God makes contact with us from the beyond within us
The purpose of this chapter is to explain the Christian belief that ‘God’ revealed himself/herself to us in a number of ways, culminating in ‘God’ becoming human in Jesus Christ. Later we will examine reasons that make such a belief worthy of acceptance. Here I aim at clearing up misunderstandings.
Let me first explain some traditional terminology.
God is said to work on us, and in us, through grace. Grace comprises all the tangible and intangible things God does to us. He draws us to himself, encourages us, forgives us, heals us, enlightens us, comforts us, saves us.
When God communicates a message to humankind, it is known as revelation. When God assists human authors to write in his/her name, it is called inspiration. God is believed to have revealed information about himself/herself and about his/her intentions, in a gradual programme of revelation and inspiration that spanned the Old and New Testaments.
God’s revelation of self culminated in the Incarnation. Incarnation means that the Son of God assumed human nature and lived among us as a human person. He was, as the creed says, `truly God and truly human’. Because Jesus is both divine and human, he can save us from our sins, make us adopted children of God and give us his Spirit.
Christian doctrine, even in its traditional formulation, has never been naive. Incarnation has never been understood to mean, as some people think, that Jesus of Nazareth was not fully human. He was. He had a human body and a human personality, like us. He spoke a human language, Aramaic. He worked with his hands and walked with his feet. He had to sleep like us, eat like us, look after his health as we need to do. Jesus Christ was not a divine ghost in a human shell.
How can one person, Jesus Christ, be both human and divine?
Bypassing for the moment the complex formulations devised in two thousand years of Christian theology, that belief may be best summed up in words of St.John’s Gospel. God expressed himself faithfully in this human person – so that Jesus became an expression of what God is like. “Who sees me, sees the Father”. “Who hears my words, hears the words of my Father”. In Jesus, “God’s Word became flesh”, which we may translate as: in Jesus’ humanity God expressed fully what he is like (see: John 14,9; 7,16; 1,14).
God acts from within
In the traditional Christian language of Scripture and Sunday worship, revelation and incarnation have usually been expressed in images of a two-tier world. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (see: Hebrews 1,1). The Son of God came down from heaven, assumed human nature and lived among us as a human being (see: Philippians 2,4). The Father (= the Supernatural God) sent his Only Son into the world to save all those who would believe in him (see: John 3,16-17).
But such ‘supernatural’ imagery is not required to do justice to the belief in revelation and incarnation. In fact, such imagery may pose serious obstacles to expressing faith adequately in our own scientifically-minded age.
In a two-tier world view, God’s interventions are like dinosaurs that suddenly appear from nowhere, upsetting the balance of nature and changing the whole landscape by their unexpected intrusion. If God wishes to communicate with intelligent creatures, could he/she not act in a more integrated manner?
A better image, therefore, is to picture the whole process as happening from within. In the course of human history God manifested himself by a series of ever more telling eruptions of divine awareness and divine revelation. They culminated in God’s incarnational self-manifestation in Jesus Christ. They continue in the post-resurrectional presence of the Holy Spirit in people who are transformed by the Christ event.
Such a process of revelation and incarnation from within, or rather from the beyond within us, is not less objective and factual than interventions from above in a two-tier world (see: L.S.THORNTON, The Incarnate Lord, London 1928, p.84). For it is really God, Ultimate Reality, who breaks through into human consciousness and human life from within. It is not just an imaginary or fictitious awareness I am talking about. Just as God, the Creative Energy, caused eyes to evolve and mind to emerge, so God made spiritual openness and religious salvation erupt in the life of humankind.<F63).
This then is how we may imagine what happened.
Incarnation from within
God as the Ground of Being supports all growth. God is the Life Force that underlies the whole of the universe. God allows the forces of evolution to avail themselves of ever more exciting new forms of life. God opens avenues for intelligence to emerge. As higher and higher forms of intelligence arise, he/she permits and encourages the growth of the human self. God enables human freedom and autonomy to take hold in responsible personalities. God, the divine intelligence at the root of it all, recognises himself/herself more and more. God allows human personality to become, however faint, a mirror of himself/herself.
Then the Ground of Being caused more direct awareness of its own existence to break through. Religion emerged. Sensitive people became mystics who were more conscious of Ultimate Reality than others. Some gifted individuals were so open to Ultimate Reality that they could convey messages on its behalf. They were the prophets. Finally, when religious consciousness had been sufficiently prepared, incarnation could happen.
In Jesus of Nazareth, Ultimate Reality found a human being so utterly open, so totally committed, so imbued with spiritual values that this human person could express God’s purpose as never before. Jesus’ humanity became `the reflection of God’s glory, bearing the stamp of God’s nature’ (see: Hebrews 1,3). As the Son of God he made God’s glorious love transparent and thus made the Father known (see: John 1,14-18). Jesus Christ, while being completely human, was also divine as “the Word of God (= God’s self manifestation) made flesh” (see: John 1,14). As our high priest, chosen from among us and sharing all our human weaknesses, he could become our source of salvation (see: Hebrews 5,1-10).
Christian belief is compatible with this image of incarnation from within.
I recommend in this context the Christology of the process theologians, especially N.PITTENGER, The Word Incarnate, New York 1959; J.E.BARNHART, `Incarnation and Process Philosophy’, Religious Studies 2 (1967) pp. 225-232; D.R.GRIFFIN, A Process Christology, Philadelphia 1973; L.S.FORD, The Lure of God, Philadelphia 1978; see also K.RAHNER’s evolutionary Christology in Theological Investigations, London 1970-1986.).
Two-tier world imagery is not the only imagery found in Scripture. Jesus himself used parables and comparisons that stress growth and God’s hidden action from within.
The kingdom of God is not coming with external signs. People will not say: `See, it is here!’, or `See, it is there!’ For the kingdom of God is within you!’ (see: Luke 17,20-21).
The kingdom of God is like this. A farmer scatters seed on the land. He goes to bed at night and wakes up in the morning, and the seed grows and sprouts – how, he does not know. The ground produces a crop by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then full-grown corn in the ear. But as soon as the crop is ripe, the farmer sets to work with the sickle, because harvest time has come (see: Mark 4,26-29).
God reveals himself/herself to us, saves us and inspires us from within.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of incarnation