By Andy Smith - Columbia, South Carolina, USA - 29 November 2011
In espousing that Christ is fully God, fully Man, Christianity demands allegiance to a fairly notorious both-and. The reason seems at least partially imbedded in St. Athanasius’ famous dictum: “God became man that men might become gods.” To affect our sanctification, a radical and full taking on of our nature is needed.
As the Festival of the Incarnation approaches, however, it might behoove us to note that Christianity, just as emphatically as it professes a both-and, opts, apophatically speaking, for a series of neither-nors. For example (as presented recently by a theology professor I encountered), one might contemplate Christ’s identity in this way: Neither is he “only God” nor “only Man.” Further: neither is he “neither God nor Man” nor “part God, part Man.” If we envision each error as representing one side of a rectangle -- a side from which we must flee -- we are repelled into a pregnant stasis in the white space in the rectangle’s center. This stasis represents a profoundly bold and affirmative both-and -- the arrival of the God-Man -- before Whom we ought simply to stand, in reverent silence. We stand there with the shepherds and with newly reoriented sages.
Together with Athanasius’ principle above, we might also consider words from Saint Gregory Nazianzus which provide clearer explication of the importance of the both-and: “That which was not assumed was not healed.” In Christ, the Tradition says, Man is healed of the wounds of sin. Further, since only the Divine can heal creatures wounded by sin, and “that which was not assumed was not healed,” Christ must both be fully God and have fully assumed our human nature. Or, again, He must be neither “only God” nor “only Man,” neither “neither God nor Man,” nor “part God, part Man” (these last four options, were they true, failing to effect Man’s true, full healing).
Now, the purpose of all this seeming pedantry is both to encourage contemplation of the Incarnation as well as to illustrate the difficulty of the matter. No sooner do we affirm that we “get it” -- that our limited minds grasp that which is ipso facto unfathomable -- that we are shuttled back into a state of confusion. We have to distrust our posturing. Often, we find ourselves attracted to, rather than repelled from, one of the rectangle’s heretical borders. We have to resist, by negating the overly positivistic constructions of our hasty and limited intellect. Indeed, ours is most often a plight of insufficient epistemic humility.
Of course, much more could be said –- and has been said, much more capably by Maximus the Confessor and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing -- about following the apophatic way to avoid error. But this discussion does point us to an important, if pedestrian point. In the Incarnation, we’re faced with something of such profundity, of such cosmic significance, that we ought simply to stand before it and maintain our reverent silence. Despite and, indeed, because of the requisite humility, we ought to worship.
The question then becomes, what constitutes worship? And, more precisely, what is worship? Further, what is the relationship between worship and a genuine knowing?
The standard response to the first two questions might involve some variant of sentimental desire, jubilant emoting, or the like -- a not uncommon posture for the modern Christian. To the third question, a kind of indifference or agnosticism is not an uncommon response (especially from modern Christians inclined to ignore the link between worship and the acquiring of knowledge). But, a brief thought experiment wherein we consider the plight of the earliest worshipers casts some doubt into the validity of all this.
For those living immediately in the wake of the cosmic rupture of God’s becoming man through the pristine, though human, womb of the Virgin, confusion -- and a subsequent impetus to worship -- must have been a primary, and markedly pronounced, response. To be frank, I rather doubt that the mood in the Bethlehem stable shared in anything like the ebullience of the ‘80s praise song, "Shine, Jesus, shine." More likely, the songs of the shepherds and the sages resembled the joyful pleading of another hymn popular with many worshipers, "Be thou my vision." Theirs was a plea for clearer perception -- a plea that, ultimately, is an integral component of mankind’s quest for union with God.
This traditional Celtic hymn itself demonstrates a profound both-and that complements the fullness of the Incarnation. Looking simply at the first line, the typical understanding would regard Lord of My Heart as Object-of-vision -- the one toward whom we advance in our pilgrimage of faith. And, this would be a legitimate reading -- the reading of the shepherds, perhaps. A less literal reading, though, might pronounce Him Subject-of-vision -- the one seeing in us. We might imagine this to be the reading of the Magi. It’s the reading of epiphanic contemplation of Man’s miraculous unification with God.
Verse two of the hymn continues:
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
The second and third couplets are largely relational with the Lord as object. But, the first and the fourth move us a step further. One encounters Christ as indwelling Wisdom and Word.
The final verse contains perhaps the most striking language of union -- and its relationship to knowledge:
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
The heart has traditionally been understood as the organ of spiritual perception -- perceiving with the Eye of the Heart, as it were -- and the third line here, Heart of my own heart…, constitutes the final step in relating a kind of intuitive knowing to union with Christ. Traditionally this was what was signified by the word faith, the oft-observed cheapening of its meaning into fideism and sentimentalism notwithstanding.
Despite its great emphasis on epistemic humility -- which, by necessity, should be all the more pronounced amid all the impatient leaps of arid rationalism, emotivism, and relativism characterizing today’s intellectual culture -- the Christian tradition demands that we be firm that truth exists eternally, that it is revealed to us, and that it is neither a product of, nor something that can be thoroughly obscured by, human contingency and error. Indeed, we hold out hope (and look to the saints for attestation) that, with divine aid and with a willingness to commit ourselves to a regimen of worship even while initially seeing through a glass darkly, man can perceive truth. Ultimately, this perceiving -- this seeing with the eye of the heart -- is none other than union with Christ.
We rejoice in this season that this union was made possible when Truth Himself came to reveal the truth to us –- a truth that is about ourselves and the healing transformation that is effected most intimately and profoundly within us by Him who makes it possible. God became Man, that men might become gods.