Posted by: dacalu | 23 March 2012

Holistic Jesus

My friend Phil Fackler was kind enough to post a comment.  I started responding to it and then thought, hey, other people might be interested in this too.  I’ll warn you, Phil’s a theologian, so I wax a bit philosophic.

Phil wrote: How does a holistic conception of self deal with the incarnation. Does it remain a unique event or a particular crystallization of an underlying reality?

My thoughts.

I had not thought in these terms before – I usually express Christianity in terms of souls as agents – but the more I think about it, the more sense the Christian story makes in these terms.

First, the anamnesis.

Christian theologians frequently speak in terms of “not forgetting,” drawing on the portion of our service where we recall Jesus life, death, and resurrection through the lens of the common table (“Take.  East.  This is my body”). We remember, but we also participate in God’s continual action in the world.  Some think of it as a literal re-membering, re-incarnation, or re-fleshing of Jesus in the body and blood.  Needless to say, this past (Jesus died for us), present (Jesus lives in and for us), future (Jesus will return to fulfill us) motif shows up frequently in sacramental theology.  Perhaps that’s an answer in and of itself, but I intended it as a prolog.  Let us look at the holistic Jesus through a broader lens of anamnesis.

In the beginning was the Word and through that Word all things were made.  I think we can view human creation  – in God’s image – and God’s incarnation – in human flesh – as the same event from two different perspectives.  Late medieval theologians spoke of Jesus as one and the same God who walked in the Garden.  From the eternal (or holistic) perspective, this does not present problems.

We view ourselves as both agents and bodies.  Surely enough, we don’t ever see the one without the other.  For the Hebrews, this was expressed as the breath of God enlivening the dust of the earth.  The Greeks saw it as substantial form shaping concrete matter.  Descartes called it body and mind – but he did so with the notion that the two could exist separately.  That dualism rested on a philosophical notion that they had independence, quite different from the Greek and Hebrew notions.  Agents and bodies are not different realities cobbled together (as Aquinas and Descartes would have it).  They are different aspects of the observed self.

We can think of God much like us as an incarnate agent.  God has flesh in the form of Jesus Christ and agency/soul/will in the type of the Holy Spirit.  From the holistic perspective (not differentiating between here and there, then and now, self and non-self) there is no problem in eternal everlasting omnipotent God having a body at a specific time and place (first century Judea).  A body is classically temporal, a spirit eternal.  This is not to say that Christ does not have a incorruptible resurrection body as well, only that the one body is continuous with the other – thus the resurrection body still has wounds.

I think it entirely possible that God has a body (medieval rabbinic commentaries aside).  That body is/was/will be Jesus of Nazareth.  I think that we, being made in the image and likeness of God, were created in two linked aspects, embodied agents.  We are this in birth, and I believe we will be this in rebirth.  Hence Paul’s repeated emphasis on resurrection in the flesh.

There is, then

– a causal holism – God created us in his image as he was one of us

– a temporal holism – God was and is and is to come

– a self holism – God exists eternally, as the individual Jesus, and as the church.

The three holisms somewhat beg the question, “How can all humans be in the image and likeness of God, while only Christians are the Body of Christ, while even Christians ask weekly that the Spirit of God dwell within us?”  I think that very question lies at the heart of many Christian divisions.  [I was tempted to categorize denominations, but as I ponder, I’m not sure it’s that simple.  Fundamentalists and Reformists clearly emphasize the second.  Orthodox and Anglicans bounce between the first and the third.  Catholics have embraced all three.]

The whole idea – along with the Trinity – inspires me to think that we mustn’t take human categories too seriously.  In response to the question “have you been saved,” I was taught to say “I have been saved; I am being saved; I seek salvation.”  Modern scholars called it anamnesis, post-modern scholars the already and not-yet.  Christianity transcends time.

From the Buddhist perspective, we use the illusion of individual self-hood to escape the illusion of individual self-hood.  I’m not sure that this is any different than the Christian idea that the will should be used to make our will one with God’s will, to be filled not with the spirit of the world but with the Spirit of God.  No doubt, the two doctrines can and have been viewed in mutually exclusive ways, but I don’t think they should be.

Back to Phil’s specific question:

Is the incarnation a unique event?  Yes, but a transcendent unique event.  Like the hub of a wheel, its significance arises from its location equidistant to every other point in time.  The gateway to heaven lies through the entire incarnation – not solely the crucifixtion, nor some revelation of true beliefs.  God breathing the world into existence and expressing all of God’s self at a point within the world.

Is the incarnation a particular crystallization of an underlying reality?  Not really.  It is the underlying reality.  That’s the miracle hinted at in the doctrine of incarnation – God made human so that humanity may become divine.  Just as Buddhists meditate on the notion that they already have (are) Buddha nature, so Christians must meditate on the notion that they could not exist but by the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, enlivening them.

The incarnation is the precise point where the difference between eternal and temporal breaks down.  Thank God.


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