A lot of Christians get this one wrong. Some, today, claim to be Christians and still deny it outright. The idea that Jesus is God is scary to them. Jesus can be the Rabbi God Acts Through and he’ll stop making the rest of us nervous. They want a good teacher: the morals are universal so we can reject the ones we don’t like. The politics are awesome when they are read by left-wingers. Yet they do not realise that without his Divinity, Jesus’ social teaching is a bit of a moot point.
If this man was not God then he’s only offering a different social order: it’s just more counter-revolution. It might as well be only another moral code and a repetition of the Pharisees or the Pythagoreans. Sure, it’s different. But it’s just more. I might just as well be hung up on eating pork or on praying to cows. If it’s just more religion, it’s unimportant. But Jesus is the cure for religion as the Orthodox teach and they say it without irony which makes it all the more funny.
It is entirely possible to read Christian history in the secular, boring way – devoid of any theology or traditional Christian moralism. I want to point that out, to allow it as a (wrong) way to read the tradition. Still there are much deeper socio-political implications to this “God-acting” idea (rather than God-acting-through). I do, personally, believe all the points of the Nicene Creed, the Symbol or the summing up of the Catholic faith. Firma fide credo et confiteor omnia et singula quae sancta ecclesia Catholica proponit. The Christian rabbinic discussion has evolved well beyond that level of simplicity. But it starts here, with this revolution.
Here’s the most important, radical, revolutionary thing about Christianity: God has a navel. I don’t know if it was an “inney” or an “outey”, but he has one. More than that, he’s got a penis: and God is a he. In fact, God is one specific man, born in one specific place, among one specific people – although in a melting pot of about many cultures. Surrounding God was Egyptian, Roman, Alexandrian (Ptolemaic), Silk Road, Persian, Fertile Crescent Babylonian, and 5 or 6 culture groupings called themselves “Jewish” or “Hebrew” and disagreed with each other about that status.
More than that, God had diapers. God also probably ran around half-naked urinating and defecating on the ground while adults might have looked and giggled in either embarrassment or parental joy as the child grew up. God had a neighbourhood. God had an older half-brother – and therefore probably suffered from some bullying and maybe even fights like, “Dad loved my mother more than yours.” God had grandparents who spoiled him. God had a mother who doted on him. God had a Dad who – according to one version – was not too highly respected in his community (as a man who worked with his hands). According to another version God’s dad was quite well respected and well off. God went through puberty and, I have no doubt, suffered from embarrassing erections under his robe, girls flirted with him, and his voice cracked. God had acne and, after a while, back hair.
And for all of this I love him even more, just in the writing of it.
This is the logical outcome of the Christian conclusion that in Jesus, God-actually was with us in a very specific way over and above just being a prophet. If I say – with Paul – that in Jesus the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell, well then, the fullness of the Godhead liked (or didn’t like) to eat the lentils his mom cooked. The fullness of the Godhead liked (or didn’t like) to drink goat’s milk. The fullness of the Godhead liked (or didn’t like) to go to Torah school. The exact implication of “the fullness of the Godhead” is that God had a specific colour of hair, of eye, a specific tone of voice, a specific sort of body odour, and even a certain, rustic lack of bathing.
And for all of this I love him even more, just in the writing of it.
This is where Judaism and Islam – emphasising God’s transcendence – and Christianity part ways. This is where the pious pagans of the first two centuries part the ways with the Christian community. This idea of the fullness of the Godhead being pleased to dwell in a backwoods, country preacher is a scandal. It is foolishness. It is a horror for Jews or Muslims today or Jews and Romans back then to contemplate this idea: not that God dwelt with us but rather that God was “dwelling” here, in this man. Certainly all religions teach the former concept in one way or another. The latter concept is unheard of in monotheistic traditions and the incarnational idea – fully God and fully Man – is not present in any other religious tradition.
