Fr Ken Tanner shares some interesting thoughts on relating the concerns of feminism to the Incarnation. Something to contemplate as we approach Advent.
A friend shared a question he recently overheard:
“If Jesus quit having a relationship with you tomorrow, in what ways would you tell the difference?”
It’s an interesting question because it can open up to an important discovery. It’s a very bad question because it assumes a particularly mistaken view of things, namely, that Jesus could quit having a relationship with us and we be in a position to contemplate it after the fact. The question assumes Jesus is someone and something very different than the Jesus of the Church’s faith and experience, whom we have to deny in even attempting to answer the question on its own terms.
All the logical theistic arguments (properly conceived) that are so embedded in the nature of things make sense because they concern themselves with the existence of an infinite, benevolent, personal God who is both ground and end of all things. If this Ground “quits having a relationship with us,” then there’s literally no saying what the difference would be because “saying” involves rationality/intelligibility, meaningfulness, teleology, etc., and if God quits having a relationship with us, these self-evident features which define the very givenness of being would no longer shape our experience of ourselves and the world. So very literally, there is no “saying” what the difference would be because there would be no “saying” anything at all. God’s Logos is God’s “Saying” which makes all “saying” possible. If I wake up to tomorrow to an existence that is intelligible, that responded to rational inquiry, a life in which I continued to perceive and desire beauty, etc., then I’d have to say God had not quit on me. I know no way to logically ponder existence (mine or anyone else’s) apart from the truth of the openness of things to God. But this question asks us to consider precisely what is unintelligible, namely, what ‘being’ would be like without benevolent ground and end.
So the question can’t be asked about Jesus if the Jesus we’re talking about is the God-Man, the Incarnate One who is the created realm the abandonment of which this question asks us to consider. For Christ to quit on creation (or any part of it) is for Christ to quit on himself, for creation is united to himself through Incarnation, and the Cross and Resurrection declare such abandonment forever inconceivable. Of course, there may be other Jesuses out there who are compatible with the sort of “quitting” this question is based on. But in that case, these have already quit on us because they never existed to begin with.
The same few friends I spoke of in a previous post (and I) have been trying to make sense of the virgin birth. You know, light-hearted stuff. Some see no special need for the virgin birth and feel no great loss were Christians to give it up completely. They view it as one of several myths the earliest believers created, I’m told, to promote their religious agenda. I’m aware, of course, that denying the virgin birth of Christ is standard for older liberal forms of Protestantism, but I’m surprised to see it denied by younger Evangelicals. I’m less and less surprised by what I run into among Evangelicals. Call me old fashion (or Orthodox, unless you’re Orthodox!), but I think this is a fatal move, theologically and existentially, when thought through in terms of the early Church’s understanding of salvation as participation in God via Incarnation (the union in Christ, of the divine and human natures). I realize the very question points to a mystery that infinitely exceeds our understanding, but it’s helpful to try to point in the right direction and to state why the virgin birth is (or is not) important. For the record, I approach this from the ancient, conciliar single-subject/two-natures Christology.
It’s helpful to imagine how Jesus, a fully human being subject to our development stages of ego formation within a family unit, might manage to come to embrace an utterly unique identity for himself relative to God – that of the ‘Son’ – an identity that informs his later mature convictions about the divine origins of this identity, his own pre-existence, his unity/equality with God, etc. For example, what must the earliest influences upon Jesus’ emerging sense of identity and mission have been for him to construct an identity within (or so connected to) the divine identity, or, at least, an identity convertible with prerogatives and experiences appropriate only to God? Only a dramatic narrative of origins could account for such a development. It certainly can’t be anything on par with the whole scope of divine activity in the world preceding Jesus (i.e., a vision, a dream, an angelic visit). Those acts, being common, aren’t sufficient to ground so unique an identity as Jesus adopts for himself. I imagine Mary and Joseph telling Jesus of the miracle of his birth and can appreciate the power of such a narrative: God, more literally than any other human could claim, was his Father, i.e., directly responsible for his conception.
