The Mystery of the Incarnation – Bishop Christoph von Schönborn

September 6, 2012

Christ Pantocrator, God incarnate in the Christian faith, shown in a mosaic from Daphni, Greece, ca. 1080-1100.

Myth Became Fact
Can a rational human being be expected to believe that a God, or a Son of God, “came down from heaven”, “took flesh”, was born of a virgin and, after the dramatic conclusion of his earthly career, “ascended into heaven” again? Are we not at the heart of myth here? Can we expect people today to regard such mythological assertions as truth?

In England in 1977 seven noted theologians wrote a book with the deliberately provocative title The Myth of God Incarnate. In the book’s preface the authors unmistakably and honestly set forth their conviction that Christian teaching today needs a clear change of direction:

The need arises from growing knowledge of Christian origins, and involves a recognition that Jesus was (as he is presented in Acts 2:21) “a man approved by God” for a special role within the divine purpose, and that the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us. This recognition is called for in the interests of truth …
(Hick, p. ix).

The change of course here called for is a radical one. Jesus is a man approved by God; incarnation is a mythical mode of speech designed to tell us that Jesus is important. This implies that the notion of the divine Trinity is on shaky ground, as is the question of Jesus’ divinity. Not that all such talk is simply false; it is true in the way a myth is true, i.e., as imagery, as a symbolic and poetic way of expressing that something has very special significance. Not surprisingly, the book by these seven authors unleashed a veritable storm of debate. We shall try to use this debate as the starting-point for our own observations, since it raises a number of essential preliminary questions connected with our topic.

Incarnation And Myth
Christian faith speaks about the Son of God who, in order to become incarnate, comes down from heaven and returns thither after having accomplished what he is sent to do. There are similarities between this and the myths of other religions which speak of gods who descend to earth, die, and are subsequently resurrected. There is nothing new about this. Even early Christian authors make reference to parallels of this kind; at the most they are regarded as a kind of premonition of the revelation that was to take place in Christ, but in the main they are treated as a mere plagiarization of the Christian teaching.

Since the nineteenth century the historico-critical method generally takes the opposite direction. It does not explain the myths as plagiarization of the biblical revelation: vice versa, it sees the language of the Bible and particularly the New Testament as the result of the influence of particular extra-biblical myths. The so-called “history of religions” school interpreted the ancient mystery-cults as the “matrix” of the Christian myth.

In the ceremonies of initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries, in the sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Osiris, in the rebirth of the votaries of Cybele who, using bull’s blood, achieved union with the dead and resurrected god, scholars thought they had found the “spiritual climate” which could have given rise to the Christian myth of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the heavenly Son of God, and the associated Christian rite whereby the believer dies with Christ and rises with him (Rahner pp. 19-54) .

It was as a result of the work of R. Bultmann that the theory of myth proposed by the “history of religions” school attained wide currency, for he related it to his program of “demythologization”. Thus the theory became one element of an all-embracing revision of the Christian proclamation and of Christianity’s understanding of itself. As a result the problems associated with “myth” emerged from the confines of a purely historical discussion (the whole question of sources) and constituted a fundamental issue: What is the function of mythical speech?

A historical critique was applied at a very early date to the origins of the Christian belief in the Incarnation. Today it is appropriate to re-examine this critique, since it has become almost fashionable again to trace all manner of elements in Christianity back to possible (and frankly impossible) parallels in other religions. No less a scholar than Adolf von Harnack energetically opposed this confusing of sources, “that comparative mythology which tries to find a causal connection between everything, tearing down firm boundaries, lightheartedly ignoring the chasms which separate whole areas and often dreaming up links on the basis of the most superficial similarities.”

He goes on: “By this means people can in a trice make Christ into a sun-god and the twelve apostles into the twelve months; the story of the birth of Christ reminds them of all the other stories of divine births; the dove at Christ’s baptism prompts them to recall all the doves in mythology, and the donkey in Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem just has to be linked with all the other famous donkeys. Thus, using the wand of the `history of religions’ school, they succeed in eliminating every spontaneous trait” (Rahner).

Particularly as regards the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Son of God, careful historical examination of the sources has shown with increasing clarity that it cannot be put down to the influence of some (vague) Iranian redeemer-myth (R. Bultmann) or of Hellenistic mystery-cults. The images and concepts of the primitive Church’s faith in the Incarnation belong first and foremost to the world of Old Testament faith (Hengel 1974).

