Friday, November 26, 2010

"Holy Hypochondria"

There are moments when the frank, slightly smug (though immediately sheepish once noticed), sort of panoramic criticism that is my weal and woe gets so far beyond tedious that I can scarcely summon the effort to string words together.  This isn't one of those moments, but I have had too many of them recently.

 It may be that Hamann's holy hypochondria - the vaguely sick restlessness that testifies to being out of place - can also be (or even really is) a true neuroses, and not just a spiritual mood.  I'm not sure.

I have been given a needed respite from this consuming humour through the efforts of a Lutheran pastor out of Texas who writes this blog devoted to Lutheran hymnody.  Therein, I discovered a tribute to some of the great Lutheran poets and hymnists that have been part of my spiritual sustenance for some time.  Specifically, this line from Paul Gerhardt's "All My Heart This Night Rejoices":

If our blessed Lord and Maker,
Hated men
Would He then,
Be of flesh partaker?

I don't want to catapult beyond Advent into Christmastide too quickly, but it is Adventual to long for the Coming of the God in flesh, so I think I can be forgiven for considering it.

Not only is this line a wonderfully pastoral prod for those, like me, who tire too soon of the Lord's chastening - thinking it somehow unjust - but it is also a testimony to that often puzzling Christian reality: the Incarnation.

I am very close to someone who once told me "I don't see God as identical with Jesus."  It is sometimes frustrating for me to hear such things, being as blessedly doctrinaire as I am, and given that I somehow intuited what the real issue was lying in the subtext.  It wasn't that this person didn't "like" Jesus, and maybe this person could even concede that he wouldn't be all that bad a god... but to the orthodox this misses the point and yet, in another way, finds the scandalous point that orthodoxy is forever pressing.  The Incarnation certainly stands as a sign of contradiction to the time of squishy heterodoxy and post-Christian thinking that is regnant.  It says, "HEY, it is not ultimately important what image you may have of a god figure, and whether or not this fits into your religious schematics, and it is not ultimately important if the notion of God deep in a Jewish man's flesh isn't your cup of tea.  It is the truth and whether you know it or not, or even revile it, it is the necessary condition for your eternal blessedness!"  These are things that make one not welcome in politely heterodox society, or at least marked as a bit off.  More than this, it claims that the only God who is, is entirely identified from eternity with this man.  It cuts to the quick the idol factory of the human imagination, effectively bankrupting the burgeoning religiosity of throwaway imagery that we coddle in our hearts.  It reveals the true nature of old Adam and old Eve within us, robbing us of our pretended ability to construct the god of our choosing.  And who of us born of Adam and Eve don't want a God of our choosing?  Christians are often accused of "returning the favor" to a God who made man in His own image.  But of course this is jejune.  It is still beholden to the paradigm that says that there is no "essentially" true God, but only our own projections upon an endlessly pliable nothing.  This notion needs to be contested.  Many times Christians, too, begin by assuming this sort of language instead of the language in which they have hopefully been reared - that is, a sort of Realism that believes that such and such can be the case, beyond human desire and apart from human willing.  And also, it is good to remember that we Christians are not yet fully redeemed in body and still bear the marks of sin.  We too often find it to be a troublesome fact that God is identified with a Jewish man from the first century.  This was horrendously the case for many so-called Lutherans of the last century.  But to those who are being saved, they strive to fit their minds to this fact, and not the reverse.

It's a First Commandment thing, really.  Luther knew it well.  His commentary in the Large Catechism on the First is a wonderful refresher course in preparing to grapple with this and any of the dogmas of the Church.  Furthermore, the Christian cannot say that God is ever somehow truly known apart from Christ.  I appreciate the category of general revelation, but this too must be more fundamentally grounded in Christology.

From the outside, I can see how the notion of Incarnation could be confusing.  I know that it is probably not too well appreciated by many within.  I have had earnest conversations with those who accused me of believing in a half-god/half-man amalgam.  (To which I say that no orthodox Christians have ever believed such, they of course believe that Christ is fully God and fully Human).  I have spoken with some who say that the Incarnation is roughly the same as pagan conceptions such as, say, avatars, or apotheosized humans.

I am not bothered by the idea that Christianity has pagan analogues.  That actually seems to some of the Fathers (and other good Christian intellects, Lewis being the most widely known) as more proof of its veracity.  What I am bothered by is the blase dismissal of the real difference between these necessarily competing theologies.

As far as I know, an avatar is not eternally and irrevocably and without reserve identified with the greater "godhead" or force that utilizes it.  Even more fundamentally, it ignores the other identity conditions that come into play for Christians when one understands that This Incarnate One is none other than the God of Israel.  But this is too much for me to set out presently.

Apotheosized humans may become gods, of some sort, or at least partakers of the divine, but they too are not identical with divinity itself.  Beside this, they "become" divinized by virtue of some heroic action on their part and then persist in the world as they are heralded.  This conception does not touch what Christians mean when they speak of Christ being the eternal Son of the Father, who is homoousian [of the same substance] with Him, eternally begotten. 

But before I rev myself up to much, I need to come back to the hymn; specifically to the brilliant rhetorical question: "If God hated us, why would He take on our miserable existence?"  Paraphrased for effect.

If only one could strive to apprehend that truth.  Putting it positively, "God loves us so much that He assumes our station."  He takes our wrecked lives into His own life of pure beauty, truth, and love.  We didn't even have to ask.  What greater effort, save perhaps one, can there be by any reputed God?  To give up the prerogative of being a simple deity on high, another "high god", a deity somehow always over against us.  To give over the glory, for a time, but that a very real time, in pure effort on our behalf.  To cry and eat and sleep and be betrayed and, yes, even to be unjustly condemned, belittled, and strung up on a tree.

Now, some of our Hebrew cousins may well say that this has always been the way of God, this searching out of His people at terrible expense, with infinite longsuffering, and of course I would agree.  But of course, they are not able to make that further audacious claim.  They cannot accept the further scandal that God would become flesh.  I will only say that it hangs together.  That is, a God who creates, sustains and forever recalls Israel, would be the sort of God to do the sort of preposterous thing Christians say He did - take up Israel, and even all flesh, into His own Being by virtue of His Son. 

And when He does so, it is not only for the purposes of being present to us.  He has never been somehow unable to be present to us.  In Him we live, move and have our being.  As He is transcendent of all of His creation, there is no conceivable distance from Him - as the psalmist says, "where shall I go? etc."  Space is one aspect of His creation, and He beholds all of it.  The issue is not mere presence, but help.  "A present help in time of trial."  What is assumed in the Incarnation, the man Jesus, and through Him all men, anthropos, mankind, is not simply made present to God - that would have been a spectacular exercise in blessed redundancy.  What is assumed is healed.  The mighty work of the God Man is communicated and given over to mankind by virtue of faith in His communicative acts.  And this is the greatest Gift ever given; life, salvation, redemption from all vexing powers, communion, immortality - God's very Self.

That is what Incarnation is all about.

And that is why it is inconceivable that God could hate man if he is a partaker of flesh.

And, as a final aside, though this be true [Amen, verily, etc.], there is yet the truth that even those who believe these wonderful things can still cry out with the psalmist, and with Christ, "remove your hand from me Lord for my bones are dried up."

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