As he grew up, God stopped relieving himself on the ground and, eventually, grew to – like the rest of his culture – learn how to wipe his dirty butt with his left hand. You cannot cause that sentence to have any proper meaning in either Jewish or Muslim theology – wiping God’s but with God’s hand will make no sense. You’d have a great deal of trouble having that make sense in any theology outside of the Church, although, as I say, a lot of Christians get this wrong, too.
I was listening to a very conservative preacher and seminary professor from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod who kept assuming that Jesus’ Divinity meant his status as “Son of God.” Jesus’ divinity is related to his status as “God the Son” which is not the same as “Son of God”. The people calling Jesus the “Son of God” in the Bible are not calling him “God the Son”. These are two very different issues.
Others seem to confuse claims of Jesus’ divinity with issues like “virgin birth”, miracles or even Resurrection. The most extreme view seems to forget that Jesus was a mortal man as well as God. These people seem to confuse a lot of perfectly normal human realities with sin: I can imagine God hitting puberty and getting erections. Even some Christians would be shocked at that idea – assuming that erections, per se, are not “natural”. Some Christians write huge swaths of theology to imagine Jesus as somehow not normal. Among these stories are some telling that he just magically appeared next to his mother rather than passing in blood and water (and pain) through the birth canal. Some Romans (including clergy) go so far as to imply that it is sin that causes such pain – and then they write the sin out of Jesus and out of his Mother – ergo there was no pain. These uber pious sorts say that to teach Mary cried out in childbirth is to deny that Jesus’ divinity.
There are Christian traditions that are quite to the contrary: One day, after visiting my upstate parish for Confirmations (he had confirmed my own sister, actually) the Episcopal Suffragan of New York, Walter Denis, gave me a ride back to NYC. I was attending NYU at the time. At one point during the two hour ride he said to me, “The Word became flesh, Anglicans wallow in it.” The traditional, incarnational theology of Anglicans cannot forget that Jesus was both, God and Man although sadly, today, they sometimes forget that he was God. I love him all the more because he had the same birth trauma. If he were born today he’d have the same red birthmarks many of us have from where the forceps pinched us.
God has a mother: Mary. Her Greek Title is “Theotokos” and her Slavonic title is “Bogoroditsa”. Her Latin title is “Dei Genetrix” and they all mean the same thing “Birthgiver of God”. It parallels “Mother of God” but it means exactly what I’ve been saying here. Mary is the person through whose birth canal (in pain, blood and water) God passed. She is called the one whose womb is “more spacious than the heavens”. Having pointed out the importance of Jesus’ divinity, Mary underscores his humanity. Nothing I say above – navels, acne, puberty, etc – is possible without his mother. And his mother is unimportant without his divinity.
In later years the Church would debate (and split) over issues raised by this idea of the “fullness of Godhead” dwelling in Jesus. They would debate how much was God, when did he know? Could he sin? Did he sin? Can God sin? Can God think of sin? Could he will to sin? Did he have two wills? Two natures? What?
All of that seems unimportant to me – although I flatter myself by saying I understand the reasons behind each choice the Church made. These later decisions seem to hyper-define the mystery of it all. It seems much more important to me that God had a navel than that Jesus had two perfect wills. It seems to me more important that God had acne than to wonder over adoptionism or whatnot.
What is most important in all this seeming scandal and theological debate is never to forget that God has done these lowly, fleshly things that we all do. These things have been done by God. Thus these are not “lowly, fleshly things” any more. From birth canal, through puberty and the horrors of middle age and death: this is the path of God. These things, from breast feeding to birthday breakfasts, from loving caresses to mourning for dead friends, from fear and doubt to triumphal joy are all tools of divine action in the world, and in our salvation – our making whole.
