The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith

At perhaps the pivotal moment in the Church Dogmatics IV/1, Barth poses the question Cur Deus homo? He discusses the incarnation and what it meant for God “to deny the immutability of His being, His divine nature, to be in discontinuity with Himself, to be against Himself, to set Himself in self-contradiction” (184). Continuing with these questions, Barth goes on to ask about the how the perfect, eternal, and omnipotent God could become limited, lowly, and impotent. Barth considers what it meant that “His becoming man, consisted in this determination of God to be “God against God” (184). Further on he writes, “God in His incarnation would not merely give Himself, but give Himself away, give up being God. And if that was His will, who can question His right to make possible this impossibility?” (184). This rift, this gap in the Godhead for Barth culminates in cry of dereliction on the cross. With fear and trembling, Barth wonders if this cry ultimately is a temptation that would encourage the notion that there is a “contradiction and conflict in God Himself” (185). Barth comes very close but ultimately rejects this idea because “God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away” (185). Also, God is a God of peace not confusion (1 Cor 14:33). Despite the fact that God experiences this contradiction, “He acts as Lord over this contradiction even as He subjects Himself to it” (185). As Barth approaches the mystery of Christian theology, he stops short. He looks over the cliff but refuses to jump. At the very moment where he could ultimately embrace the death of the sovereign God, he pulls back. The sovereign God ultimately never left the control station even at the cross. Altizer once said that the death of God could help us finally come to terms with what the cry of dereliction actually meant for the Godhead. Radical death of God theologians seem to be the only theologians who actually take this question seriously.

This very conversation arose a couple of months ago over at DET when Adam dialogued with Barthians about Hegel and Zizek. Hegel’s basic point was that God did give Godself away. Nothing was held back in the Godhead in the incarnation and at the cross. As Jennings writes in Transforming Atonement, “[o]ne of the things I have learned from Thomas J. J. Altizer is that the movement of God into the world cannot be stopped, even by the church” (55-56).

Some of these thoughts led me back to revisit Soelle’s work on the death of God.

Here’s some quotes from her work Christ the Representative:

“Because God mediated himself into the world, all immediacy has come to an end since Christ. God now appears in mediation, in representation. Christ plays God’s role in the world-that and nothing else is what incarnation means. With this way of mediation, there is of course no longer any room for lordship, or power, or any of the other kingly attributes to God.” (141)

“Only in Christ does it become clear that we can put God to death because he has put himself in our hands. Only since Christ has God become dependent on us. Christ did not identify himself with a calm spectator of all our troubles. Christ, by his teaching, life and death, made plain the helplessness of God in the world; the suffering of unrequited and unsuccessful love. (151)

“When time was fulfilled, God had done something for us for long enough. He put himself at risk, made himself dependent upon us, identified himself with the non-identical. From now, it is high time for us to do something for him” (152)

If the incarnation means that Christ assumes God’s role in earth, what did the incarnation mean for God? Something I’ve been thinking more about is the fact that this was a leap of faith for God. This was an actual risk; God has put Godself in our hands. And if the Pauline message of reconciliation is that God took the first step towards reconciliation then we need to be reconciled to God because we have enmity towards God. Contra Jonathan Edwards, it is in fact God who put Godself in the hands of angry sinners. Why did God take the risk? As we know God in Christ was ultimately executed. Christ’s mission was a failure. Of course, the crucifixion was simultaneously a resurrection because of the Spirit’s reception at Pentecost.

Perhaps, we can answer the question why God took the risk by asking a similar question: why did Satan fall from Heaven? Most theologians reject this event as mythical, or in Barth’s case he refuses to engage this idea in the Church Dogmatics because it lacks Biblical merit. Tillich asks a very provocative question, “[it] (the fall of Satan) introduces an even darker riddle, namely, how “blessed spirits,” who eternally perceive the divine glory, could be tempted to turn away from God” (Systematic Theology Volume II, 40). Although theologians in the past have speculated that Satan rebelled against God because he envied God’s authority and power, might we offer another explanation? What if Satan and friends left heaven because they pitied God’s loneliness? Unfortunately, Satan’s relation to man has always been one of domination and oppression. In some sense, the incarnation is a repetition of Satan’s original fall. This kenotic movement of the Godhead however had a different intent. God in Christ wanted to set up a new type of relation with man, one of sharing and solidarity. We should not be surprised that God would come down to creation because God names creation as good, as desirable. Ultimately, Satan triumphed by killing Christ, but on the cross Satan’s obsession with violence and power is exposed as impotent and weak.

