Refiguring the Birth of Christ

Essay by Toni Reynolds on 5 July 2018 2 Comments

Part of the struggle for 21st century Christians is that we have inherited a tradition formed many lifetimes ago, a key component being the virgin birth of the Christ. This tradition has been handed to us with little to no permission to rework the interpretations for ourselves. I am eager to follow Bishop Spong’s lead in doing so before more time passes by.

The leaders of the past fit the Jesus story into the scope of vision respective to their eras and cultures, giving us the creeds and doctrines while prohibiting us from doing the same shaping for our own present time. We need not continue with this prohibition if we aim to bring our most authentic selves to the timeline of Christianity.

To me, there is no question whether or not Christianity is capable of being relevant in this century. From kernel to husk of the tradition there is something with which we can work to better understand God, ourselves, and our relationship to all things God has made. What I worry about is whether or not the churches that currently house Christianity are willing to let the tradition live in ways that it wants to, leaving it free to metabolize in each new millennium so that the people learn to be good to one another in ways that make sense to their changing needs.

Clearly, Christians want to do this work. You reading essays like this one is a small testament to that. The fan base Spong amassed throughout his career is an even larger testament. So, our enterprise is to free ourselves of the ruling old school mindset that claims we have no right to understand these stories for ourselves.

For Christianity to grow into our 21st century lives we must take seriously our right to understand these stories and concepts for ourselves. We have no choice but to embody an understanding of the Jesus story that empowers us to recognize our generation of Christians as fundamental in the lineage of this tradition. An assignment within this enterprise is to be about the business of truth seeking and adapting it for now. To find ways to encourage developing pastors to reject the acquired myth that “your congregation won’t be ready for the truth about the Bible.” We must share resources and knowledge, wisdom and practices. We must live our lives in ways that reflect our priorities in all situations of life.

In each gospel, creed, and doctrine existent in Protestant traditions is something of a time capsule for us to better understand the theological and political convictions of our faith ancestors. Whatever happened in those nine decades separating Mark from Matthew necessitated a deeper understanding of how/why Jesus’s birth was significant. Perhaps this is part of why this birth story goes from absent to colorfully present.

It is worth questioning if the virgin birth accounts were some attempt to acknowledge the impressive role of Jesus’s mother in his life and ministry. As Spong notes, Mark takes care to name that Jesus’s mother was one who went to retrieve him as others were calling him crazy for his witness (p. 106). With implicit and explicit emphasis on Jesus’s maternal line we acknowledge the importance of honoring Mary in some significant way.

What modern understandings of genetics has done is explained a process with images and details that leaves us thinking we know full well how a human being comes to exist in the stomach of another human being. Just because we can explain the process doesn’t mean the process is devoid of miraculousness; it’s just a different type of miraculous than the virgin birth attempted to capture. Perhaps more exciting is that it is a miraculous process that each of us has experienced. We share an intimate experience with Christ by having first arrived in the womb of another person.

I defend the extraordinary nature of human conception and birth because birthing is an incredible symbol for the act of creating. I believe we are each called to create as a way of making offerings to the world and the Creator. Birthing is a symbol I believe has the power to preserve the gospel writers’ hope that the followers of Jesus would take their ability to create seriously.

Jesus’s birth and life is miraculous to us for different reasons than it was miraculous to the authors of Matthew and Luke. He was born into and killed by a ruthless empire. These facts are not disputable. We know that Rome was good at violent conquest and brutal crowd control, from physical to psychological forms of cruelty. Yet Jesus maintained his sense of purpose and his commitment to compassionate action despite the temptations of a violent culture. Mary begat Jesus and Jesus begat a ministry and legacy that prompted generations of compassionate care for one another and creation. This is our heritage.

Creating is an act that is available to each of us. No exceptions.

To matter in our present context, our understanding of the birth of Christ must fuel us as we resist the ills of our world today. A new interpretation of the virgin birth must focus on creating with clarity of heart and certainty of mind. After a day of personal challenges, in a week of stressful headlines in the news, through a year of ever-increasing crimes against humanity our understanding of Christ’s arrival to this world must fuel us in the direction of compassion. Regardless.

Like Mary and Jesus we are called to birth loving acts in our own day and age.

I propose that a contemporary version of Christ’s conception and birth be more explicitly linked to our call to co-create Holy works for the benefit of all beings. To do so in times that are resistant to Goodness will better align us with the priorities of Jesus. Through our words, thoughts, projects, prayers, relationships, memory making and future visioning we ought to be consulting the Holy Spirit as a creative partner in our lives. Never creating in isolation, forever creating so that all might experience the fullness of life on earth.

