Strange Bedfellows

Okay, gang. Game time! What do these statements have in common?

  1. Jesus needed his body in order to die on the cross and rise from the dead as proof of his deity. But once he was through using it (after the Ascension), he got rid of his body and returned to the realm of the Spirit.
  2. Jesus’ true teaching was that we can, like him, realize our spirituality, transcend this realm of matter and create a universe of pure, ethereal spirituality. We are to overcome our humanness and become spiritual energy beings.
  3. Jesus, the Word made flesh, had a sinful or fleshly nature. He had to have had one because being human means being sinful. The difference about Jesus is, he always resisted temptation and so remained sinless. That’s why he’s an example to us.
  4. I don’t believe people wrote the Bible. “Translated” is a much better word. God and God alone wrote Scripture. Men merely took down what he commanded.
  5. God is the one who drew you to himself, not the people he used as a mouthpiece. So the Church doesn’t really matter except as place where we can go and meet with God in our spirits. It’s just a human organization.
  6. God does not use physical sacraments. He is purely spirit and works only by spiritual means. Sacraments are dead works of the outer man, only faith and spiritual communion are the true reality.
  7. Of course, Mary was a sinner. She’s human isn’t she? To say otherwise makes her equal to God.
  8. God has made us valuable by giving us the only thing that gives anything worth. He has given us a spirit. Scientifically speaking, our bodies are just finely tuned bags of genetic chemicals and are as disposable as toenail clippings. That’s why we don’t hold funerals for amputated limbs. Only spirit is important to God. Or do you think Jesus died for DNA?
  9. These environmentalist nature lovers are nuts! God doesn’t give a rip about rock, trees and fish. Did God send his only Son to redeem rocks and trees? Heaven and earth will pass away, only the spiritual will remain.

If you guessed that they all come from the mouth of the same person, you’re wrong. Indeed, the most striking thing is, all these statements (which are accurate paraphrases of comments I have heard with my own ears) were spoken by people who would be horrified at being identified with each other.

The first statement comes from a bible study given by my old charismatic non-denom pastor. The second is a comment by a warm and fuzzy devotee of the New Age who seeks “spirituality” in “astrology, energy and the Christ,” and who wants nothing to do with “born again” types. The third is from a thoroughly devout “born again” Christian who wants nothing to do with New Agers. The fourth is from an anti-Catholic arguing that humans had nothing to do with the writing of Scripture. The fifth is from another anti-Catholic arguing that the Church has nothing to do with salvation. The sixth is a fairly standard complaint against Catholic Eucharistic belief often spoken in my old church. The seventh was made by a Protestant friend in the midst of a debate on the Immaculate Conception. The eighth is the view of an evangelical molecular biologist who argues (contrary all the other Christians in this lineup) that a Christian pro-life position is baseless and unbiblical, and the ninth was sternly asserted by a fundamentalist acquaintance in opposition to someone’s claim that Mother Earth is sacred (probably someone very like speaker 2).

Give up? The common thread of belief among these strange bedfellows (and among many more I encounter on the Internet every day) is Gnosticism.

What is gnosticism? It has many attributes, but one of the biggest (which we shall focus on here) is a distrust of the physical creation, a tendency to say “spirit=good, matter=bad,” a very strong habit of viewing humanness as identical with sin and thus a deep suspicion of and desire to downplay or overlook the incarnation. In one way or another, every one of these quotes relies on gnostic assumptions–even while they appear to be speaking from radically different presuppositions.

Gnosticism has been around for a very long time. In the New Testament, we find the Apostles are already locked in combat with it in the first century. Gnostic tendencies in the Church at Colossae force St. Paul to remind his hearers that “all the fulness of the Godhead” dwells, not in some Spielbergian haze of disembodied spirituality, but “in bodily form” in Christ (Colossians 2:9). Similarly, an especially strong theme in St. John’s gospel and first letter is simply that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Indeed, St. John fairly beats this point to death in his zeal to make dead certain his audience clearly understands Jesus is realio-trulio human. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched” is how he describes the Word of Life (1 John 1:1). And in another passage, he interrupts a rather warm and grandfatherly discourse on love to utter this thunderous warning: “Every spirit that acknowledges Jesus has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:2-3). And, of course, the gospels (especially St. Luke) go out of their way to make clear to the reader the Resurrection means that, so far from shedding it like an old rag, Jesus took his glorified humanity with him to heaven. So the incarnation is not just a theological doodad for the Apostles. It matters to them–a lot. But why?

