What is God?

On Christmas Eve (or shortly after it had passed, to be precise), brooding in the dark mystery and majesty of the Midnight Mass of Christmas, I found myself, for whatever reason, recalling the fourth question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, drilled indelibly into my head a dozen years ago: 

Q. What is God?

A: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

In that moment, surrounded by the darkness of the night and the brightness of the lights, inhaling the fragrance of frankincense, with songs of incarnation in the air and signs of incarnation on the altar, this definition struck me, for the first time, as perfectly ludicrous.  What worse way to define the God of the Bible could you possibly choose?  To start with the abstract and objectifying “What” instead of the concrete and personal “Who” was demeaning enough, but then to proceed to treat this living and active God, sharper than a two-edged sword, at once ineffable and loving Paternity, enfleshed Word, and life-giving Spirit, as a set of reified properties?  Perhaps it was no coincidence, I mused, that many of the Westminster Divines eschewed the observance of Christmas–only a group of Christians who ignored the holiday of the Incarnation could be so oblivious as to its message about God.  If I might be so bold, the event of Christmas would suggest something more like this:

Q: Who is God?

A: God is a spirit who became human flesh, the infinitely condescending, King in a manger, the Eternal born in the fulness of time, the Unchangeable subjected to the change of history, in His being with us and for us, His Wisdom that made us and remade us by its foolishness, His power to become impotent, His holiness displayed among sinners, His justice crucified by the unjust, His goodness to his murderers, His truth proclaimed by a lonely Galilean.


PS: Dang I’ve become a Barthian!  Must be something about the air here. 

PPS: I recognize of course that there is a place for metaphysical language about God, but I don’t think it should be the first thing we say about him, as it is in the WSC.

Propertied Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 3)

In the previous post in this series, I sketched the common appeal to a “Biblical defence of private property,” and then addressed the first and chief pillar of that defence–the eighth commandment.  Now I will take a look at the remaining components of this appeal: “God’s approval of private property is further demonstrated by the approbation given to so many wealthy men throughout the Scriptures–from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Job and Solomon to Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas, and Lydia.  In the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles never call the institution into question, but on the contrary, they presuppose it and bolster it, whether through parables that feature wealthy landlords, or through the case of Ananias and Saphira, where Peter tells them that they were completely free to sell or keep their lands as they saw fit (Acts 4:4).” 

So, first, what do we learn from the fact that many patriarchs and other godly people in the Bible were blessed with great wealth and seem to be approved in their use of it?  Well, it could of course be asked in response: what do we learn from the fact that many people in the Bible were condemned for their great wealth and their use of it?  Private wealth is clearly an ambiguous good, as the case of Solomon makes clear: the king is not supposed to amass private wealth, but God blesses Solomon with it anyway, but it helps lead him away from God and involves the oppression of his people.  But the fact that God blesses his saints with rich private possessions does at least establish one important point contra Proudhon and his ilk, who believed “property is theft”–there is nothing inherently wrong with private property, it would seem.  However, does it tell us much more than that?  Does it tell us, to ask again the questions I put to the eighth commandment, about of the origin of PP?  The basis for it?  The conditions of its legitimacy?  Does it tell us whether PP is the only appropriate system for property, whether it is a biblically mandated institution?  Does it tell us whether PP is an imprescriptible right, or merely one “right” among others, which under various circumstances should be constrained or even abolished in favor of other considerations?

It doesn’t look like the cases of wealthy Biblical saints answers any of these questions for us.  Indeed, to return to the parallel with marriage that I mentioned in the discussion of the eighth commandment, it is worth noting that most of the wealthy Old Testament examples were blessed not merely with multiple flocks but with multiple wives as well, something we have come to treat as not merely a bad idea but as flat-out unnatural.  Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that one of the patriarchs (Joseph) engaged a full-scale communist expropriation of the land of Egypt, which, unless you are to take the theonomist tack that this was legitimate as the plundering of the godless by the godly, tends to complicate the picture.  If we can learn anything about property rights from these examples, though, it would seem to fall under the heading of “the conditions of its legitimacy,” and here again, the conclusions do not prove terribly friendly to a laissez-faire arrangement.  The patriarchs amassed their fortunes in what we might consider to be a “pre-social” or “pre-political” state–they were wandering nomads in an only partially-settled land, not members of a settled society.  Such is not our situation, and one might easily argue that once a political settlement was established, property would have to be reallocated according to a more equitable arrangement (which was in fact what happened in the settlement of the Promised Land).  And when we come to the wealthy saints of the New Testament, the striking thing is not the privateness of their property, but its commonness.  Their private property is either given away to be shared among the community, or is used for the needs of the community–as a place of worship, hospitality, etc.  But to say this is to jump ahead to the next point.