At the same time, the eternal Son has to occupy this history, this journey – from conception to the grave, and not just share it with some other human individual born of natural generation. It’s harder to plum the metaphysical question on this second point, but I think it points to the divine side of the equation (if I can put it crudely) which is that free and creative act of conception, or origin. Gregory of Nazianzus’ line comes to mind: “Whatever has not been assumed has not been healed.” It’s not just that Jesus has to have a way to world-construct that makes his identity truly convertible with the divine identity (the virgin birth accomplishes that), it’s also that God truthfully relates to every aspect of this human journey personally as his own, making Jesus’ existence a genuine assumption of human nature by God. I think the virgin birth is where both sides of the equation open up to each other. Without it you don’t get an individual who can world-construct as God (or within the divine identity), nor do you get God who can relate to this human journey as his own.
Furthermore, it’s not enough for Jesus to be convinced. Mary and Joseph have to be convinced, for the young Jesus is not insulated against their influence. His sense of identity and mission isn’t downloaded into his consciousness in spite of the cultural influences that shape his development. Like every other human being, his sense of identity and mission emerge within a matrix of family relations. The formation of this identity in Jesus is, in large part, the work of his parents. They also require a narrative to pass on to Jesus regarding his origins, a narrative that unambiguously takes Jesus’ origins out of their hands and places it into God’s. With the miracle of a virgin birth, Joseph and Mary could not claim to have brought Jesus in to the world. The kind of relationship, or sense of ownership, that any parent might assume is simply not an option for Joseph and Mary. There could be no doubt in their minds that God was Jesus’ father, responsible for his very conception. That forms a powerful narrative for Joseph and Mary and Jesus inherits it.
But if Joseph and Mary conceive in the normal course of procreation, there is no personal act by which God conceives himself within Mary, nothing about Jesus’ coming to be that embodies God’s unique act of owning this conception as his own – and thus no incarnation of God. Incarnation (as a truly hypostatic/personal union of the divine and human) is a fully interpersonal act of divine-human reciprocity from its first moment, including the act of conception. But if Jesus is the product of Joseph and Mary’s choice, then his conception is not the unique product of a divine-human reciprocity. I submit that both God and humanity must each have relevant say-so. God must personally offer himself in his own conception and birth; he must say ‘yes’. But this is absent if Joseph and Mary produce Jesus “naturally.”
Protestants don’t know what to do with Mary at this point, but this is where her faith comes in. If Abraham is the Father of our faith in the manner in which his risky act of faith opened up a pathway for God to act in the world, Mary is the Mother of our faith given her equally risky faith that opened up a pathway for God’s ‘yes’ to manifest itself concretely in the world. Mary’s ‘yes’ is where and how God’s ‘yes’ to Incarnation becomes materially realized in the world, and thus the fully interpersonal nature of incarnate divine-human reciprocity is established as the foundation of Jesus’ existence from conception onward. Mary (not Jesus) is the human ‘yes’ in response to God’s invitation at this point. She is a real part of the drama of divine incarnation. Jesus will step into this personally in due time, but only because her ‘yes’ to God makes it possible.
All of this evaporates if Jesus is the product of Joseph and Mary’s natural union. Such a view becomes ‘adoptionistic’. How so? Because God ‘adopts’ as himself (viz., as his own divine incarnate self) what Joseph and Mary determine and produce ‘naturally’. And it follows that were God not to adopt their act, Jesus would still be born. This is a problem, because if divine incarnation embraces and defines the human journey from its beginning (which it must do to avoid slipping into adoptionism), no part of its history (including conception) can occur merely ‘naturally’, that is, as a matter of course given the dispositions of nature’s causal structures, as the fruit of human wills doing what human wills naturally do. But this is what we have with a naturally born Jesus – somebody who was conceived naturally and who would live naturally like anyone apart from any unique act on God’s part making Jesus’ conception and existence possible; and a human life that is conceived apart from the necessity of God’s own free and personal creative act cannot be God in the womb.
I suppose one can see in Jesus a naturally born Jew who became God (‘bottom up’) and so choose to identify him as God-incarnate by theological fiat, but one can’t logically attribute every part of Jesus’ history (namely, his conception) to the necessity of a divine act by which his conception is made possible and becomes actual. So a helpful question to ask might be, How does created nature in this instance manifest the absolute impossibility of Jesus’ conception apart from the personal choice of God to unite with humanity in Mary’s womb? If you don’t have the union of the divine and the human here, in the full reciprocity of divine-human relations, then whatever you have, it’s not God taking the human journey up into himself, personally, in order to heal it.