Well, primarily because it’s true, and truth is what we should always believe whether it has any practical benefit for us or not. But in addition to the raw factuality of the incarnation, orthodox Christendom has also been steadfast in pointing out that our faith in it has certain very real consequences for how we will think and act. To better see what these consequences are: let’s go back to our strange bedfellows at the beginning of this essay. How does the incarnation get them out of their gnostic bed?

First, it radically alters our understanding of who Jesus is. For example, contrary to our first and second speakers, the scriptural witness is that the incarnation is a permanent arrangement. The Second Person of the Godhead did not zip on a temporary human skin like a wetsuit; he became and remains eternally the Son of Man as well as Son of God. That gives our own humanity eternal significance as well. For it shows that our bodies are not disposable Tupperware containers for some ether of pure spirit within. Rather, we are intended to be glorified as he is glorified–in a glorious human body. (Philippians 3:20-21).

This eternal significance leads to further consequences. It leads, for instance, to the fact (so shocking to adherents of total depravity) that our humanity, though fallen, is still good. And the corollary to this is the fact that sin, though normal in this life, is never, ever natural (that is, never, ever what God wills in creating). This is especially difficult for a gnostic habit of mind to comprehend. For the universality of original sin has deeply ingrained in us the assumption that humanness equals sinfulness. That is the assumption which dominates the mind of speaker 3, who believes that for Jesus to be truly human he must have a sin nature.

But the incarnation (and, in particular, the Resurrection) denies this assumption. To be sure, Jesus is the Word made flesh, as speaker 3, observes. But “flesh” in both English and Greek has different meanings depending on context. It sometimes means merely “the body” and is morally neutral (just as “heart” can mean “blood-pumping organ”) or it can mean “the selfish will” (just as “heart” can sometimes mean “the center of the human personality”). The irony is that the latter usage of “flesh” (like the latter usage of “heart”) refers to a purely spiritual reality and is no comment at all on the supposed intrinsic evil of the body.

Why does this matter? Because contrary to speaker 3, Jesus, says Scripture, has no sin in him. This is different than merely saying he did not succumb to his sinful nature and engage in sin. It is to say instead that Jesus has no fallen nature at all. Rather he has a perfect human nature in union with and submission to his divine nature. In some mysterious way, these two natures unite to comprise the one person of Jesus of Nazareth, the God-Man. And this Man, by virtue of his perfection, demonstrates something very important and hope-filled for us sinners. Namely, he shows that sin, though pervasive as death, can (by his gracious help) be eradicated from the human person without obliterating our humanity. Indeed, the incarnation is the proof that sin, so far from being the essence of humanness, is precisely the thing that destroys humanness. In contrast, it is the divine life which perfects our human nature and rids it of the plague of sin.

How does this affect us in real life? Well, for starters, it gives a radically different view of how we ought to approach our own attempts at holiness and love. For if we begin with the view that humanness equals sinfulness, it should not be surprising if we immediately conclude that redemption means the destruction of humanness by “grace.” As an unwitting gnostic Christian once said to me, “Redemption from sin is really an annihilation of our humanity. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?”?

No. It is emphatically not the point. But it is the belief of many well-meaning Christians and adherents of “spirituality.” And it can have disastrous results not only in our lives, but in the lives of those over whom we exercise power. A real belief that redemption means the annihilation of our humanity can and does lead to some astonishing cruelties (inflicted “to free us from the old, fleshly man” of course). It leads to the neurotic belief “If I like it and I’m good at it, it must be sin because it’s natural for me.” It leads people to regard God’s love as indistinguishable from a desire to destroy them (for their own good, of course). It leads to child abuse by parents who believe it their duty to squash their child’s God-given personality as “natural” and therefore identical with the “old man.”

