According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What Can a Postmodernist Say You About the Virgin Birth?

  

What can a postmodernist say about the Virgin Birth of Christ concerning the immaculate conception of God in becoming incarnate man while retaining His Trinitarian divinity? Who, in Jesus, was fully God as He was fully man. With neither His divinity nor His participation in the flesh diminished. Who "laid" aside His divine being to be clothed upon in the garments of man's flesh ("the Word became flesh," Jn 1.14) without suspension of His divine being, authority, eternality, nor any other part of His unsearchable divinity. Who was Himself a man, and not a divine spirit indwelling a fully submissive man, but a man in His being and composition. Who was uniquely fashioned and historically dwelt among men as God in the flesh. And as man, lived with the help and agency of the Holy Spirit fully submitted and obedient to the Father God above.

These are paradoxes we do not understand. Mysteries we try to peer into whose fog withholds us from comprehension. Each centered in the person of Jesus, the Christ, Immanuel, God with us, the Holy One of God, sent from God as the Son of God the Father. Our Savior and Lord. The Son of David. Born of a virgin as the Son of Man. The only Incarnate God of history. This is what is meant by the theological term "Incarnation." That God became man and dwelt among us in all of our heartaches and sorrows, joys and laments. Who knew thirst and hunger, weakness and ability, pain and suffering, laughter and camaraderie. From a theological viewpoint we can only bow our heads and say, "Amen and amen."

John 1

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Word Became Flesh

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life,[a] and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptist]. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own,[b] and his own people[c] did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (cf. the Suffering Servant, Isaiah 52-53).

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.[d] 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God,[e] who is at the Father's side,[f] he has made him known.


To this question, what can a postmodernist say about the incredulity that the Virgin Birth places upon our scientific presuppositions when considering what we know about the biological birthing of a human child requiring the agency of sperm and egg to conceptualize a living human being? When having the audacity to proclaim that Jesus was born fully human when knowing only the DNA portion of Jesus was birthed from His mother Mary. That neither his father Joseph, nor any other man, had any biological input to Jesus' birth. That Jesus was conceived within His mother's womb by the miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit who superintended over the division of the egg from 23 chromosomes to 46 in a parthenogenetic event, giving to Jesus His inherited male DNA from that of his mother as she had received it from her own mother and father. To consider Jesus as fully human because of this miraculous event, and as fully representative of mankind in His inherited genetic structure. For such was Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, born without a human biological father. From a scientific viewpoint we could argue doubt having not witnessed this as a normally occurring biological event except with the help and agency of a scientifically manufactured event.

And to each viewpoint - that of theology and that of science - one might be tempted to state a hard-and-fast line of demarcation. That each viewpoint remains as isolated from the other conceptually as they are ideologically. And yet, it might be that with the ironic help of science we may find that the incarnation of God as man is fully acceptable and abiding with biblical/theological statement. That each may interrelate with the other with no necessity for their perceived competing dualistic positions of immateriality and materiality.

So then, as a postmodernist, we have hard questions to ask of ourselves. And equally as important, we must similarly determine how to approach this very delicate subject in postmodern terminology. Whether we should abdicate one position over the other (as modernism would do in the presentation of dualistic categories). Or perhaps, simply hold both positions in tension and content ourselves in the problem itself without any further need for a final solution (which postmodernism would require). But to so simply decry either for theology, or for science, would work against the mystery of God's divine incarnation, and against the necessity for scientific discovery. For each are as equally important as the other within the creation of God.






As such, I have yet to discover a good scientific understanding of the Virgin Birth (which would include this present article included further below; AND its antecedent article from a year ago by NT Wright and  John Polkinghorne which I had also reported on). As a trained theologian I am completely confident in accepting the reality of the virgin birth of Christ. But from a scientific  point of view I am equally as sympathetic to the lack of evidence supporting this theological concept (unless parthenogenesis is actually the key to this topic. But if so, I still will have a lot of questions that must be answered).

