The Incarnation: Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Reformation

CJSH.name/incarnation

The central, root difference between Orthodoxy and Islam is that Orthodoxy affirms the Incarnation wholeheartedly and Islam wholeheartedly denies it. If you want to see what difference believing or not believing in the Incarnation makes, look at the differences between Orthodoxy and Islam.

As a point of departure, I would like to look at something about Islam that is not entirely obvious to many people in the West. As I write, the U.S. is involved in Iraq and this issue looms large in not only U.S. but world politics. I don’t want to write lengthy comments on whether war is ever appropriate, or, if war can be appropriate, whether there were appropriate reasons for the U.S. to fight, or whether or not the U.S. has brought genuine good things to the Iraqi populace, or exposing inhuman treatment of prisoners. Those may be well enough worth discussing, but the single issue that concerns me here is the U.S. endeavor to endow Iraq with “freedom and democracy.”

That rally, that cry—to bring “freedom and democracy” to Iraq—had me wincing well before I heard about Guantanamo Bay. Quite simply, there is a more profound cultural insensitivity in trying to bestow democracy on part of the Islamic world than one can easily explain. It is obvious enough that starting a rumor about flushing the Quran down a toilet is patently offensive. What is harder to explain is why trying to install democracy may be a bigger gaffe.

What in Islam could be offended by democracy? The answer is a first glimpse of what difference the Incarnation makes, but the connection is not at surface level.

Western observers in the Islamic world talk of an “IBM,” an acronym for inshallah, meaning, “It will happen if Allah wills it and it will not happen if Allah does not will it, and you don’t really have much say in whether Allah wills it,” bukra, meaning, “Tomorrow; it can be done tomorrow; it need not be done today,” and malesh, meaning, “It was fated; it was doomed to happen that way.” When you understand inshallah, bukra, malesh, you understand something that runs very deep in Muslim culture.

G.K. Chesterton, in Heretics, writes a chapter called Omar Khayyam and the Sacred Vine. Omar Khayyam was a 12th century Iranian thinker who studied under a famous Imam, but is not necessarily the image of a good, devout Muslim: he was a renegade Muslim, if he really was a Muslim, and the point Chesterton is trying to make is a criticism of Omar who (on Chesterton’s indictment) advocates heavy wine-drinking to blot out a miserable universe. Chesterton writes:

Of course, the great part of the more stolid reproaches directed against the Omarite morality are as false and babyish as such reproaches usually are. One critic, whose work I have read, had the incredible foolishness to call Omar an atheist and a materialist. It is almost impossible for an Oriental to be either; the East understands metaphysics too well for that. Of course, the real objection which a philosophical Christian would bring against the religion of Omar, is not that he gives no place to God, it is that he gives too much place to God. His is that terrible theism which can imagine nothing else but deity, and which denies altogether the outlines of human personality and human will.

“The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.”

A Christian thinker such as Augustine or Dante would object to this because it ignores free-will, which is the valour and dignity of the soul. The quarrel of the highest Christianity with this scepticism is not in the least that the scepticism denies the existence of God; it is that it denies the existence of man.

In this aspect, Omar retains something significant from Islam. Renegade as he may be, there is something from Islam deep in his bones: God, the Player, will act as he will, and it is a fundamental error to think that our Yes or No makes a difference. And even in a renegade Muslim with little respect for popular piety, this foundational attitude remains.

By contrast, as I write, Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and ilk, and it would be a stretched argument to say that Pullman is trying to be Christian. Far from it; he provides Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity, but there is something very different from Khayyam. Pullman retains a profoundly Christian assumption: that his actions matter, that he can make a difference in the world. No one I’ve read has suggested that Pullman is fatalistic and treats the religious beliefs he hates as doomed to be there and that no endeavor he could make would matter or make a difference.

Philip Pullman is a renegade against popular Christianity, and Omar Khayyam is a lesser renegade against popular Islam, but they both retain something significant of the piety they rebel against. Pullman, on a very deep level, lives out the Christian belief that his Yes or No in fact matters for something, and Omar retains unchallenged the understanding that God alone may say Yes or No. This is the same conviction in the inshallah, bukra, malesh that it is not our place to say Yes or No, or at least say a Yes or No that makes an actual difference.

