Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross: #5

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2013 — 12 Comments

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all.

More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

So I thought what better way to anticipate the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’ than with a series of posts, mining the riches of saints and church fathers on the logical necessity of the incarnation irrespective of the Fall.

#5 Reason Why Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because God Can’t Love Us…Without Jesus 

To suggest that Christmas doesn’t need the Cross is not to minimize nor deny the noxiousness of Sin.

To argue for the logical necessity of the Incarnation irrespective of the Atonement is not (necessarily) to argue against the actual necessity for atonement.

To believe that the Son still would’ve taken flesh in Jesus had Adam and Eve never taken flight from Eden is instead to point out that the Incarnation solves problems other than the wrath satisfied by the Cross.

When we say that God still would’ve condescended had Adam never fallen, we’re pointing out the (rather obvious) fact that there are certain metaphysical realities that require Incarnation if our speech as Christians about God is to be more than nonsense.

Christian faith is as distinct from superstition as it is from science.

In the previous post, I noted that our very materiality separates us from God not just our sin.

Our finitude.

God is Creator and we- imago dei aside- and we are creatures, and that is a gulf immune to analogy.

Indeed the problem with many theories of the atonement, which imply that God ‘can’t’ love us- sinners that we are- until someone dies for the infinite offense, is that they neglect to notice how the gulf between Creator and creature is already so inconceivably severe that…

God can’t love us anyway.

Not if ‘love’ is to have any meaningful definition.

timothy-radcliffeAs Herbert McCabe argues:

one of the primary characteristics of any definition of love is equality between the lovers.

Love entails a recognition between two of the other’s existence as as valid as one’s own existence. To put the point more clearly, says McCabe, just consider how ‘fostered inequality’ registers with us as the opposite and enemy of love.

If equality is an essential attribute of a loving relationship, then it becomes evident that ‘whatever relationship there may be between God and his creature it cannot be one of love.’

The relationship is instead as unequal as it can possibly be.

We might think of God as caring benevolently for his creatures or as the Source of all value in them or as a Master rewarding/punishing them, but we can’t, McCabe argues, ‘think of God has giving himself in love to a creature.’

The gulf between Creator and creature is such that to say God loves me is on par with saying that I love yeast creature that made my beer possible.

Those hackneyed Christian songs might speak of the singer being in love with God, but it’s even more ridiculous to suppose the singer could sing about God being ‘in love’ with us.

McCabe, the philosophically trained might notice, takes with complete seriousness Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian God. Nietzsche didn’t argue that God was evil, wicked Boss in the sky; Nietzsche resisted because the relationship between God and us could never be anything other than Boss to slave.

That is, to Nietzsche the relationship between God and creatures could never be a relationship of love (between equals).

Nietzsche, in other words, did not disbelieve God; he rebelled against God. God in his estimation was not worthy of worship, for why would I care if the yeast creature in my beer worshipped me?

McCabe takes Nietzsche’s critique with seriousness and in turn laments how many have reacted to Nietzsche:

‘with a deplorable and idolatrous tendency to diminish God. In order that God may stand in relationship with his creatures, God is made one of them, a member of the universe, subject to change and even disappointment and suffering. Even the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is interpreted in these terms.’

God CAN’T love us, McCabe (a Dominican priest, no less) argues.

And this is where Herbert pivots to scripture:

“The most important thing Jesus said (and he does not only say it in John’s Gospel but shows it and implies it in a thousand ways) is something about himself: the Father loves him.”

Italics all McCabe all the way.

To sing ‘Jesus loves me for the bible tells me so’ is to miss the point in McCabe’s mind. We should be singing: ‘God loves Jesus…for the bible tells me so.’

For Jesus to claim the Father loves him is itself to announce equality with God, that sort of equality implied by and required for love.

Jesus, the Incarnate Logos, is the (only) One who makes it possible for God the Creator to love his creatures. And we Him.

It’s not just Sin that separates us- of course Sin doesn’t help.

God, McCabe, says, loves Jesus and loves him from before all time as his co-equal Son, ‘owing his existence indeed to God though not created but, as I suggest, loved into existence.’ 

Regardless of what went down in the Garden, the Son would’ve still come down to be Mary’s son because:

‘it is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love that we call the Holy Spirit.

And this means, of course, that we are taken up into equality, the equality demanded by and involved in love.’

Nietzsche was right.

God could not love creatures. God still cannot.

What did Nietzsche miss, according to McCabe?