And unlike my earlier stances of generally supporting science over today's more popular Christian opinions created by the ideologies of biblical literalism - which in my estimation (as well as that of others) has misapplied the literary texts of biblical oral legends in the early chapters of Genesis (sic, the Creation story of Genesis and the Noahic Flood, as example) with the scientifically erroneous conclusions of denying both biblical evolution with the disavowal of a regional flood in favor of spontaneous creationism and that of a global flood where there is no geologic evidence. So that in this instance, I cannot support the speculation that the Virgin Birth of Christ is itself an ancient Near-Eastern myth when there is no literary evidence for this.assumption - especially knowing that it runs against too many of the Bible's theological ideas about God and humanity. Nor can I accept jettisoning the Virgin Birth of Christ as scientifically implausible as some would like to say. Nay, I chose neither side and thereby reject both as spurious arguments by stating that the Virgin Birth is not a myth. Nor is it scientifically implausible. That there is no literary basis to make this claim. Nor is there any scientific basis to disprove this claim.

And when considering the article's stated intent below, can neither accept RJS nor Dr. Polkinghorne's further description of the Virgin Birth as an "enacted myth of the church" - by which I think they mean that it is a legend that rightly-or-wrongly has endeared itself to the church from the start. If anything, I would declare it as an enacted acceptance of an historical event passed along through the theological charters of the church. And if we were to go by the assessment that the Virgin Birth itself is mere myth without any historical, or scientific viability, than we would have to throw out our previously argued support for an evolutionary understanding of the bible and its related oral legends such as the Flood story. And instead hold in favor for a non-scientific understanding of biblical event-and-cause marking all theological endeavors as impractical as man's materialistic mindedness is deceivable.

Which returns us back to where we began 18 months earlier when broaching this very same subject here at Relevancy22 as we've waded through the highs-and-lows of arrogant humanism and misleading Christian thought juxtaposed around a sensible interpretation of the Scriptures integrated with our postmodern day knowledges across all human disciplines and discoveries, experiences and examinations. Certainly the church has many enacted myths that it should throw out - the one that most immediately comes to mind is that of its incongruent position of biblical literalism. It is misleading and filled with conjectures that are ideologically based. That we argue here for biblical historicity has been shown. That God's revelation is true and unerring, beyond a doubt. But not for Christian myths, dogmas, and fancied folklores that give precedence over God's truth. We wish only to pursue the best of theology using the best of our human knowledge. And when undertaking this task must always examine ourselves, our competing interests, and our counterveiling arguments, as is right and proper. Ditching the worst, keeping what we don't know in epistemic tension, and favoring the evidence that seems most true and proper. As always, it is this latter statement that is most often the most misleading. What is thought as true and proper may not always be so. As in the case of decrying the Virgin Birth as enacted myth while assuming its scientific implausibility.

Hence, I am perfectly willing to hold in tension the theological concept of the Virgin Birth without necessitating its support by present day science. To the geologic, cosmologic, and biologic sciences I have yielded deference believing that those disciplines have more than adequately explained Earth's - and mankind's - early prehistory from an evolutionary basis. However, upon the subject of Christ's miraculous birth I must still remain fixed in my doubt until science should someday better explain the Incarnate conception of Jesus to my doubting mind and heart. To that extent, we must leave the Virgin Birth of Christ as an accepted miracle that is "interactive with natural laws and not in suspension to natural laws" when produced within the boundaries of this creation. Which means we simply don't understand it yet. And to this position of understanding pertaining to the concept of miracle I will accede solidarity with RJS and the good Dr. Polkinghorne.

Consequently, rightly or wrongly, I cannot at this point yield on so important a theological concept pertaining to God's incarnation by birth from a flesh-and-blood woman with the absent agency of a man. Certainly we could argue sexism here by devaluing God's usage of a woman alone. But more so we can argue ideological assumptions where none need to be except in that of holding to the position of epistemic unknowing and humility. In being content to allow science to proceed apace with biblical discovery separately-and-apart until at such time congruency may be found unforced. Hence, God "clothed His divine being with the garment of flesh" (speaking poetically) and did not simply overwhelm (or possess)  a yielded holy man named Jesus, is without question. For if we did, it would give no good theological substantiation for Jesus' atoning sacrifice and redemptive restoration of both the cosmos and mankind if performed without the necessity of the Virgin Birth.