So in response to this view of “redemption” the deposit of faith replies (with a blow on the table) “Redemption is not the annihilation of our humanity!” It is sin that is the annihilation of our humanity. Redemption is the repair and glorification of that sin-damaged nature. That is what St. Irenaeus was getting at when he said “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” The human person is meant, not for annihilation, but for participation in the divine life and exaltation to glory next to the Risen Christ.

But this mention of the Catholic Faith brings us face to face with still another aspect of the effect of gnosticism. Namely, that it causes many who do believe in the incarnation to relegate it to the long ago and the far away. For many Christians, the incarnation is an event in Bethlehem utterly isolated from us by 2,000 years of history. That was then. This is now. But for Scripture and Tradition, the incarnation is a permanent living reality which begins in Christ and is extended through his one, holy catholic and apostolic Church. That is why the Church is called the Body of Christ. The incarnation is intended to continue through his people, through their Spirit-guided words and sacraments, and through their work of worship in the world.

It is to this reality that speakers 4 and 5 are curiously blind (at least when they are arguing against the idea of an ancient apostolic and sacramental Church). Gnostically pitting Creator against creation, speaker 4 assumes that the inspiration of Scripture necessarily means humans could have nothing to do with its composition. The writers were just human dictaphones (and thus the Church’s claim of authorship and right to interpret is null and void). Ditto the entire process of salvation and the body of Christ for speaker 5. God’s love is not expressed through the creation. Rather, it is always and only something utterly independent and in spite of the creation. In a word the incarnation means precisely nothing, goes nowhere and there is no such thing as sacramentality. What matters is not the Word made flesh, or the flesh and blood Body of Christ. These are mere preludes so that the “real” gospel, the great abstract, pure disembodied concepts of justification by faith or predestination can be embraced “spiritually” by us as atomized individuals. As the Church is unneeded for the creation of Scripture, so it is unneeded for “my walk with the Lord.”

In contrast, the biblical writers themselves habitually look, not primarily to Scripture, but to the extension of the incarnation called the Church as the source of truth. Indeed, St. Paul calls the Church (not just her Scripture) the “pillar and foundation of the Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), commands that we hold fast all its traditions (not just the written ones) (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and states flatly that through the Church (and not just her Scripture), the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). Thus the logic of the incarnation is that the Word made flesh raises other mere human flesh (known as the Church) to participate in his life. This Church, in turn, produces a Scripture which also partakes of the incarnation in its own way. Like Jesus, who is 100% human and 100% divine, so the Scripture is 100% human and 100% divine. Similarly, the saving work of Christ is entirely his and entirely the Church’s to do (Philippians 2:12-13). For the Church is an enormous sacrament and is destined to share perfectly in him.

This fear of incarnation and of its corollary sacramentality is nowhere more keenly felt than in the tremendous distrust many Protestants feel for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The conflict, in a nutshell, is that adoration of the Eucharist is idolatry since “it’s just a piece of bread baked by human hands.” Similarly, an ancient Jew regarded adoration of a certain Galilean carpenter as idolatry since “he is just a man whose father and mother we know.” The solution to both riddles? The incarnation. The sacramental Christian, whether Catholic or Orthodox, takes Jesus’ words literally and believes not only “I and the Father are one.” but also “This is my body.” In short, such Christian says, “If God can become incarnate in the physical Body of Christ, why not also in the consecrated bread and wine?” And since this is exactly what the Apostles taught said happens at mass (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:27), they adore the Eucharist as they adore Christ, for he and it are one and the same.

Thus orthodox teaching is that God is an incarnational God and we are intended to be participants in that incarnation. And, according to this teaching, we have been given a little sample of what awaits those mere mortals who say yes to participating in this incarnational gift of grace. That little sample is known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first person to say of the incarnation “be it done unto me according to the thy will.” Now here, of course, we run into speaker 7’s fear that Mary’s freedom from sin makes her equal to God. But in fact, Marian piety (whether Catholic or Orthodox) says no such thing. Rather, it simply maintains that, since (as the incarnation demonstrates) sin is not essential to our humanity, it is perfectly possible that God could and did preserve Mary from sin by the grace of Christ. In short, the Church teaches that Mary is the first (but by no means the last!) recipient of the saving work of Christ. Thus speaker 7 (who, like speaker 3 equates sinfulness with humanness) must sooner or later confront the fact that what happened to Mary here on earth is exactly what will happen to us when we reach heaven. If Mary “can’t be sinless because she’s human” then neither can the saints in glory. Thus, the gnostic speaker must picture heaven as something more like Nirvana than the glory Christ expressly promises, since for gnostics, redemption means annihilation. Perhaps getting used to millions upon millions of sinless humans will be the first stage of Purgatory for folks like this.