If it is not our place to say Yes or No, then what is democracy? Democracy can take some different forms, but its basic premise is that people can and should say a Yes or No that amounts to something, and whether it is a direct democracy, a representative democracy, or something else, the root idea is to empower people to say Yes or No… which, in other words, is to usurp the office of God in the eyes of many Muslims.

As far as insensitivity goes, the nearest equivalent I have been able to think of if someone were to conquer the U.S., would be decide that the best thing for our traditions would be to install a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. And that still does not capture an offense of a political assumption that, on many Muslim understandings, amounts to blasphemy.

If you want to know what this has to do with the Incarnation, let me ask you a question: What does the Incarnation mean if we are denied the freedom to say a significant Yes or No, if it is the very opposite of the truth to say that God created us to be his conversation partners?

One of the biggest things it means is that, if Christ had freedom to issue a real and significant Yes or No, this is as a special exception because he was God that does not have a direct bearing on our lives. If Christ alone had real freedom, the truth of this is a philosophical truth but not a practical truth that directly helps us live human lives. Christ’s divinity is not connected to our humanity, and it turns out that his humanity is dubiously connected to our humanity: which is to say, we are somewhat short of the Incarnation.

History may forget most people whom it does not call movers and shakers; God has numbered the hairs on our heads, and he forever remembers every person who has ever lived and indeed every action, every choice, every Yes or No as eternally significant choices as we choose between Heaven and Hell. This is to say that our freedom matters, and if Christ made a holy exercise of his freedom, this is the supreme example of human freedom with every relevance to our lives: an Incarnation that is not simply a philosophical truth, but has practical relevance to daily living.

More explicitly, the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation is not, “Something that had not happened one second before the Annunciation when Mary conceived the Son of God, and something that was completely finished one second after that conception.” That almost approaches saying that building the United States of America was something that had not started one second before the first person signed the Declaration of Independence, and something that left nothing more to do one second after the last person signed that Declaration. Or it is like saying that once an inventor has a working prototype of some invention, all the real work has been taken care of—with no mention of the work that had to take place each time an invention like the light bulb, the car, or the computer became no longer a curiosity in an inventor’s lab, but saw widespread use in the community at large. It is a fundamental mistake to read the Bible, and read about the Church as the body of Christ, among other things, and think that the Incarnation ends with the Son of God becoming fully man in the conception of the Annunciation, and does not include Christ becoming Incarnate in the Church. The Incarnation is ultimately the Incarnation of Christ in the Church, in Christians whom the Bible rightly calls sons of God, and finally the whole Creation.

Once it is understood that we are created to be part of Christ’s Incarnation unfolding, that we are created to be co-workers with God and co-heirs with Christ, given a freedom to which God assigns eternal significance and created for the express purpose of being God’s conversation partners, then it may be easier to see that Islam with its inshallah, bukra, malesh and its renegade proclaiming—

The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.

—then it is possible to see that the denial that we are given the place to say Yes or No is not random; it is part of the logic working out in Islam’s fundamental rejection of the Incarnation.

Now I would like to introduce another point. Is Islam better at being monotheist than Trinitarian Christianity? I would like to give an image for that.

I’ve heard the image that it is a fundamental error to say, excluding created spirits, that someone who doesn’t believe in God would count the number of items in the universe, everything from galaxies down to protons, and arrive at a number—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,000—and the person who believes in God simply arrives at one more—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,001: the person who doesn’t believe in God arrives at one number, and the person who does believe in God simply counts one more.

That error has been called idolatry; it’s the same kind of error as going into a plant that manufactures Bibles, and after being shown the machines that lay out the paper and the printers that lay down ink, asking to be shown, alongside the paper and ink, the spiritual authority that is being put into the Bibles. The spiritual value of the Bible is not the sort of thing that is ordered as a material used to make Bibles, and it is a fundamental error to ask to be shown the spiritual meaning the same way one could ask to be shown the glue or cloth materials used for binding. It is something of the same kind of error in thinking that God is one more thing that can be counted as material objects are counted—and Orthodoxy and Islam alike would really wince at the idea that God is one more thing that lets you reach a total of 1,000,000,000,000,001 objects in your counting.

