Friday, October 29, 2004

From the Mail: The Incarnation

Jason Pratt writes:

While paging over your post of Victor's reply to Richard (to see if he had made any significant alterations from the version he sent out to us himself, a couple weeks back), I was intrigued by your article on Incarnation theory. Have you had any solid clues on the resolution of the dilemma yet (10ish years after first writing it, and 2ish years after publishing it in Philo)?

BV: I've had a couple of further ideas. One is to question the notion that the Incarnation is a case of numerical identity alongside other cases. Perhaps it is entirely sui generis. I'll be blogging on this further.

It's refreshing not to have to sort through yet _another_ round of the usual errors made on all sides of the aisle.

BV: What would you say are the typical errors and misunderstandings? It might be nice to have a taxonomy of them.

And, having read it twice now (once as a quick scan, once more carefully), I cannot yet find any serious flaw in the argument as it stands. But I can see a place or two where it seems significantly incomplete; and from my own experience, you may find it helpful for consideration. One minor correction, which won't help solve the dilemma: although your quote from Lewis is correct, and useful (as far as it goes) for illustrating the notion you were discussing; it isn't Lewis' own final position on the subject, even in MaPS. (Part of this is Lewis' fault for being slightly sloppy in his paragraph construction, but he does give a bit more discussion on the topic later.)The point to his comparison was not simply to present the Incarnation as being "a special case of the mind-body relation, the case in which the mind is self-existent spirit rather than created spirit"; though admittedly his language surrounding the immediate proximity of the quote you used could easily be read that way. He's thinking along the lines of the event being a_miracle_, with the problems that a _miracle_--supernatural action introducing effects into Nature--has for his intended audience. This is why he wrote (as you quoted), "the difficulty which we *felt* in the *mere idea* of the Supernatural descending into the Natural is apparently nonexistent, or is at least overcome in the person of every man." [myitalics] Lewis has already long since dealt with this particular problem (thus the first 13 chapters of preliminary study), but is conscientiously mentioning it again to help readers over a remaining _felt_ difficulty. But Lewis goes on to make the crucial distinction (bottom of p 110, top of p 111, same edition) that shows he _isn't_ in fact advocating theApollinarian defense. When he says (in the middle of p 110, where you quoted him), "In other men a supernatural _creature_ thus becomes, in union with the natural creature, one human being. In Jesus, it is held, theSupernatural Creator Himself did so," [his italics] he has a further significant difference in mind than whether the mind is self-existent rather than derivative:"We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human *spirit* of Jesus: but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his *natural organism*." [my italics] The 'supernatural creature' mentioned in his previous quote, is thus _not_merely replaced in the Incarnation (Lewis is claiming) by the supernaturalCreator. Which is why he goes on (p 111 again, and afterward) to call our own composite existence "but a faint image of the Divine Incarnation itself--the same theme in a very minor key." He then specifically (and once again) describes God descending into a human spirit, and a human spirit into Nature, and our thoughts into our senses and passions. But he certainly does not mean by "descends into" a mere _replacement of-or-by_: for he would be going entirely against everything in his book up to now, to claim that a human spirit simply _replaces_, much less _becomes_, Nature. Our thoughts do not replace or become our senses and passions, but exist in unity with them. He is speaking of a 'multifarious and subtle harmony'; descending _into sympathy with_ (or perhaps it would be clearer to say into working in union with), as (again in his examples) the best adult minds descend into sympathy with children, and men into sympathy with beasts._This_ runs in synch with the rest of his book, which argues for the proper working of the supernatural within Nature not being a mere replacement, or even a mere invasion (it does not 'violate' Nature as our opponents are fond of putting it--the sexual analogy being otherwise quite apt, though), but a working with-and-through creation, empowering and raising it.

Lewis is saying, therefore, that the self-existent Creator spirit is descending to be in union with the created spirit, as well as the created body, of Jesus.He also links this (implicitly in his first appendix to MaPS, and perhaps explicitly in Mere Christianity, which I don't have in front of me at the moment, though I recall him doing it more clearly elsewhere) with "the_absolutely_ Supernatural life which no creature can be given simply by being created, but which every rational creature can have ['share' wouldperhaps be a better word] by voluntarily surrendering itself to the life ofChrist." [his italics, my note; p 170 of your edition of MaPS] If Lewis was only proposing Apollinarianism, then the consequential inference would be that our union in Christ would only involve God merely replacing our spirit with His own. (Which, to be fair, Lewis seems to tread awfully close to inMC, as I recall. Apparently this is a perrenial Christian temptation.) This would make nonsense of our creation as rational spirits in the first place. Working and living in a close interpersonal unity with God, though--a unity we can disrupt by our sin, and which can be repaired by reconciliation(conciliation and healing from God, repentence from us)--makes excellentsense, I think. It also fits the common Biblical analogy of such a relationship being a marriage between Groom and Bride.None of which may help resolve your dilemma, at least on the face of it. And you may have heard replies of this sort already from other Lewisian scholars. But just in case, I thought I'd send it.

It does lead, in a way, toward a hint I would give regarding a possible resolution to your dilemma itself. Throughout your whole discourse, as far as I remember, you _seem_ to be treating the topic entirely from the perspective of God the Son; as thoughHe operated separately from the other members of the Trinity, or as though the Son/Logos was simply another way of describing a monotheistic hypostasis (or Independent Fact as I like to call it). I think, to put it briefly, that your dilemma is coming from working at the topic somewhat backward, or perhaps more accurately in exclusion of (or irrelevance to) the character of God as an interPersonal relationship inHis own self-existent existence. Perhaps you should proceed first by considering God's character and characteristics, in the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to themselves and in regard to Nature and humanity; before going on to consider the metaphysics of the Incarnation. (After all, even the Creeds don't _begin_ with the Incarnation as the central truth of the Christian proclamation.) At least, this is how I proceeded; and while I haven't yet run a direct comparison of my results with your discourse, my initial impression is that I won't be finding any insuperable problems--despite the high quality of your work, which I was most impressed with. Hoping this clue may be of some help! (I'll let you know the results of my own cross-analysis, once I do it.)

BV: Please do follow up on this. At the moment I don't have the time to fully respond to what you have said. But your suggestion of beginning from the Trinity and examining the Incarnation from that perspective is one I will have to consider. Clearly, Incarnation presupposes Trinity, though not vice versa. I haven't worked hard enough yet on the logical problems of the Trinity -- that might shed some additional light. In any case, I am very grateful for your remarks.