So, what about private property in the teaching of Jesus?  Is it really true, as the divine right capitalists claim, that Jesus never called private property into question, but on the contrary, presupposed and affirmed the institution throughout his teachings?  Well, truth be told, Jesus tells us little or nothing regarding the legal and political basis of property, but he certainly doesn’t have many encouraging things to say to or about those who possess a lot of it: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven….It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 19:21, 24; Mk. 10:21, 25; Lk. 18:22, 25)  “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” (Lk. 1:53)  “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven….But woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation.” (Lk. 6:20, 24)  “Sell all that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not.” (Lk. 12:33)  We hear sometimes that Jesus in his parables portrays wealthy owners positively; even if that is so (and most of the cases are debatable), there are certainly many parables aimed quite directly at the rich (e.g., Luke 12:16-21; 16:19-24).  If we are to seek the justification of private property in the mere fact that some characters in the stories Jesus tells are property owners (as, I kid you not, some have done), then we could justify pretty much anything via appeal to Scripture.  Jesus’s own practice, from what we can tell, was to hold property in common with his disciples, and to share the little they had with those who had still less.  The example of Jesus, it seems, is hardly a promising place to look for justification of a private property regime. 


The same pattern carries over into the early Church, where the anti-property tone becomes increasingly blatant:

“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44-45). 

“And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.  And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.  Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.  And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:32-37). 

It is at this point in the narrative, with Christians, as soon as they embrace Christ, renouncing property left and right, without exception throwing all their resources into a common pool, that we meet the story of Ananias and Saphira.  In other words, the defenders of PP are clearly venturing into some fairly dangerous territory to find here a proof-text for private property.  One might just as readily seek to plunder the pages of the Communist Manifesto for some isolated paragraphs in defence of private property.   

So, if we are reading naturally, we will probably encounter the story of Ananias and Saphira with a prima facie skepticism about the good of private property.  So, when Peter says to Ananias, “While it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” we are probably not going to jump to the conclusion that Peter is attempting to defend the institution of PP.  Those who take it so read the passage as follows: “Some people were voluntarily coming forward and offering all of their property to the apostles.  They didn’t need to, but they chose to.  Ananias and Saphira, for some reason, decided to pretend to do so, when in fact they only gave a portion of their property.  Their sin here was not greed, for there was nothing wrong with holding back the property, but merely lying.  And this is what Peter says to them– ‘You were perfectly free to hold onto the property–there woulda been nothing wrong with that–but why lie about it?’”

 On the contrary, it will make much more sense to take Peter as describing no more than the de facto powers which Ananias possessed in this situation.  Contextually, the episode reads more like this.  “Everyone was coming forward and yielding up all of their property to the common fund.  Ananias and Saphira didn’t want to do so, but wanted to hold back some for themselves, but they didn’t want to look bad, so they decided to pretend they were giving away all of their property.  When Peter saw this, he demanded of Ananias, ‘Look, if you wanted to be stingy, then why not go ahead and be stingy?  You had the power to hold onto your property if that’s what you wanted to do, so why pretend to give it if you’re not really ready to?’”  In other words, Peter acknowledges Ananias and Saphira’s legal right over the whole of the property, since they are clearly jealous of that right, but there is no reason to suppose that he is encouraging them or any other Christians to lay stress upon that right; the tenor of the passage seems rather to be quite dismissive of it.  


Now, none of this, I must be very clear to say, is intended to deny that there are good counter-arguments to such readings.  For instance, I recognize that much effort has been expended to make the case that the community of goods in the early Church was not intended, or at the very least not required, to be a model for all ages of the Church.  There is no doubt merit in many of these efforts.  Likewise, much effort has been expended to argue that Jesus’s commands to “sell all your possessions” and his indictments of the rich are not as sweeping as they at first appear, and do not mean that many of us need to worry about selling our good and giving them to the poor.  There is no doubt merit in many of these efforts.  However, I want to draw attention to the fact that these readings take effort–they are not straightforward, simple, and natural.  One can certainly defend PP against the Gospels and Acts, but it would be exceptionally cocky to try and defend PP out of the Gospels and Acts.  The best PP seems to get from the NT is a sort of curt nod–an acknowledgment that the institution in fact exists, but with little attempt to make it look very respectable, or to encourage us to lay much stress on it.  If we go back before Christ to the Old Testament, we find a somewhat more congenial atmosphere, clearly affirming some kind of private property ownership as legitimate, but under significant restrictions, and without ever coming close to telling us that private property is the only legitimate regime, or telling us that the private property is somehow rooted in nature.   

