The validity of God’s incarnation can be seen in its effects on our life
As a Christian I believe that God has become human in Jesus Christ in a process of incarnation which I believe is a happening from the beyond within. I also believe that as a result of my incorporation in Christ I share in his resurrection. I have become God’s adopted child. My sins are forgiven. God’s incarnation continues in me. His Spirit animates me.
The question arises: how do I know this is true? How do I know that my belief in the Risen Lord is not just an illusion? Do I have any proofs, and hard evidence, to substantiate my faith?
The answer is: Yes, I have. I have ample reason to justify my belief. In fact, I am convinced that I would betray my commitment to truth if I did not wholeheartedly subscribe to my faith. But the reasons that persuade me are lived and factual, not theoretical.
Let me explain what I mean by `lived’ and `factual’ in this context. It may be a general truth that electric trains can attain higher speeds than diesel trains. But if a particular diesel train travelled from London to Birmingham on Monday the 11th of January 1995 at an average speed of 123 miles per hour, then this is a factual truth. If I was present on the train and found it a smooth ride in spite of its speed, the experience becomes a lived as well as a factual truth.
How can we establish such a fact? Now suppose that I fall in love with a girl. She assures me that she loves me too. How am I to know she is telling the truth? Remember that this is a difficult reality to establish beyond doubt, not unlike God’s presence in my life through continued incarnation. The girl could deliberately deceive me. She could flatter me with hypocritical words, play-act a sincere interest in me while being actually totally unconcerned. How can I prove she loves me?
The argument, I submit, will consist of three elements:
- I will carefully consider contrary evidence: facts that would prove the opposite of her claim. For instance, if I find she has lied to me, is dating someone else, slanders me behind my back, and so on, I will have reason to disbelieve her. This amounts to eliminating contrary evidence.
- If I am really in love with the girl and she with me, we are bound to experience a real meeting of heart and soul. This will be difficult for outsiders to assess on its value, but the two of us will know when it happens. It changes our relationship for good. I call this element transformative encounter.
- In my continued dealings with her I will notice dozens of small happenings that confirm her real concern for me. She may stop attending a favourite show, to have time to be with me. I overhear her talk about me to a friend. I find she is keeping some snapshots of me in her purse. These acts seem insignificant in themselves, but altogether they present a strong case. It grows out into a convergence of affirmative evidence.
The same kind of three-fold argument provides ample reason to accept the truth of God’s continuing incarnation in my life.
Eliminating contrary evidence
If the accounts of the Gospel were to be untrustworthy, if the life of Christ or his teachings had no historical foundation, if the resurrection faith of the first Christians lacked reliable witnesses – in all such cases my belief in the continued presence of the Risen Christ would stand on loose sand. Studying the historical origins of Christianity is not a luxury.
Archeology, comparative literature, a critical analysis of the scriptural writing and other studies have given us a more complex picture of Jesus, his immediate followers and the sequence of events that led to the early Church. We can now reconstruct in more detail how Jesus’ teachings were given shape in oral traditions before they coalesced to form the Gospels. We can discern better Old Testament, Rabbinical, Hellenist as well as Christian contributions to the original belief and worship.
Some scholars have rejected the reliability of the Christian sources on this account. But others have pieced together a picture that is human, but not in any way contradictory to a divine manifestation and incarnation. Their reconstruction is, in my view, supported by good historical evidence. It shows that the Christ event has firm roots in our own historical past.
See my own books on this: Jesus For Ever. Fact and Faith, London 1984; Together in My Name, London 1991. From among the vast literature on this topic, I further recommend these two compendia of modern scholarship: D.G.REID et al. (ed.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Leicester 1991, and G.F.HAWTHORNE et al. (ed.), Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Leicester 1993.
The transformative encounter
The Christian belief in incarnation seems to make heavy demands on our credulity. Is it not extremely unlikely that Ultimate Reality would manifest himself/herself in a human person born in Nazareth two thousand years ago? It is not the kind of thing we would expect God to do, especially since we measure God with our own yard stick.
There is an enormous gap between the story of a completely unselfish, loving God who `becomes flesh’ in the person of a carpenter and who allows himself to be crucified, and our own selfish, hardheaded commercialism. Incarnation thus becomes `the most unlikely event possible’, a happening that goes counter to all our ordinary standards of probability.
Soren Kierkegaard has called this `the absolute paradox’, a clash of expectations that makes faith an offence to natural thought. It can only be overcome, he tells us, by `a leap forward’, a leap which is made possible because God himself provides a change through a first-hand encounter.
I remember seeing a film about the true story of a teenage boy from a socially deprived part of the Bronx in New York. At twelve he landed in a penitentiary for burglary, theft and carrying fire arms. When a family adopted him, he could at first not accept their sincere offers of friendship and kindness. It contradicted all his early experiences. Then, when the mother gave him a small dog as a pet, there was a real encounter. It dawned on him that the impossible was possible, that real kindness did exist.
A transformative religious experience can provide the insight and energy for us to leap over the gap in faith. If we suddenly meet absolute, unconditional love, it may shatter our whole structure of preconceived attitudes and convictions. It may turn the tables totally. Instead of questioning the possibility of incarnation, we may come to question our own standards. We may then abandon our natural self-sufficiency and selfishness, turn to God in faith and accept his/her offer of love.
