Thoughts on the Incarnation of Jesus

Charles Cottle —


Manger scene of Jesus' in the stable

The Birth of Jesus

On Christmas day, 2015, there appeared in the New York Times an essay entitled, “The Christmas Revolution” by Peter Wehner. In the essay Wehner presents a provocative set of observations about the incarnation of Jesus. It is Wehner’s view that Jesus’ birth was a revolutionary event, not only for those reasons that are well known, but also for reasons seldom discussed. I encourage you to read the essay. In the meantime, I have summarized the main points below.

  • The incarnation is the source of much of the humanistic tradition.
  • The incarnation rejected the Platonic notion that the material world was evil.
  • “The incarnation also reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person. . . .”
  • From the point immediately above flows our “entire democratic inheritance.”
  • From the dignity and worth of each individual we derive the Christian compassion for the poor and for the practice of charity. Jesus’ example of how he treated the poor and outcast was radical for his time and ultimately created the concern for the poor as a cultural given.
  • Just as God places “inestimable” value on human life, “regardless of social status, wealth, and worldly achievements, intelligence or national origin,” so should we.

I cannot speak to each of these points, but I would like to make the following observations. First, I think it is a stretch to say that Plato and his followers thought the material world “evil,” as Wehner suggests. In my understanding, Plato’s doctrine of forms argued that reality was found in the world of ideas, as the things in this world were copies of them. This is not to say that the material world was evil, but rather less perfect than the ideas that gave rise to them.

Second, in my own religious background, it was the flesh that was evil. Piety consisted in resisting the temptations of the flesh. One might suggest that this view is more a product of culture rather than religion, but it seems to me in this case that culture and religion are so tightly woven as to be inseparable.

Finally, Wehner’s suggestion that the humanistic tradition flows from the incarnation of Jesus is provocative. This is the first time I have encountered the connection between the two. Most often I have encountered the view that humanism is a turning away from God as it is centered in human, rather than divine, concerns.

I find the topics raised by Wehner’s essay to be interesting and worthy of discussion. If you have views on this or related topics, I invite you to share them.

About Charles Cottle (14 Articles)
I'm retired after teaching political theory and social science research methods for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I'm interested in lots of things - mainly social issues, photography, and politics.

7 Comments on Thoughts on the Incarnation of Jesus

  1. Your posted comments remind me of Tertullian’s argument with Marcion for short-circuiting the Christian idea of resurrection by his denial of the flesh of Christ. (Probably, modern Christians sound like Marcion more than Tertullian – but not all. Gnosticism did not die.) There is a very long conversation about the flesh and what the circumcision of the flesh means. Regardless of the side one takes, Christians may have to ask themselves what they mean by “blood shed for you” and “body broken for you” when they participate in their liturgy. -And I’d agree that there is a proximity to empire and power that is a core issue.

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  2. From Dolly Jane Prenzel on Facebook — Thank you for this post, Charlie. Point one, I do not remember enough about Plato to comment. I have always felt that the Old Testament focused on the evil of mankind and the wrath of God. In the New Testament, I find God, in the person of Jesus, to be a loving God. For this reason, I have never believed in eternal damnation. A loving God would not condemn his children to suffer for eternity. Point two, being a Methodist, I was not taught that the flesh was evil. Not much was said about it in the 1950’s but a good bit is said now. The Methodist Church seldom speaks about evil, and I struggle mightily with the concept. (Have I ever known a truly evil person? Possibly one. If Hitler is at one end of a scale – evil – and Christ is at the other – good, where do I fit in? I do believe that good and evil are forces in the world.). On the third point, I understood Humanism as one of a spectrum of philosophies which focused on matters other than God. I will have to do a little research on that. I did like the author’s final paragraph: We Christians would do well to remind ourselves of the true meaning of the incarnation. We are part of a great drama that God has chosen to be a participant in, not in the role of a conquering king but as a suffering servant, not with the intention to condemn the world but to redeem it. He saw the inestimable worth of human life, regardless of social status, wealth and worldly achievements, intelligence or national origin. So should we. I AGREE.

    January 4, 2015

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  3. One thing I’d be interested in learning about from people who know more about this than me is Peter Wehner’s proposition about the uniqueness of god’s physical presence on Earth (and I intentionally use the lower case g) and the procreation between gods and humans. It’s my understanding that there were precedents in the Hebrew Bible as well as Greek mythology, as in the story of Hercules.

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  4. I think this article on near-identical Christ myths that predate Jesus contributes to this discussion:

    http://www.liberalamerica.org/2015/03/17/5-near-identical-jesus-christ-myths-that-predate-jesus/

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  5. If one poses that the divine and human are separate, lets say a “fallen” or sinful creation posited by calvinists who influenced american christianity, then religious meta-narrative becomes more about the overcoming of two separated spheres. The biblical narrative is often cast or interpreted in this way – the religious narrative is all about overcoming the separation. Hegel calls this a “happy fall” that is finally necessary for existence to be more actualized. — However this is not the only way to read the biblical meta-narrative – to say the least. I would call Christians to first recognize that there are four gospels in their cannon, and the incarnation really comes to a sense of itself in the fourth gospel, John, and wants to place Jesus before Adam and Eve. Mark was written (some say orally transmitted before it was written) much earlier than John. Mark is probably the first of the four and picks up the story of Jesus in his public ministry. Even earlier is the writing of Paul, whose Philippians has another sense of Jesus’ salvational import. Paul uses the word kenosis, or emptying out, giving out. – So I think, to sum up, there is a conversation happening within the Christian gospels. I’d like to see it more as a kind of midrash – but thats me.

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  6. Do you know when Jesus Christ was born? A spirit. a holy spirit, told us (plural) that Jesus was born 0n 05-23. I was able to prove that the spirit of Ama is correct. Not on 1 BC but on 33 BC!

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