If we were to seek to argue anything like these latter claims, we would have to do it on some other basis than that of Scripture, and careful always not to directly contravene Scripture.  In the following segments, I will explore what forms such arguments might take.

Doug Wilson on the Eighth Commandment

Any regular reader of Doug Wilson’s Blog and Mablog may have been surprised, yea, dismayed to read my recent post “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” not unreasonably (given some interactions with Wilson on the previous incarnation of this blog)  imagining it to be a direct attack on Wilson’s post earlier this month, “Football Players or Pirates.”  As it turns out, I just stumbled upon that post today, and can thus assure you that Wilson was in no way the target of my post, despite the remarkable parallels in what was discussed.  I have always thought that attacking someone publicly without naming them was rather worse than doing it openly, so that is certainly not what I was up to.  However, since some may have already noticed it, since the contradiction between our conclusions is quite striking, and since it affords me a good opportunity for reiterating the significant and relevant parts of my earlier post, I might as well interact explicitly with his post now.

Wilson starts off by insisting that this is all quite simple and straightforward: “I don’t believe in complicating economic discussion more than is necessary,” and then turns right to the eighth commandment as his prooftext: “The Bible requires some form of capitalist society in the basic commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal.'” This command, he asserts, is enough to show that private property is divinely mandated: “This command presupposes the institution of private ownership — private property as a divine institution — and sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property.”  And then, remarkably enough, he goes on to fortify the case by drawing on the same analogy I did–the seventh commandment: “It does this in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes the institution of marriage. If marriage is just a “social construct” that our laws can redefine or abolish, then the same goes for adultery.” 

Now, Wilson is not undertaking a detailed exegesis here, so perhaps it would be unfair to criticize him for being simplistic, but as he starts out by suggesting that it really is just that simple, it is worth reiterating why I just don’t think it is.  First, a “private property” regime and “a capitalist society” are simply not the same thing.  Believe it or not, most people who rail against capitalism till they’re blue in the face are not, on the whole, opposed to private property.  In fact, those who could justly claim to be the most adamant anti-capitalists–the distributists–rail against it on the very basis that it is too hostile to private property.  All kinds of private property arrangements have existed long before what we know as capitalism emerged, and the conception of private property that capitalism advocates is far from the only possible conception.  Second, it still seems clear to me, that all that the eighth commandment, taken on its own, could prove is that it is wrong to violate the prevailing property rules, not that these must be private property rules.  Third (as a corollary of the second point), while certainly appearing to permit and safeguard a private property arrangement, it does not seem at all evident that this commandment mandates one, as a “divine institution”–a phrase that is rather too rashly thrown around in political theology and ethics.  Fourth, even if it did mandate a private property system, I am convinced by Jeremy Waldron’s argument that there are a variety of possible conceptions of that system.  This being the case, it does not follow that the eighth commandment “sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property”–since by this Wilson means, I take it, not an individual’s taking it upon himself to take another’s property, but a society’s attempt to place certain constraints on property rights in general.  In fact, as I never tire of pointing out, subsequent chapters in Exodus go on to make what our society would consider fairly radical “assaults on the right to own property.”  

The comparison to marriage, rather than strengthening the point, actually raises a further set of problems.  First, it highlights why we can’t equate property as a “divine institution” with marriage as a “divine institution,” for the seventh commandment rests on an explicit divine act of institution that has no parallel in the case of the eighth.  Genesis 2:21-24 provides about as clear-cut a “divine institution” as one could ask for, giving us a pretty straightforward answer to anyone who would claim that marriage was only a “social construct.”  But if the first discussion of the subject we had was the seventh commandment, then I don’t know that we could be sure it wasn’t just a social construct.  Perhaps in that case, all that the adultery commandment would mean was that, given that you live in a society that observes marriage boundaries, you shouldn’t trespass willy-nilly on those boundaries.  And this is where we are left with the eighth commandment.  There simply is no Genesis passage that says,

“And God saw that it was not good for man to be propertyless.  So he took Adam to a plot of land, and mixed his labor with the soil, and presented the plot to Adam.  And Adam said, ‘Sweat of my brow and labor of my hands!  You shall be called “Adamsland” for you came out of Adam’s labor.’  Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and seek his fortune in the world, and it shall be his private property.”  

