Incarnation and Religious Pluralism


Another quote from John Hick's book "God Has Many Names" points the way to an incarnational theology for Christians that is consistent with religious pluralism:

Indeed one may say that the fundamental heresy is precisely to treat the incarnation as a factual hypothesis! For the reason why it has never been possible to state a literal meaning for the idea of incarnation is simply that it has no literal meaning. It is a mythological idea, a figure of speech, a piece of poetic imagery. It is a way of saying that Jesus is our living contact with the transcendent God. In his presence we find that we are brought into the presence of God. We believe he is so truly God's servant that in living as his disciples we are living according to the divine purpose. And as our sufficient and saving point of contact with God there is for us something absolute about him which justifies the absolute language which Christianity has developed. Thus reality is being expressed mythologically when we say that Jesus is the Son of God, God incarnate, the Logos made flesh.

When we see the incarnation as a mythological idea applied to Jesus to express the experienced fact that he is our sufficient, effective, and saving point of contact with God, we no longer have to draw the negative conclusion that he is man's one and only effective point of contact with God. We can revere Christ as the one through whom we have found salvation, without having to deny other reported points of contact between God and man. We can commend the way of Christian faith without having to discommend other ways of faith. We can say that there is salvation in Christ without having to say that there is no salvation other than in Christ.
I do find the mythological language that Hick refers to ("Son of God", and so forth) to be problematic because it has been appropriated by exclusivist orthodoxy for so long that it is difficult to use it in any other sense without causing confusion. For that reason, I am simply not comfortable with using that terminology in my own religious discourse. I'll leave it to others to call Jesus "God Incarnate"; I simply won't do that myself. That being said, the important point that I take away from Hick's comment is that the mythological language of incarnation does not have to mean that Jesus was the fully divine spawn of a God who dropped out of the sky to impregnate a virgin. Hick offers an incarnational theology that starts with the premise that Jesus was fully a human being just like us--but one who happened to point the way to a life lived in God's presence. It is not that Jesus was God, but that he had such a close relationship with God (or, as Marcus Borg later put it, he was a "spirit person") that those who choose to follow him can look to his life as an example. Through that example, one experiences a life lived in God's presence. But that doesn't mean that he is the only means of discovering such a relationship with God.

Tomorrow, Christians celebrate Jesus's birth. But rather than celebrating it as the incarnation of the Savior, it makes more sense to me to celebrate it as the birth of a savior who showed a particular path many people are legitimately drawn to. For reasons of upbringing, habit, culture, or whatever, many choose to follow Jesus. And that's a good thing. But it is also a good thing to remember that there are paths that are just as legitimate.


ken said...


Myth, unfortunately, gets a real bad rap these days as something inherently false. Just look at the premise of "Myth Busters."

Some quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien, C.G. Jung, and Huston Smith about myth are here.

Myth is so much more powerful than literal language because it is universal -- it applies to everyone and every time. It comes from deep within us instead from some outside source somewhere.

ken said...

I do find the mythological language that Hick refers to ("Son of God", and so forth) to be problematic because it has been appropriated by exclusivist orthodoxy for so long that it is difficult to use it in any other sense without causing confusion.

This is a problem. I find that even Fundamentalist Christians have the same problem when, for example, they offer "proofs" that "God" exists. They assume that the God they are proving is their God when there is no such qualification in the proof. It, therefore, applies equally well to the God of any religion which, of course, they outright deny.

A quote from Edward F. Edinger in The Creation of Consciousness:

It may sound like theology, but it is not. It is, in fact, empirical psychology. The confusion comes in the use of terms which have traditional religious connotations. Why then use these terms? It is necessary to do so in order to demonstrate the psychological facts which underlie religious conceptions; moreover, there is scarcely any other way to communicate such material.

So, like it or not, we may not have a choice. The words of religion were chosen not by accident but because they were the best representation of the myth. This is, in part, why religion has so much power.

Mystical Seeker said...

Interesting quote from Edinger, Ken. Thanks for sharing that. Some people, like Borg and Crossan, can use the old language in new ways without any problem. I feel more wounded by the old orthodoxy, though, and the old language is often too hard for me wrap myself around. But maybe that's just me.