Holiness in the Flesh

23 Feb 2018

The second of the 2018 holy land dialogues considers the quest of Christians and Jews to conquer the concrete realities of life.

STI Experts

First Things editor Rusty Reno delivered the second of the Holy Land Dialogues.  The following is an edited version of his speech:

I wish to address the theme of removing things from the realm of ideas into that of reality. Or in a more earthy formulation, my theme will be enfleshment, which is the literal meaning of incarnation. And my argument will be that Christians can learn from Jews the full meaning and spiritual significance of our faith in Christ as the incarnate Son of God.

By and large, our philosophical intuitions run in the opposite direction of incarnation. We tend to think of the ideal as the realm of the perfect, while concrete reality is messy and disorienting. This sensibility orients us upward, as it were. We are to find the clues of the eternal in the here and now, and we should use these clues to raise our minds up to higher things, things that shimmer with the timeless source of all reality. Philosophers call this approach “idealism.”  Put succinctly, universals make the world go round.

Plato gave compelling arguments for idealism. If we compare the Pythagorean theorem with actual right-angled triangles, we can see that the theoretical definition is flawless, while concrete pictures of triangles never perfectly represent the theoretical truth. This difference between flawless, timeless perfection and concrete, particular instances—which is to say between the theoretical truths and their incarnations—led Plato to speculate that ideas—or what is sometimes translated as the “forms”—are the sources of reality. That which is perfect and timeless anchors the everyday realities we experience. The here-and-now emanates from a flawless, eternal source just as sunlight radiates from its solar source. On this view, the spiritual life moves from particular to universal, from that which is time-bound and incarnate to that which is eternal and abstract. Instead of making ideals real, according to Plato, we should try to transcend what merely seems real in the day-to-day in order to see and dwell amidst the ideals that are above.

Psalm 19 opens, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Many other biblical passages also call us to see in earthly things their divine origin. In this sense, both religious traditions encourage a philosophical habit of mind, one that moves from the particular to the universal. But it is important to recognize that Judaism and Christianity severely limit the spiritual significance of philosophy. In both traditions, philosophy must not serve as the pattern for our religious lives. Piety needs to move in the opposite direction. It should aim for enfleshment or incarnation.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the heresy of Gnosticism evoked affirmations of the downward, concretizing movement of faith. Gnosticism had many complex expressions, but its basic claim was that the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the events that took place in Jerusalem during his final days must be understood in “ideal” terms. The passion, death, and resurrection of Christ are not the main point of God’s revelation; rather, we need to see those time-bound, enfleshed events as hazy representations of a divine truth to be grasped by our intellects. This means that the New Testament must be read in an upward direction, moving from specific people and events toward the ideal, from the words of Jesus to truths or meanings that transcend all physical realities. Thus the term Gnosticism, which can be translated as intellectualism, or even idealism.

Irenaeus of Lyon was a great figure in the early Church. Across the many pages of his late second-century treatise, Against the Heresies, he set out to refute Gnosticism. First, Irenaeus argued for creatio ex nihilo, the principle that God created all things out of nothing. As the Nicene Creed puts it, “We believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” This affirmation rules out the Platonic theory of emanation, a view of reality as a great chain of being that radiates from an eternal source. This emanation view of the origin of all things was crucial for Gnosticism. It allows one to envision getting to God by retracing the steps of emanation and ascending the chain of being. We become more spiritual the less rooted we are in particular, enfleshed realities and the more universal our thinking becomes.

By repudiating this understanding of reality, Christianity forestalls the Gnostic approach to the spiritual life. True, the created order testifies to power and goodness of the Creator, and philosophy properly shows that this is the case. Philosophy can and should explore arguments showing the existence of God, for example. But we cannot ascend to God with this philosophical knowledge, for there are no steps in a great cosmic ladder that takes us from the particular features of our time and place and the Eternal One who is before all time and the source of every place. (Judaism also affirms creation ex nihilo, and does so for largely the same reasons.)

