Ever since the philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1781 delivered his critique of pure reason and its embedded critique of metaphysics, theologians have been walking on egg shells trying to articulate a theological vision within the epistemological limits Kant had thereby set. The Kantian critique was severe, and it is easy to understand why: one need only glance at the development of Christian doctrine over the ages–from consubstantiation to the doctrine of the soul to the idea of an afterlife–to understand why Kant made the metaphysicians, prominently among them the theologians, nervous. Before going on, we may find it instructive to be clear about what precisely is meant by ‘metaphysics,’ a term which is commonly used but whose definition is all too often taken for granted. By metaphysics, to make matters easier for ourselves, let us adhere to Kant’s own definition, as given in the Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason: “a wholly isolated speculative cognition of reason that elevates itself entirely above all instruction from experience.” Although Kant was a famously abstruse writer and though the minutiae of his arguments are equally difficult to apprehend, nevertheless the general argument he makes is rather straightforward.
Descartes before Kant had argued that in the act of doubting, even total absolute doubt, a doubter–a subject–is presupposed. It is from this subject that Kant begins his analysis. Thus for Kant, any critique of knowledge requires a critique of the subject who knows and his relation to what is known. For Kant, there are certain constitutive elements presupposed in the very act of knowing, and these are what he calls the categories, among which we might include space and time, but also quantity, quality, causation, etc. As the argument goes, unless these categories are assumed, knowledge is not possible. Let us clarify this with an example. A fully colorblind person, it is safe to say, cannot comprehend the concept of the color purple. It does not remain within his faculties to apprehend colors and thus it is impossible for him to know what red is, regardless of how much it is explained to him. In a similar way, many of our theological concepts of God are ipso facto beyond the categories by which we can apprehend Him; we are to God what the colorblind person is to colors. The reason for this is simply that, just as the colorblind person’s perception is limited to gradations of light and darkness, human perception is limited to the concepts of time and space. It simply wouldn’t make sense, for example, to speak of an event having happened or a person having existed outside of time and space; that would be tantamount to saying the event never happened and the person never existed in the first place. By definition, then, as long as we define God as that which is transcendent or supersensible–outside of time and space–we have an epistemological problem, for even in supposing that such a God does exist, he would remain beyond the limits of our comprehension just as the color red is beyond the limits of a colorblind person’s comprehension. In Kant’s own words, such subjects as we are, with such faculties of comprehension as we have “can never get beyond the boundaries of possible experience” (Preface to the Second Edition)*.
THE INCARNATION: THE WORD BECOME FLESH
Theology then, must be able to reckon such a massive undercutting of metaphysics and must be able to articulate a theology within the proper boundaries of experience. After Kant, we could no longer speak, sensibly at least, of a God beyond the phenomenal world. We could no longer speak of God as noumenon, but–if at all–as phenomenon. If God was to be made sensible to human comprehension, he would have to cross what Kierkegaard calls the absolute distance, he would have to cross into the phenomenal, he would have to descend from the metaphysical world into the sensible world, he would have to–incarnate. In light of the Kantian critique, we may interpret the incarnation epistemologically as God’s incarnation into space and time, into sensible reality. Is this not the movement we perceive in the gospel of Saint John who writes,
“The Word Became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)
This truth discloses itself to us even further in “the Word,” for that word does not refer to the Gospel in the sense of the gospels being amalgamates of linguistic signifiers, but refers to the Greek “Logos,” which means also logic, the logical principle upon which Platonic metaphysics rests. Thus we read in Christ an implied anti-Platonism insofar as as he is anti-metaphysical. For Plato, the Logos; for Christ, the flesh. Indeed, the affront of the gospels lay precisely in their complete reversal of Greek metaphysics. The Greek philosopher Celsus ridiculed “that certain Christians and (the) Jews should maintain, the former that there has already descended, the latter that there will descend, upon the earth a certain God, or Son of a God, who will make the inhabitants of the earth righteous, is a most shameless assertion, and one the refutation of which does not need many words.” Saint Paul argues that the gospel was “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23) because it preached Christ crucified, but there it is foolishness to the Greeks in a much profounder sense than this: it is foolishness to the Greeks in its radical epistemology: its abhorrent anti-metaphysics. The true heresy of the gospels lies herein: God was a human being, and it was, furthermore, only in his human-ness, his humanity, that he could mean something to men, both epistemologically and existentially, for so long as God is ontologically distinct from this reality, there abides a phenomenological insurmountability between God and man. God is comprehensible to us inasmuch as and to the extent that he was a human being. We have hitherto exegeted John 1:14 epistemologically: the Word became flesh. But the Word became flesh AND made his dwelling among us. It is in the second half of this scripture that we may make an existential appropriation.