We’re no longer just creatures. Because the Son became a creature, we creatures now share in the Son.

God can’t love us, but God loved the Son.

And in the Son, through the Spirit, the Father loves us.

We who were once creatures have been made children of God.

 

 

Jason Micheli

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12 responses to Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross: #5

  1. So God can’t love us apart from the incarnation because of the inherent inequality in the relationship? And now humanity is on equal footing because Christ became human? Are you saying that God needed to learn something from being human that he didn’t already know? What about impassibility?!

    Parents don’t really love children because the relationship is unequal?

    But those of us who disagree with you—how did you put it above? We’re talking nonsense about God’s love because we don’t understand something so philosophically necessary.

    Unbelievable!

    • So I read and responded to this post quickly last night while waiting for take-out. Having read it more carefully, I now see that it’s even worse than I thought. You say that the gulf of inequality between God and humanity is so wide as to be “immune to analogy” before making your point by using analogies: a master/slave relationship and a human/”yeast creature” analogy.

      Why even that? If it’s immune, it’s immune. By your logic, it’s not clear that there is any relationship, or if there is we can’t say anything about it; it’s utterly beyond words.

      Except we have this revelation from God called the Bible. In the beginning, God already has a special relationship with his creatures. He lovingly creates them and calls them “very good.” He imbues them with the special dignity of their being made in his image—which is hardly something so trivial as to be placed on the side, as you suggest.

      Moreover, prior to sin, God is pictured as walking around with his children in the Garden. What does that imply, if not that God was in a loving, parent-like relationship? God is pictured standing shoulder to shoulder with these human beings!

      What changed that relationship? Sin.

      You’re not doing justice to the biblical story. Not even close! And your one “pivot” to scripture is a novel interpretation of a verse—the most important verse, you say—in John’s gospel. Forget John 3:16. That verse is wrong because it says that God loved the world before he sent his Son. Indeed, that a prior love motivated him to do so.

      Good heavens, the God who created us with all our quirky attributes, who knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves, who sustains us into existence at every moment—such that if he removed his Spirit from us we would cease to exist—can’t love us unless or until he becomes incarnate? Because, by your logic, God still needs to learn something about us: God needs to grow.

      Are our Jewish friends talking nonsense about God’s love? After all, for them God never became incarnate. For that matter all those analogies that speak to God’s love in the OT are nonsense as well.

      I said this earlier, but any theology—no matter how elegant and logical—needs to make sense of what the Bible says first. How does yours do that?

  2. What do you mean “…the imago dei aside…”? To quote the SNL Church Lady, “Isn’t that special!” Karl Barth aside, I get the impression you are arguing for a biblical systematic theology. I am quite convinced that Biblical theology is not systematic.

    • It is special and I agree completely that scripture does not lend itself to systematic theology being as neat and tidy as we’d like. This is merely a foray into ‘speculative theology.’ Reason and the natural world, after all, permit us to reflect on things and even at times infer conclusions that scripture itself is silent on. I think it was Aquinas, reflecting on the question if there would have been an incarnation without the fall, said scripture says only one thing, reason suggests still another thing and BOTH excite the soul.

  3. To your credit, Jason, this series of thought-provoking posts has bothered me enough to respond with a couple of my own. I’m sure you’ve seen the pingbacks, but some other readers might be interested:

    http://revbrentwhite.com/2013/12/18/christmas-needs-the-cross/

    http://revbrentwhite.com/2013/12/19/christmas-needs-the-cross-part-2/

    • Moderating your comments now? I’m flattered!

      • You flatter yourself. Writing blog posts alone takes up my only free time. If I took too long to ‘approve’ your links I apologize.

        • Our relationship, such as it is in the blogosphere, is mostly as bad as it is because you never reply to what I think are substantial counterpoints. That’s weird to me. I haven’t even been sarcastic for several comments in a row.

          • I honestly don’t mind the sarcasm and I honestly don’t have the time to comment. I don’t comment on anyone’s comments on email or FB. That may violate blog best practices but it is what it is and the analytics tell me it doesn’t quell readership. I’ve only got a limited amount of time to write the posts (my boys’ swim schedule) and that’s it. The posts like the Top Ten are written well in advance of when I post them and then it’s out of sight out of mind most of the time.

            If you like, I’d be more than happy for you to guest post a pro/con, back/forth sequence some time, but my schedule doesn’t permit a long endless conversation as much as I might relish that.

  4. Never mind. I see that this is just because of the external links. Feel free to delete.

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