By wiping out the possibility of intellectual ascent, Irenaeus clears the way for his second line of argument. He emphasizes that God, the Father Almighty, is not a generic deity or universal principle. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is a description of God based on the Bible and shared with Judaism. Jews intone the same formulation countless times their prayers. Irenaeus continues, identifying God as the one who calls Abraham from his father’s house and promises him a particular place, which is entrusted to his progeny. This same God has made a covenant with his people on Mount Sinai, and oversees their destiny as a people.

To these straightforward biblical affirmations, Irenaeus adds something more. This divine plan or economy (to use the Greek word) that runs from Abraham through Sinai and onward in the history of the People of Israel unfolds in accord with God’s most intimate self, which is to say as an expression of his Word or Logos (again, to use the Greek word). The verses that open the Gospel of John express this succinctly, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In his was life, and the life was the light of men.” This divine Word that is “with God” has as downward trajectory, one of enfleshment or incarnation. God allies himself with Abraham and fuses his purposes to the people of Israel. This comes to a crescendo in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Again, in the words of the Gospel of John, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” With this affirmation, Irenaeus drives home his refutation of Gnosticism. If we wish to enter into the precincts of the divine, we are not to seek to climb the ladder of Being or otherwise raise ourselves up in contemplation. We must fix our gaze upon the man Jesus and harken to his voice. We ascend to God insofar as we attend to his descent to us.

Needless to say, Judaism rejects this claim about Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. It is not simply because Jews do not regard Jesus as the messiah. The rejection is more fundamental. The biblical prohibition against idolatry bars any religious claims that give the divine a human form. As the Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod observes, “To point to a human being and to say of him that he is God can only arouse terror in the Jewish soul.” The doctrine of the incarnation is central to Christianity, and it must be adamantly rejected by Judaism. 

Nevertheless—and this is my theme, Wyschogrod points out that Judaism has anincarnational dynamic, a movement toward enfleshment. For example, what a rabbinic friend, out of deference to my Christian labels, calls the ever-new Old Testament, repeatedly affirms a divine descent. God has an earthly dwelling place, first in the moveable tabernacle, and then in the Temple in Jerusalem. How can this be possible? God is eternal and infinite, transcending all times and places. Our basic philosophical intuitions tell us that God is present in particular place only in a metaphorical sense. But this is not what Christianity and Judaism teach. Here is a passage from one of the great rabbinic teachers of the twentieth century, Joseph Soloveitchik, as he reflects upon the “descent” of God into the tabernacle of modest proportions:

Infinity contracts itself; eternity concentrates itself in the fleeting and transient, the Divine Presence in dimensions and the glory of God in measurements. It is Judaism that has given the world the secret of tzimtzum, of “contraction,” contraction of the infinite within the finite, the transcendent within the concrete, the supernal within the empirical, the divine within reality. When the Holy One, blessed be He, descended on Mount Sinai, He set an eternally binding precedent that it is God who descends to man, not man who ascends to God. When He said to Moses, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8), He thereby revealed the awesome mystery that God contracts His divine presence in this world.

Soloveitchik does not use the term “incarnation,” no doubt for the reasons Wyschogrod gives. But he is expressing in dramatic terms the spiritual logic that Judaism shares with Christianity. We do not ascend to God; He descends to us.

There is another way of putting this shared affirmation of divine descent. Rashi is an acronym for the medieval French rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki who wrote the commentary on the Hebrew Bible that became normative for Ashkenazi Judaism. He begins his commentary on Genesis by commending an earlier opinion that the Bible ought to have begun with Exodus 12:2, which the rabbinic tradition treats as the first commandment God gives to the people of Israel: “The month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” The fact that this verse shares the word “beginning” with the first verse of Genesis encourages this seemingly whimsical correction of the order of sacred scripture. But there is a deeper meaning. What this substitutions of Exodus 12:2 for Genesis 1:1 is saying is this: God’s commandments, the Torah, comes before creation. The Torah is eternal, and God creates the world for the sake of Sinai, the giving of the Torah.

