Progressive Christians struggle with the stories and theology of the incarnation. Following Rudolf Bultmann, most progressives see the angelic visitation to Mary and the virgin birth as myths reflecting the early church’s affirmation of Jesus’ uniqueness not unlike stories of other political and savior figures. Moreover, most progressives also question Jesus’ metaphysical uniqueness and relationship to God – that is, the belief that he was not only different in degree of God consciousness from us, but also different in kind, truly God and truly human.
We progressives celebrate Christmas, but often see it primarily as a reflection of God’s presence in the marginalized and powerless. Many pastors gloss over the magi, shepherds, and angels, telling the Christmas story, but keeping their fingers crossed. Deep down, they no more believe in the traditional Christmas stories or God’s extraordinary presence in the manger than they do in Santa Claus.
Still, the child in us — and perhaps our deepest self — wants to believe in the incarnation and uniqueness of this innocent and humble child. The Christmas stories reveal the nearness of God, God’s love of embodiment, and God’s blessing of every child. As I ponder the Christmas stories, it is clear that we need a healthy, world-affirming theology of incarnation. We need to make sense of Jesus’ unique birth and life, and his unparalleled mission as healer, teacher, teacher, and savior, without resorting to supernaturalism.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead proclaimed that the world lives by the incarnation of God. Whitehead asserted that God is present in every moment of experience as the source of possibilities and the energy to embody these possibilities in everyday life. Accordingly, we are all, in varying degrees, incarnations of divine wisdom and creativity. The greater openness toward God’s presence in our lives, the more God can be present, guiding, energizing, and inspiring our lives. Jesus’ uniqueness is not to be found in an absolute discontinuity between God’s presence in his life and God’s presence in our lives, but in the nature and intensity of God’s presence in Jesus’ life.
Still, how shall we understand the incarnation as it relates to Jesus’ birth and ministry? While a good bit of agnosticism – and sense of our limits – is always in order when we reflect on theological themes, let me suggest a few possibilities congruent with the insights of process theology and the global orientation of progressive Christianity.
First, God – like us – can choose to be more present, or present in variable and unique ways, in God’s relationship to the world. While God surely inspires all creation, God’s inspiration is not homogenous. God presents different possibilities to infant humans than to infant chimpanzees. God may also present different possibilities to different historical and cultural streams. A spiritual figure such as Gautama Buddha was deeply rooted in the Hindu culture which he critiqued and transformed. In like manner, Jesus was deeply rooted in the Hebraic tradition – the liberation of the people from Egypt, the settlement of Canaan, the Davidic era, the Exile, and the battle for national and religious survival. Jesus was a spiritual child of the Jewish lawgivers and prophets.
While they may not have fully understood the Messianic promise, the dream of a Messianic age inspired their faith, protest, and prophetic imagery. God moved through the people’s history, luring them toward spiritual wholeness. Accordingly, we can affirm a continuity between Jesus’ incarnation and the prophetic tradition and visions of Israel. We can read the prophetic images of the peaceable realm, the suffering servant, and light shining in the darkness as part of a trajectory that included God’s calling of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s realm in his time.
Second, while God may have presented a variety of possibilities to men and women in the first century, Mary uniquely said “yes” to the angelic invitation. While many progressives are skeptical of angelic appearances, there is no reason to assume humans are the pinnacle of spiritual or biological evolution. Higher beings may exist, who have unique relationships with God as messengers and guides, calling people and communities to faithfulness.
Mary’s angelic encounter need not be a violation of the cause and effect laws of nature, especially as they relate to childbirth. Perhaps a mystical experience enlivened and gave meaning to her pregnancy. God is surely at work as one of the causes in every conception, not in coercive but in a guiding way. Could God have chosen to be more active in Jesus’ conception, birth, and childhood as a result of Mary and Joseph’s openness to divine revelation? Could Jesus’ conception and birth been the source of new possibilities for human existence? Further, while Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature,” he may have received unique possibilities and energies from God throughout his childhood, youth, and adulthood. These energies and possibilities did not separate Jesus from humanity, but reflect the church father’s affirmation that the glory of God is a fully alive human being.
Third, though universal in nature, God’s embodied presence in the world is a matter of call and response. God uniquely called Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, presenting them with energies and possibilities that exceeded most divine-human interactions. Still, God presents us with unique possibilities. Though our possibilities are less lively and intense than Jesus’ possibilities, they call us to become fully alive in our vocation as God’s partners in healing the earth.
Finally, why do we need an incarnation? We need to know that God is surely present in our lives and in the world. We need to know that God’s vision is larger than our own and lures us to become Christ-like in our thoughts and behavior. We need to believe that God loves the world – not just spirits and minds, but the profound temporality of our bodies and the constant changes of historic existence. God is with us in as the source of creative transformation whether in the birth of the Christ-child and the birth of our own children. Jesus birth and life is not an anomaly or supernatural intrusion but a profound manifestation of God’s care for all creation. God is with us, transforming our cells as well as our cells. What happens in our lives – in the lives of marginalized families – truly matters not only to us but to God. This is the meaning of the incarnation and a reason for hope.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His upcoming book, to be released in January 2012, is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.