Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

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

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - 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

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

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) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

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

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Is the Risen Christ Still Human? - How the Nicean Incarnation of Orthodox Christianity differs from Gnostic "Docetic Christianity"

Is the Son of God Still a Human Being?
A Meditation on the Incarnation
Part I

First, it flies in the face of Scripture. 1 Timothy 2:5—”one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” The tense is present. The Gospels clearly present the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ as human. He ate food. He had scars. And yet the angel told the disciples at his ascension that this same Jesus Christ would come back just as they saw him go. A glorified human, yes, but still human. And according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 we will be like him in that glorious state of resurrected humanity.

I fear that much American Christianity is very weak on the incarnation. We celebrate Jesus’ birth, but do we really understand what this event was? I doubt it. It was, according to Scripture, and the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy, God taking on our humanity forever. It was God adopting our lowly existence as his own in order to bridge the gap between himself and us [(as creature and created)]. It was the beginning of the dying of death, the conquering of sin and death, the union of God with creation. It was the “great exchange” in which, as the ancient church fathers put it, God became what we are so that we might become what he is (theosis)—that we might share in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) [and that he share our human nature].

This is classical Christianity. Sure, it includes mystery. The incarnation is, in some ways, the ultimate mystery. It raises many unanswerable questions—at least unanswerable for us now (e.g., What does Jesus eat now?). One is sometimes tempted to go Augustine’s route when skeptics raise these questions and insist on answers. To the Manicheans who asked what God was doing before he created the world the North African bishop said “He was creating hell for those who peer into his mysteries.”

Somehow American Christianity (and I suspect Christianity in many places) needs to rediscover the Bible and basic Christian orthodoxy. The great irony is that we fight a “war” over Christmas with secularists while neglecting our own Christian belief about the incarnation, allowing it to slowly fade away into a bland, overly spiritualized, modern Gnosticism.

- Roger

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Follow up Comments

Commentor 1 - The flesh and blood body of the Lord Jesus was resurrected from the grave. Now the Lord has a glorified body, the same as we will have one day after our physical body has been resurrected from the grave or simply transformed if the Lord returns prior to our passing away. I do believe that Jesus is the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The trinitarian doctrine is correct (as opposed to the oneness explanation of the Trinity), but the name above all names is Jesus, thus the name of the Father is also Lord Jesus. The name of the Son is not above the name of the Father. Jesus the Son is the image of the invisible God, therefore His name is the image of the name of the Father, or simply the same name. The oneness and the trinitarians would disagree with me for different reasons. Everyone should simply pray for revelation of truth.

Reply by Dr. Olson - When did "Jesus" become the name of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit? Why did Jesus not teach his disciples (and us) to pray "Our Jesus who art in heaven?"


Commentor 2 - Jesus exists now as "glorified" "spiritual" body (that which Paul refers to), in "heavenly" space and time (localized in some fashion, but according to different or "finer" laws than we experience on earth), but as such "interpenetrates" with the grosser existence we (his church) are conditioned by in our present state, and in whose life as such we can all participate somehow through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Do I have things right?

Reply by Dr. Olson - Yes, "through the agency of the Holy Spirit" is the key. I don't know if you're aware of the debate between Lutherans and Reformed Protestants about the post-resurrection body of Jesus. I side with Calvin and the Reformed party here. Luther and Lutherans thought/think the glorified body of Jesus is ubiquitous. That seems to me to create problems for his ongoing humanity and for the Holy Spirit as playing a crucial role in bringing Jesus to us, in us and among us. The Holy Spirit can then be forgotten--which many Protestants have done. The one point distinctive theme of Calvin I strongly agree with is his doctrine of the Holy Spirit.


Commenter 3 - Though this has always seemed clear to me, more probably its time to revisit all the gnosticisms of Christology by revisiting each of the church councils one-by-one to show the movement in theology from the early church into today's Lutheran-Reformed debate.

This topic would touch all the issues: the nature of the Trinity; the nature of sin in relation to Jesus; the nature of Jesus' divinity and humanity; the nature of His death, resurrection, and ascension; the nature of His ongoing ministry through the church; the nature of Jesus' Kingdom/NHNE rule; etc.