This, however, does not give us an answer to the question of myth itself. True, nowadays we see more clearly that the picture of Christ we find in Paul and in the primitive Church is, in general, largely shaped by Jewish ideas. But the stark question remains: are not these after all mythical ideas, whether of Hellenistic or of Jewish origin?

The genetic question leads to the question of fact; the question of historical origin leads to the question of truth. The issue is not simply whether notions of God’s Incarnation originated, historically speaking, in myth, but primarily whether mythical notions are true, and if so, how. This is the nub of the whole debate. The seven English authors are also concerned about the question of truth when they describe the Incarnation as myth. John Hick, one of the seven, defines myth as follows:

“That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning, but it is an application of Jesus of a mythical concept … ; it offers a way of declaring his significance to the world”
(Hick, p. 178).

At a first reading the question of truth is given a clear answer here: the Incarnation is a myth, i.e., it is not literally true. Rather it is pictorial, metaphorical, poetic, symbolic language. Is this opposition between “literally true” and “pictorial and metaphorical” tenable? Let us explore this question in connection with the article of the creed: “He came down from heaven.”

Myth And Reality
The period following the Second Vatican Council — not always a very inspiring time — saw many liturgical experiments. On one occasion an Old Testament scholar who had a keen interest in liturgy attempted to make a translation of the Psalms for liturgical use from which he had expunged all the images which, allegedly, were alien to “modern man”. There was no longer a deer yearning for the running streams; the Lord no longer had a rod and staff to give me comfort; and the longing “to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” was turned into the pale privilege of “being always near to God”. Why had the Psalms’ strong poetic images been replaced by pale, banal ones?

It is a mistake to think that we can speak without using images and metaphors. Does this mean that everything we say by means of metaphors is “not literally true”? If I say, “the audience hung spellbound on his lips”, no one imagines that they literally hung on his lips. On the other hand no one would conclude that the expression is purely subjective and does not refer to an objective reality: the audience is really fascinated and listens “as if spellbound”. The metaphor “hanging on someone’s lips” is meant to underline precisely the reality of the audience’s involvement.

However, the seven English authors think that “literally true” language refers to objective facts, whereas mythic and metaphorical language is the expression of subjective attitudes and feelings. This is untenable. Image and myth also refer to reality, and not merely to subjective attitudes and feelings. But they refer to reality in a different way from the “literal” language, i.e., through images.

Today we are continually being faced with this either–or: Is the statement, “Jesus is the incarnate Son of God” to be taken literally or in a symbolic, mythical sense? Was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary in a literal or metaphorical sense?

The answer of the seven Englishmen is clear:

“That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning, but it is an application to Jesus of a mythical concept …; it offers a way of declaring his significance to the world.”
(Hick, p. 178, italics added.)

To find a way out of this cul-de-sac I would like to refer to another English author who has thought about myth more than most of our contemporaries, himself a writer of wonderful myths, and whose path brought him — in a unique way — via myths to faith: C. S. Lewis (1898-1963).

When he was a young lecturer in Oxford, C. S. Lewis, like many of his (and our) educated contemporaries, subscribed to the view that Christianity was simply a re-casting of old myths. Like Sigmund Freud, Lewis had read J. G. Frazer’s monumental twelve-volume work, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), and was fascinated by the plethora of parallels, drawn from the history of religions, to the idea of the “dying god”. “The myths of Adonis and Osiris, who are killed only to rise again, so renewing the life of nature and of their votaries, are nothing other than myths of natural growth, symbolically applying a natural process to human life.

Every year the corn dies, is laid in the earth as seed, and subsequently rises up to a new and more abundant life; so man too has to go through death in order to attain life. The young Lewis was of the opinion that the stories of Jesus were simply another myth of natural growth.  Jesus says that the grain of wheat must die if it is to bear fruit; he takes bread, i.e., grain, in his hands, breaks it and says, `This is my body’; he dies the following day and rises from the dead three days later: is not this Jesus simply another harvest-god, a corn-king, giving his life for the life of the world? One evening, however, Lewis heard another committed atheist remark during a conversation that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was surprisingly good: `A strange thing: all that stuff of Frazer’s about the dying God — it almost looks as though it actually happened once.’” (Kranz, p.71; Brague) .

