Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Jesus and the Transcendently Immanent God

There is an age old problem for thinking theologically at any level: the tension between the transcendence and immanence of God. Many wish to stress the transcendence of God: that God is above us, different from us, free from us and rules over us. Others wish to stress the immanence of God: that God is with us, like us, available to us and in us. The rest of us try to strike a balance: God is both far and near, over and in, different and alike.

This Christmas season I would like to stake a claim against this talk of balance. I contend that as long as the transcendence and immanence of God are treated as two abstract poles to be navigated by our own intellectual savvy, we will forever be plagued by this problem. Furthermore, this balancing act will necessarily keep us from realizing the full radical significance of either the transcendence or immanence of God. By trying to have both, we end up with neither.

So, what is the alternative?

The way of wisdom is to see where the transcendence and immanence of God intersect: the Incarnation. Here God is thoroughly immanent – Immanuel, God with us, God in the flesh, God working miracles in our midst. And God remains transcendent – the man Jesus prays to God, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, he submits to death on a cross at the Father’s will. In other words, God becomes human without ceasing to be God. Here we see the immanence and transcendence of God intertwined into one concrete story.

And here is where it gets really interesting. Not only do transcendence and immanence intersect in the Incarnation. They also mutually characterize one another.

By becoming permanently linked to this one Jewish man, the transcendence of God takes on the form of the distance between any two creatures. We are distant from God in the way we are distant from one another: he takes up his own space and time as do we. We get to know him by patiently learning his story like we would anyone else. This is a thoroughly creaturely and therefore immanent mode of transcendence.

When God links his presence with the world definitively and fully to the man Jesus, the immanence of God takes on the form of a particular historical personage. We are close to God the way we might be close to any other human being: by a face-to-face encounter. But we can truly encounter another person only by overcoming cultural, spatial and temporal boundaries. In this case, the one person Jesus is able to overcome these boundaries by the divine power of his Spirit. This means that God is not just simply “available” to us in the world, but rather comes to us by his initiative. This is a thoroughly free and therefore transcendent mode of immanence.

So, in the Incarnation, God is immanently transcendent and transcendently immanent.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"I Believe in the Virgin Birth"

"I Believe in ... the Virgin Birth." What a statement of faith! What an incredible miracle! What a strange thing to believe! This little phrase has been the shibboleth of fundamentalists, the scourge of liberals, and the annual fare of doctrinal sermons every Christmas season. Of course, you hear the most about the Virgin Birth on the far left (where it is set aside as a barrier to cosmopolitan believers) and on the far right (where it is defended with gnashing of teeth). But I suspect the cozy middle takes this doctrine for granted. "Of course we believe in the Virgin Birth; we're Christians!"

Well, as one small aspect of our spiritual act of worship this Christmas, let's dare to ask why we believe in the Virgin Birth. Notice, I am not asking whether we should believe it. That's an apologetic question, whereby one takes the objective standpoint outside of faith to prove the basis of the belief (a procedure shared by both the fundamentalist defenders and liberal detractors). That is not the question that interests me here. No, I want us to think about why we believe what we believe.

So, why do we believe in the Virgin Birth?

In the first instance, we might say that we believe in the Virgin Birth because it is in the Bible. That's true. Matthew and Luke both indicate in passing that Mary conceived Jesus without any help from a man. But then again, only Matthew and Luke mention this. It does not become a major theme in the New Testament at any level. It is completely lacking in Paul, and suspiciously absent in John (where it would fit oh so nicely). So one wonders why this one event which appears in only two places has become the standard of orthodoxy. There's a lot of other things mentioned a lot more than two times in the Bible that don't carry the same weight as the Virgin Birth does in the Christian community.

So, in light of this sufficient but minimal Biblical basis, what else might account for our belief? We might quickly appeal to tradition. Yes, the church has traditionally affirmed the Virgin Birth, and has even made it a central tenant of faith. It is part of the faith that has been handed down to us through the ages. But this does not really address the question, because we have not yet answered why the tradition has affirmed this miracle. We are not really learning from the tradition if we merely repeat what it has said. We need to learn to think through the tradition so that it really becomes ours and therefore a living tradition.

So why do we join the tradition in affirming the Virgin Birth? Well, a common answer to this question is because of original sin. The sin of Adam is transmitted sexually to the each member of the human race, and in order to avoid this Spiritual STD, Jesus was born without the taint of sexual procreation. Once you accept this other doctrine, the logical necessity of the Virgin Birth falls right into place. Sinlessness, the prerequisite for Jesus' sacrificial work, is guaranteed by the Virgin Birth. So we believe in the Virgin Birth because we believe original sin and the sinlessness of Jesus.

