Does the incarnation require the cross and then resurrection?
I keep trying to back away from words such as require and necessary in favor of inevitable. To be a requirement one would have to argue that the precondition of fulfillment through incarnation was crucifixion and resurrection. I know it sounds like splitting hairs, but it seems to me that legal execution by some means was inevitable but not a requirement. At the same time, resurrection is not inevitable, but it is a requirement in order for the work of incarnation to be completed.
I guess the difference between requirement and inevitability has to do with freedom. Something that is required does not permit freedom to operate. Something that is inevitable recognizes that under given conditions, human freedom will inevitably take certain turns. Highways around here are posted at 60mph. It is inevitable that human freedom will result in average speeds closer to 65mph, but that is not a requirement. It is inevitable that some who go faster will get tickets because troopers are required to issue them.
Is incarnation a blood event?
I suppose it is in the sense that Jesus is both the subject and object of the story, but I’m unwilling to suggest any connection to the doctrine of transubstantiation, and wonder where you see that connection. As for Mel Gibson and fellow travelers, I just don’t get their obsession with what you call the “bloody miracle.” It seems to me that even the most vivid of New Testament biblical witnesses (Heb. 9:22: Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins) is firmly rooted in the symbolic meaning of blood as found in the Hebrew scriptures rather than in the fundamentalist demand for a bloody substitutionary sacrificial punishment.
How deep is quid pro quo thinking?
All that aside, I believe that a great deal of ordinary Christian teaching moves in the direction of a quid pro quo, not because it reflects anything of Jesus, but because it is human to live so deeply into an exchange economy that anything other seems irrational. The Old Testament is filled with the language of reciprocity in which humans constantly demand of God that he live up to the contract of exchange the way a proper god should. I do not believe that such language justifies a theology of exchange or reciprocity as coming from God. The story of Job puts the lie to all of that, which is no doubt why it is such a hard book to comprehend. To be sure there is only a slight difference between a divine covenant and a negotiated contract, but it is an important one. As Krister Stendahl was fond of pointing out, the divine covenant is never negotiated, it is imposed. However, it is not imposed by coercion after the manner of a conquering emperor. It is imposed by God as nonnegotiable with the single condition that it be accepted of one’s own free will. God’s continual renewal of his covenants constantly drive in the direction of the divine outpouring of generosity not based on exchange that was only fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and from which we immediately began to retreat as soon as Jesus was safely out of sight.
Is Incarnation about blood or spirit?
Why not both. Consider the two annunciation stories. The child in Mary’s womb was proclaimed to be of the Holy Spirit. It is, on the one hand, a rejection of the Greek idea of the separation of spirit and flesh, and, on the other, a dramatic amendment to the Hebrew idea of an embodied soul. If there is something that comes from God that inspires all life, whether in breath or blood, then the child in Mary’s womb is, in a sense, self inspired because he is not the recipient of the gift of life from God but the very source itself. I think that is what John was trying to get at in his prologue. As a small ‘o’ orthodox Christian, I have no problem with the virgin birth, but neither do I believe that it is necessary for the Christ to be, as John says, the Word of God made flesh. Nor do I understand the gross manipulations the Roman Catholics have gone through to assert the freedom of Jesus from original sin by way of the immaculate conception of Mary. To me that is just pure theological silliness.
Is there a relationship between human evil and the human body?
Christian theology has been struggling with that for two thousand years. Again, I suspect it is the heritage of too much Greek thinking. Augustine’s concupiscence is what we are stuck with, and while I know very little about the early Church fathers, my guess is that he inherited it from them. It flies in the face of the incarnation, however you understand that. In whatever way Jesus was the visible presence of the invisible God, he was so in the flesh and all of this works were works of the flesh in which restoration to wholeness illuminated the Genesis language declaring that what God created was very good. The way I see it, what gives life to human evil is free will. Out of that will we empower ourselves to bodily do things that are destructive, corrosive, evil. That certainly engages the body in evil, but I don’t see how bodily existence itself can be held accountable.
Is the victory of the cross the outpouring from Jesus of nonreciprocal generosity in the face of God’s apparent abandonment?