Once the classic arguments are laid out it would be interesting to compare it to the ongoing debates in Open Theism and Process Thought.

Good stuff. Thanks.

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Gnostic Flowchart 
(Orthodox Christianity follows the straight, vertical line)
Click on Image for a larger, clearer Image

Christological Flowchart
Click on Image for a larger, clearer Image

Christian Schisms and their Related Church Councils
Click on Image for a larger, clearer Image

Wikipedia - Docetism

In Christian terminology, docetism (from the Greek δοκεῖν/δόκησις dokein (to seem) /dókēsis (apparition, phantom),[1][2] according to Norbert Brox, is defined narrowly as "the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality." [3][4] Broadly it is taken as the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his human form was an illusion. The word docetai (illusionists) referring to early groups who denied Jesus' humanity, first occurred in a letter by Bishop Serapion of Antioch (197-203),[5] who discovered the doctrine in the Gospel of Peter, during a pastoral visit to a Christian community using it in Rhosus, and later condemned it as a forgery.[6][7] It appears to have arisen over theological contentions concerning the meaning, figurative or literal, of a sentence from the Gospel of John: "the Word was made Flesh".[8]

Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325[9] and is regarded as heretical by the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and many others.[10]


Docetism is broadly defined as any teaching that claims that Jesus' body was either absent or illusory.[11] The term ‘docetic’ should be used with caution, since its use is rather nebulous.[12][13] For Robert Price "docetism", together with "encratism", "Gnosticism", and "adoptionism" has been employed "far beyond what historically descriptive usage would allow".[14] Two varieties were widely known. In one version as in Marcionism - "Christ was so divine he could not have been human, since God lacked a material body, which therefore could not physically suffer. Jesus only appeared to be a flesh-and-blood man, his body was a phantasm." Other groups who were accused of Docetism held that - "Jesus was a man in the flesh, but Christ was a separate entity, who entered Jesus’s body in the form of a dove at his baptism, empowered him to perform miracles, and abandoned him on his death on the cross."[15]

Christology and theological implications

Docetism's origin within Christianity is obscure. Ernst Käsemann controversially defined the Christology of St John’s Gospel as “naïve docetism” in 1968.[16] The ensuing debate reached an impasse as awareness grew that the very term ‘docetism’ like ‘gnosticism’ was difficult to define within the religio-historical framework of the debate.[17] It has occasionally been argued that its origins were in heterodox Judaism or Oriental and Grecian philosophies.[18] The alleged connection with Jewish Christianity would have reflected Jewish Christian concerns with the inviolability of (Jewish) monotheism.[19][20] Docetic opinions seem to have circulated from very early times, 1 John 4:2 appearing explicitly to reject them.[21] Some 1st century Christian groups developed docetic interpretations partly as a way to make Christian teachings more acceptable to pagan ways of thinking of divinity.[18]

In his critique of the theology of Clement of Alexandria, Photius in his Myriobiblon held that Clement’s views reflected a quasi-docetic view of the nature of Christ, writing that Clement "He hallucinates that the Word was not incarnate but only seems to be." (ὀνειροπολεῖ καὶ μὴ σαρκωθῆναι τὸν λόγον ἀλλὰ δόξαι.) In Clement’s time some disputes contended over whether Christ assumed the ‘psychic’ flesh of mankind as heirs to Adam, or the ‘spiritual’ flesh of the resurrection.[22] Docetism largely died out during the first millennium AD.

The opponents against whom Ignatius of Antioch inveighs are often taken to be Monophysite docetists.[23] In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, 7:1, written around 110 C.E., he writes:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes".

While these characteristics fit a Monophysite framework, a slight majority of scholars consider that Ignatius was waging a polemic on two distinct fronts, one Jewish, the other docetic, while a distinct minority holds that he is concerned with a group that commingled Judaism and docetism. Other possibilities are that he was merely opposed to Christians who lived Jewishly, or deny that docetism threatened the church, or that his critical remarks were directed at an Ebionite or Cerinthianpossessionist Christology, where God descended and took possession of Jesus' body. [24]

Islam and docetism

The Qur'an has a docetic or gnostic Christology, viewing Jesus as a divine illuminator rather than the redeemer (as he is viewed in Christianity).[9] Sura 4:157–158 reads:

And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger — they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise.[25]

The Qur'an was compiled in the mid-seventh century AD (around 650 CE), corresponding to the period when docetism was still commonly accepted and taught among some Christian sects.

