God in History

With Easter just a few days around the corner, I believe it is important that we remember the greater historical reality this day points to: that God became man, “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7) and remained obedient to death – “even to death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). This postulate (“God became man”) has incalculable historical, political, social, and even existential implications for our lives. Several reasons for this emerge.

To start, the nature of belief – when understood provisionally in terms of the human understanding – is a troubling notion to those who regard it in our modern age as a mere “holding of tradition,” a (1) trusting of that which is not visible and (2) an attitude towards things that don’t seem to really progress a rational society. The Christian in his attitude of the credo (“I believe”) – that unifying instant where his “I” matches the object of his “believe” – is going against his natural inclinations of the “visible”, but of course not contradicting them. As Pope Benedict XVI nicely explained it:

[Believing] means that man does not regard seeing, hearing and touching as the totality of what concerns him, that he does not view the area of his world as marked off by what he can see and touch but seeks a second mode of access to reality, a mode he calls in fact belief, and in such a way that he finds in it the decisive enlargement of his whole view of the world. [1]

The attitude of viewing the world in this way is obtained by what the Bible calls “conversion,” where man is able to look inwards and move from that realm of the tangible and the sensual into the invisible and the reflective (as well as the essentially spiritual). However, earlier I used the word “provisionally” in context of the conversation. What did I mean by this? Within the range of man’s vision of things, no matter how far out and how deep it goes, God fundamentally lies outside of it. This is one of central assertions in the Bible (particularly in the Old Testament) that God is not like the tangible visibility of other gods (see 1 Samuel 5:1-5).

However, what does this talk about belief have to do with God becoming man? Certainly, it must be understood that Christianity does not merely associate itself with God as this sort of “Big Other” [2] but rather is primarily concerned with God as man in history. This moment serves as the bridge to the gulf between the “eternal and the temporal,” the “then and the now”, and the “visible and the invisible.” As John summarizes it, ” The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14).

The radical nature of this statement is that it serves as (what Ratzinger calls) the “maximum degree of revelation,” where John in his epistle elsewhere talks about “[t]hat which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched (1 Jn. 1:1), what we can otherwise call “the ultimate disclosure of God.”

 

Summary

The reason why I think this discussion is important is not so much to quantify its historical accuracy, but rather its importance for the single individual. To finish with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard:

See, ‘God was manifested in the flesh’ does not pertain to you; it pertains to him. Neither does “he is justified in the Spirit’ pertain to you; it pertains to him. It was he who was justified in the Spirit. Nor was it you who ‘was seen by angels’; it was he. And it was he ‘who was proclaimed among the pagans’ and he who ‘was taken up in glory’. But this “He was believed int he world’! This does pertain to you, does it not; it pertains to you. . . It seems, then, as if the apostle is saying only something historical about Christ, and so indeed he is. But in the middle of the historical he has used a few words that are directed to you. ‘He was believed in the world’: that is, have you then, believed Him?’ [3]

_______________________

Notes:

  • [1] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius Press: 2004), p. 50.
  • [2] I borrow this phrase from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who distinguishes between “the other” with a lower-case o and an upper-case O.
  • [3] Quoted from Murray Rae, Kierkegaard and Theology (Continuum Press: 2005), p. 59.
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