St John’s Gospel says, “The Word became Flesh”: God having diapers. The earliest communities came to this discussion over the Eucharist, recounting their memories of Jesus, sharing his teachings and experiencing anew his presence in the breaking of bread and in the fellowship around the table. It’s one thing to say God has become Man and overthrown the social order. It’s a second step to process out what that might imply about God having a navel. The third step in this process is summed up in this line from St. Gregory Nazianzus “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved”. (Remember, “healed” and “saved” are the same word in Greek…) Certainly: this is not in particulars. Jesus was a man – not a woman. This doesn’t mean women are not saved (although some have tried to argue it so). What it does mean is that there is nothing impure in humanity of itself. Yes, there are impurities which we pickup as we go along. But Jesus as God-Man is a sign that simply being “anthropos” is not bad. It’s good in and of itself.
This is a scandal to modern liberal theologians: because they want a God so abstract as to be shared by everyone. There can be nothing about this abstract deity that might offend anyone. The idea of a God wrapped in dirty rags and laying in a feeding trough is terribly annoying to those religions that focus on God’s transcendence. They remove Jesus-as-God from the picture but thus they also remove our salvation. Their God is awesome and fearful. Jesus-as-God knows unemployment, political oppression and family breakdown. Jesus heard gossip when his mom was washing clothes. Jesus saw people spit on each other and heard hatred spoken clearly. God’s been here. This is the path of God. Or we’re doomed. The vacuous deity of liberalism and the transcendent deity of Islam or Judaism are both incomplete, missing the ability to enter into our space and experience a day in kitchen or the bedroom. They are unable to save.
As a result of over-emphasising the transcendence, both uber-liberalism and any ultra traditionalist monotheism can tend towards the gnostic heresy of hating the body not for its sins but because it is a body. In doing so, in casting the body as “other”, many enter into a false dichotomy, splitting the physical from the spiritual and making the physical to be only bad. And therefore strangely attractive. Perverted, but attractive. If you have trouble understanding this, imagine the traditional WASPy ideas about the sexuality of Blacks and Hispanics. Those things that we put down, we also make “dirty” (in a racy, libidinous way). The world is dirty. And all dirty things stick together. So we try to stay away. In an older era this meant Jazz or Rock and Roll. It’s also hip-hop and “gangsta” fashion. It’s all a race-based form of “the world is dirty but we must be pure.” And at the same time we make fetishes of the libidos of the dirty. Adult bookstores are filled with “interracial” sections where “the other” is brought in to dominate or be dominated, where “good white girls” are subjected to “horror” from “them”.
To deny the body is to create a culture of nihilism that insists we’re free of the body’s limits. Piercings, body mutilations (cutting off fingers or splitting the tongue) and immodest clothing are all part of the same corruption – and eroticism – of the flesh.
To be certain, we see this exclusion problem in Christian communities too: this is why I said, above, that Christians still get this one wrong. As Father Joseph offers in a sermon I first heard him preach a decade or more ago:
The pendulum may swing otherwise. You’ve seen them: the “Orthodox Taliban.” The man grows long hair and beard, forgets how to smile. The woman covers herself from head to toe — her modesty smothers her dignity. [aka, the “ortho-burqa” – DHR] They both stop bathing. There’s no visible joy in their life. Their wrists are covered with wool knots. They eat only broccoli; tofu is reserved for feast days. They begin shopping for a home — preferably a tent or a lean-to — out in the woods, sans the burden of electricity. These things may not be harmful in and of themselves. Yet oftentimes, when Converts confuse such “asceticism” with Orthodoxy, it can have dire results.
Orthodoxy in Dixie
The all the talibans of the world – no matter what religion – make seeing an ankle out to be erotic. It’s easy to be scandalized (and titillated) when everything needs covering up because it’s evil. Remember St Gregory of Nazianzus: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved”. That which is united to God… In Jesus, that is not only the “fullness of Godhead” but also the “fullness of humanity”.
Anything that is fully human – including all the things we don’t like such as body odour, farts, morning erections, monthly cycles, hormones – anything like that is assumed into the Godhead. It matters not if one is a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman. It matters not if one is of any “lower class” or in any way broken.
This is God with us. This is salvation.