Docetism and the Christ as Myth theory

Since Arthur Drews published his The Christ Myth (Die Christusmythe) in 1909, occasional connections have been drawn between the modern idea that Christ was a myth and docetist theories. Shailer Mathews called Drews' theory a "modern docetism".[26] Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare thought any connection to be based on a misunderstanding of docetism.[27] The idea recurred in Classicist Michael Grant's 1977 review of the evidence for Jesus, who compared modern scepticism about an historical Jesus to the ancient docetic idea that Jesus only seemed to come into the world "in the flesh". Modern theories did away with "seeming".[28]

Texts believed to include docetism

Non-canonical Christian texts: 
  1. Jump up^ González 2005, pp. 46–47:"A term derived from the Greek dokein, to seem, or to appear."
  2. Jump up^ Strecker 2000, p. 438.
  3. Jump up^ Brox 1984, p. 306.
  4. Jump up^ Schneemelcher Maurer, p. 220.
  5. Jump up^ Breidenbaugh 2008, pp. 179–181
  6. Jump up^ Ehrman 2005, p. 16.
  7. Jump up^ Foster 2009, p. 79.Serapion first approved its use, and only reversed his opinion on returning to his bishopric in Antioch, after being informed of its contents. He wrote a "Concerning the So-Called Gospel of St Peter" which is alluded to in Eusebius of Caesarea's Historia Ecclesiastica 6.12-3-6.
  8. Jump up^ Smith & Wace 1877, pp. 867–870.
  9. Jump up to:a b Ridgeon 2001, p. xv.
  10. Jump up^ Arendzen 2012.
  11. Jump up^ Gonzalez, Justo (2005). Essential Theologial Terms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 46–47. ISBN 0-664-22810-0. "Docetism is the claim that Jesus did no thave a physical human body, but only the appearance of such."
  12. Jump up^ Brox 1984, pp. 301–314.
  13. Jump up^ Schneemelcher Maurer, p. 220:"N Brox has expressed himself emphatically against a widespread nebulous use of the term, and has sought an exact definition which links up with the original usage (e.g. in Clement of Alexandria). Docetism is ‘the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality.'
  14. Jump up^ Price 2009.
  15. Jump up^ Ehrman 2005, p. 16
  16. Jump up^ Ehrman 1996, p. 197.
  17. Jump up^ Larsen 2008, p. 347
  18. Jump up to:a b Gavrilyuk 2004, p. 80.
  19. Jump up^ Schneemelcher Maurer, p. 220
  20. Jump up^ Brox 1984, p. 314.
  21. Jump up^ González 2005, pp. 46–7
  22. Jump up^ Ashwin-Siejkowski 2010, p. 95, n.2 citing Edwards 2002, p. 25.
  23. Jump up^ Street 2011, p. 40.
  24. Jump up^ Streett 2011, pp. 42–43.
  25. Jump up^ Pickthall 2001, p. 86
  26. Jump up^ Shailer 1917, p. 37.
  27. Jump up^ Conybeare 1914, p. 104.
  28. Jump up^ Grant 2004, pp. 199–200:"This skeptical way of thinking reached its culmination in the argument that Jesus as a human being never existed at all and is a myth. In ancient times, this extreme view was named the heresy of docetism (seeming) because it maintained that Jesus never came into the world "in the flesh", but only seemed to; (I John 4:2) and it was given some encouragement by Paul's lack of interest in his fleshly existence. Subsequently, from the eighteenth century onwards, there have been attempts to insist that Jesus did not even "seem" to exist, and that all tales of his appearance upon the earth were pure fiction. In particular, his story was compared to the pagan mythologies inventing fictitious dying and rising gods."

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Following Up My Last Post Regarding the Incarnation:
The Line between Orthodoxy and Speculation
Part II

by Roger Olson
editorial comments by R.E. Slater [ ... ]
December 27, 2013

My latest post regarding the ongoing reality of the incarnation provoked many good questions about underlying assumptions, which, in turn, have led me to respond about the Reformation debates about Christology (which led to debates about the Lord’s Supper).