Obviously, this is speculative but I think the conclusion is interesting. We often speak as if Christian belief in God requires some leap of faith. However, believing in God is easy and quite natural. Freud was right in denouncing belief in God as an illusion, as wish fulfillment. What perhaps takes more faith and is an actual risk is believing in one another. The incarnation seems to speak to the fact that God trusted us and took a leap of faith because God finds us desirable although we do possess the potential for destructiveness. It seems to suggest that humanity is perhaps even enviable. However, trusting in one another and working together is dangerous. We open ourselves up to rejection and violence. However, the Christian gospel proclaims that God denied sovereignty and power to enter into interdependent relationships with us (otherwise a sovereign God cannot be loved which is precisely opening oneself to the Other), and we ought to follow suit. The most trying task is to maintain hope in another. Perhaps Christian resurrection can ground that hope in the fact that the community of believers failed to let go of the memory of the crucified Christ. They failed to fall into despair and continued to trust and depend on one another just like Christ had depended and trusted them. Despite the fact that Christ was abandoned and rejected, God in Christ had opened a path for a new way to be together. The No of the cross was not only a No to Satan but also a No to all suffering and evil. However, the community’s response is finally a No to humanity’s initial No to the crucified Christ that reverberates in an ultimate Yes to being together in communal relations just as God in Christ said Yes to us ultimately in the incarnation by denying His sovereign power and control and coming to earth.

19 thoughts on “The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith

  1. This is splendid, Adam, and I am impressed by how your thinking has both moved forward and become bolder but I think that here you ever more gradually betray yourself as you move towards an established conclusion. For the real problem here is Satan. Can Satan not be named as the absolute No of God? A No finally directed against Godhead itself, but only that dichotomy in the Godhead, or that absolute negativity, makes possible the actualization or the ultimate life itself of the Godhead. Here, we see a profound gulf between modern philosophy and modern theology, or between Schelling and Hegel and Barth and Tillich, and one which contemporary theology should be addressing as you have been doing. But don’t stop! Ever move forward!

  2. As if the post was not great enough the initial, and repeated, misidentified authorship really capped it. Though I suppose it is clear that Jeremy was channeling Adam on this one. It is a leap and a risk to embody Kotskotian faith.

  3. My comment was meant to evoke the Kotskotian tack of the post, though I suppose its tone did not come across, and if it had it would have seemed snarky. So I’m glad it didn’t because I agree that the post is great. Professor Altizer’s suggestion regarding the negativity within the Godhead is quite intriguing. Since he might not return to comment again, does anyone familiar with his work know if/where he elaborates on this?

  4. Sorry Altizer gave me credit for your work, Jeremy. But from the perspective of death of God theology, getting Altizer’s approval is obviously the gold standard — my own actual writings have yet to achieve that.

  5. I’m just glad he’s reading it. It’s quite flattering as I began my theological studies by reading his Radical Theology and the Death of God.

  6. This is provocative and inspired, thank you.

    Perhaps the most arresting point made here is the failure of Christendom to embody a theology of the cross. One telling feature of this is that some local churches in my town are already advertising their Easter services, while we are still between Lent 3 and 4. This speaks to the realities of church attendance but it would seem, driving by the church and reading their signs, that nothing all that important is being observed (Lent 4, Lent 5, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and especially Holy Saturday) in the meantime.

  7. Chris,

    I’ve often thought that the visible church is to be found among those shouting “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. That’s not quite right, but the discrepancy between the full pews and fine clothes on Easter morning and the relatively empty pews and darkened sanctuary of Good Friday surely says something about the compromised nature of American Christianity. But maybe I should look at the same phenomenon differently—as contemporary disciples’ unwitting reenactment of the abandonment of Jesus during Holy Week. We’re still doing it, and in some strange way it has to be unwitting to be a faithful reenactment. I’m thinking of Peter’s denial. And he’s “the rock” on which the church is built!

    Those who show up on Good Friday, men and women, would be reenacting the witness of the women who stayed.

  8. I know it is a trope that’s nearing cliche-status, but the literary move to re-think Judas as the disciple who “got it”, a la Kazantzakis, or Mario Brelich, or (some readings of) “the Gospel of Judas,” seem to me to be very close to the question Thomas Altizer is raising in his comment about Satan, and which Jeremy points to in his last paragraph. Thanks for this post. Very bracing.