The next step of this argument is as follows: if material counting is something you misuse by applying it to God, then denying that the Trinity is still one God may be the same kind of error as counting God as one more physical thing. God is beyond material counting, but this means more than denying “God is one more thing.” It may mean that if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, the Oneness of God is so great that it is uninjured even by the Incarnation of God the Son. If the Oneness of God is on a higher plane my having one pen on my desk, perhaps it is on high enough of a plane that it is not threatened by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being the One God.

God is transcendent: he transcends, is beyond, anything and everything to be found in all creation. That is part of why, when we say that God is One, we mean something different from counting one pen—and something deeper. And part of this transcendence is something like heat. Depending on how tough we are, we might, or might not, be able to pick something up after it is hot from prolonged sunlight. Few of us would want to pick up a heavy black crowbar that has been soaking in summer sun and heat on the asphalt. Most of us want oven mitts, or some surrogate like a folded towel, to pick up something that has been in a hot 450° oven—it’s too hot to touch with bare hands. But even a good oven mitt has limits: I would not want, even with the best oven mitt I’ve used, to reach into a blacksmith’s furnace and pull out a large piece of iron so hot that it’s getting mushy. But there is something about the one God that is transcendently hot: hotter than red-hot iron, hotter than white-hot iron, hotter than a river of rapidly boiling steel, hotter than the heart of the sun, hotter than the Big Bang. The transcendent God is hotter than the heat of fire, plasma, and the Big Bang.

Many of the controversies in early centuries of the Christian Church were about Christ as the bridge between God and his Creation—because if the divine nature is of such heat, then the Creation needs an oven mitt to be in contact with its Creator. Arius proposed one solution, that the oven mitt was the foremost and unique creation. The Orthodox response was that this wasn’t good enough: a created oven mitt could insulate against a created heat, but only a truly transcendent bridge, or oven mitt, or mediator, could allow us to meet God without being destroyed: not only the fiery coal, but the oven mitt must be absolutely and fully divine. And here we can glimpse why the Orthodox Church found Trinitarian theology so necessary: she found, in fact, that the one God, if the logic is worked out and he is properly understood, to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the doctrine of the Trinity is the radical understanding of the One God.

I mention this to guard against a reaction some may have: the reaction that says that Islam really believes in one God, while Christianity has to cross its fingers to say that. Now let me continue:

There are some people who believe that Islam is later than Christianity and extends Christian beliefs: Islam is Christianity with things added. This is quite the opposite of the truth! One way to see beyond this point is to ask the question, “What is said in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would wince at saying? And what is said in Orthodox worship that a Muslim might wince at?”

There are a number of things in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would believe: God is said to be One, to be merciful, to be the Creator of the world, and so on and so forth, and all of this the Orthodox believes. What the Orthodox would not be able to say, in good conscience, is that Muhammed is God’s Prophet. That would come close to the one thing that an Orthodox would squirm about agreeing to.

Now what about a Muslim in an Orthodox “divine liturgy”? God is said to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mary is praised as the Mother of God, icons are warp and woof to worship, and saints, perhaps called divine, share in the glory of God. Even the term “divine liturgy” may not be liked. And each of these is related to the Incarnation.

The Orthodox Church realized the doctrine of the Trinity as something it could not deny, precisely in the wake of wrestling with questions about the Incarnation. Perhaps it would be doubtful to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mere part of the doctrine of the Incarnation. What would not be doubtful is to say that the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated out of the Orthodox Church wrestling with heresies which gave a deficient understanding of the Incarnation. The Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Trinity after affirming what might be called “maximum Christology,” that Christ was everything he could be: maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserving the divine and human even as they were united.

Now we get into territory some Protestants may be uncomfortable with: the great and scandalous phrase, “Mother of God.” Some may be eager to point out that “Mother of God” reflects a Greek term, theotokos, which might more accurately be translated as “Birth-Giver of God,” as “tokos” refers to birth better than the full freight of the English “mother.” In fact one could go further: “tokos,” in Greek, is a word used to describe both the person who gives birth and the one who is born, and on out-of-context, legalistic grounds, “theotokos” could mean “the one to whom God gave birth,” and one could make a mirror image of that switch to say that Christ, o prototokos twn nekrwn (Rev. 1:5), is “the dead’s chief birthgiver,” dodging the more sensible and customary rendering that he is “the firstborn from among the dead.”