I want to make clear that I hope to draw a line, however indistinct it may seem at times, between “basic Christian orthodoxy” and “theological speculation.” This is one reason I wrote The Mosaic of Christian Belief - to pare Christian doctrine down to what ought to be considered “basic Christian belief”  (orthodoxy) while excluding from defending matters of orthodoxy that [seem orthodox but remain] speculative - however reverent they may [appear to] be.

I think this is one of the main tasks of Christian theologians–to identify what doctrines are basic to Christian faith and what interpretations of the Bible and doctrines are speculation without clear warrant in Scripture itself and the church’s historic belief about revelation.

Example 1

Here’s my illustration, that:

  • "the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is permanent" and,
  • "the Son of God is still the human person Jesus Christ" (he did not “drop his humanity”),

is basic Christian belief." To deny it is to deny a basic tenet of Christian belief rooted firmly in Scripture and to open the door to Gnosticism.

HOW the continuing humanity of Jesus exists presently, whether and to what extent it is dependent on the Holy Spirit for power, etc., invites speculation.

Both the ancient Christians and the Reformers confused speculation with orthodoxy–leading to unnecessary divisions among Christians.

Both Luther and Zwingli (and later Calvin) were, in my opinion, faithful to basic Christian orthodoxy–including their Christologies. Both also, to some extent, went beyond what Scripture really warrants us to believe and confused their own interpretations of the finite and the infinite (e.g., whether the finite can “contain” the infinite) with orthodoxy. Luther especially was wrong to accuse Zwingli of being a heretic for denying the “real presence” of Christ “in, with, and under” the break and wine. The Reformed branch of Protestantism contributed to the division by returning the favor (at times).

The Church of England was right to permit different interpretations of this issue. (Here I’m speaking about Christology, not the Lord’s Supper.) What Christians ALL ought to believe is that the Son of God is still the human being Jesus Christ. Beyond that, whether one adopts the “finitus non capax infiniti” or the “finitus capax infiniti” is secondary and largely speculative.

Reverent speculation, labeled as such, is inevitable and there is nothing wrong with it. It becomes wrong when it is allowed to divide Christians over against each other so that they cannot even have fellowship because of it.

Example 2

Another example of speculation in Christian theology is the “order” of being within the immanent Trinity which leads into the “filoque” controversy between East and West. It’s all well and good for Christians to argue over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father AND THE SON or whether the Holy Spirit only proceeds from the Father (and NOT “from the Son”), but it is impossible to prove either point of view from what has been revealed (unless you extend “revelation” into the later stages of Christian thought). This should not divide Christians.

What a disaster it was that in the Reformation Lutherans and Reformed could not get together. Martin Bucer was right; both sides should have listened more intently to him. (I’ll leave aside the name of Philipp of Hesse for now!) But, in the end, it was the Anabaptists who got it mostly right. (I speak here of Balthasar Hubmaier especially!)

- Roger

Wikipedia Summary to the Question:

According to Bishop Kallistos Ware, many Orthodox (whatever may be the doctrine and practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church itself) hold that, in broad outline, to say the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son amounts to the same thing as to say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, a view accepted also by the Greeks who signed the act of union at the Council of Florence.[274] 

For others, such as Vasily Bolotov and his disciples, the Filioque can be considered a Western theologoumenon, a theological opinion (or speculation) of Church Fathers that falls short of being a dogma.[210][275] Sergei Bulgakov also stated: "There is no dogma of the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son and therefore particular opinions on this subject are not heresies but merely dogmatic hypotheses, which have been transformed into heresies by the schismatic spirit that has established itself in the Church and that eagerly exploits all sorts of liturgical and even cultural differences."[212]

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Follow up Comments

Commentor 1 - Would it be fair to say that committing actual theological error will inevitably manifest in one's behavior such that it becomes un-Christlike, while engaging in the theological speculation you describe doesn't have to end badly? So many people seem to think that one has to think about things 'a certain way', and yet reality shows us that oftentimes, different people can come to the same end result through shockingly different paths. This isn't to say that there is no 'structure' or 'lawfulness' in the realm of thoughts, but that it has much greater variety than some would like to think.