With this Jewish affirmation of the priority of Torah over creation, one can revise the opening verses of the Gospel of John simply by substituting “Torah” for “Word.” Thus: “In the beginning was the Torah, and the Torah was with God, and the Torah was God.  The Torah was in the beginning with God; all things were made through the Torah, and without the Torah was not anything made that was made. In the Torah was life, and the Torah was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

This repurposing of the Gospel of John into a declaration of Jewish faith may seem improbable, even scandalous. But please indulge me. My wife is Jewish, and during more than thirty years of marriage I have found myself tutored by Judaism. This has not led me to doubt my faith. On the contrary, it has deepened and illuminated what it means to affirm that Jesus of Nazareth is the Word made flesh.

Here is one important lesson: The Torah is not an idea or concept. It is a body of law, the Halakha, which is oriented toward the concrete realities of life. Halakha means “way of walking” or “way of behaving.” It concerns very basic matters of food, sex, and bodily functions. These are fused with laws concerning communal organization and the order of prayer and worship. Given this orientation toward the everyday, there can be no confusion about the Torah’s “metaphysical direction.” The arrow points downward, not upward. As Joseph Soloveitchik puts it, those who seek God through Torah observance are engaged in a life-long quest to realize God’s will in their lives. The task of piety is to remove the sacred from the realm of ideals and put it into reality. For the commandments of God are to be obeyed amidst the concrete circumstances of life, which is to say “in the flesh.” They are meant to be incarnated.

Soloveitchik has another way of expressing this spiritual dynamic. The way of the Torah does not seek to transcend the limitations of this life, seeking to ascend above flesh and blood in order to enter into the precincts of the divine. Rather, “Halakhic man [his term for Jewish spirituality] “longs to bring transcendence down into this valley of the shadow of death—i.e., into this world—and transform it into a land of the living.” Soloveitchik again, “Halakhic man apprehends transcendence. However, instead of rising up to it, he tries to bring it down to him. Rather than raising the lower realms to the higher world, halakhic man brings down the higher realms to the lower world.” To observe the law consecrates and sanctifies the finite realm of existence.

Christians like me need to grasp the spiritual dynamic of Torah observance. Our tradition sets aside the detailed laws of Jewish life. We reject “legalism.” The polestar of the religious life is faith in Christ, not the works of the law. But by my reading, St. Paul rejects the Torah, not because he wishes to reverse the metaphysical direction of the spiritual life, but in order to intensify its downward direction. Christ is Torah incarnate, and we are to abide in him, walking in his way. Nevertheless, without the innumerable tethers of legal observance, Christians are tempted by Gnosticism. It seems misguided to anchor one’s spiritual life in Christ, for he is but one man living at one time in history. Moreover, his death on the cross drags us down into the bitterest dimensions of our finitude, which are suffering and death. Is it not better, therefore, to see him as a moral teacher or spiritual exemplar? Shouldn’t we adopt a philosophical frame of mind, one that reads the New Testament with an eye toward formulating a larger view of life? After all, isn’t faith the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1)? Isn’t our true home in heaven above, not in this world below? And doesn’t St. Paul tell us, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2)?

When we find ourselves entering into this pattern of thought, we need to return to the opening verses of the Gospel of John. That which is above has descended to dwell among us. And so, paradoxically, in order to look up we must look down. In order to enter more fully into that which is universal, we need to stand more squarely in that which is limited to a particular time and place.

The great medieval theologian St. Bonaventure articulated this spiritual dynamic in his famous manual for his fellow Franciscan’s, The Journey of the Mind to God. The treatise is organized around the seven days of the week, and at first glance Bonventure seems to depict a standard philosophical path of ascent from the finite to the infinite. But on the seventh day, the Sabbath day of this journey toward God, Bonaventure has us contemplate the “superluminous darkness” of Christ crucified on the cross. The deepest, most profound truth about God and the universe is found here, in this city, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate. To ascend we must fix our gaze on something here below.

It is fitting that the most sacred Christian site in Jerusalem calls for us to enact this spiritual ascent by descent in a literal way. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not set upon a hill. It is hidden in the Old City’s warren of narrow streets. You come upon it suddenly, and, then, thrust out of the sunshine and into the interior darkness, you descend. Steps take you down to an impossibly small chapel under which are the still smaller, claustrophobic confines of Christ’s tomb. Truly, this is a place of ztimztum, of divine contraction. There, the bonds of death were burst and the power of life triumphed. If we are of a philosophical cast of mind, we can contemplate the remarkable, anti-Gnostic reversal. It is not the case that eternal life shimmers above, emanating downward and animating the shadow world of flesh and blood. Instead, the power of the Eternal bursts forth from within the fleshly confines of our finite existence.