See: S.KIERKEGAARD, Philosophical Fragments, Princeton 1985, ch.3-5; C. S. EVANS, Fragments and Postscript, Atlantic Highlands 1983; `The Epistomological Significance of Transformative Religious Experiences’, Faith and Philosophy 1(1991) pp. 180-192; M. WISTPHAL, Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society, Macon 1987; R.ROBERTS, Faith, Reason and History, Macon 1986.
Meeting Christ transforms our perception
This transformative experience may be a dramatic face-to-face encounter. This is what happened to Simone Weil, the well known French philosopher (1909-1943). She had been educated as an atheist and had, by her own admission, never said a prayer.
“As soon as I reached adolescence I saw the problem of God as a problem of which the data could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach a wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone. So I left it alone.”
“The very name of God had no part in my thoughts.”
“In those days I had not read the Gospel.”
“I had never read any spiritual works because I had never felt any call to read them.”
“I had never prayed. I was afraid of the power of suggestion that is in prayer.”
“Until last September I had never once prayed in all my life, at least not in the literal sense of the word. I had never said any words to God, either out loud or mentally.”
See: J.M.PERRIN and G.THIBON, Simone Weil as We Knew Her, London 1953, pp. 29, 42, 36, 37.
The meeting with Christ came in the monastery of Solesmes in 1938 during Holy Week. Solesmes was famous for its Gregorian chant and perfect Roman liturgy. In spite of the splitting headaches she was suffering from in those days, she enjoyed the beauty of the music and the meaning of the words. She was also helped by a young English Catholic who was a visitor at the monastery and who talked to her occasionally. In one of their conversations her new friend talked about English poets of the 17th century who had written mystical works and recommended them to her. Simone took the trouble to read them and was immediately intrigued.
During one of the times that Simone recited a poem she had a direct experience of Christ. Without her realizing it, as she confessed later on, the recitation must have assumed the virtue of a prayer. Then, unexpectedly, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me…. In this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” The experience took her totally by surprise. It had never occurred to her that this might happen.
“In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never believed in them…. God in his mercy had prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it should be evident to me that I had not invented this absolutely unexpected contact” (see: J.M.PERRIN and G.THIBON, ibid. pp. 35-36; see also J.WIJNGAARDS, Experiencing Jesus, Notre Dame 1981, pp. 119-135.).
For most of us the experience will be less dramatic, but not, on that account, less real. For some it comes as a turning point in their quest of truth; for others as a series of successive insights and spiritual moments that together form a pattern. For those of us who were baptised as infants and who have to re-discover our faith, it may come as a gradual transformation by which we appropriate our Christian upbringing as truly our own. Somewhere along the road encounter will hopefully be there as a decisive event in our journey of faith.
Convergence of affirmative evidence
The evidence does not stop here. Rather, it gathers momentum. Swimming makes delightful physical exercise – but how to persuade those who cannot swim that this is the case? Listening to music can transport us to ecstatic heights of pleasure, but what other proof is there than the listening itself, the willingness to learn and to be open and to vibrate with one’s whole being in response to sound?
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the proverb says. The proof of the validity of Christian faith lies in the intense living of that faith, in the effects it produces. It is natural that we should want to see these effects in practice.
In fact, this is a norm Jesus himself referred to when he spoke about how we can distinguish true from false prophets. “By their fruits you shall know them”, he said.
“Thorn bushes do not bear grapes, and briars do not bear figs. A healthy tree bears good fruit, a poor tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a poor true cannot bear good fruit.”
See: Matthew 7,16-18;see also Galatians 5,22.
If a religious practice confuses and disturbs us, if it results in anxiety or bitterness, it cannot be from God. But if it fills us with peace and joy, if it consistently helps to make us find happiness and meaning in our own life and bring love and forgiveness to others, we can be sure it derives from God the source of all good.
The Gospel message holds out a promise of an experience of inner peace, of knowing God’s love, of spiritual development, of joy even in the midst of suffering, of living under the guidance of the Spirit. If such promises are fulfilled in our life, we may rightly see in their fulfilment an affirmation of religious belief itself.
See: D.ALLEN, The Reasonableness of Faith, Washington 1968; Christian Belief in a Postmodern World; the Full Wealth of Conviction, Louisville 1989; W.P. ALSTON, `The Fulfilment of Promises as Evidence for Religious Belief’, Logos 12(1991) pp. 1-26.).
It should be noted that these affirmatory experiences receive their evidential strength from their consistent affirmation. This is precisely the way in which most of our valid convictions in life are formed. How do we know for sure that England, Wales and Scotland form an island? Few of us have been able to verify this fact directly, by, for instance, sailing around it. Yet we are sure it is the truth because we have been told about it on numerous separate occasions which, altogether, make a convincing argument.
“Most of what one hears, insofar as it is evidential at all about the world, is not systematic, controlled, or replicable evidence; and a person will never have an opportunity to verify more than a tiny fraction of it through more reliable means . . . Yet it can lead to reliable, practical certainty.”
See: J.HOBBS, `Religious and Scientific Uses of Anecdotal Evidence’, Logos 12 (1991) pp.105- 121.).
John Henry Newman has called this ‘the argument of convergence’. Even if we cannot see the hub of a wheel, we know its presence and location if we can see the many spokes that radiate from it (see: J.H.NEWMAN, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, London 1970).
From many various, positive and consistent experiences we can arrive at a reasonable and practical certainty that the Risen Christ is, indeed, present in our life. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
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