This kind of cleverness is all very nice, but it is unhelpful in understanding the theology. The reason the term “theotokos” is significant is something that happened in Arius’s wake. Arius said that Christ was “a creature, but not as one of the creatures,” a unique first creature through whom God created every other, lesser creature. The Church’s response was, in essence, “If that is Christ, he is an oven mitt that will be incinerated if it touches the divine fire. Not good enough.” In Arius’s wake, it was clearly on the table that Christ had to be considered fully divine, and fully human. But one person, Nestorius, said that Christ was fully divine and fully human, but not quite fully united. The controversy came to a head when Nestorius said that Mary could and should be called, “christotokos,” “Mother of Christ,” but that it was absolutely inappropriate to call her “theotokos,” “Mother of God.” The verdict of the Church was that Nestorius had divided the Christ, because he would let the Mother of Jesus be called the Mother of Christ, but he denied that Christ was united enough that you could actually go so far as to say that she was simply the Mother of God.

The decision to call Mary the Mother of God is a move to protect the unity of Christ—that what could be said of the man Jesus could be said of God the Son, and what could be said of the Son of God could be said of the man Jesus. This is why some Christians speak—correctly—of the crucified God, because Christ is so united that it was inescapably God who was crucified if Jesus was crucified, and by the same token Christians insisted on speaking of God the Son, because Christ is so united that it is inescapably God who was born in her womb if she was the Mother of Jesus.

The reason Nestorius could only call Mary the Mother of Christ, and not the Mother of God, was because his christology drove a wedge between Jesus the man and God the Son that caused him to pull back from the full force of “theotokos.” Is it a valid response to try to be picky about the Greek and say that “theotokos” is really more accurately translated “Bearer of God”? If you’re really that concerned about linguistics and Greek, possibly, but in my experience that kind of argument is a matter of “Everybody has two reasons for everything he does—a good reason, and the real reason.” The good reason is a linguistic concern that goes above and beyond the call of duty of meticulous precision in translation… but a real reason is one of the fixations, almost one of the theological allergies, that arose out of the medieval Catholic West being very concerned about ferreting out idolatry, that Mary the theotokos receives reverence that God alone should receive. This is a sensible enough objection, if you forget how far Incarnation goes: Mary the theotokos gave Christ his humanity, and he gave her something in the exchange. But the force of the argument may leave it legitimate in English to call Mary “the Bearer of God,” but provides no theological justification to say, “On a purely material level, I have to acknowledge that Mary gave birth to God, but I am absolutely not going to say that Mary exercised the spiritual office of motherhood to the God to whom I technically have to acknowledge she gave birth.” If the theology is acknowledged that is behind saying that Mary gave birth to God, full stop, it is by the same argument necessary to say that she exercised the full human and spiritual office of motherhood to God, full stop. This is how the logic of the Incarnation unfolds.

And the logic unfolds. The parents of Mary, the Mother of God, are remembered as “the ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna,” and the icon depicting James, considered “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19), has in Greek, “o adelphotheou:” “the brother of God.” And there is a deeper way that this logic unfolds.

The Incarnation is to happen in each person. Saints are people in whom the Incarnation shines brightly, but we were made for the Incarnation. Some exemplars who provide shining examples of the Incarnation are held forth as saints, but we were all made for divine, uncreated life they share in. The saints live lives out of the Incarnation, and they are part of how the Incarnation is shown to us.

In Orthodox worship, there may or may not be explicit words spoken about icons, but even if not a word is spoken about icons, actions may speak louder than words. A Muslim visitor to Orthodox worship will see something very different from the inside of a mosque, which may be adorned by quite beautiful abstract patterns, but in which anything like an icon is forbidden: pictures as such are forbidden, and it is in particular forbidden to make pictures of Mohammed: perhaps quite a perceptive rule reflecting an insight that a picture of Mohammed would not be likely to be, in the Western sense, simply a nice, inspiring picture on a wall.

What exactly is going on with icons may take some time to understand, but a Western visitor may notice that Orthodox seem to be treating icons differently from just a nice picture on a wall. The Orthodox do not simply stand back with an admiring gaze; they interact with the pictures and kiss them. There may be a line of people standing to pay respects to an icon, and people walking into the temple may almost seem like they are introducing themselves to the icons or greeting them, as one may greet friends one meets in a room.