It's almost as if people are afraid of losing control—even though we're supposed to be ok with this (e.g. John 3:8)—and thus want to exert control over not just actions, but thoughts as well. This insistence of control over thoughts seems like a direct rejection of Romans 14 and a refusal to judge a tree by its fruit and let the wheat grow up with the tares. It really seems like an insistence on the evil desire to control and dominate, hidden under the façade of 'right doctrine'.

Reply by Dr. Olson - Agreed.

Commentor 1 - Dear Dr. Olson, I appreciate your two posts on the Incarnation and it has caused me to begin rereading the chapter on the Incarnation in your book entitled the Mosaic of Christian Belief. Thank you so much for keeping this retired business professor and Lutheran active mentally and spiritually. Your blog has been a real blessing to me. May God bless you and your family.

Reply by Dr. Olson - Thank you! Affirmations like yours (even from people who don't always agree with me) keep me going.

My Father...

'Enough said.

JRR Tolkien's Rich Hobbit's Riddle, "Christ, the Arkenstone of Christmas"

Like Bilbo Baggins, there is more to the Christ Child than appears: he too is a riddle, and Christmas poems
and carols rightly love to extend the contradictions of his birth into paradox. Credit: shutterstock.com

The Gift "Half" Understood: Tolkien and the Riddle of Christmas

byAlison Milbank, ABC Religion and Ethics
December 24, 2013

Although Tolkien's novel The Hobbit begins in the Springtime and ends in Midsummer, it is pure Christmas. It begins with overwhelming numbers of unexpected visitors and much consumption of good food and drink, and ends with a cascade of present-giving.

"Dragon-sickness" - the lust for gold and material goods - strikes not only children at this season. Indeed, recent years have shown up the greedy hoarding of money, houses and yachts among the rich in a manner reminiscent of Smaug's bewildering "glamour": some earn salaries many times larger in proportion to other workers' wages than in earlier times, while making us all believe that their value in the market dictates, and thus justifies, this obscenely large remuneration.

The Hobbit is a story which shows that it is not just the rich who become enthralled by the glitter of wealth, but also the dispossessed. The great dwarf craftsmen in metal who are on a quest to regain their stolen gold are possessed by "a fierce and jealous love" for it. Even Bilbo the hobbit, who is generally more interested in breakfast than gold, is bewildered and seduced by coming upon the dwarves' great ancestral jewel, the Arkenstone. Like the Ring he chanced upon under the Misty Mountains, the stone is quickly tucked away in his pocket, and he does not tell his companions that he has it: he becomes the burglar that his name, Baggins, suggests he has the potential to be. Soon Lakemen, elves and birds all gather round the dragon hoard, wanting a share of the spoils.

What breaks the deadlock as these groups lay siege to the mountain where the dwarves refuse to share any of the treasure, is another theft by Bilbo. He takes the Arkenstone and offers it to the besiegers, so that they can use its glamour over Thorin the dwarf king to force him to make peace. As a result of this burglary, Bilbo is thrown out of the dwarves' company, and is lucky to escape with his life.

Yet at many crucial stages on their journey, it had been Bilbo's underhand ways that had ensured their safety: like Odysseus, who hid his men as sheep to evade the Cyclops, Bilbo smuggles the dwarves out of the Elven-King's prison in barrels, which are floated down the river; Bilbo's invisibility allows him to rescue the dwarves from the Mirkwood spiders.

Even Bilbo's riddles, fair as they are in a riddle contest in Anglo-Saxon or Norse conventions, smuggle truth in disguised form: "A box without hinges, key or lid, / Yet golden treasure inside is hid." What the riddle does is to state the reality of an object in paradoxical form, in contradictory ideas. How can a box lack any mode of ingress? How did the treasure get into the box? Our normal categories are questioned and for a moment, a riddle makes the world seem strange or bizarre. In deciphering the answer, we are forced to look at the object in a new way. After the "making strange" comes the illumination; once a riddle is solved it is blindingly obvious - but "the egg" takes on a new depth of meaning.