Second, the example of marriage actually proves the role of social construction.  For, as I mentioned in my previous post, the particularly understanding of what marriage involved, and the accompanying rights and boundaries, were dramatically different in Moses’ Israel than they are for us today.  Presumably, even assuming that some kind of property regime, even private property regime, were a “divine institution,” we could expect equally dramatic variation in its particular form.  Third, the analogy with marriage might well be taken as evidence of the optional-ness of private property.  After all, the logical corollary of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is not “Thou shalt get married.”  Singleness is a perfectly appropriate option.  So is propertylessness.  Based on Wilson’s analogy, it would seem that at the very least, a Christian society should have as much room for mendicants as it has for celibates.  Of course, it is perhaps then no coincidence that in American evangelicalism, the one ideal is mocked and marginalized almost as much as the other.  

Perhaps all this may come across as “complicating economic discussion more than necessary,” but unfortunately in this case, such complication seems the only way to handle the text with integrity.

No Middle Ground? The Epistemology of Economic Ethics

A free market exchange always benefits both parties, and so thanks to markets, the world is getting richer and richer, income inequality is going down and down as the market extends its reach, our quality of life today is quantum leaps beyond the desperation and squalor that characterized the lives of our ancestors a mere two centuries ago, we have a more enlightened, free, and virtuous culture, the environment and the poor are actually better cared for than ever before, and the only obstacles to this are protectionist governments and reactionary moralists.  


Or is it rather:

Our western capitalism is built upon exploitation and manipulation, and so poverty is a grave and growing problem as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; Western civilization is rapidly deteriorating as communities are destroyed and people alienated from themselves, one another, and the earth, public and private virtue are being undermined; the poor and the environment are trodden upon and ignored, and the only way we can redress this is by making use of the protections of government and by remoralizing the marketplace.  

Why is it that the discussion of economics and ethics seems so thoroughly dominated by two such drastically incommensurable paradigms, both of which seem to feel so secure in their assumptions that most of the above statements are generally asserted, rather than proved, and the contrary assumptions are never even engaged with?  

Presumably, if half the intellectuals are convinced that income equality is widening, and half are convinced that it is shrinking, there must be some way of adjudicating the matter?  Or at the very least each half ought to take the time to address the contrary claims, instead of merely pretending they don’t exist, right?  The first paradigm is often said to be that of the economists, and the latter that of the theologians, but I’ve read enough of both to know that there are some of each in either camp.  The first paradigm more often makes its point by appeals to statistics, the second by appeals to experience, but again, either appeal can be found in either camp.  For myself, I find both appeals often persuasive, often shockingly naive.  I know enough to say that the facts are clearly not all on one side, but I don’t know enough to confidently adjudicate on most of the disputed points.  When both sides are so radically at odds, so radically prone to careless assertion, and so determined, it seems, not to carefully engage with the claims and assumptions of the other side, then how is someone on the sidelines, unable to sufficiently sift every piece of relevant data for himself, to believe and act? 


More and more, I find myself forced to face this question–most recently yesterday afternoon.  Having chosen to dedicate my few days of Christmas break to some focused reading, both of old books long sitting around unfinished, and of new books received on Christmas, I found myself, in my typical ADD fashion, alternating between the first chapters of Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution and the final chapters of the collection of essays Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life.  The tension, needless to say, was dramatic–between Claiborne’s passionate commitment to abandon our comfortable conusmerism and embrace a life with and for the poor, and the utopian endorsement of market economics in Deidre McCloskey’s essay “Avarice, Prudence, and the Bourgeois Virtues.”   