The Holy Land testifies to the particularity and concentration of God’s purposes. To a Texan, it doubtless seems a small place. I recall a friend telling me some years ago that he was taken aback by meager flow of the Jordan. “It looms so large in scripture,” he said, “but is so small in real life.” The sacred city of Jerusalem is even more circumscribed. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred sites are layered on top of each other within the narrow confines of the ancient city. God is the creator of all things. His providence guides all of history. Even though the Bible speaks of “going up” to Jerusalem, and in the religious imagination of the faithful this city becomes a soaring mountain, metaphysically speaking, to make a pilgrimage here means going down, fixing one’s spiritual imagination on a particular place and history rather than universal concepts and ideas.

As Michael Wyschogrod once put it, the Lord has a home address: One Temple Place. Christians cannot agree with Jews about God’s home address, but our universalism is not generic. We, too, say that God dwells with us. For the Catholic, the Eternal is resident in every tabernacle in which the consecrated host is reserved; for the Protestant the Lord is to be found where three or more are gathered in the name of Jesus. We can say with Joseph Soloveitchik: “Holiness does not wink at us from beyond like some mysterious star that sparkles in the distant heavens, but appears in our actual, very real lives.” Again, Jews and Christians disagree about how and where God’s holiness appears. But we agree that the supernatural grace of God operates from within our finite frame, not from without. The Lord reigns over all things, but he also claims territory.

It is a special blessing to be able to come to this place. It has been consecrated by promises to Abraham, the faithfulness of the people of Israel, and the footsteps of Jesus. But any pilgrimage, even the most modest, participates in the downward movement of incarnation, the ztimztum by which God inseminates human life with the possibilities of transcendence. When we go to a local shrine, we are anchoring our spiritual life, giving it focus. The same is true for processions and liturgies. They consecrate the asphalt of city streets and sanctify a hour of time during our busy days. In the ever-new Old Testament, the Lord commands the Israelites to conquer the land of the promise. They are to claim and sanctify it, making it a Holy Land. We, too, are given a promise. It is one of life and life abundant, not just in the future and in heaven above, but here and now as a foretaste. And thus we too are commanded to conquer the concrete realities of life. Pilgrimages, processions, liturgies, festivals, and feast days are among the weapons of that conquest. They subdue the false claims that worldly powers make on the day-to-day territory of our lives. They free us to serve the Lord more fully. We must descend into the nitty-gritty of that conquest, one made daily in prayer, in the works of mercy, and in sacramental practice, if we are to ascend.

St. Paul said of the cross of Christ that it is foolishness to the Greeks. He was drawing attention to the improbability of anchoring one’s spiritual life in the death of an obscure Jew crucified in a provincial city. Why seek God in worldly suffering when it seems obvious that the spiritual life should look upward to the shining eternity and universality of the divine? As Christians we affirm the cross. We have a powerful theological tradition that explains to us the saving power of the incarnate Son’s sacrifice. Nevertheless, we are too often Greek in our spiritual habits, seeking to throw off the shackles of finite existence and soar above empirical reality. The most common way of doing so during the modern era has been to make the spiritual life into a quest for meaning.

I want to end, therefore, by evoking again what we can learn from Jews. On the road to Damascus, when St. Paul is struck blind by the light of Christ, he does not ask “What does this mean. God?” or Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” Instead, stricken by the power of divine love, he asks, “What shall I do, Lord?” He petitions not for a principle or concept or sentiment with which to lever himself up and out of his condition. He does not want to be enlightened or inspired. He asks for commandment. He wants an imperative to be relished and obeyed for its own sake, not as a means to some higher end—which is exactly what Judaism means by the gift of the Torah. Let us learn, therefore, from a proud Jew, the apostle Paul. When we walk the street of this sacred city and seek the face of Christ, let us ask not the bloodless question, “What does it mean?” but instead let us ask the question that seeks to incarnate our faith, “What shall I do, Lord?” This is how we abide in Christ, God’s ztimztum.