If not, then getting used to the idea of God muddying himself with matter surely will. Speaker 8 is so turned off to the idea that he regards it a crushing dismissal to prolife Christians to ask “Did Jesus die for DNA?” The assumption for him, as for the various Christians quoted above (who are all ardently prolife), is that God naturally doesn’t give a rip about DNA molecules, tissue, or matter in general. Rather, God “transfers worth” at some mysterious point by breathing “valuable” spirit into a substrate of “valueless” matter. What matters to God is the spirit. The body, says speaker 8, is a “finely tuned bag of genetic chemicals” as disposable as hair clippings. But since Scripture doesn’t say when this alleged transfer happens, we know nothing of when human life begins and cannot claim that human beings are sacred from the moment of conception.

Now the curious thing is, many non-sacramental prolife Christians find speaker 8 infuriatingly unanswerable. Why? Because they share his gnostic assumptions about spirit vs. matter but have never followed their own logic to its conclusions. But for the orthodox catholic tradition, speaker 8 poses no great menace because that Tradition knows it is the assumptions themselves which are false in light of the incarnation.

For strange to say, God does care about DNA molecules (and all the rest of his creation, both human and non-human). His grace is expressed first in the creation of a non-human nature which he declares, not “valueless” but “Good.” This grace is further manifested by God’s loving (according to their proper station) each creature his hands have made in a great hierarchy or web of sacredness. And his creation of the human person takes place precisely by raising nature (in the form of DNA molecules, proteins and whatnot) to participate in human life. In short, grace does not ignore, supplant or destroy nature but perfects it. And at the crown of this process of raising and glorifying nature, the Son of God becomes human (as the Athanasian Creed says, “not by the conversion of the godhood into flesh, but by the raising of the manhood into God.” God’s concern then is for the total human person, right down to our DNA. For God came to us in a created human body made of the same yucky primordial goop as the rest of us. Human nature–all of it–is now united with him.

And not just human nature. For St. Paul says of the Incarnate One that he is the firstborn, not merely of the dead or of the Church or even of all humanity. Rather he is the firstborn “over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). “God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:19-20). The phrase “all things” means, in Greek, “all things.” The whole kahuna, everything that is. Not just our airy-fairy ethereal spirits. Thus, speaker 9 is radically mistaken when, like speaker 8, he assumes that God cares nothing for the non-human creation and plans to dispose of it like an old stage set as soon the truly spiritual show is over. On the contrary, Scripture is replete with the insistence that, in some unthinkable way, all creation will be redeemed and healed of the damage wrought by the sin of humans and fallen angelic spirits. That is why St. Paul writes, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom of the children of God.” In short, God intends the Resurrection as a first fruit not merely of our redemption but of the redeemed “new heavens and new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

The incarnation then gives us a healthy understanding of many different things. It causes us to see Jesus, ourselves, our neighbor, our church and our world in the light of the Word made flesh. It frees us from the crippling and false divisions of gnosticism by uniting grace and nature, matter and spirit, humanity and God. It frees us to celebrate the truth of God’s love for his whole creation, not as some pantheistic soup in which “all is God,” but as a loving union between really distinct creatures (of whom we alone are called the “image of God”) and a loving Creator. It frees us to participate in that love in neighbor, word and sacrament. It gives us hope by illumining just how good creation is and just how big God’s plans for it are. And it jolts us with the delightful surprise of a revelation which is wholly unexpected (we thought it should be more “spiritual”) yet strangely congruent with what we always deeply desired, a universe in which all the beauties of earth are transfigured and given back to us in Heaven. Were it not for this gift of the incarnation, we would have always slumbered in the comfortable stupor of disembodied “higher spirituality.” Only the incarnate Lord could raise us from this gnostic bed and say to us, “Behold my hands and my feet.”


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email