On the Incarnation of the Word of God

I used to be a heretic.

Not of course that I subscribed formally to the doctrines of Arius, or of the Manichees, or of any others of the legion of false prophets who have attempted in the course of two millennia to rend the unity of the Church.  I was a heretic not by formal subscription, but by seemingly-irresistible psychological suggestion.

For I did not actually believe in the full logical implications of the Incarnation.  I was happy to acknowledge God’s radical transcendence, indeed nearly to the point of an extremely studied agnosticism (all you neo-Thomists out there who suspect the Eastern Orthodox of being closet-case nominalists about metaphysics are probably right … !); but God’s immanence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth I never made much of.  Again, I was happy to acknowledge the unicity, sanctity, and apostolicity of the Church; but her catholicity (not to mention her evangelical mission to assorted social undesirables, “welfare queens” and the like!) … not so much.  Above all I mistrusted the theological opinion, normative within Christianity as a whole, that created time and matter are by nature good.

In other words I was an average college freshman of right-wing prejudice who had been exposed to a little Plato.  And, I was gay.

Christianity at its best, I recently heard someone say, is a religion of praxis.  S. Maximus Confessor, whose writings comprise the largest part of the Philokalia, the great summa of Greek monastic wisdom literature, puts it very succinctly in his “Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God,” which I have been reading as an Advent devotion this year:

22.  … [T]here are two forms of knowledge.  First, there is academic knowledge, which is theoretical information, gathered merely from habit, about the inner principles of created beings, and which serves no purpose because it is not directed towards the practical execution of the commandments.  Secondly, there is actively effective knowledge, which confers a true experiential apprehension of created beings. [1]

Now Maximus Confessor is a stern one, like Augustine, and like Augustine should be approached with some delicacy.  But the point here is a good one.  Knowledge which serves no purpose is not real knowledge.  To say therefore of something “it does not work,” is a devastating indictment of that thing.  Moreover, it seems to me significant that Maximus chose to make this point in a (very theoretical) treatise on the Incarnation.

An important thesis of this blog is that several of the opinions traditionally held by Christians about sexuality do not work, or work no longer.

By saying so I do not wish to detract in any way from the witness of Christians, gay or straight, who have chosen the “white martyrdom” of a perfect (and fundamentally happy) continence.  Amongst Christians who have not rejected or belittled their queer identity, Eve Tushnet seems to be an especially admirable example.  But such witness is no more possible or desirable for the majority of gay Christians, than it is for the majority of Christians generally.  If I took one lesson from my study of classical and Christian natural-law ethics, it is that natural ends cannot ultimately be thwarted.  One may, either by government policy or by intense private asceticism of the perverser sort, attempt to stamp out homosexuality, or the taking of interest on loans, or other relatively natural activities which at times have been deemed unnatural.  But one cannot truly succeed in stamping them out; nature ensures there will be consequences.  Amongst the consequences for gay Christians are, almost (if not quite) inevitably, a paralyzing contempt of self, and of God and creation.  “For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it,” says S. Paul (Eph. v. 29), furnishing us with the typical Christian natural-law argument for marriage.  He did not make an exception for queers.

As a society we do collectively say and hear too much about “self-acceptance” and “affirmation,” as if vices did not have to be fought and virtues obtained, sometimes bloodily.  But we must take care, lest we misunderstand each other.  It is no vice to live according to one’s nature (however “nature” may be structured by biology and psychology, however mediated by history and language).  And it is no virtue to accuse God of defective handiwork in his creation. 

All those things I used to mistrust—time and matter most of all—become trustworthy in light of the Incarnation.   Maximus Confessor may have been a sterner sort, but he also endured persecution at the hands of Monothelite heretics whose doctrine would have reduced the fullness of Christ’s human nature to a mere abstraction.  And likewise with Augustine, you get the sense that, for all their neuroses, of which there are many, they nevertheless believed that things are by nature good, and that life is at bottom worth living, because they too had stood in the Cave of Bethlehem, and marveled at the virginal birth.

Trop. t. 4: Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shineth forth the light of Reason over the earth, for in it they who served the stars were by a star taught to adore Thee, the Sun of Truth, and to see Thee from the heights of the East; O Lord, glory to Thee!

Another person recently reminded me of a remark of Fr. Glagolev’s: we know “no theology, except the theology of Wonder—of Marvel, of Amazement, of standing with your mouth gaping like a total idiot.”  To be true to the experience of such wonder—to the engagement with multiform, eccentric, delightful reality—everybody has got to come out of his or her closet, has got to stop hating him or herself, whatever forms his or her particular “closet” and hatred may take.   Doing so is an indispensible precondition of any serious spiritual development.  Grace perfects nature, let us never cease repeating to ourselves.

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Compiled by St. Nikodomos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. G.E.H. Palmer et. al., vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 118.

Published in: on December 25, 2010 at 5:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,