The burglar Bilbo is himself a kind of riddle, and of course, the last riddle question Bilbo asks Gollum is "What do I have in my pocket?" Bilbo is thus the key to the riddle whose answer is the emblematic Ring, "the precious" object of desire. Bilbo is the key as he is associated with keys in the course of the plot. He finds the key to the trolls' hoard, which contains important weapons, including the sword, Sting, which Gandalf gives to him, and which will have so vital a role in this story, and in The Lord of the Rings.

Bilbo can take this role precisely because he is not in quite such thrall to gold as the other characters, and where Gollum riddle's [are] words associated with his alienated life underground, Bilbo's riddles all point towards relationships and the social in some way - as in "No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four legs got some," which conjures up a whole society of a man and a cat sharing a fish-supper. Bilbo is rather like a fairy-tale trickster: a trump card who changes situations and rules and makes new connections.

And like the Christmas burglar and chimney invader, Santa Claus, he is a distributor and gift-giver. For The Hobbit takes us modern capitalists - and Bilbo too with his formal contract - on a journey into more ancient economic models of exchange, in which society operates through the giving and receiving of gifts. To be a recipient of a gift is also to become a gift-giver oneself, so we see the Lake Men restoring the Arkenstone to lie on the breast of the dead Thorin. Bilbo himself is offered huge amounts of treasure but accepts only as much as one pony can carry, and then proceeds to donate jewels as he travels. Once home again in Bag End, he spends the rest in presents too. Tolkien makes all this central to hobbit society, in which one gives as well as receives presents on one's birthday.

The answer to dragon-sickness is not just simple generosity but giving as a mode of exchange, which unites donor and recipient, and which prompts reciprocity. Tolkien unites here gift-exchange practices of traditional societies with the Distributist political vision of his own day, which sought a more equal and just society not by removing private property but by distributing it as widely as possible.

Reading this at Christmas, however, reminds us of the most widely distributed gift of all: the Christ Child, who is given to all of us and to the earth itself. God the burglar - the thief in the night - smuggles himself into the world He made: "veiled in flesh the Godhead see" as Wesley's hymn reminds us and another begins, "When came in flesh the Incarnate Word / The heedless world slept on." Like Bilbo Baggins, there is more to this baby than appears: he too is a riddle, and Christmas poems and carols love to extend the contradictions of his birth into paradox, as in this example from Richard Crashaw:
Welcome all wonders in one sight,
Aeternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and GOD in MAN.
To read this riddle is to open a way to unlock the frozen gaze, fascinated by the dragon hoard but not in such a way as to reject the beauty and value of material objects so much as to pass them on. To see the baby hidden in the manger is to recognise the true Arkenstone, the "heart of the mountain," shining with "its own inner light." The - precious - gift of the Christ Child allows us to be more wedded to the world than ever, but in such a way as to become aware of its vulnerability and contingency.

On his death-bed, the dwarf king, Thorin commends Bilbo's blend of courage and wisdom, adding, "if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." Food and cheer are transitory pleasures, which take their value from the moment and the company. The Hobbit is actually as much about food or lack of it - as well as the fear of being eaten - as it is about the shiny solidity of metal. The dwarves are continually tightening their belts or existing on cram.

Just as Bilbo teaches the dwarves the value of sharing their gold, so they teach him at their first encounter - the unexpected party - the value of sharing food and distributing it as widely as possible. What, one wonders, was one bachelor hobbit going to do with a larder as full as his obviously was with mince-pies and cheese, seed-cakes, pork pies, cold chicken and pickles?

Economics is not a party, and the Incarnation is not a political program, but The Hobbit has something profound to offer us at this festive season about the true use of the bounty and beauty of the earth, which is to distribute it in such a way as to enable and make visible as many relations between producers and consumers, and fellow-workers as possible in contrast to the barren golden abstractions and glamour of money-markets. Ruskin wrote, "there is no wealth but life" and the hobbits are so successful a race as enablers and burglars because deep down they know that too.

But even the comfort and the fellowship of the Shire must be given up, "made strange" and riddled, so that one can travel "there and back again." When Bilbo brings us back with him from the Lonely Mountain, ordinary hobbit and human life can itself be received back as a gift, and seen as such, so that its comforts may be shared with others.

Alison Milbank is Associate Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham, and Priest Vicar of Southwell Minster. She is the author of Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real and, with Andrew Davidson, For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions.

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