Yes, I think that is a huge part of what is meant by the victory of the cross. You said it best when you wrote: “Forgiveness out of love on the cross radically transformed its meaning: the presence of terror became the promise that love overcomes: that the fulness of what life can mean follows from God’s generosity even here in this most horrific of public deaths; even this is for love.”
So why go on to insist on the literal resurrection of the body?
In part because it is attested to by those who were there, but more because it is the definitive symbol that there is no separation between spirit and flesh. The restoration to wholeness includes the material and the spiritual in mutuality. That restoration to wholeness answers the problem of sin and the problem of finitude, each in its own way. Does that make it a “failure of nerve” and a “fall back on the sealing of a [reciprocal] deal?” It shouldn’t, but I do think that it gets expressed that way in far too much, perhaps most, Christian preaching and teaching.
2 thoughts on “Atonement – contuning the conversation 3”
What a wonderfully full post, Steve! But this will take a while. So, again, let me just take it step by step.I'll begin with: \”[R]esurrection is not inevitable, but it is a requirement in order for the work of incarnation to be completed.\”I'm interested in your phrase \”the work of incarnation to be completed\” (For later: is the sacrament of Eucharist and thereby the transubstantiation of blood necessary to complete this work? is this work completed each time Eucharist is celebrated, so to speak, in the right spirit?).OK, so here's my heretical (of course) take on your phrase: Incarnation is meaning made flesh as a person. The conflict between animal and angel is overcome by who you are meant to be. The freedom to realize who you are meant to be as a person is given to each of us, but how and when and where this realization may take place is the difficulty.Formally this difficulty is the relation between freedom and grace: what is the relation between free will as my taking initiative and prevenient grace as God taking the initiative to melt our always already (original sin) hard heart? Can I alone will my hardness to melt? No. May I let go of it? Perhaps, but only in relation to another. Exposed to another is where and when I may become a person. I may become a person facing you as you face me: how does the work of incarnation complete itself there?As I speak to you does gratuitous generosity inform how I mean what I say? Are the visible and invisible harmonized that way as we talk with one another? ––What could it mean for Jesus to eventually come to talk that way with those gathered at the foot of the cross? Do we need resurrection to understand how he came to do so?More tomorrow….
I'll try to finish, for this turn in the ongoing conversation, Steve, by focusing on what has emerged as my key concern: the relation between the power (dunamis) of Spirit as a possibility of meaning and then the meaning of the power of blood. When I said that Incarnation is meaning made flesh as a person, \”meaning\” is the dunamis of Spirit. When we speak our whole body is an inflection of meaning. What is the source of that inflection?This is why I am so interested in what happens in Luke 7:36-50 when the unclean woman (the sinner from the city) reaches out to touch Jesus and he welcomes her touch. Her reaching out is completely exposed, utterly vulnerable to the curse of being shunned. Jesus' welcome acknowledges the source of the inflection of her hand, her whole body as that welcoming continues as she dries her tears with her hair and kisses his feet before anointing them. The power of Spirit plays itself out in the mutual inflection of their bodies, their risks, their generosities.This woman sheds tears, not blood. The curse here is not of the sword but of shunning: becoming untouchable. The logic of untouchability completes itself on the cross. In the progression of what he says from the cross, Jesus radically undoes that logic. Where this leads Michelangelo's Pieta shows as Mary cradles Jesus' dead body: in what spirit are her hands inflected? This is the victory of the cross; all this fulfills the Sermon on the Plain. All this acknowledges the meaning of human finitude.Now, again, does the work of Incarnation require another step here? Does that work need to complete itself by way of blood? If you think blood is the source of Life, yes. If you think the power of Spirit is the source of Life, no. And, yes, Steve, I know you want a \”both/and\” here.Here is my struggle: Is blood so powerful that it has to be transubstantiated to have the promise of meaning fulfilled? Or may the promise of meaning be fulfilled as our bodies inflect each other out of gratuitous generosity? If the latter takes place, the former is not necessary.Do I underestimate the lust for a bloody miracle? The rage for a new body? ––I want to understand how the Sermon on the Plain, and that which follows from it, and that which makes it possible, makes blood irrelevant as I face you facing me as we take another step in the work of Incarnation.Thank you, Steve.