THE INCARNATION AS IT RELATES TO THE EXISTENTIAL SUBJECT
We might distinguish here between a fact and the meaning of a fact. The epistemolgoical move from Logos to flesh allowed for the possibility of the fact; but the meaning of the fact remains to be discovered, and the discovery may begin in the fact that God–incarnating himself in sensible reality–did not incarnate into a stone or a tree; the Word became FLESH. But it did not become any type of flesh: it did not incarnate into a sponge, a fish, a cat, a dog, or an ape, but into the flesh of a human being. This is what it means that the Word became flesh AND made his dwelling among us. But more specifically, his dwelling among us entails more than his being a human being; it means being a particular type of human being, for God, not satisfied with having descended into the reality, descended into the lowest realms of reality: he became a peasant–he made his dwelling among us. He made his dwelling among us, and not them, not the emperors, governors, priests and acolytes. In first century Judea, there did not exist a middle class: there were the haves and the have-nots. The fact should be reckoned, therefore, that the King of Kings became a peasant. Here, in his particularity, may the existential appropriation be made, for it is in particularity that we derive existential meaning. It is not as anonymous theoretical substances from which fictional characters or poetic speakers derive their poignancy or significance for us, but as particularities, particular selves with whom we may relate.
In the existential appropriation or, exegesis of the subject’s phenomenology, as in the epistemological critique, we must define a basic ontology. In the epistemological critique, this ontology was in the nature of the relation of the subject to the known which was relevant. In the existential appropriation, we must establish the basic elements of the ontology. What is necessarily presupposed in any such ontology is, first and foremost and most basically, a subject. We must, as Sartre did, examine the nature of the subject. Moreover, insofar as this is an existential appropriation, we must examine the subject specifically as an existential subject. Just as Freud for his purposes examines the subject as being toward pleasure, Heidegger as being toward death, or Nietzsche as being toward power, for our purposes, we must examine the subject as being toward, taking after Professor Victor Frankl. The first question which arises in an existential exegesis of the subject is one which asks what it means to be an existential subject. This is a question of definition and is presupposed as an analytic proposition: we shall mean of the existential subject, following Hedegger, one for whom his own “being is of concern,” concordantly following Camus, one for whom the most important question is the question of the decision to live. Here is the subject of our consideration. The second question which arises is one which asks how is meaning expropriated by such a subject? Before beginning to answer the question, we must recognize the question as already circumscribed in a certain falsity, insofar as it posits as premise the notion that such a question has an answer / has answers for all such subjects in a general and undifferentiated sense. We must make this recognition in order to establish properly the qualifications of such a project. Nevertheless, we shall proceed on the assumption–and recognize it as an assumption–that there is a general modality by which existential subjects expropriate meaning.
As we are here dealing specifically with the existential appropriation of Christ, it makes most sense to begin by looking to phenomena which most resemble the phenomenology of the existential appropriation: here we turn to dramatic art, never forgetting that the gospels are tragic narratives at the most basic level. I shall not elaborate in-depth the relationship between Christianity and the tragic or Christianity and literature as that warrants its own independent treatment. It should suffice to say that in a most basic phenomenology of art, we may raise the question: what gives the tragic actor existential significance? The literary critic Harold Bloom describes it as the dramatic character’s ability to contain us, or more specifically, for the character’s consciousness to subsume our own consciousness. This is a description I think most readers find to be honest: it is the fictive selves we encounter which make drama compelling. Specifically, it is the fictive selves whom we feel understand us, who capture some aspect of our consciousness, and for whom we can say “I am” (E.g. “I am Hamlet, Hamlet is me”).