Orthodox have traditionally called icons “windows of Heaven,” and I would like to take a look at what that means. One obvious meaning today is that they are spiritually a view into a larger world, and I would not discount that. People like to work, and perhaps work better, in an office with a window, and I would not discount that either. But it may help to look at some layers of that image that are harder to see today.

Artificial lighting has been around for a long time: lanterns were good enough in Edison’s time that when he invented the light bulb, many people responded, “Why do we need it? What does it give that an oil lantern does not?” But in fact light bulbs do something that is not in easy reach for candles and lanterns. If you have entered an Orthodox temple when all electric lights were off, there may have been dozens of lit candles—possibly hundreds—but this did not stop the room for being very dark. If you’re in a dark room and can barely see by candlelight for an hour a day, it may seem memorable and romantic; but a candle offers “just enough light to get by,” rather than “as much light as you really want,” and before the light bulb became common, work and activities tended to stop when the daylight fled: if you want to wrap something up, candlelight may give you more time, but if you want enough light to go full steam ahead, then you must either have daylight or a bright, electric light. Only with the electric light can it be common and ordinary for people to be working or playing well into the night, not particuarly caring about the hindrance of there being no sunlight worthy of the name. Before the light bulb, inside as well as out, you needed sunlight to really see outside, and you needed sunlight to really see inside. Given all this, let me ask a question: what more is a window if you can’t flip a switch and turn on the lights?

A window, without having lights, was almost everything that a light bulb is to us. Have you ever woken up, groggy, and fumbled around for the light switch? Have you ever noticed, during a power outage, how hard basic tasks become when you try, for instance, to use a windowless bathroom? Have you ever tried, at a friend’s house, to find the light switch for the bathroom when that part of the house is dark? We have good enough light bulbs that we can fail to understand how hard it is to function in darkness. But in a world without light bulbs, windows are the light bulbs. You don’t just look out the window to see what the weather is like; you can see inside because of the light that comes through windows.

There is another insight to be gathered from glass panes. Today, if one visualizes a window, it seems almost by definition to have a glass pane that provided another layer between what was inside the window, and what was outside. It was not always that way: if one looks at the great age of stained glass windows in the West, saying that a window normally has a glass pane is like saying that a wristwatch is normally a unique creation handcrafted by a master jeweller. (For ages, people knew how to make glass, but making glass was prohibitively expensive, and glass itself was rather precious.) I have seen handcrafted timepieces in museums, and if I had a year’s salary to blow, I could get a master jeweller’s unique creation, but my normal expectation when I see a wristwatch is that it’s mass-produced just like my wristwatch. Today a wristwatch is normally mass-produced, and before a couple of centuries ago a window was normally without glass. In another age, if the bugs were bad enough, a window might let light in through a covering, perhaps of vellum, that would let the window serve as a light bulb without making the insect count that much worse. Quite often, a window didn’t just let in light. It was also something that let in wind and the outside world: it was something wind could blow through.

To say this much is to miss something important, and something that does not particularly require a history-lesson: the “window of Heaven” is like a window one looks through to see a loved one one has been waiting for. Icons are not landscapes raised to a higher spiritual plane, or purely architectural, or a still life. All of those may make beautiful art, but if icons are windows of Heaven, they show people. They may show Christ, or his mother, or his saints, or angels, or people at a decisive moment, or the Trinity as shown through three angels. Most are icons of saints. This is to say that most icons are icons of people in whom Christ has become Incarnate… and icons are part of the Incarnation unfolding.

The Orthodox understanding is that you are missing the point of the Incarnation if you affirm that the Son of God became fully a man, but then deny the maxim of the ages, “The Divine became human that the human might become divine. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God. God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the Sons of God.” To say that the Incarnation happened in Christ but is not to happen in us is worse than saying, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” It is more like, “The grandmaster in chess played brilliantly until he reached an invincible position but then resigned in defeat,” or, “The operation was a success, but the physician refused to save the patient’s life,” or “The medical researcher discovered the perfect cure for cancer and then refused to share his results or let them save lives.” Since the earliest centuries the Orthodox Church has believed that the Incarnation did not stop when Mary bore the God-Man in her womb. Christ is meant to be Incarnate in Christians in every age.

(I’ve noticed that some of my friends list their Facebook “Religious Views” as “Follower of Jesus.” There’s something in that modest way of putting it that tempts me to list my own views as, “Orthodox Christian: ‘Follower of Jesus’ is another way of describing an alter Christus, Latin for ‘another Christ’!”)