Not that McCloskey’s essay was all bad.  Curiously, she had started off with promising balance and some intriguing ideas–suggesting, for instance, that Adam Smith’s famous line about the butcher and the baker was not an endorsement of minding only our own self-interest in economic transactions, but rather a recommendation that we act out of concern for the other party’s interests in our transactions–it is such other-regard that makes us human.  She went on to sketch a variety of ways in which market economics depends upon a whole nexus of virtues besides self-interest–trust, charity, etc.–and that the notion of homo economicus is simply a false portrait of human nature and modern society.  In other words, we need more virtues than merely prudence in our account of economic life.  Up to this point, her arguments were directed against typical economists (to whose number she belonged).  

But then she turned in the second half of her essay to address “the theologians,” who, she said, needed to hear the message that prudence was in fact a virtue.  What followed was a strikingly naive and carelessly assertive rendition of the arguments of the first paradigm, stated above.  She admitted at the end that it would take a long book, or indeed a library, to prove the assertions she had just made, but there was no time for that here.  This is a rather juvenile argumentative style– “Oh yeah?  Nuh-uh!”–“Actually, the complete opposite of what you think is true.  I don’t have time to tell you why now, but trust me, I’ve got the proof, and you’re dead wrong.”  After some initial gestures at bridging the chasm between the two paradigms at the outset of her essay, she suddenly started blasting away at the bridges and then stood there, triumphantly waving her bazooka on her own side of the huge chasm.  


This one-sidedness and non-engagement was particularly depressing, as the volume in which McCloskey’s essay appeared, edited by Charles Mathewes and William Schweiker, promised to offer just the sort of engagement between the paradigms that was so desperately needed.  However, although the book did feature a range of different perspectives on issues of economics and ethics (though, sadly, none as radical and passionate as Shane Claiborne’s), it did not bring them into any meaningful conversation or debate with one another; no one took the time to justify their position over against contrary ones that were stated in the other essays.  The second-to-last essay, Arjo Klamer on “The Moral Economy of Ownership,” finally drew attention to this lack of dialogue and proposed a route for reconciling the “economists’” and the “theologians’” paradigms.  

Klamer’s approach was similar to that of Ruskin and Polanyi (the two social economists who blew apart my paradigms last fall), arguing that while markets did undoubtedly create economic goods, such goods were only good insofar as they served valuable social and cultural ends–more money in itself is useless.  We must measure a wider range of phenomenon to determine what increases well-being in a society, enabling us to recognize that a large increase in wealth that comes at the cost of destroying community may in fact constitute a net loss of value.  Economic prosperity is a genuine good that must be weighed in the balance against other important goods.  A similar approach, put into very practical and concrete terms, is taken by Philip Blond in Red Tory, and I do think this represents the best way of attacking the economic-ethical issues that currently face us.  Of course, I have doubts as to whether economists like McCloskey will consider this genuine middle ground or just more theological drivel.  


And much of the problem still remains: when both paradigms make incommensurable empirical claims– “capitalistic markets generate freedom” vs. “capitalistic markets are based on exploitation”; “inequality is decreasing” vs. “inequality is increasing”–how is one to adjudicate?  The issues involved are too important to merely sit on the sidelines and take no action either way.  Nor is it possible to approach the question with a pure blank slate, objective and predisposed toward neither argument.  And so, amidst the clamour of conflicting economic claims, I have found it necessary to establish a starting-point of theological assumptions to prejudice the inquiry.  This is not to say that theological assumptions must prejudge the inquiry, deciding the economic facts in advance–“Money is the root of all evil, therefore capitalism must be wicked, exploitative, destructive, and all the rest”–we must always be ready to candidly assess the economic and social facts with a willingness to revise our theological assumptions (or at least our applications of them) if they simply do not fit.  But we should not accept the economists’ insistence that we leave all value judgments at the door and attempt to adjudicate the goods and bads of capitalism by an objective assessment of all the facts and statistics (a task quite impossible, in any case).  Some prejudice must govern the inquiry, and so I am happy for it to be a theological prejudice.  