Yes, to nowhere – but just for three days. What?
“If without the Son no one can see the Father (John 1.18), nor anyone come to the Father (John 14.6), and if, without him, the Father is revealed to nobody (Matthew 11.27), then when the Son, the Word of the Father, is dead, no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father accordingly inaccessible… While the grain of corn is dying, there is nothing to harvest.”
(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ch 2 “The Hiatus,” in Mysterium Paschale).
I just finished a wonderful book, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ, by Aaron Riches. It’s as informed and clear an exposition of Conciliar Christology as you’ll find. I read it on the heels of having finished Timothy Pawl’s equally excellent (but very different in its approach) In Defense of Conciliar Christology. I was with Riches all the way through his project until he expounded a Mariology of co-redemption that caught me by surprise and about which I have grave reservations. I’ll leave the reservations for now and just relay the relevant portions from Riches. Too much of the standard Protestant/Evangelical response to such claims about Mary are knee-jerk reactions that don’t engage the best, most serious attempts to express Mary’s unique status and role. It’s no surprise that Evangelicals are uncomfortable with recognizing this uniqueness. They do well talking about Abraham as the “Father” of the faith. They’re not so keen on owning Mary as the “Mother” of the faith.
There are foundational agreements I have with Riches’ treatment of Mary – that the Son has “two nativities,” that Christ’s concrete, human nature is ex Maria (of/from Mary), that her God-given role extends beyond that of being merely a receptacle to incubate and deliver Jesus). Evangelicals could do with some prolonged reflection upon the humanity of Christ ex Maria. And Riches got me reflecting upon the matter, which I appreciate. My reservations have to do with conclusions Riches draws (for example, that Mary not only is the source of Jesus’ human nature, but that she is “constitutive within the experience of mystical encounter with Jesus”) which are neither explicitly conciliar nor follow obviously from conciliar claims. Let me just share the relevant portions of Riches book at this point (from chs 10, “Son of Mary,” and 11 “The Weight of the Cross”) and leave you to reflect on them.
…[Th]e Logos did not assume a human person or the ontological infrastructure of a fully individuated human being, but rather assumed human nature so as to himself constitute the existence of this human being.
Whence this human nature? Whence its concrete inheritance? Here Riches maintains (rightly) that the Logos…
…truly receives his particular human nature ex Maria; indeed he allows his human particularity to be constituted in its specificity by her flesh, by her humanity, by her concrete genealogy and by the history of her people. The Son, in his incarnate nature, is truly a persona composita [a compound personal existence]; he is irreducibly both ex Patre and ex Maria. This is not to say that the Incarnate Son possesses an individuated mode of being discrete from his divine individuality…rather, it is to say that the particularity of Jesus’ human nature is concretely inherited in a way that it cannot be understood solely in reference to his eternal filiation…Just as the divinity of Christ is only knowable in terms of his concrete filiation from the Father…so analogously the Incarnation [Tom: or better, “humanity”] is only specified by the filiation of Jesus from Mary.
Riches describes the derivation of humanity from Mary as occurring within…
…a field of concrete relationality [that is] enabled by the fluid exchange of the Jesus-Mary relation; it begins at the Annunciation, continues through the Incarnation and is re-incarnated in every mystical encounter with Christ, which can only take place within concrete history as an unrepeatable event of the recognition of a genuine ‘other’, a historical figure with a genealogy who cannot be reduced to an abstraction. Thus the “unceasing, fluid exchange with the Theotokos”…is rooted, not only in the fact that Jesus in the Incarnation proceeds ex Maria, but also in the fact that she is constitutive within the experience of mystical encounter with Jesus. The particularity of the human Jesus cannot be thought of or accounted for outside the Jesus-Mary relation because the esse personale [personal nature] of the divine Son is human only to the extent that he receives himself ex Maria.
…the ex Maria procession cannot simply be subsumed within the ex Patre fact of who the Incarnate Son is. The Incarnate Son is persona composite, as Constantinople II designated. This means that the “enhypostatization” of the Son’s Incarnate nature cannot be upheld without a Mariological consequence. There can be no indifference in Christology to the carnal womb and personal being that gives the Logos his humanity.