Christ is the Savior and Lord of the whole Creation: there is indeed something very special about being human, but the sanctifying reach of the Incarnation is a sanctifying reach that extends to matter. The rule elsewhere in theology is that the deepest symbols are symbols that represent and embody what they represent, and it is the Orthodox experience that icons are just that degree of symbol.

One Protestant student at an Orthodox seminary mentioned, as a local oddity, that when he said he didn’t venerate icons, asked him if he believed in the Incarnation. To him the question was a complete non sequitur. But the Orthodox spiritual experience is that the veneration of icons is part of the Incarnation unfolding, and saying that you believe in the Incarnation but not that the Incarnation unfolds into icons, is a bit like saying that you want to be a scholar but don’t want to be troubled with reading books.

I would like to make one last remark about culture and the Incarnation, before shifting focus, from being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and Islam, to being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and the Reformation.

At least of the major groups of Orthodox Christians is Arabic. In the Arab world, there is a strong Muslim majority, but many parts of the Arab world have a significant Christian minority, and more specifically an Orthodox minority.

One aspect of different cultures are rules about touch—when it is and isn’t permitted, among other things. As may be guessed, the devout Muslim practice has much stricter rules than American culture, at least about men touching women: if I were to be introduced to a devout Muslim woman in many parts of the Arabic world—which is something of an if, as those cultures see many fewer reasons why such an interaction would be appropriate; the idea of “just hanging out” would seem strange—a devout Muslim woman may well place her hand on her heart and make a slight bow as a gesture of respect and acknowledgment, but shaking hands would be a big deal, and probably seen as at best questionably appropriate. In general, the lines of what would be considered appropriate would call for much less interaction, and even a tap on the shoulder would not obviously be “no big deal.” There are very different rules on touch, and a handshake with palm against palm is emphatically not “no big deal.”

The Arabic expression of Orthodoxy shows some Muslim influences; in some ways, it would be rather surprising if it didn’t. However, as regards touch, it is relatively common for Arab Christians to greet one another with kisses, including men and women giving each other kisses: this can be part of normal social interaction or of the Divine Liturgy.

If you are wondering what relevance this has to do with religion, as it seems obviously a cultural detail, it is one example of what an anthropologist would call “culture” being tied to worship and its implications. Such a kiss as is found in Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is also found in Slavic forms of Orthodoxy; the practice may differ slightly, and greeting with kisses may be more associated with special events, but both practices are the same reality.

In the Greek New Testament, the main word for worship literally means to emphatically kiss or bow. That may not survive in English translation, but there’s something there, and it is not an accident. In Orthodox worship, to kiss an icon is to display reverence that ultimately points to God: John the Damascene and others have been very clear that the respect you show to an icon passes through to God. It is an extension of the Incarnation. A kiss between Orthodox Christians is not simply a cultural detail; it is connected to the kiss given to icons, and it is connected to reverence to one in whom Christ is, to some degree, Incarnate. Orthodox speak today of people as living icons, and though this manner of speech has not always been in fashion, there is a connection between a kiss saluting an icon that is ultimately of Christ, and a kiss saluting a fellow believer who is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. And what is particularly interesting about Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is that the “custom” has survived over a millenium of Muslim rule. (It’s really not just a custom; if it were “just a custom,” it would not have survived nearly so long.)

Having looked at Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Incarnation, my point has not really been to say that Islam does not believe in the Incarnation; that much could be deduced from any decent encyclopedia entry on the topic. My real point of interest has been to look at exactly how Islam does not believe in the Incarnation: not only would devout Muslims be disturbed by the idea that God could become Incarnate, or that that would be fitting to God, but Muslim culture very clearly and consistently works out what it means to refuse to entertain the Incarnation. Actions not only speak louder than words; they also speak in more detail than words, and they can reveal things that words do not.

Now I would like to turn my attention from Orthodoxy and Islam, to Orthodoxy and the Reformation.