Turning back to the existential appropriation which Jesus lends himself to, we may postulate that it is the character of Christ which mediates the appropriation, not character in the mere sense of personality, but character insofar as that requires embodying entire modes of consciousness: for Christ, it is suffering, indignation, humiliation, despair, divine abandonment; and in the light of these, faith, hope, and love. The existential appropriation of Christ is in his ability to comprehend our own sufferings, hopes, etc. To say–as Christians commonly do–is to say that Christ, more than any other consciousness, bet it fictive or real/historical, expresses our experience of what it means to be human. Professor Paul Knitter of Union Theological Seminary thus says of Christ, “The reason why people are or remain Christian is (or should be) the experience that no one else has so touched them, spoken to them, enabled them to discover who they really are as has Jesus.”
There is a second sense in which the incarnation is existentially significant. If it is the manifestation of God within the world and in the form of a human being, then it also expresses the outermost potential of human beings within the world. Even if, rather curiously, we should not make such an assumption, nevertheless the person of Jesus expresses in him potential to the extent that all human beings do. The manifestation of what what he is and does qua finite humanity demonstrates by implication what we are not and what we do not do in our own identical humanity. In terms of Sartrean phenomenology, Jesus presents in positive what the consciousness may follow after in constructing as negative whose form can be felt precisely because the positive once existed. I other words, by the very act of his existence, Christ thus demonstrates and makes felt what is absent in ourselves.
Here, it is clear what significance the incarnation assumes existentially, if we recall the incarnation is the movement from Logos to flesh. An existential appropriation would have been impossible without the incarnation: the Logos does not suffer, does not love, does not feel indignation, etc. Inasmuch as the Logos is not of this world, we can never relate to it as a consciousness within this world, as any experience including experience of the reality of this consciousness presupposes the experience to be within the world.
There is a third sense in which the incarnation is existentially significant: it is in its own existentialism. In the Platonic ontology, truth signified what was known. What was lived had only secondary significance in terms of truth. Yet we may see the gospels as presenting a Christ who not only intellectualizes truth, and not even primarily but, but who firstly and most importantly, lives it. Thus Christ says “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He does not say “I KNOW the way, the truth, and the life,” but rather “I AM the way the truth and the life.” The existentialist critique of the rationalistic philosophy culminating in Hegel was precisely that these truths remained detached from human agency and being in the world. They overemphasized the role of reason at the expense of the will. Christ, in Emerson’s eternal words, “transmuted life into truth.” The incarnation is thus not merely the manifestation of Logos (logic, truth) into a human life, but also a parallel manifestation, of life into truth. Indeed, it is by the very act of living truth that the existential possibilities of this truth were also made possible. Thus when we say Christ was crucified and resurrected, we mean thereby that a certain embodiment of truth itself was crucified and was resurrected. To proclaim the gospel is in part to say: there, this body–this mangled body–is the truth. The truth of what? and What exactly this means is a subject which warrants its own discussion. Nevertheless, the reversal of the Platonic ontology is clear: when Christ says “I am the truth,” he subverts the Platonic metaphysics: the particular, not the form, is true. The tangible, not the concept, is true. It is also to say that the truth shall be known by its reality in the phenomenal world, in existence, in one’s being in the world, and not philosophized form beyond it.
In conclusion, the incarnation has importance for Christians for two reasons. It is the only way in which God could be known by man epistemologically. The Logos remains beyond the realm of human knowledge. It is the only way in which God could have existential significance for man. The Logos remains beyond the realm of human experience.
*Kant tries to articulate a philosophy which can preserve a faculty of practical reason so that he might save ethics, but this attempt is largely flawed, and it is Nietzsche, ironically enough, who places ethics in the faculty not of reason, but of the will.