If the ex Maria filiation of the Incarnate Son so constitutes his secundarium esse [his second, human nature] that she should be understood as playing a metaphysically permanent role in his incarnate persona composita, then Mary, in a sense, supplies not only the fleshly substance that makes Jesus “human,” but also the human infrastructure (education, culture, family, etc.) that forms and essential component of the personality of his human being. Recognizing this helps us to see how Mary, as a figure of the mystical body and its personal guarantor, supplies in herself at the origin a human suppositum and persona that uniquely corresponds with the homo verus of her divine Son. And so Mary is in herself the mystica persona of humanity united to Christ.
Mary thus constitutes…an order of grace that is singular: Jesus is God “by nature,” the saints are gods “by adoptive participation,” while Mary alone is a god “by affinity…[since] the venerable bonds which render her Christ’s Mother touch the very threshold of the divinity.” May is neither deiform by nature nor merely by adoptive participation; she is the Theotokos who encompasses God in her womb…and therefore she is the prototype of adoptive filiation. This means that, on account of her unique relation to the Son at his incarnate source, she is the first and exemplary member of his mystical body and therefore the personal representative of mystical union. In her…mode of being the first and perfect receptacle of the divine grace of her Son, the Church is fully present as co-belonging to the Incarnation. Adoptive participation in Christ is in this way made possible by the adopted daughter of God, since the grace of adoptive filiation dwells in its original plentitude in Mary in order that she may conceive the Son in whom we are predestined to be adopted filii in Filio [‘sons’ in the ‘Son’].
In the following chapter, Riches takes this Mariological metaphysics of Incarnation to the Cross and draws further conclusions:
If the incarnate filiation of ex Maria entails that the Theotokos “plays a permanent role in Christ’s metaphysical constitution qua ‘compound hypostasis’,” it is also the case that as the first and exemplar embodiment of receptivity to the grace of adoptive filiation, she plays a permanent role of co-belonging to the Cross, and so to the concrete content of the Son’s glorification. If Mary is truly the vera persona humana [the truly personal human] correspondent to the verus homo [true humanity] of her divine Son, then we would indeed expect a direct association to exist between her personal being as Theotokos and the personal act of synergistic love she presents at Golgotha. To the same extent that the Incarnation is determined by the Son’s pro nobis [the ‘for us’ orientation of the Incarnation], a “weight” that binds him from the moment of his incarnation in the womb of Mary to the Cross that is the goal of his mission, the union of Mary and Jesus must be realized within this “weight,” and must be perfected in the Pietà of the Virgin of Anguish, bearing in her arms the Crucified Lord. The Virgin is truly the exemplar of adoptive filiation, the first in the order of grace of the Spirit’s adoption of human beings into the communion of adoptive filiation, because her being too is centered on the sacrifice of Calvary.
Because Jesus must divest himself of the forma divina, the Mother must divest herself of the divine maternity in order to remain united with her Son. When the Son empties himself unto death, Mary becomes deprived of her child and of the God to whom she gave flesh. Giving her Son and her God to the Cross, Mary becomes dispossessed of the unique privilege of being “Theotokos.”
For the Mary-Jesus unio to be perfected, the distancing must be ever greater…Mary must be stripped of her Son not only by physical death but also by a state of divine abandonment in which she can no longer claim to be the “Mother of God.”
The abandonment of Jesus by the Father on the Cross is…a true dilation of the Trinity insofar as the Crucifixion is understood primarily as an abandonment of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, the vinculum amoris of Father and Son.
Mary’s personal co-being with Jesus exerts, through the Spirit, a via curcis that ensures that the Sacrifice of Calvary will be established in terms of an unceasing, fluid exchange of theandric maior dissimilitudo between the original martyrdom of the Church and the unique Sacrifice of the Son. To this extent, there can be no argument about co-redemption. As a descriptive term of what actually happened on Calvary, it is a fact. The verus homo is the Redeemer, and the Virgin of Nazareth is with him in his unique act of Redemption. The Mother is in communio with her Son at the foot of the Cross: she suffers and sorrows with him; she is united with him in mutual abandonment. All of this entails from her exemplary status, her perfect co-being with the Son in the Spirit and her perfect docility to that same Spirit by which her perfect act of sequela Christi proceeds.