Perhaps this is setting limits on Protestantism, but most of the conservative Protestantism I know—or, rather, all—believes on philosophical grounds every finding about the Incarnation from the Church Councils. Every one of the Christologies that was deemed inadequate—including some I have not mentioned—is something Protestants and the better Reformers dismiss as out of bounds. What I have hinted at by referring to maximum Christology is something considered non-negotiable: Reformers may not ascribe definitive authority to the Church Councils in the sense that Orthodox do, but the findings about the Incarnation are effectively treated as “If you don’t believe this, you’re not Christian.” And so it would seem odd to question how much the Reformers believed in the Incarnation, but that is exactly what I want to question.

How much of what I have said about Islam could be said of the Reformation, or parts of it? I was thinking of Calvinism at some early parts of this essay. I cannot say that Calvinism encourages a fatalism that is languid about action. The “Protestant work ethic” we proverbially speak of is in fact a Calvinist work ethic, and Calvinists are often hard workers. Calvinist scholars proclaim in word and deed that “thinking Christianly” is a big deal. It would be a mistake to say that this aspect of Calvinist practice could have nothing to do with their theology. Therefore, what I have said earlier about Islam being conducive to inshallah, bukhara, malesh should not be applied to Calvinist Christianity.

As I have encountered it, Calvinism does not live a fatalistic life.

However, that does not take away a profound point of contact: Islam does not lead people to believe that they were created to be conversation partners for God, fashioned to contribute to the conversation. Calvinism is less than enthusiastic in trumpeting a theology of human contribution; some very serious Calvinists express the concern that if we believe we can contribute to our conversation with God, we have, in the title of one book, “No Place for [God’s] Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism” and if we understand God as sovereign, we can contribute nothing but a rubber stamp to God working in us. And in that regard, Calvinism, a bit like Islam, falls subject to Chesterton’s critique: “It denies the existence of man.”

And in that regard, Orthodoxy can raise the question of how far Calvinism really believes in the Incarnation.

My own experience with the Mennonite Church—even a Mennonite Church relaxed enough to encourage artistic impulses—is that the Mennonite Church worked out, very consistently, what it means to say that images can have no helpful spiritual reality. What I saw and experienced extended well beyond images: it meant that “spirit” and “matter” were in almost separate compartments: there was a special exception for people who were composed of both spirit and matter, and there was a phenomenal miracle when the Son of God became man, but these were exceptions that ran against the usual course of things.

In Orthodoxy, our physical world is pregnant with spirit: men are both matter and spirit because we are the microcosm a crowning jewel to Creation. We are the masterpiece of an excellent corpus, not a pearl crowded by worthless sand, and there is a mountain of differencve between saying “They’re all pretty good, but this one is the best,” and saying, “This is the only good one—the rest are atrocious.” It is the same difference as the difference between saying that spirit and matter are in separate water-tight compartments separated by a chasm except in the case of humans, and saying that the material world was made to share in spiritual glory, and that spiritual and material Creation are woven into the same masterwork with mankind as its ornament and jewel. This difference parallels the difference between saying on the one hand that there’s normal human life and then there’s one exception, Christ, who is so unlike what we normally mean by ‘human’, and on the other hand saying that Christ is the apex of human existence, the one man who fully lived the stature the human race was created for, the one whom St. Paul calls “the last Adam” (see I Cor. 15:45-49).

What I saw in Mennonite spiritual practice was that the iconoclasm was a microcosm of a world where people alone of the whole Creation bridged a chasm that otherwise separated spirit and matter, and the Incarnation was an exception: I never heard, “The Divine became human that the human might become divine.” The denial of Incarnation in icons left a spiritual world with no place for an Incarnation that was to take place in people: the Incarnation began and ended when the Son of God became a man.

And now on to the holy kiss.

I remember being shocked when an Orthodox friend mentioned, in a matter of fact way, that Orthodox Christians greet each other with kisses to celebrate (in this case) Pascha, and that this was rooted in the Biblical words about greeting one another with a holy kiss. This was so different from anything I had seen among Protestants, and I would like to talk about the contrast.

The best way I can concisely describe how the holy kiss was viewed is that, when Evangelicals want to give an example of cultural wackiness that somehow ended up in the Bible, there is one standard example that comes up: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

I found the response when I suggested that those words be taken seriously to be essentially the same among the faithful and among (conservative) Bible scholars at Cambridge: if you say that “Greet one another with a holy kiss” should be given attention as part of God’s revelation, you might as well have sprouted a second head. The response from both groups was essentially culture shock: if I pressed my point, people might see that there was a point worth making, perhaps tell me I was on to something—but even when I pressed my point at Cambridge, not one scholar acknowledged my point that the verse admitted a study for doctrinal content. If I was to study the holy kiss in the Bible, it had to be a study of a cultural and historical detail, used for studying the Bible as a historical document, rather than as something doctrinal, spiritual, or otherwise relevant for us today. I wanted to do a spiritual and doctrinal study, and that was not allowed except as doctrinal and spiritual elements would occasionally come up in a study of history and customs.