And so then I must ask myself, “What prejudice do the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church suggest that I have to wealth and economic exchange?”  Over the past couple years, I have tried in vain to understand how the divine right capitalists (to coin a useful shorthand)–folks like David Hall, Rodney Stark, Jay Richards, John Schneider, and Doug Wilson–are able to draw a prejudice from Scripture and church tradition that blithely affirms the accumulation of wealth and the proliferation of exchange and that looks asquint at poverty.  There seems little way to ignore the overwhelming testimony of Scripture and church tradition that looks with suspicion on wealth, discerns the capacity for injustice and exploitation inherent in economic exchange, and that sides, more often than not, with the poor and their cry for justice.  Of course, notice here that I said “suspicion,” not “hostility.”  Whenever the divine right capitalists see a sentence like that, they assume that an anti-wealth gospel is being preached, but that’s just sloppy logic.  Most of these same Christians would be happy with the statement that Scripture teaches us to have a healthy suspicion of human sexuality, and to discern the capacity for immorality and lust that is inherent in sexual activity, and we would not thereby accuse them of being anti-sex and anti-marriage.  So it is in economics.  Our faith must teach us, it seems to me, to approach the economic sphere with a predisposition to side with the poor and be suspicious of the wealthy and powerful, and to look for the possibility of injustice in the operations of the market, but to be of course quite open to the possibility of a godly use of wealth, a godless life in poverty, and innocent and beneficial operations of the market.  

And so it is that when confronted with the two paradigms laid out at the beginning, I must treat the first with more suspicion than the second.  Both may be the tools of an ideological agenda, distorting the facts for selfish ends, but my theological framework must lead me to more readily suspect the former, as the wealthy and the powerful’s attempts to justify themselves and silence the cries of the poor and oppressed.  The second paradigm finds powerful echoes in the concerns of the Law, the prophets, and Jesus, whereas the former rings a discordant note when sounded alongside Scripture.  


Of course, this can only be a starting point.  We are subsequently called (or at least those of us who have rashly embraced the vocation of Christian ethicists) to sift the statistics and testimonies, to test the assumptions and arguments, to reexamine the theology and our attempts to apply it, in order to accurately diagnose the goods and evils of our economies and prescribe the appropriate remedies.  But even as we engage in this arduous task, we must resist the notion that we are dealing with objective scientific descriptions; rather, we are entering a battlefield filled with warring principalities and powers and the violent clashes of competing human desires.  On such a battlefield, Jesus will always be a surer guide than Marx or von Mises, and we must be unapologetic for this conviction.

The God in the Manger

At my wife’s suggestion, I recently dug up a little piece of “creative writing” I did a few years ago for Doug Jones’s Theology of the Body class. It’s a rewrite of a crucial section from Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, and although I’m not terribly fond of anything I wrote three years ago (and struck by how foreign the writing style is!), I hope it still makes for a fun and edifying Christmas meditation.


No more cows gurgling out their last breaths as their blood stains the marble altars. No more oxen led forth to the slaughter, dismembered to feed the god. The god is in the manger now, where the oxen come to feed.

The sun-browned Nile-dwellers in the kingdom of the pyramids slew their cows to appease that fireball in the sky and that lazy channel of brown water which sprawled across their sandy land. But not content with these lofty objects of devotion, they groveled on marble floors before their sacred cats or fish goddesses.

To their credit, many of these Egyptian idols were perhaps alive. What about the pagans of Palestine, who worshipped little clay idols or poles stuck in the ground? The Sidonians did homage to their favorite statue, Molech, by heating his iron hands red-hot and then bringing him an offering far more beautiful than any cow or pigeon. A young infant without blemish was carried into the slaughterhouse of the god so that the idol too could have a chance to hold the lovely child. The onlookers watched in religious ecstasy while the sounds of the baby’s screams mixed with the bacon-like sizzle of its smooth skin on the fiery iron. Perhaps the god liked the smell of bacon.

But at least they combined a healthy dose of masochism with their sadism. No one can accuse the priests of Baal with lack of religious fervour, dancing around in a drunken frenzy, lopping off bits of their flabby bodies and pouring out their blood on the parched earth in an impassioned plea for their god to pour out fire for them.

But the rational Greeks, in their clean white clothes and clean white temples with their nude white statues, surely their minds were set on things above? Hypocrites. They philosophized about the Good while their white temples ran red with the blood of bulls sacrificed to a serial rapist who turned his conquests into cows or shrubs. His brother was little better, kidnapping his niece to be his mistress in the Land of the Dead, and only turning her loose for a few months each year to make the flowers bloom and inspire nature with new life.