The problem with this answer, however, is that a robust belief in the Virgin Birth far predates the development of the doctrine of sexually-transmitted original sin. This does not automatically rule out the doctrine of original sin, even in these sexual terms. It merely rules out an appeal to original sin as the basis of belief in the Virgin Birth. There must be something more basic at work propping up this scandalous belief.

So why do we believe in the Virgin Birth? The short answer: because we believe in the incarnation. Christians believe that the God of Israel, who is the Creator of the Universe, became flesh and dwelled among us. This is the deepest miracle of Christmas; in fact, it is the deepest miracle of all! It is easy for Christians to believe in a crazy story about a young girl conceiving without a man because we believe in a God who became human. Once you believe in this miracle of all miracles, the Virgin Birth is easy to affirm. It's just the icing on the cake. More precisely, it is the miraculous sign that points to the miraculous event of the incarnation of God. As a sign, it is intended to point beyond itself to the reality of the incarnation. But precisely as a sign, it has its own significance, for it befits the miraculous nature of the incarnation to be accompanied by an equally miraculous sign attesting it. By showing forth the glory of the incarnation, the Virgin Birth shares its glory. And so the worshipping community affirms the Virgin Birth along with its affirmation of the Incarnation.

So this Christmas, let the sign of the Virgin Birth point to its basis, purpose, and meaning: that God became flesh.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Jewishness of God

This Christmas I have been hearing a lot about the Jewishness of Jesus. Radio Preachers, Seminarians, Bible Scholars, and Rob-Bell-fans have been reminding us that Mary and Joseph were Jews and that the Jewish baby Jesus was wrapped in Jewish swaddling clothes and laid in a Jewish manger. These are not particularly new this year; actually, such ruminations have been around for ages. They just seem to be appearing with greater frequency (according to my anecdotal evidence).

Why all the talk about Jews at Christmas? What is the significance of the Jewishness of Jesus?


I think one reason why we talk about the Jewishness of Jesus is to defend the historicity of the event of Christmas. We want to assert that this is not myth or a legend in the order of Santa Claus. This story is real flesh and blood history that took place in the time and space of the Jewish people. Such an emphasis on historicity is especially important for apologetics, as it serves to shore up a potentially floundering faith in the face of modern skeptics. The Jewishness of Jesus' birth empowers us to say, "No, this is not a myth; it really happened!"


But historicity is not the whole picture. The apologetic concern is not the only concern. We also talk about the Jewishness of Jesus because it helps us understand the story better. Hearing about the complexities of Jewish bethrothal practices helps us to grasp why Mary and Joseph's situation was so harried. Knowing that the shepherds were were the lowest class in Jewish society helps us get the message of Luke's account. The Jewishness of Jesus helps the stories make more sense, therefore making an old story come alive.

... but ...

But I wonder if these two aspects really get at the heart of what it means to say Jesus is Jewish. I wonder what it is like for Jews to overhear Christians talk about this stuff. I wonder if Jews think we don't take the Jewishness of Jesus seriously. Because if we did, we would not just talk about historicity and hermeneutics. Why? Because as long as its just about defending and understanding the story, the Jewishness of Jesus is still just accidental to the story itself. In other words, it is not an essential or necessary aspect of the story. We are interested in Jesus' Jewishness because we are interested in Jesus, and he just happens to be Jewish. If he happened to be Filipino, Belgian, or Kazakh, then we would be studying one of these cultures. But he didn't. So we just happen talk about Jews during Christmas.


What would it mean for the Jewishness of Jesus to be more than accidental to the Christmas story? It would start with remembering that Jesus is a Jew because he is the the fulfiller of God's covenant with Israel. He is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Annointed One of God. These are Jewish titles, which are not just culturally interesting but theologically loaded. They remind us of the history of Israel, and that we are not talking about God-in-general but Yahweh, the God of Israel. Furthermore, Christians confess that this Jewish man Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son of God. To put it more badly: God became a Jew. God is Jewish.

The Jewishness of God should give us pause concerning how we treat our Jewish neighbors this holiday season. More importantly, the Jewishness of God should give us pause concerning how we treat God this year. Do we really beleive that he became this man? Do we take that seriously? Does it bring out awe in our hearts? Does it color everything we do? Does it affect our picture of how God relates to his creation? Does it imply something about what it means to be human? Do we really worship the God of the Jews who became a Jew to save the Gentiles?

In light of the Jewishness of God, Christmas is also about identifying God. It did happen in history (historicity), and its cultural context helps us understand it (hermeneutics). But it also definitively and irreversibly identifies God as the God who became this Jewish man. This God, and this God alone, we celebrate this and every Christmas.