Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Myths of Christianity - 4
The Myth of the Incarnation

Richard Holloway

The great Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. In his scholarship, as in his style as a lecturer, he was eirenic and essentially a man of the centre in the various disputes that rage round the historical status of the New Testament and the emergence of the Christian Church. 

In a series of lectures he gave in London in 1998 on The Emergence of the Christian Church [1] he spent one lecture meditating on the paradox that an institution should have emerged to represent and maintain in history the memory, the words and the acts of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Church has been called the extension of the Incarnation and the phrase is worth a moment's thought. The theological shorthand for the developed understanding of the status of Jesus of Nazareth is that, while he was truly and actually a man, a human male in every sense, he was also the incarnation of God, the vessel chosen by God to enter history and 'become flesh', to use the language of John.

It is the Church's role and vocation to continue that divine work, so it could be described as the extension of the incarnation through history. His earthly life having ended in his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension (return to heaven), his presence is now continued or extended through the Christian Church.

In his lecture on Jesus, Brown meditated on the unlikely paradox that any institution could represent this man, because institutions, by their very nature, have to follow particular laws if they are to survive and prosper; and the main law of institutional survival is that the many take precedence over the few or over the one. If institutions are to endure they have to place their own endurance higher than loyalty to individuals, no matter how attractive or charismatic they may be. The patron saint of institutions of any sort, not just religious institutions, is Caiaphas the High Priest who determined the death of Jesus.

The following incident from John's Gospel is a perfect example of institutional pragmatism:

Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all. Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not [2].

Most of us, if the situation were put as starkly as that, would probably make the same choice. The moral logic always points to the necessary sacrifice of one or two for the sake of the larger whole, in this case, according to unanswerable high priestly logic, the whole nation. Jesus was supremely uninterested in that logic. His whole attention seems to have been focused upon the individual sacrificed for the larger good, the person expended or sacrificed or declared redundant by the institution in question, whether religious or political.

He would not have lasted long as a tutor in an agricultural college, because he said that the good shepherd should leave the ninety nine sheep in the wilderness and go in search of the one who was lost. And the local business organisation would certainly have refused him membership because, when asked how many times we should forgive the local embezzler, seven times perhaps? he replied 'seventy times seven', which is an oriental way of saying 'always'. 

This is an impossible way to run any institution and it has never really been tried except by a few saints and Zen masters, as the following story illustrates:

When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the request. Later the pupil was caught in a similar act and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition, asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body. When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. "You are wise brothers", he told them, "you know what is right and what is wrong. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave". A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished [3].

That is the authentic voice of the saint, but you don't make saints chief executive officers, even in churches. You manage by the logic of expedience, the logic that preserves the institution first and regards the plight of the individual, if it regards it at all, last. Caiaphas, as the author of the fourth gospel recognised, 'prophesied' that Jesus had to die by the logic of nation and temple, a logic that will always prevail in society, because who can object to the calculus of the happiness of the greatest number over the misery of the single individual? Well, Jesus apparently did, hence the paradox of any institution representing him or extending his presence in history.

The radical nature of the approach of Jesus came home to me with almost revelatory force when I read something that Hannah Arendt had said about her people, the Jews, and the fact that for centuries they had no place in the world. Speaking of the historic placelessness of the Jews, she said: 

... the Jewish people are a classic example of a worldless people maintaining themselves throughout thousands of years ... this worldlessness which the Jewish people suffered in being dispersed, and which - as with all people who are pariahs - generated a special warmth among those who belonged, changed when the state of Israel was founded.

It is obvious that the State of Israel, founded in response to two thousand years of persecution that shoved Jews out of the world, now follows the classic logic of expedience in organising its own affairs, the logic of Caiphas that sacrifices others for its own safety, the ethic that governs every nation, including our own. But something profound was lost when the Jewish people found a world, like the one the rest of us inhabit. Hannah Arendt goes on: 

Yes, one pays dearly for freedom. The specifically Jewish humanity signified by their wordlessness was something very beautiful...this standing outside all social connections, the complete open-mindedness and absence of prejudice that I experienced, especially with my mother, who also exercised it in relation to the whole Jewish community. Of course, a great deal was lost with the passing of all that. One pays for liberation [4].

