeed doing something unique.

        This might be besides the point, though – do ‘adventure’ and ‘zest’ have any meaning to a non-sentient being? I doubt a gazelle would consider its life adventurous… or a mitochondria. ‘relationship’, while broad as well, defines things in the context of other things, which I think is an important distinction. I like Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ philosophy – to say ‘I’ is to say one-half of the ‘I-Thou’ construction. That is, we exist in relation to one another. Alone, we are actually incomplete – I cannot be I without a ‘Thou’ to engage with. I don’t think this is an accident.

        Also, while you narrowed your definition to be ‘adventure which does not remove the enjoyment of experience from others’ (if I read you correctly), you have to decide how far this goes. If you are concerned about God’s engagement with the pre-human world, then any act which cuts short any form of life becomes ‘removal of the enjoyment of experience’. For example, there was a point where no life had a central nervous system, far in the distant past – if enjoyment of experience was the concern even then, then it should be outside of the aims of god to harm in any way even the simplest form of life today. This would make it awfully difficult to eat, let alone engage in any form of society. Perhaps I’m reading too far into your thoughts though. Regardless, focusing the aim on ‘relationship’ removes these troubles – yes, we need to be concerned for the natural world, and should be using our resources as wisely as possible. Relationship being the aim does not remove that. But it does focus our priorities on those who are around us, and it forces us to realize that it is not good to be alone.

        3) I think I outlined my case for Christ being God already, and I don’t think we’re going to get much closer here, so I’ll leave it at what I’ve already said. I’ll just reiterate that I don’t believe in a silent God, but a personal, interactive, and aware God that both acts upon, and reacts to, his creation. Manifesting as Christ is one of a number of ways in which God has manifested to different people in different eras, nor was it even the last manifestation – that came as the Holy Spirit, which resides in all who acknowledge its presence.

  3. Jordan, it seems that on some of these issues we are simply operating out of different frameworks. We could probably go on forever about how we disagree on certain things. I’ll just say two things in closing:

    (1) A couple times in your last post you seemed to be hinting at the idea that I was promoting an understanding of God that is deistic, that is, far off, removed and not intimately involved in what goes on in history. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If God acts in the way that I proposed in my post then every moment of experience involves the loving action of God. God is indeed intimately connected with all that we do. I would say that it is in God that we live and move and have our being.

    (2) From a process perspective, “experience” is something that describes what’s happening in every moment and in every thing. In other words, “experience” is not limited to living creatures. Weird, I know, but there’s literature out there that explains this better than I could. If you’re interested you should check out a book called Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin.

    Thanks again for this dialogue. It’s been a slice!

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