My point in mentioning this is that people didn’t just disagree when I said “Greet one another with a holy kiss” is revelation and of spiritual benefit; it was so far out of the realm of things people could conceive as being taken seriously that it caused culture shock: my first battle was never about being agreed with; it was getting my position to be taken seriously. This seems to offer a very strong pedigree in saying that the holy kiss does not have much of a proper theological place to be put in. And if the holy kiss is a practice that derives from the Incarnation—if it is connected to the kiss of reverence that feeds into a major Greek term for worship of God—then this near-total inability to conceive of “Greet one another with a holy kiss” as God’s revelation for us is a near-total lack of needed and Incarnational soil for that practice to be planted in or grow out of. And this would seem to be another area where the Reformation attempts an unwavering and absolute faith in the Incarnation, but is very ill-prepared to live out a classical unfolding of the conviction.

When I was at Calvin, I remember one professor laying theological foundations. To address the question, “What were we made for?” he gave the answer, “Worship and culture,” only he deliberately gave it in Latin: “Cultas et culturas.” The reason is that, in English, ‘worship’ and ‘culture’ may be two separate words, but in Latin they spring from the same root, and the Latin exposes the connection. There may, or may not, be other things I disagree with him about. I don’t disagree with the point he was making there; I think it is beautiful, and I might press it further by saying that worship becomes incarnate in culture: worship gives its practical expression in culture. A culture bears witness to the nature of whatever God or god(s) its society worships. It bears a profound witness.

My thesis for much of this paper is that Orthodoxy demonstrates the unfolding of the Incarnation, and Islam demonstrates the unfolding of denying the Incarnation. There are many other factors at play, but several details about Orthodox practice and culture demonstrate what practical belief in the Incarnation may look like, and several details about Islamic practice and culture demonstrate what practical rejection of the Incarnation may look like. And if so, this may raise some very interesting questions about the Reformation and even the more conservative Protestant Christianity.

As far as ideas and statements go, absolute and full belief in the Incarnation is non-negotiable across the board for different forms of Protestant Christianity: there may be a lot of difference between the more conservative heirs of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, but asserting what the Councils asserted about Christ and the Incarnation remains entirely non-negotiable, and probably will remains so for as long as conservative Protestant Christianity is around.

However, in terms of cultural working out, there is real question about how far Protestant Christianity lets the Incarnation unfold: I have read very few Protestants solidly deny that the Incarnation ends with Christ, and in practical terms, many would agree to disagree with Calvinism over the question of free will, but I have het to hear the question of whether Calvinism, in denying man anything to contribute to his salvation save a rubber stamp, denies the reality of man and in so doing cuts down the Incarnation. None of the Evangelical critiques I’ve read of Calvinism say that Calvinism jeopardizes the Incarnation. That the Incarnation could unfurl so that it is right to call Mary the Mother of God, or direct reverence to saints—even Protestants who agree to disagree may be a bit squeamish, and the idea that this is a proper consequence of the Incarnation, almost its purpose, is not one that comes up. Icons as one feature of a sanctified cosmos with Christ as its head (Eph 1:22), don’t come up, and it is my impression that where there are no icons, there is a chasm between matter and spirit, and the unity of spirit and matter in Christ and the human person may be an exception rather than the highest example. There may be other issues to be raised as well: is the doctrine of the Invisible Church a doctrine of the Virtual Incarnation? The common thread running through these things is that the Incarnation may be asserted on a philosophical level by Protestants, but it does not seem to unfur as it might as the concrete culture plays out. The cultural shape of Protestant Christianity raises questions about how much practical belief there is in the Incarnation.

If the question is, “Where do we go from here?” the answer might be in the closing words of Mark 9:17-24 (RSV):

And one of the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”

And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!

Our Crown of Thorns

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion

Lesser icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

Two Decisive Moments