 As such, I am willing to hold in tension an incredulity between theology and science even though on many of the other biblical myths (as has been discussed) we have re-configured (or reframed) the bible's theological congruence with science pertaining to man's imaging in God (Adam), man's preservation by God (Noah), and man's salvific relationship to God (Jesus) without resorting to the imagined need for a literal bible (or a literal hermeneutic). We have done this by keeping the bible's literary content intact, and reapplying our allusionary ignorance forward into a larger, non-mythic understanding of the bible's historical reality and applicability, such that the bible has been enlarged to recapture man's primer sciences even as those same sciences force the postmodern theologian to reconsider all doctrinal angles and composite reactions.

In the offering we have argued against many of popular Christian suppositions that have delved into Christian folklore and legend, and not into the bible itself. As well have we argued against its counterpart of Christian liberalism, moving fearlessly forward to the overly cynical left. For should we do less is to lose the God of the universe to either forces - on the right, to a mystical spiritualism, and on the left, to a materialistic humanism. When in fact, by carefully removing our perceived theological barriers we are, in essence, freeing the God of the universe to be larger than we had believed possible (as if God should need our help!). Far too often it is more important to examine ourselves, rather than our neighbor, and be willing to critique how we came to our theological conclusions irrespective to our traditions and customs. Emergent Christianity allows a postmodern introspection to all things church and science - including our treasured dogmas and beliefs - so that we may arrive at a fuller bible that is more open, and more applicable, to postmodern man today. It changes nothing about God, and everything about ourselves, when we release ourselves from the theological boxes we have impudently placed ourselves within.

Thus, I will admit up front that science has yet to fully explain the Virgin Birth of Christ to my satisfaction. Nor does the accompanying imposed implication of enacted church myth help much here either. For neither position is satisfactory, and consequently, we argue for neither. And furthermore, we support the theological view of the miraculous/immaculate conception of Christ - not on the basis of perceived historical support by the church (the enacted part of the story), but on the basis of its theological necessity (the enacted part of the redemptive story of the bible) as inculcated by the Apostles to their disciples which then passed into the living charters of the early church. This New Testament-Apostolic position shows the most theological congruency with the redemptive story of the divine-human cooperative between God and man marking the Virgin Birth not as a myth but as an actual historical event.

Consequently, my God is big enough to allow us to doubt in as many ways as we can doubt. This is part of our human prerogative and divine allowance, if not man's very creational charter as given to him by God. As such, so should my postmodern examinations of the bible and its teachings be likewise held within the limits of doubt and human understanding balancing the one-over-against-the-over in a continual act of acknowledging our scientific limits and theological over-speculations. For myself, I do expect that at some later time science will show the viability of God's miraculous parthenogenetic act upon Mary.

However, I do not need to attribute it as either a  church myth, or as an illogical theological position. That would be to strip the Son of God of His incarnational divinity and thus making it theologically disjunctive to the redemptive story of God's atonement to the fallenness of man. It looses all import should Jesus be only mundanely human without being profoundly God. No apostle or later arising martyr of Christ's could take on this divine act for mankind. This divine act of agency was Jesus' alone. There was no other to fulfill it. Nor ever shall be from the very Godhead of the Trinity. This is the heart of Jesus' incarnation. To bear the sins of man upon the very heart/spirit/being/personage of God Himself in direct agency and propitiation. As the holy Lamb of God. Who was in Himself, both sacrificial lamb and atoning God, our very Mediator as both Priest and holy sacrifice (cf. the book of Hebrews). Verily has our Redeemer come. Amen and Amen.

R.E. Slater
December 27, 2012

That man should be made in God’s image is a wonder,
but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder.
That the Ancient of Days would be born.
That He who thunders in the heavens
should cry in the cradle.

