• Chris de Ray

Such was the "rallying cry" of Ancient Christianity, according to Prof. John Peter Kenney (2018, p.107). This statement pithily (and provocatively) summarises the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In particular, it connects nature of the Incarnation ('God became man') with its aim ('that we might become God'). It might seem natural to begin by explicating the former, before moving on to the latter. But sometimes the best way to understand what a thing is to look at what it does. We might therefore benefit from starting with what the Incarnation is supposed to accomplish, and work our way backwards from there.

The result of the Incarnation, then, is that it enables human beings to 'become God'. This obviously shouldn't be taken to mean that we are to become our own 'Gods'. The mere fact that we are and always will be creatures necessarily precludes this, since the divine essence includes absolute independence, and thus uncreatedness. In any case, Scripture offers some clarification on this point: "he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). We are called to 'become God' in the sense of having a share in his Being, i.e. in his perfect Goodness.

This isn't quite sufficient. Indeed, we saw in another article that God creates by sharing his Being with his creatures, which may be said to reflect or participate in the Being of God, each in their own way. If that's right, then it seems that all creatures partake of the divine nature, just by virtue of being creatures.

But even so, the extent of the partaking varies from creature to creature. Not all creatures reflect God's being to the same extent. For example, since God is perfectly rational, creatures with rational capacities share in more of his Being than creatures that don't.

So, being called to 'become God' must mean being invited to share in far more of God's Being than that which we already partake in as rational creatures -- specifically, to participate in his divine life. To see as he sees, to love as he loves, to experience his perfect joy and peace, and to do so eternally.

The incarnation, then, is the means by which God offers the gift of Himself to humanity. This is true not only in the sense of sharing his divine life with us, but also in the sense of allowing us to enter into perfect fellowship with God, the Supreme Good, whereby we 'know Him fully, just as we are fully known', to paraphrase St Paul (1 Cor 13:12). This is why the ultimate outcome of the incarnation is spoken of as a marriage between redeemed humanity and the incarnate God (Rev 19:7-9). In fact, the two senses go hand in hand: we cannot possibly enjoy intimate union with God without being sufficiently like him, any more than mice can have deep friendships with human beings. Conversely, we cannot be changed into his likeness without allowing him to pour his life into us, which itself presupposes some degree of union.

Origen of Alexandria compares this process to a piece of iron acquiring the characteristics of fire when place in it:

"If, then, a mass of iron be kept constantly in the fire, receiving the heat through all its pores and veins, and the fire being continuous and the iron never removed from it, it become wholly converted into the latter (...) In the same way, that soul which, like an iron in the fire, has been perpetually placed (...) in God, is God in all that it does, feels, and understands"

This brings us to my final question: how exactly is it that God's incarnation in Christ brings about these things? Though I hope to write more about this in future articles, I still have some space for a few vague comments about this. The event of the Incarnation, as understood by historic Christianity, involved the conjoining of a divine nature -- the eternal Word of the Father -- to a particular human nature. This enabled said human nature to achieve what humans had thus far failed to do, i.e. to live a life of pure self-giving love and willing obedience to God, even to the point of death on a cross. This opened a way to reconciliation and union with God, so that all human beings could embrace the perfect intimacy that Christ enjoys with his Father. In Christ's own words,

"All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you." John 16:15

In other words, the Incarnation does not strictly end with Christ -- rather, it continues in the life of his people, who receive the divine life that he himself receives from his Father. Thus we have come full circle: God was made man, so that we might be made God.

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  • Chris de Ray

Christian theology has always taught that God creates ex nihilo, from nothing. God's relationship to the universe isn't analogous to the one that holds between an engineer and his machine. The engineer merely arranges preexisting component parts in such a way as to make them serve a beneficial purpose. The parts themselves don't depend on his activity. The God of traditional theism, in contrast, gives every thing its being, not just its structure. Rearranging preexisting bits of matter doesn't strictly bring about new being, rather it changes the being that is already there. Hence, God's job description requires him to create ex nihilo.

This might seem odd, or even unintelligible at first : how can anything be brought into existence from nothing? When we create things, don't we always do so by putting bits of matter together?

But as strange as it is, creation ex nihilo is all around us, even though (and as we're about to see) our linguistic practises tend to obfuscate this. Take, for instance, the case of an object heating up due to being left out in the sun. The standard explanation of this, which we all learned at school, is that something is being transferred from the sun to the object. That 'something' is thermal energy, or simply heat. Our 8th grade science teachers would have us believe, then, that heat is a 'thing' that can passed on from one object to another, like a baton.

