The Psychology of Christianity: Part 7, “Born of the Virgin Mary...”

When I searched the empirical literature for research concerning the Incarnation I found only a single study investigating how Christians experience the defining doctrine of their faith.

(This, if you’ve been following along, is a recurring theme. My survey of the psychological literature revealed huge and theologically significant gaps. What’s going on? More on this in a post to come.)

This lack of empirical attention regarding the Incarnation is odd as Christians display a great deal of diversity in how they reconcile, psychologically, the cognitive dissonance created by the confession that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. For example, theologians talk of a “high Christology” which leans toward the divine and a “low Christology” which leans toward the human. We also see what I’ve called “Incarnational ambivalence” in Christian anxieties when the humanity of Jesus is robustly portrayed in art, literature, theatre or film. Many Christians, it seems, struggle with the notion that Jesus fully participated in the human condition, particularly when the issues are metabolic (i.e., eating and excreting) or sexual.

This anxiety was vividly brought home to me a few years ago when I mentioned in a class at an event at my university (the ACU Lectureship) that we don’t like to think of Jesus as having ever suffered from something like diarrhea. Within a week of that class the ACU administration had a letter of complaint in their hands expressing outrage that I’d made such a suggestion. The author of the letter suggested that Jesus never would have experienced diarrhea because Jesus “would have healed himself.”

The letter startled me. It was stunning to see such theological contortions to avoid the full implication of the Incarnation.

But I have to admit the doctrine is scandalous, then and now. And many people, it seems, just don’t, when push comes to shove, have the stomach for it. (Pun intended?)

The one empirical study you can find regarding Incarnational ambivalence is one I published last year. The core notion behind that study was that death anxiety is implicated in anxiety about the body of Jesus. Existential psychologists have amply documented the fact that our physical bodies, in their neediness and vulnerability, create existential dread. I know this firsthand as I watch my hair turn grey, my bad back get weaker, and age spots appear on my hands.

So in my study I correlated death anxiety with discomfort with robust imaginings of the body of Jesus (yes, diarrhea was included). As expected, death anxiety predicted greater Incarnational ambivalence. It seems a sort of existential dread prompts many Christians to protect Jesus from “this mortal coil.” Which is somewhat ironic as full participation in the human condition is at the core of the doctrine of the Incarnation. All of which functions as an interesting case study in how psychological dynamics (existential dread in this case) can undermine good theology and creedal orthodoxy.

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7 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 7, “Born of the Virgin Mary...””

  1. Richard,

    The lack of empirical studies may reveal how "gnostic" or maybe "docetic" many in the academic community actually are. And what about Jesus and sexuality? Did he ever wake up with a woody?


  2. O dear O dear, as my 3 year old daughter would say 39 years ago. We are not very imaginative are we, about the fragility of the body. I like the idea - can't remember who suggested it - that the prodigal son story is Jesus' self-portrait. "Yet without sin" - that is a very difficult statement for the religious because they think they know what sin is - but they haven't a clue. They should read Ecclesiastes seriously: the earthling does not find out the work that this God worked from beginning to end.

    Now about sex - without faith it is impossible to know what 's what about human sexuality. Why do you think that circumcision is the sign of the first covenant and is taken up in the second (Colossians 2:11)? Basically, the human point of view is seriously distorted and it is impossible for the human to define what is needed to understand these things - fragility, joy, love, pleasure (try Psalm 16) etc. In a word - we define to stand over not to stand under. We have no desire to stand under anyone. Such rebellion is necessary for survival of the fittest. But it won't wash with the Almighty. But by all means address the difficult questions with 'this God' (as Qohelet calls the name).

    Psalms 20-21 both use the phrase - may he give you your heart's desire - one as prayer, the other as answer to prayer. How do we even dare know our heart's desire. The spirit groans in us as Paul notes in Romans with groanings unutterable - praying is us the prayer we need before we are even aware that we need it. We may or may not be regular (scatologically or eschatologically) - but we can share that groaning. Such is the humanity that Jesus shared with us. Incarnation is a scandalous doctrine!

  3. Excellent thoughts. I'm looking forward to reading your study. On the other hand, I'm not really sure how much it undermines "good theology" as much as "good theology" subverts Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. There's been moves to reinvoke a sense of the scandalousness of the Cross as well as the incarnation that Christians have become desensitized too. Not just Christians, but many folks period are prudes. These moves would seem to welcome what you're talking about, especially a re-imagining of dread. The irony as Cooper points out is that Christians are hellenistized and docetic and spectaclist, not Incarnationist. They merely prefer to self-perceive themselves otherwise, and this leads to the cognitive dissonance. Not to say though this sort of talk wouldn't cause frowning from the truly Orthodox crowd, but what doesn't?

  4. Dear Richard, I'm new to your blog -- discovered it only last week from a link at Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed site. I guess I must be an N-order complainer, because the more I read, the more I like it here! Fascinating and refreshing stuff. Thank you for creating this "third place" in the blogosphere.

  5. If Jesus DIDN'T have a wet dream, or he DIDN'T get constipated, or he DIDN'T ever get food poisoning, then where can the argument stand that he was even human? As we are human beings we are defined as much by our fragility as our strength. I know I'VE pleaded for death while leaning over a toilet bowl. Without experiences like these I would consider the mainstream Jesus to be nothing more than a human-shaped alien.

  6. Really, really interesting, Richard! If I were to research this I would look at incarnational ambivalence in various denominations. My own stake in this is that the church of my upbringing, the Plymouth Brethren, have often been accused of having too high a Christology. I know from myself that I used to struggle with the humanity and fleshliness of Jesus, especially the sexual part of the conundrum. I'd love to know whether members of some churches are more prone to suffer from incarnational ambivalence than others, and I would like to see the Eastern Orthodox church included.

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