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that this conversation was a decisive step on his path to conversion. From childhood Lewis had been fascinated by myths. What was it in them that so strangely moved him? It is that they awaken in the reader a longing for something that is beyond his grasp. Myths have this fascination because they affect a catharsis, that is, they move us and purify us; thus they expand our consciousness, allowing us through them to transcend ourselves. So myths are not “poets’ deceptions” (as Plato said in his Republic) nor demonic delusions (as many of the Church Fathers thought), nor clerical lies (as many Enlightenment figures asserted), but “Myth in general is … at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination” (Lewis, Miracles, p. 134).

Surely, the reason why the great myths of the nations have something in common with the story of the Son of God who came down from heaven for our sake is that there is a trace, in the imagination of great pagan teachers and myth-makers, of that very Incarnation which, according to our faith, is the core of all cosmic history.

The distinction between myth and Christian history is not simply that between false and true; myths are not false simply because they are myths. C. S. Lewis sees the relationship between myth and Christian history as the difference “between a real event on the one hand and blurred dreams and intimations of this same event on the other hand”.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle
(Lewis, God in the Dock).

C. S. Lewis encourages us not to be afraid if we find that Christianity has parallels to myth. Would it not be a pity if Christianity, in order to assert its truth, had to reject all prior intimations of this truth? If Christianity is to fulfill the “longings of the nations”, it does not need to reject the expression of this longing as it is found in the myths.

It sounds like a theological manifesto when Lewis says, “We do not need to be ashamed of the mythical luminosity which attaches to our theology.” All creative theology lives and draws sustenance from this “mythical luminosity” which our theology still bears. “Demythologization”, conceived as the task of a “theology for today”, misses the fact that the “secularization” of our world is only one side: on the other side there is a flourishing world of myths — although seen in different garb, e.g., the world of science fiction. Here, as in former times, we find the great themes of mythology: monsters and demons, gods and spirits.

Johann Georg Hamann once said, “Unless our theology is worth as much as mythology, it will be simply impossible for us to reach the level of pagan poetry, let alone surpass it.” It is not a question of setting myth against reality; because of a defective understanding of “reality” this leads inevitably to the repression of the symbolic dimension of the Christian message, what one might call its “mythical luminosity”. But it is equally mistaken to reduce the historical reality of the events of Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection to a “merely” symbolic significance, as gnosticism did. Rather we must say that the history of Christ is the “highest myth” because, in it, myth has become reality (Lewis, God in the Dock) .

What If It Were So?
This is the direction we shall take in what follows, as we ask what is the meaning of God’s Incarnation. We shall try to show that the power of symbolism of such images as “came down from heaven”, “born of the Virgin Mary”, “and was made man,” lies precisely in the fact that here symbol and reality, myth and life, coincide. However, before we set out on this path we must go into one final preliminary question.

In The Myth of God Incarnate we read the following sentence: “That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning” (Hick, p. 175, italics added) . This view is supported by further remarks by the various authors:

  1. “Humanity cannot, without ceasing to be humanity, ie the expression, embodiment, contingent form of God” Goulder, p. 63). Put more simply this means that it is irnpossible for God to become man, because a God who did so would not be a genuine man.
  2. “When we move over to speaking of God being part of his own creation or a part of that creation being God, Prima facie this does seem to me to involve logical self-contradiction” (Goulder, p. 6) . In other words, the Incarnation of God — God becoming a creature — contradicts God’s being as God.

No doubt it would be necessary to examine these two statements in more detail and set forth their implications in a more nuanced way. All the same it is quite clear from the context that, as far as these seven authors are concerned, the idea of real Incarnation of God is just as absurd as a “square circle”. Their idea of man and their idea of God are equally incompatible with the notion of a real Incarnation. Here we have come up against a limit that cannot be passed by adducing more arguments.

If the above principles are taken as fundamental, what Christians say about “the Son of God coming down” can only be understood as a myth in the sense of something that is “not literally true”.

In this situation we can only ask — not in a triumphalist manner, but by way of an invitation — ` `But what if, all the same, it were so … ?” What if the substance expressed in so many myths like the echo of a great yearning, a shadowy presentiment, has actually become reality?

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