There are many ways to reinterpret the virgin birth of the Christ child. To my estimation, the only crucial component that ought to exist in each is that Christians be motivated to live as a radical creator of compassion and justice. Ready to offer healing to a social enemy as Jesus does to the Syrophoenician woman, and equally ready to flip a table where injustice has become the new norm.

A crucial hope of the birth of Christ narratives is that each reader be inspired to birth radical acts of loving justice that go along to birth their own radical acts of justice.

One thought at a time.

One relationship at a time.

One song, poem, article, book at a time.

Happy birthing.

~ Toni Reynolds

 

Question



I have been on a journey much like John Spong’s for almost 67 years. I have followed his work over the years with interest and used to be on his regular mailing list. I just finished his “last Book” and found it both enlightening, and frustrating. I appreciated the insights and the bio of his and our shared journey, and resonate with many of his conclusions. Where I part company is his “insight” that we human’s alone have “self-consciousness,” which allows only us to grasp: life, death, fear, joy, God, spirit etc. Sadly Spong trots out the age old notion that humans are mentally & spiritually superior to the “lower” beings on our planet. This attitude has justified our human lethal domination of this planet to the detriment of every species including human beings. Worst of all it is a conjecture that can neither be proven nor disproven (which I personally think is the easier of the two tasks) because we humans lack the ability to communicate with our fellow travelers. Stating this opinion and maintaining it as “fact” throughout the book diminishes, Bishop Spong’s logic and conclusions, because it is so basic to every argument that follows. I pray that as we humans expand our own spiritual consciousness we will outgrow all of the assumptions we’ve nurtured about our innate superiority.

Answer

Dear Mark,

Rather than plunge into your disagreement with Bishop Spong as such, I prefer to speak to the important issue you raise about our so-called “innate superiority” as a species.

To me, we as a species are better than other species in some things but inferior in others.  Among the former, I would put front and center our capacity for evil.  I don’t know any other species that has put such effort into developing nuclear missiles that would destroy the planet as we know it.  Nor has any species created an event like the Second World War which killed at least 42 million human beings and sported concentration camps and the holocaust.  Or that indulges in climate change and denial of climate change at the same time,

Why are we so superior when it comes to Evil?  Aquinas says one human being can do more evil than all the other species put together.  How did he know that, writing as he did in the thirteenth century and 700 years before Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, et al?  Because he recognized the profundity of our intellects and our creativity which together constitute the “image and likeness of God” that we carry either for good or for evil.

Rather than carry on the myth of our “innate superiority,” I prefer to think in terms of what Meister Eckhart calls the “equality of being”--at the level of being we are all equals, none greater than the other.[1] In a culture with its religions, theology and educational systems rarely talking about “being” at all, we set ourselves up for the kind of “superiority complex” that you are warning us about.

It is existence or being that is the true miracle of life.  We cannot take credit for it--existence is a given, a gift, a grace.  We all got it.  Now to use it well and wisely.  My being as a human is not greater than other beings, say my dog, as a dog.  Being is being and being is divine.

Thomas Merton puts it this way:  “The consciousness of being (whether considered positively or negatively and apophatically as in Buddhism) is an immediate experience that goes beyond reflective awareness.  It is not ‘consciousness of’ but pure consciousness, in which the subject as such ‘disappears.’”  He adds: “To one who has been exposed to scholastic ontology and has not recovered, it remains evident that the activity of becoming is considerably less alive and dynamic than the act of being.”[2]

Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, in his excellent book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, chastises both Western and Eastern wisdom traditions for neglecting the experience of being.  He criticizes contemporary religion for forgetting a God of being and offering instead superficial ersatz notions and projections whether of a theistic or atheistic bent.

The real miracle among us is the miracle of being and shame on us for taking it for granted or forgetting it.

So before dashing off and declaring ourselves the “king of the hill” and the “summit and even purpose of all creation” we should wake up and smell the roses--and the sun, clouds, rain, supernovas and original fireball that make the roses possible.  Aquinas says the most excellent thing in the universe is not the human but the universe itself.  In short, we must return to cosmology in preference to all that feeds our collective narcissism as a species.  It is the beings that preceded us and nurture us still that make our being possible.  Let us cease the chauvinism and become instead grateful for being and therefore grateful for our equality with all beings.

~ Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox

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[1] See Matthew Fox, Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart (Rochester, Vt: Inner Traditions, 2000), Sermon Five: “How All Creatures Share an Equality of Being,” 91-101.
[2] See Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey (Novato, Ca: New World Library, 2016), 237f.

 

Comments

 

2 thoughts on “Refiguring the Birth of Christ

  1. Certainly, existence is gift but the reality remains, to the best of our current knowledge, that human beings are different in degree if not kind (all being is divine). Seemingly all other beings, simply are; their act of being is to be, that is their way.

    Man’s being is also a grace but his gift, and therefore, his difference is (seems to be) that his act of being is to be-come. His ‘being’ is not yet (his): it must, to borrow from Maslow, be actualized. This human being, among all beings, must embody (incarnate) Being Itself in order to Be. And man knows this is his reality: he is the one (again to the best of our knowledge) who is conscious/aware of what he is and, yet, is not; he is aware or suspects there is (or might be) ‘more’ but it is not his. He is the self-transcendent being: knowing. searching, longing beyond himself, for wholeness. And, because his being is not given, because he must do in order to be – and because (see Spong) he began in insecurity with the overwhelming ‘instinct’ to survive (which continues), sin ‘entered and continues’ in the world.

    Of course, we are capable of evil: we (alone) are capable of doing ‘more,’ of being something ‘more’ but we miss the target and evil lives in and through us. It is not that we are superior in this it is simply that we alone have this capacity as we move from potentiality to actuality.

    Merton is absolutely on target: “becoming is considerably less alive and dynamic than the act of being.” The consciousness of all of creation is (seems to be) immediate experience of what is presented and within this there appears to be degrees of awareness (rock, tree, dog). “Consciousness of being is pure consciousness in which the subject disappears but that subject” – but the one who is conscious of self, must ‘enter into’ that consciousness; this is man’s Way to Be.

    We are not the ‘king of the hill’ but we should act in service of all creation. Spong appears to be on to something: human beings are not the only beings to be aware of self (as some other animals are) but, seemingly, we alone grasp self, life, death, sin, fear, joy, God, Being, consciousness, spirit, wonder, etc. And, merely because Spong, or others, makes this case, it is not, in itself, a justification for certain behavior. Some men do evil, some do great evil to other human beings and to other living beings. However, we should know by now that anyone can pretty much justify anything.

    I am all for smelling the roses and beholding the wonders of the universe; I am awed by the magnificence of the ocean, I am both soothed and humbled by nature and I love animals. I am grateful for the gift of being, I value all beings as they are ‘of’ Being, but man is ‘more.’ Our capacity for evil is (can be) matched and overcome by our capacity for love and sacrifice as seen in the response to that War and the camps and extermination that it supported. Nuclear power can be used to threaten the world and some choose to deny climate change and strip laws that protect the world and its inhabitants. However, nuclear power can also be used to harness energy for the good of the world and some choose to acknowledge the negative impact of certain human actions on nature by enacting law to protect our home. It is only the latter that are the ‘likeness of God’ and that likeness is the birthright of beings different in degree than all others: human beings. Human is the being that chooses to be for the other and thus becomes his true self.

    It is not that we are greater, after all what truly loving human being thinks she is greater than the infant she just gave birth to or to her friends or neighbors or the sick, the less fortunate, the less educated, the less wealthy, etc.? It is not that there is not an equality of being, it is simply that man’s responsibility is to symbolize (point to and make present) Being in which all move and have being. Man is caretaker in that he is care (Love) giver; man is different in that he carries the weight of Being on his shoulders.

  2. Dear Toni: About the “birthing” by Mary, I would like to mention the gospel of Mark. Mark 3: 31-35 describes how the brothers and sisters came with their mother Mary asking for Jesus to come outside where they were waiting. And Jesus did not treat Mary the way he ought to have treated his own mother as we are used to treat our mothers.
    Then in Mark 6: 3-4, the names of his brothers were given in the text. Thus, we may combine the siblings of Jesus as no less than 6, and if Jesus is part of the family of Mary, there must have been no less than 7 in total!
    And the “birthing” by Mary from the above story must have made Mary the mother actually having done “birthing” seven times if we include Jesus! So the mother of Jesus was very busy changing diapers and feeding the babies.
    I hope that this would give a better perspective in the first Century CE.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China
    (I have been traveling with my family for 9 days without bringing my computer on the way in the Yunnan province.)

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