The problem with saying this is that heat, unlike a baton, isn't actually a thing! Rather, it is a way a thing is, just like colour, weight or shape. It doesn't have its own existence, it cannot logically exist without being had by anything (no such thing as heat without some hot thing). Therefore, unlike a baton, it isn't something that can literally be passed on from one object to another. When we say that heat is 'transferred' from the sun to the object lying outside, we mean to say that the object acquired a new way of being, namely being hot, as a result of the sun's acting on the object. Crucially, this new way of being isn't some preexisting part that was attached to or incorporated into the object -- parts can conceivably exist without the things that have them, ways of being cannot. Hence, the object's new way of being did not preexist the object. It was given to it from nothing.

The same lesson applies to all instances of so-called 'energy transfer'. In all such instances, an energy source brings about new ways of being in other objects, without literally giving them some preexisting thing. If this can be done by a burning ball of gas, surely it can also be done by God. The difference is merely one of degree: the sun gives the object some of its being ex nihilo, i.e. its heat. God, in contrast, gives things all of their being.

But there is more to the analogy. While the sun creates in the object its heat ex nihilo, this does not mean that the sun is radically unconstrained in what it can bring about. Specifically, it can give no more than what it already has. It is able to make the object turn hot, only because it itself is hot. We may say that the object acquires its particular way of being by 'reflecting' or 'imitating' the sun's particular way of being. There is therefore a sense in which the sun shares some of its own being with the object. Again, the same applies to other energy-sources.

If this is the way in which new ways of being are brought about within the natural order, there is no reason why God shouldn't bring about being in this manner as well. There is therefore a sense in which divine creation is ex deo, i.e. 'out of God'. God creates by sharing his being with the rest of reality, which reflects his being, each particular thing in its own way.

We may draw two conclusions from this: first, that divine creation itself is a self-giving act on the part of God, who 'radiates' his very self to creation. Secondly, all created beings, as Leibniz put it, express God to various extents, depending on how much of himself God shares with them.

"For with you is the fountain of life, in your light do we see light" Psalm 36:9

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  • Chris de Ray

"The crucified Christ is a terrible sight, and I cannot help associating it with the sadistic impulse of a physically affected brain" * Such are the honest words of D T Suzuki, a Buddhist writer expressing his revulsion at the Christian "symbol of crucifixion".

No one could reasonably disagree with the first part of that sentence. If we in the West don't experience any particular emotional reaction to the sight of a crucifix, it is only because we've grown overfamiliar with it. I wish we hadn't. But what about the second part? Isn't there something pathological about celebrating a man's brutal, torturous execution? Don't Christians have an unhealthy fascination with blood and gore? Well, perhaps some do. But before you conclude that that's all there is to it, consider the story behind Good Friday. It is natural to ask why God, assuming he exists, doesn't just come down and sort everything out -- put an end to all suffering, violence, injustice and so on. The Christian answer to this question is radical, and not altogether flattering: God did come down. God came down in human form and met us where we were. And when he did, we murdered him. The Good Friday narrative has at times, with tragic consequences, been interpreted as indicting a specific group of people. This is a profound misunderstanding, as should be obvious to anyone who reads the story without an agenda. The particular society that puts Christ to death is an archetype of all human societies, and each of its main parts is held responsible. The State knowingly executes an innocent, on grounds of expediency. The clergy lies and schemes in order to condemn a man who threatens its authority. And the common folk, the 'average joes', bay for the blood of the one they'd worshiped just a week before. Even his closest friends abandon him, betraying him for money or denying that they ever knew him. The universality is inescapable, the verdict unambiguous: there is something rotten, not just in the state of Denmark, but in the state of humanity. To stare at the cross is to look into a mirror of the soul -- small wonder that we do not like what we see. It makes a mockery of our endless litany of excuses and protestations: 'But I'm not that bad! Not like them! I'm nice to others! I'm devout! I'm tolerant! I'm a victim, not a perpetrator!' And it has no patience for Suzuki's more sophisticated response: "There is from the beginning no self to crucify." There can be no sin without a sinner, or any self to sin against. A comforting thought, no doubt. But a false hope, if the message of Good Friday is to be believed. The point of celebrating Good Friday, then, is not to obsess over the details of a particularly violent episode in human history, least of all to derive any sadistic pleasure from it. It is not meant to be pleasurable. It is about being painfully aware that, no God cannot just come down and eliminate all evil, because that would mean eliminating you and I. That isn't how the story ends, of course. But the joy of Easter Sunday is meaningless without the bitter pill of Good Friday. *From Mysticism Christian and Buddhist, DT Suzuki, 1957

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