~ Thomas Watson,
Painting by Bernardino Luini





* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *




What About the Virgin Birth? (RJS)
by RJS
Dec 27, 2012

Not quite a year ago I wrote about the relationship of science and virgin birth in the context of John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible. Recently I’ve been reading Robert Asher’s new book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist and here the topic comes up again, but Asher has a different take on the question. As a result the topic is worth a reprise, considering the arguments put forth both by Polkinghorne and by Asher.

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures. Many of our disagreements, especially the most heated discussions of science and faith arise because we respect and wrestle with scripture as inspired by God. As Paul tells Timothy, the scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. They are not to be taken lightly. On the other hand there are some pretty incredible events and stories contained within the pages of scripture and the virgin birth is one of these. For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, questions about the virgin birth and other incredible events within the pages of scripture become a real barrier.

Matthew 1:18 relates the claim:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph responds to Mary’s pregnancy by planning to divorce her and an angel in a dream reiterates the claim “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.“ Luke 1:34-35 records Mary’s response when told she would conceive and give birth to a son, the Messiah.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
The very idea of a miraculous conception, that a virgin conceived and bore a son, hits a nerve in our secular Western society – both modern and postmodern. In Testing Scripture Polkinghorne describes why he accepts the virgin birth. In contrast Asher does not see acceptance of the virgin birth as traditionally understood to be either reasonable or necessary. The differences in the approaches they take and the conclusions they reach will help to flesh out some of the key questions.

How would you address doubts from a nonbeliever about the incredible events in scripture? How do you reconcile a belief in these events yourself?

In chapter six of Testing Scripture John Polkinghorne looks at the gospels. Within the historical conventions of their time they tell the gospel; the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the good news of God’s work in the world. The Gospels record a reliable history. This is the key starting point, but there is more to it than just this.

What about miracles, including virgin birth?

Robert Asher is not an atheist; he does not rule out the existence of the supernatural or spiritual. He is, as he describes himself, a religious paleontologist. He is not evangelical, and like many he explicitly disavows the designation. Like Polkinghorne he sees the gospels as basically trustworthy with much of it (especially Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel) written “well within the range of an oral tradition based on eyewitness accounts.” (p. 24 Evolution and Belief) Asher’s reasoning about the virgin birth is rooted in his understanding of cause and effect in science.
However, does this enable me to believe in an actual human being born of a virgin? No it does not – at least not in a biological sense, which is how most people understand this question and how, therefore, I should answer it. Female humans do not give birth unless they have been inseminated. As he was a human being, I infer based on what I know of biology that Christ would have developed in His mother’s womb, from zygote to morula to embryo to fetus. … (p. 24 Evolution and Belief) 
Everything that I understand about human biology indicates that He, too, had a biological father. There is no doubt, however, that this father was perceived as divine by his followers. As a human being, of course Christ had a biological father; it is not rational to believe otherwise. Personally, however, I really do believe that father and son were inspired individuals, worthy of the impressive documentation with which their legacy has been recorded. … Simply stated, Christianity is my faith. It is not an unshakable faith, nor do I believe literally in many parts of the Bible. Indeed, much of the text of this chapter disqualifies me as a theist Christian by most evangelical standards. Nevertheless, Christianity seems to me a legitimate account of the agency behind life, and while the causes of life’s diversity are fascinating, they are not of immediate relevance to this faith. (p. 25 Evolution and Belief)
Does God intervene?

This paragraph from Asher is rooted in a discussion of miracles, because the virgin birth, or more accurately virginal conception, if true in a biological sense, is a miracle. It is an intervention by God into the natural order.