I would like to suggest that this worldlessness or identification with the powerless is the key to the mystery of Jesus. It is captured in a short poem by Denise Levertov:

Those who had brought this stranger
home to their table don't recognise
yet with whom they sit.
     But she in the kitchen, absently
     touching the wine jug she's to take in,
     a young black servant intently
     listening, swings round and sees the
     light around him and is sure.

The same radical identification with the outcast, those without place or world in the organised scheme of things, is expressed by Dominic Crossan in his version of the beatitudes:

Only the destitute are innocent.
Only those who have no bread have no fault.
Only the wretched are guiltless.
Only the despised are blameless. [5]

Everyone who is successful is complicit in the way the world works, the way of institutional power, the way that creates expendable people who may be sacrificed for the sake of the group.

Occasionally, one who has previously belonged to such a centre of power is sacrificed by it or thrown aside, and a stunned disbelief is the usual reaction to the event. To find that you have become "No One" is devastating for the victim, for whom old friends and colleagues suddenly turn into strangers.

You get something of the flavour of this process from that great movie with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, The Insider. The character played by Russell Crowe, based on a true story, is persuaded to blow the whistle on corrupt Big Tobacco. He loses everything as a result, including his family and reputation. The brilliance of Crowe's understated performance is that, largely through subtle movements in his face and eyes, he suggests baffled helplessness at the way the organised world has suddenly turned against him, thrown him out and made him placeless, worldless, a man without significance.

In Jesus, we encounter one who placed himself alongside the expendable people of history and saw them not as expendable units in a larger structure, but as individuals with particular histories and uniqueness. That was why he was loved and surrounded by the people who had no place in the world; and it was why he was finally destroyed by the world.

The term "world" is interesting here. It is obvious that we are all, unlucky as well as lucky, living in the same world; but in the New Testament there is a use of the word that suggests another meaning than planet earth. The Gospel of John, in particular, has a strong sense of "the world" as an organised structure of power and privilege that owes allegiance only to itself and even resists the approach of God: 

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him [6]

I shall come back to the implications of this understanding of Jesus as the one from outside who identifies himself with the worldless ones.

Let me return now to Raymond Brown's wry acknowledgement that there is something odd about any organised system, any "world", using that term in the way I have just defined, claiming to represent this man from the outside, this man without a place.

The paradox is that we have only heard of Jesus through an institution that has not experienced worldlessness for a very long time. This was the point Raymond Brown mused on in that lecture two years ago, but did not offer any solution to the problem. The expendable man of Nazareth is now represented by an institution that follows the logic of all worldly institutions, the logic of expedience; but we would not even know about the paradox if it weren't for the Church. There is something mysterious about this paradox, but it is also because part of the genius of power is to co-opt and therefore to neutralise its opponents. That is why Alasdair McIntyre said that "All power tends to co-opt and absolute power co-opts absolutely" [7].

A creepy example of this is provided by a Fourth Century historian, a courtier bishop called Eusebius, who wrote a sycophantic life of the Emperor Constantine. Constantine believed that his victory in 312 at Rome's Milvian Bridge over his imperial rival Maxentius had been obtained by Christ's power. The night before the battle he had a dream in which he saw the symbol of the cross with the motto underneath, in hoc signo vinces ("In this sign conquer"). He had the sign turned into a banner under which he fought the following day. It worked. He won the battle and converted to Christianity.

His subsequent policy was to bind the Church to his empire with the closest possible ties and use it as a unifying factor. Inevitably, he involved himself with the internal affairs of the Church, including debates over abstruse items of Christian doctrine.

One of the most far-reaching of his interventions concerned the dispute over the true nature of Christ, whether he was fully God from all eternity, as well as fully man. To resolve the dispute, Constantine summoned the bishops to Nicaea in 325 and ordered them to sort out their theological differences. When the Council reached a successful conclusion, Constantine invited the bishops to an imperial banquet. 

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