To all these pious pagans, blinded by their earthward gaze, God presented an image they could not ignore. God took on sinews, his veins ran with blood, and the earth which He had formed from nothing he now formed into Himself. Creation which had served as idols for the sons of men now took its proper place to serve the Son of Man. The flaming sun quenched its rays and put on robes of black to mourn his death; life-giving water poured from his side to baptize the nations, while two small fish, torn into a thousand basketfuls of morsels, fed his faint disciples. For him, too, a pole is stuck in the ground, a prop on which to hang his bloodied flesh. Infants are brought before Christ too, but he welcomes them with open arms, not greedy hands, and marks them as his own with water, not fire. Christ also is bundled off to Hades, but his return brings new life for a springtime that never ends.


This is the Incarnation, the Christmas story. This is God bringing himself down to our level. Infinite spirit becomes a lump of dirt, sleeps in straw, rides an ass, eats crusty bread with bunch of convicts and converts it into excrement, pours out blood, tears, toil and sweat so that the blinded, self-satisfied, juvenile inhabitants of this terrestrial ball might get the message. Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image made in the form of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals and creeping things—beetles, cats, vultures, or sacred cows. So he gave them what they wanted: an image made in the form of corruptible man, water, wine, and crusty bread.


The Incarnation is part of God’s lesson plan, an unforgettable object lesson that God, the great teacher, uses to teach the lazy ignorant pupils of this world about his glory. The fire-filled heavens and the wine-dark sea, in all their majestic expanse, fell short of teaching men the glory of the Lord. The revolution of the seasons, with their riot of fruit trees and flowers, the amber waves of grain and the vineyards heavy with grapes could not convince them of God’s providential care. So God at last taught them Himself, face to face, in the form of a lowly carpenter from Galilee, a carpenter who holds the Pleiades in his hand.

While Christ walked and talked, ate and drank, slept, wept, or prayed, Christ also upheld the universe, governed the tides, beheld all the works of men, and spoke face to face with his Father. For the human flesh of Jesus that housed a human soul also housed the eternal Word. In Christ infinite and finite, heaven and earth came together, so that Christ was at once bounded in human flesh and also bounded all the universe within himself.

Unravel this paradox, please. When Christ asked the crowds clustering around him, “Who touched me?” didn’t he already know? When he lifted a cup of water to his mouth, was he not already upholding that cup and sustaining the life-giving power of the water within it? When he looked up to see his disciples coming towards him, did he not already behold with his divine vision all men upon earth? Christ forfeited none of these powers when he clothed them with skin, bones, and hair, yet he lived among us as one of us.

When he wished to build a table, he used his hands and shaped the wood with human tools. When he wished to speak, his lips and tongue formed his breath into the guttural consonants of Hebrew and Aramaic. When he wished to die, he bled, he gasped, he hung his head and went cold like countless millions before him. Somehow Christ sacrificed neither his heavenly power nor his earthy weakness, but dwelt both beyond his body and within it. No piece of his divine power was chipped away when he became man, nor was there any stain of weakness on it. No, it was the other way around. Man was made strong, human flesh was purified by contact with the eternal Word. The sun does not cease to shine in the darkness, but makes the gloom bright with its rays. So the presence of God himself illumined all the world and all mankind with its glorious rays.


So then in his human body, Christ did the works of a man, eating, sleeping, talking and breathing as any other man, so that there could be no question over whether he was truly enfleshed. The Gnostics, then, and all such heretics, must not have read the Gospel accounts, with their talk of Christ’s thirst and hunger, his touch and his spit, his blood and his sweat. Yet because this flesh was the home of God himself, its works were far more than merely human works. It was like a sponge soaked in Godness, ready to pour forth the works of divinity at any moment. And so these two hands sutured a severed ear with no stitches or superglue, returned the light of creation into darkened eye-sockets without the use of any lasers, endlessly replicated the molecules of five pieces of bread and two small fish, and transformed H2O into grape-flavored C2H6O, without a centrifuge or any laboratory rats. When Christ’s vocal cords vibrated, they probably made about the same sound that he heard when Peter’s vibrated. But Christ’s breath had the power to halt the fierce breath of the tempest, to recall breath to lifeless lungs, and to banish the spirits who held a young boy in bondage. By their fruits you shall know them, Christ himself said, but who ever saw a tree like his? The leaves and bark were man’s, but the fruit was that of God himself.

Thus the invisible God shined through the shell of human flesh and human life, as through a veil, making known the presence of God in man and among men.


The sun-browned Nile-dwellers in the kingdom of the pyramids may have watched for millennia for proof that their pharaohs were sons of the gods, but it only took the centurion a few hours to whisper in wonder, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”