I was passed a question just recently asking about Jesus and his DNA. What DNA would he have carried? Mary’s we presume – but would his DNA have also traced to Joseph? Was it something else entirely? Asher doesn’t bring this question up specifically, but he does focus in on the question of intervention. Rather than quote a large segment I will choose a few particularly pertinent sections:
Let me phrase this differently. Do I believe in miracles? If by “miracle” you mean a spontaneous failure of a natural law due to the contrary influence of some supernatural agency, then no. … However, this is not at all the same thing as denying the existence of a divinity, including the Christian sort. … The “do you believe in miracles?” question assumes an opposition between “nature” and “god” that is wholly our own fabrication, as if the two compete with one another for our attention. This question presumes a philosophy that the two things are independent, even antagonistic – but I don’t think they are. Rather one is an expression of the other. God cannot “intrude” into the normal operation of nature because, the way I see it, nature is a part of God; it represents God’s thought, or laws, in action. He cannot intrude upon himself. (p. 25-26 Evolution and Belief)
Asher’s view of the virgin birth is shaped by his understanding of biology, of cause and effect, and by his view of God. There a scientific, philosophical, and theological reasons to question the traditional view of the virgin birth.

Dr. Polkinghorne sees things a bit differently. He works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. The one we wish to focus on here, the birth narratives and the virgin birth, is the one he leaves for last.
I have left till last what are among the best-known and best-loved narratives in the Gospels: the stories of the birth of Jesus. We find them only in Matthew 1.18-2.12 and Luke 2.1-20. John, after his timeless Prologue, and Mark, without any preliminaries, both start with the encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus at the beginning of the public ministry. We are so used to conflating the two gospel accounts that it is only when we read them carefully and separately that we become aware of how different they are. 
Luke seems to tell the story very much from the point of view of Mary, and the visitors to the newborn Jesus are the humble shepherds. Matthew seems to see things much more from Joseph’s perspective, and his visitors are the magi. 
Luke gives us a very specific dating of the birth in relation to a Roman census, but there are severe scholarly difficulties in reconciling this with Matthew’s (plausible) statement that it took place during the reign of Herod the Great. 
A principle concern of both narratives is to explain why, if Mary’s home was at Nazareth, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Messianic prophecy required. I do not doubt that there is historical truth preserved in the birth stories, but establishing its exact content is not an easy task. (p. 67-68 Testing Scripture)
As with some of the other stories in the gospels and in other parts of scripture there are discrepancies that can be difficult to reconcile and harmonize. There is no strong reason, however, to doubt a historical root, down to and including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

The Virgin Birth. The conception of Jesus is a different issue. How can an intelligent, educated, experienced person, an eminent scientist, believe in a virgin birth? Dr. Polkinghorne gives his reasoning:
Luke, very explicitly in his story of the Annunciation (1.34-35), and Matthew, more obliquely (1.18), both assert the virginal conception of Jesus. Christian tradition has attached great significance to this, often rather inaccurately calling it the ‘virgin birth’. Yet in the New Testament it seems nowhere as widely significant as the Resurrection. Paul is content to simply lay stress on Jesus’ solidarity with humanity: ‘God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law’ (Galatians 4.4). The theological importance of the virginal conception lies in its lending emphasis to the presence of a total divine initiative in the coming of Jesus, even if this truth is much more frequently expressed by the New Testament writers simply in the language of his having been sent. Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose when he was found to be suitable, but he was part of that purpose from the start. The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than for the belief in the Resurrection. (p. 68-69 Testing Scripture)
Interaction not Intervention.

One of the most important criterion for thinking through the incredible claims in scripture is God’s interaction with his creatures rather than his intervention in his creation. The miracles ring true when they enhance our understanding of the interaction of God with his people in divine self-revelation. The virginal conception is part of the Incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. The magnificent early Christian hymns quoted by Paul in Col 1.15-20 and Phil 2.6-11 catch the essence of this enacted myth as well.

It makes no sense to try to defend the virginal conception, the resurrection, or any of the other signs or miracles related in the New Testament, separate from the story of the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. In the context of God’s mission within his creation the miracles make sense. Separate from this they will never make sense.

What do you think? Do Dr. Polkinghorne’s reasons for believing in the virgin birth make sense? Is there an important distinction between intervention and interaction? Why do you believe in the virginal conception? Or if you don’t, why not?

- RJS

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.



No comments:

Post a Comment