Incarnation – January 2001

Question: What is the meaning of the ‘incarnation’ from the process perspective?

Publication Month: January 2001

Dr. Cobb’s Response

We associate the incarnation especially with Christmas. That may be a mistake. It implies that Jesus was born unique, whereas our evidence for his distinctiveness comes from his adult life. It has encouraged thinking of the differences as metaphysical rather than as structural and historical.

I am not on a crusade against traditional Christmas sentiments or against their association with incarnation. The historical implausibility of the date of Christmas and of most of the stories connected with it does not undercut the beauty and meaningfulness of the celebration. A bit of demythologization can go along with full enjoyment and appreciation.

But perhaps in the aftermath of another Christmas it may be worthwhile to ask what, in process perspective, does “incarnation” mean and especially how is the idea connected with the historical figure of Jesus? We can begin by noting that process thought overcomes the main obstacle in most other forms of thought to conceiving of incarnation. That obstacle arises from the supposition that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. From that it follows that if God is present in Jesus, some feature of Jesus’ humanity must be replaced.

If we study the debates in the early church with this point in mind, we will be struck by how many efforts there were to identify what was replaced: his soul, his reason, his nature, his will. We may be even more struck by the fact that the
councils, for all their shortcomings, steadfastly refused to accept these rational accounts. The great mystery was that God was in Jesus without displacing any feature of Jesus’ humanity. This is an instance in which we can be glad that the church refused to be rational!

Unfortuntely, after the last of the Christological councils had ended, a process of interpretation set in, governed by the principle that something human must be lacking. The dominant view came to be that what was lacking was a human self or person. God constituted that self of person in Jesus.  This is called the doctrine of Jesus’ impersonal humanity. It came to be thought of as orthodox. And from my point of view, and that of many others, it has done great harm.

For process thought, this whole problem vanishes. It is the basic nature of reality that one actual entity is present in subsequent actual entities, participating in their very constitution. This presence in no way detracts from the fullness of the new actual entity. On the contrary, it contributes to it. My present moment of experience is vastly enriched by the presence in it of preceding occasions of my experience. Apart from their constitutive presence I could not be human at all.

Clearly this applies to God’s presence in the world. God is present in the most literal sense in every creaturely occasion. In human beings, God is the source of novelty, of purpose, of meaning, of openness to others, of freedom, of responsibility, and of much else besides. Far from diminishing our humanity, God is the giver of that humanity. The more fully God is present, the more fully we are human.

We confront, then, a very different problem than did the Church Fathers. They had no way of thinking of how God could be genuinely present in Jesus without diminishing Jesus’ humanity. What is remarkable is that despite this, they insisted on Jesus’ full humanity.

We see that God is present in everyone in such a way as to create and intensify our humanity. For us the question is whether there is anything distinctive about the way God was in Jesus.

One response is to say that there was not. The only distinctive element is that the idea of incarnation developed around Jesus and has provided a different way of thinking about God and the world. Whatever else we say, that may indeed be the most important point. The God whom we worship is an incarnate God, incarnate in the whole world. It was because of Jesus that we learned that important truth.

A second response is to think in terms of degrees. God is in all of us, calling us to be all that is possible in each moment. The more fully we answer the call in one moment, thereby embodying God, the greater the possibility for a fuller embodiment of God in following moments. The more we resist God’s call, the smaller God’s role in our lives becomes. Thinking in terms of degrees, it is not difficult to see Jesus as having incarnated God with remarkable fullness. He can function for us as a paradigm of incarnation.

A third response, the one that interests me most, is to reflect on how different cultures encourage different patterns of divine presence as well as the further differences that occur among individuals in each culture. This reflection leads to considering the difference between the way God functioned in Jesus and the way God has functioned in others, including other great spiritual leaders such as Buddha or Amos or Paul or Eckhart.  In my book on Christology I argued that in Jesus, at least during significant periods of his ministry, his self was co-constituted by his prehensions of his personal past and of God.

The kind of doctrine of incarnation process thinkers cannot accept is that which makes Jesus metaphysically different from all other human beings.  For process thought that is not possible. Nor would it be desirable if it were possible. We also think that idea has very little biblical support.

Within the range of possible process doctrines, whether one emphasizes similarities or differences largely depends on whether one thinks of Jesus more as the elder brother to be emulated or as an authority through whom we learn to think rightly of God and neighbor. There is nothing about process thought to determine which of these emphases is more important.  And the general openness of process thought suggests that both have their place.

God was in Jesus. Even a process thinker who is not a Christian must acknowledge that. Jesus’ response to God has had world-historical importance for good and ill. Few would deny that.

Christians find grounds in their belief in Jesus’ importance in the scheme of things to repent of the great ill that has been worked in his name. We are empowered by the field of force he generated to seek ways to understand our world and to serve our neighbors wisely. We are inspired by what we learn from him to serve others even when it is costly. We are assured through him that God loves us and forgives us for our sins and failures.