Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation

The climactic moment in the Gospel of Judas, the recently published gnostic text, is when Jesus, late in the gospel, pulls Judas aside and says this:

"But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."

Conforming to Sethian Gnosticism, the Gospel of Judas presents the idea that by sacrificing the body of Jesus Judas is a hero because he frees Jesus from this mortal coil. Thus, Judas is portrayed as the greatest follower of Jesus, he will "exceed" all the other disciples.

In my ACU Lectureship talk, Death, Disgust, Sex and the Gospel of Judas: Body Ambivalence and the Psychology of the Incarnation I used this passage from the Gospel of Judas to illustrate an extreme version of what I called "the gnostic impulse," the inclination to disregard, de-emphasize, or demean the body. That is, if the body is truly seen as "bad" the logic of the Gospel of Judas makes some sense: We seek a liberation.

But the biblical witness is not a gnostic vision. Rather, it is an Incarnational vision, where the "Word became flesh." Yet we are heirs of the gnostics because many Christians feel queasy about a fully Incarnated Jesus. Thus we see great ambivalence surrounding the Incarnation. We struggle with the vision that Jesus had a body just like ours.

This body ambivalence often surfaces in Christian reactions to very Incarnational portrayals of Jesus' humanity, particularly his sexuality. We've seen this in reactions to the movie The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and the blockbuster book The Da Vinci Code.

In my Lectureship talk I tried to illustrate this "Incarnational ambivalence" by positing various counterfactuals regarding the body of Jesus:

Jesus had diarrhea during the morning he delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus suffered from constipation.

Jesus had a malformed hand.

Jesus suffered from headaches.

I pointed out that these counterfactuals strike us as "blasphemous," as demeaning to Jesus. (As a point in fact, this part of my talk resulted in some controversy afterwards. Some in the audience indeed accused me later of blasphemy. They suggested that, since Jesus could heal the sick, he would never have suffered from diarrhea. Thus, for me to conjure up such an image was insulting to them and demeaning to Jesus. Ironically, this reaction illustrated the "gnostic impulse" perfectly.)

The counterfactuals above and controversies in the media concerning portrayals of Jesus' sexuality show us that many are reluctant to fully embrace the Incarnation. Why would this be?

Again, if you've been reading with me for some weeks, you know the answer: The body is an animal/mortality/death reminder. We don't want to be reminded of the body because it makes us feel finite and vulnerable. Again, I've written about this a great deal in my online book Freud's Ghost (read Chapter 4: Body).

I say all this to point out that our death concerns do indeed affect our theology, in this case our Christology. Fearing death we want a Jesus who does not fully participate in the human condition. Let me sharpen this point.

As I observed in my last post "Toward a Theology of Profanity," aspects of existence that are spiritual, transcendent, and quintessentially human do not function as animal/mortality/death reminders. Thus, we do not resist Incarnational images that are bodily but quintessentially human. For example, we don't mind much Jesus being tempted or weeping. These are activities that are really pseudo-incarnational in that animals don't engage in these activities. Thus, when Jesus is portrayed as being "tempted, or weeping, or being crucified we see spirituality infusing these events. Animals aren't tempted, they don't cry, and they don't altruistically sacrifice their lives for non-familials. So I call these portrayals "pseudo-incarnational." They look like human portrayals, but they really are viewed as a transcendent spiritual portrayal.

A truly Incarnational portrayal is when Jesus is connected to a true animal/mortality reminder (again see Chapter 4: Body for what I mean by this). And there is no better illustration than human illness and waste. This is why my diarrhea counterfactual was viewed as blasphemous to those people in my talk. I had connected a quintessentially spiritual act (the Sermon on the Mount) with the human body at its most frail and disgusting. And this connection was, for those governed by the gnostic impulse, demeaning, offensive, inappropriate, and, yes, blasphemous.

I conclude with two points. As a psychologist, I cannot adjudicate between the Christologies of the Sethian Gnostics and the Orthodox Incarnational vision. All I can do is to point out that we often gravitate toward theological positions for psychological reasons. And these reasons are often tacit and unrecognized. I'm suggesting that death anxiety may be rumbling underneath many of the strong reactions we see in Christendom to fully Incarnational portrayals of Jesus. People might not know why they are upset by these portrayals, but I think I have part of the answer in hand (and now you do as well).

Finally, and more interestingly, I wonder how our refusal to fully Incarnate Jesus affects the ministry of the church. If Jesus cannot participate fully in the World, can the Church? If Jesus never had diarrhea can God fully experience what it feels like to be human? To have a body that fails us, shames us, and betrays us? If we cannot allow God to fully embrace us, even our disgusting waste, are we not just like the gnostics? Living lives of self-loathing and shame? And, as a result, distancing ourselves from the World we are called to serve?

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3 thoughts on “Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation”

  1. I've really been enjoying your blogs lately. I'm catching up on Freud's Ghost gradually. The thoughts are interesting ideas to ponder and I appreciate them.

    All that said, one minor point of disagreement... I've seen dogs facing temptation and I've heard my dogs cry. I've read stories of sacrificial behavior for strangers by rescue dogs. But, along with your main point, these stories appeal to us perhaps because they make animals seem so human at times.

    Regardless, accepting all the implications of the incarnation will always challenge me, not only in how I see Christ, but therefore also how I am compelled to live.

  2. I apologize, I've not read this entire post, but in your last paragraph you say, "If Jesus never had diarrhea can God fully experience what it feels like to be human?"

    Couldn't we also say, "If Jesus never struggled with internet pornography can God fully experience what it feels like to be human?" or "If Jesus never battled alcoholism can God fully experience what it feels like to be human?"

    I guess I think that God experienced humanity in general but does not necessarily have to experience everything that we experience in order for the incarnation to be salvific.

    For what it's worth, I often wonder if it's the incarnation, not the death on the cross, that offers atonement. The great chasm between humanity and divinity was overcome at the point of Jesus' birth. Perhaps it is here where God and humanity become one that we experience salvation. This is truly at-onement.

    The sad thing, like you said, is that the church has a hard time putting this into practice. We rarely are willing to be at one with those who are so different from us. We have a great example of One who has done it perfectly. Our ministry must be incarnational and relational if it will be worth anything to those from my generation. This is why we must be familiar with our culture, because we might actually find God out there when all the while we figured we were bringing the God "in here" to the world.

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