…[Mary] is irreducibly with the Crucified in his solitary act of redemption. But just as his persona does not “add” to his verus homo, so Mary’s co-redemptive role is not a contribution of something otherwise lacking in the Son’s redemptive sacrifice.
Mary’s suffering, then, is both a true participation in the Cross and a contribution of nothing but “adequate response” of the ecclesia immaculata, a response in the Holy Spirit that is itself a grace given in Christ. By the grace that flows backwards from the Cross, Mary gives her own consent, fiat mihi [“Let it be to me”], to that on which God himself waits: the immolation of the sacred victim.
Virgin birth. Orthodox belief. Still held to by conservative Protestants, but abandoned as mythology by many. Even among those who hold to it as a matter of tradition, it’s an artifact of that tradition that may not animate and sustain a living faith. I’ve been recently mulling over this with some friends and thought I would express here my own sense of the importance and necessity of the Virgin Birth.
Two preliminary comments. I don’t view the virgin birth as a means of avoiding original sin. I could be convinced otherwise I suppose, but I don’t think there’s any original sin to avoid. So I don’t go there to explain the need or necessity of the virgin birth. Secondly, Dwayne and I have elsewhere argued the importance of virgin birth to Jesus’ self-understanding and sense of mission. That’s very important, but I’m not addressing that here. But do not underestimate the formative power of Jesus knowing that in an absolutely unprecedented and mysterious manner, his birth and existence are not the result of natural procreative acts. Very literally, his human existence is explainable only as willed by God uniquely and specially. The power of such a belief to shape Jesus’ self-understanding (and his parents’ understanding of who Jesus is) is incalculable, but I’ll not explore it here. Instead I want to try to explain why we think the virgin birth is metaphysically necessary to divine Incarnation. I don’t mean explaining metaphysically ‘how’ the Incarnation occurred. Fat chance. All I want to show is that a natural birth through normal human procreation is in fact incompatible with divine Incarnation.
Why do I suppose the necessity of virgin birth to divine Incarnation? I do so because it’s the only way I see to make sense of a one-subject/two-natures (Chalcedonian) understanding of the God-Man. If we suppose natural procreation (Joseph impregnates Mary), we then have to concede the existence of Jesus’ human nature independent of divine activity or intention, and this is precisely what we want to deny, namely, that the ‘human nature’ of Jesus has any existence independent of the Logos. Conciliar Christology maintains that the human nature of Jesus has existence only insofar as it subsists in the person of the Logos. Jesus’ human nature was thus “enhypostatic,” that is, made concrete only in the Logos. But if we suppose natural procreation, we cannot say Jesus’ human nature exists only by virtue of this unique divine action. On the contrary, if Mary conceives after the natural order of things, Jesus’ birth and life follow as a matter of natural law and the Incarnation is a ‘conjunction’ of two naturally independent realities. But we say the concrete human nature, the human life of Jesus from beginning to end (conception, gestation, birth, life) exists only as it subsists in the Son. It has no explanation for its existence outside God’s personal, intentional willing. It’s ontologically constituted, made possible at all, in and through the Logos. But if Mary conceives naturally, we have a full and created account of Jesus’ human nature and existence as not uniquely enhypostatized in the Son.
The virgin birth – not mythology.
I apologize for my absence. New job. Learning curve has me pretty busy. I’ve been reflecting on some previous thoughts regarding the ‘will’, ‘freedom’, issues related to ‘libertarian’ choice, and – no surprise – Incarnation. If such questions interest you, here are a few previous posts (teasers included) you might enjoy
Creation ex nihilo
“In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from us.”
God’s creative options
“God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.”
God wills our improvisation
“God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.”
God at the improv
“…so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others — viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.”
Freedom as creative liberty among loving options
“Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom.”
Incarnation or nothing at all
“…theologians feel themselves forced to give an account of the faith in terms of innumerable ‘logically’ possible worlds, worlds the possibility of which have to be accounted for theologically so long as they generate no logical contradiction (strictly speaking) but which are unthinkable Christologically.”