  9. I would like to add my cheers to Jeremy’s wonderful posting.

    Let me meditate a bit on the phrase “humanity’s initial NO to the crucified Christ” in Jeremy’s last paragraph. I applaud the use of the term “humanity” here, and I am certain that Jeremy would probably want to eliminate the term “initial,” since he insists, like Kierkegaard, that Christendom has hardly managed to do better in the way of affirming the crucified Christ than it “initially” did. Having thus gotten away from any possible confusion of the “initial NO to the crucified Christ” with the fact that only a handful of Jews rather than all Israel made up the first believing community, we can now ask whether the Jews in fact are part of the “humanity” that said NO to the crucified Christ. From Jeremy’s post, one might think that the NO the crucified Christ includes those who say YES to God’s sovereignty, but I think that Jeremy is not at all committed to this conclusion, at least as it so bluntly phrased. For the real question is: What does God’s sovereignty mean? If it means that God’s sovereignty is mirrored on earth in a human empire, then Jews should not be counted as ever affirming this (this is Erik Peterson’s mistake, thinking that Judaism swallowed wholesale the Hellenistic idea of monarchy). Jewish theology affirms the sovereignty of God as mirrored only in a messianic kingdom and in no earthly empire (thus there are some ultra-orthodox in Israel who reject the Jewish State and do not pay taxes, and they are the most consistent interpreters of Jewish theology). I take it that this asymmetry between God’s Kingdom and any earthly kingdom is precisely what Jesus was preaching, and precisely what Saul/Paul emphasizes (I like Agamben’s point about the name change indicating a move from a name of a King to a name meaning “little”). What the Jews rejected was not the teaching that God’s kingdom is radically asymmetrical with any human kingdom, including that of the Davidic kings (for how then make sense of the prophets?), but the claim of Jesus to have inaugurated God’s kingdom, to be the perfect Davidic king. Perhaps one could say that to see in a crucified figure the true King of the Jews was more than most Jews could do, but it was not because they expected their messianic King to be or act like the Roman Emperor. But this failure was of a different sort entirely than the one that did see a symmetry between Christ and Emperor. But Jeremy rightly insists that perhaps Jesus was really saying that God’s kingdom awaits OUR response, depends upon us, and God is incapable of doing it without us. But this is also perfectly consistent with Judaism, where one actually can find kabbalists describing God’s impairment and suffering (or recall Buber on the prophets and the proclamation of God’s pathos.) So, perhaps one can even go further than Jeremy in absolving Jews of any special guilt for that “NO to the crucified Christ.” Perhaps one can so far as to say that the Jews, even when rejecting Christ’s claim to the perfect Davidic king, should nonetheless be counted among those “who failed to fall into despair and continued to trust and depend on one another just like Christ had depended and trusted them.” If what Christ expected of the Jews was to say NO to God’s sovereignty as reflected in any worldly empire and certainly not in the Roman Empire in any of its forms, I think the Jews have been in their history at least as faithful to Christ as any community has been.

  10. Bruce, thanks for the thoughtful response.

    I was mostly describing the immediate events surrounding incarnation/crucifixion/resurrection. You’re right to assume that humanity (Christians included) have continued to say ‘No’ to the crucified Christ.

    The sovereign God I was criticizing was the transcendent God of Christianity. I’m against transcendence in general and believe the incarnation is the first step towards the God who has fully entered the world. I’m glad you raise the question of Jewish theology and sovereignty. Perhaps, your commentary on God’s sovereignty in Judaism helps explain Jesus’ statement that my kingdom is not of this world. Namely, that society has yet to structured itself in such a way that would permit the reign of God to come and establish new communal relations (the not-yet part of the Kingdom). I recognize Christianity has continued to say ‘No’ to the crucified Christ, and I suspect you’re right when you claim Jews have been perhaps the most faithful in continuing to say Yes to this world and each other. Regarding the actual crucifixion, I would want to implicate the Roman Empire and all those in power who were threatened and conspired to put Jesus to death. I think properly saying Yes requires the following Jesus’ statements in Matthew 25. So of course any community that continues to serve the least of these in society is properly following in the footsteps of the crucified Christ regardless of particular religious affiliation.

  11. Wouldn’t Bruce’s idea here cohere with some Jewish approaches to messianism where the identity of the messiah is basically not a big deal — where a particular person will even become convinced he’s the messiah, but not really publicize it?

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