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Thoughts on the Incarnation #1

It’s officially cozy season! I hope you’re all enjoying this holiday time of year. I do personally celebrate Christmas, though I have no problem saying Happy Holidays. Actually, my hot take is that the real war on Christmas is that modern Christianity doesn’t understand anything about what the Incarnation is all about. Hold on to your hats because we’re going deep with this one.

Christians commonly understand Jesus to be “God in the flesh”. And also the “Son of God”. But what does that really mean? How is Jesus both a man and God? Was Jesus always a man? Was he always God? If you’re like me and grew up in a majority Christian culture you’ve probably always had these questions and also probably never heard any real answers other than some variation of it’s a mystery that we just believe.

I don’t deny that it’s mysterious, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some answers. Answers that might surprise you and reveal how the mythology of this religion comes from the same place of deep wisdom that all of the great religions and philosophies throughout history come from.

Part 1. The Logos

“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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people.” John 1:1-4

The original Greek term for “Word” is Logos. This word was not chosen randomly and has significant context that readers of the time would have understood that many of us today do not. So what is this Logos? And why would the author of John’s gospel identify it with Jesus? Good question and there are a few ancient thinkers that can help us answer it. Let’s start with Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC).

“This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to ever understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep.” Diels–Kranz, 22B1
“Listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that all things are one.” Diels–Kranz, 22B50

Heraclitus used logos in several ways so that it’s not obvious to the reader what he may have meant. This is a familiar theme of nondual descriptions of reality, which is what I would argue this is. Heraclitus is most famous for his unity of opposites theory and his concept of impermanence. If you’re thinking that this sounds remarkably like ideas found in the lineage of Vedic traditions, including Buddhism, I would say that I agree with you.

Obviously as logos is a Greek term, it was used extensively across various Greek philosophies. Aristotle famously used it to refer to argument from reason, reflecting how we use the term Logic. The Stoics took a more esoteric view of logos, describing it as the reasoning substance that animates the Universe. For Stoics, God and Nature are synonyms, and can be described as two components. That which is considered physical matter is the passive substance of the Universe, with Fate or Logos as that which makes action possible – being that it possesses the ability to distinguish this from that. It is sometimes unclear whether or not the logos refers to both the active and passive components of the Universe or just the passive, which sounds a lot like “the Word was with God and the Word was God” doesn’t it?

“The universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.” Chrysippus, in Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i. 39 (45BC)
“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iv. 40 (AD161-180)

So then, for the Stoics, the logos is how divinity makes contact with the physical universe and indeed makes it in the first place.

For a Jewish flavour to this Greek concept, we turn to Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC – c. 50 AD). A Hellenistic Jew, in addition to his philosophical writings he was also known for leading a delegation of Alexandrian Jews to Rome in 40 CE to petition the Emperor for rights of protection for Jews given the escalating tension and violence between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria. Given that he was a Hellenistic Jew, he would have had his own Jewish understanding of Logos in addition to that which was known in Greek philosophy. It is the combination of the two in Philo that can begin to illuminate the context of Logos found in the Gospel of John.

Philo of Alexandria

In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), Logos is generally a figure of speech that refers to anything describing God’s speech or action in the world. In essence, the activity of God in the world is Logos because in Hebraic thought, God’s words and action are synonymous.

“By the word [logos] of the Lord the heavens were established; and all the host of them” Psalm 32:6 LLX
“the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.” Philo, De Profugis

By combining the personalized theistic aspects of God as described in Jewish literature with the metaphysical grounding principle of the Universe, Philo outlines the Logos as an eternally begotten mediator between God and humanity.

“And the father who created the universe has given to his archangel and most ancient Logos a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separate that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Logos is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Logos rejoices…. saying “And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and you” (Num. 16:48); neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties.” Philo, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit

Is it just me, or is this starting to sound suspiciously like the New Testament?

“15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Col.1:15-17, NASB

The New Testament authors, specifically Paul and the author of the Gospel of John use language reminiscent of well-known Greek philosophical ideas. Judging by his theology, Paul seems to be familiar with Philo and his concepts of the Logos. These concepts likely would have been floating around in the discussions of the day, and indeed there are references to various Greek philosophies in the New Testament.

So to bring this all back to Jesus, the “reason for the season”. The New Testament claims that this same Logos IS Jesus. That he is the “Word made flesh”. Now that we have some background on what the “Word” actually is, we might start to understand how the New Testament authors saw the embodiment of Jesus and what that might mean for us as fellow human beings. Spoiler alert for part 2, it wasn’t as a sacrificial blameless pawn to satiate the bloodlust of an angry God.

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