God became sarx

It’s a little-known fact that we Orthodox don’t celebrate Christmas. Sorta. We celebrate the Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

I’ve been reminded several times within the past few days, months removed from Christmas, of the oddness of this expression according to the flesh, and even the crudeness of the terminology in the original language. God became sarx – meat; that’s the crude word that gets blanded down in English as “flesh.”

But first, a patristic snippet:

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star….

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

(St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”)

Imagine here my frequent disclaimer of being a theolgian.

The Church early on insisted on emphasizing the incarnation because it was true, it was scandalous, and a current heresy threatened to spiritualize Jesus away.

That era was shot through with gnostic dualism, wherein the flesh and spirit not only were separate, but the flesh was pretty base and embarrassing. Men were to transcend the flesh. Surely God would have nothing whatever to do with it. Apart from the Jews, few in that era even believed God had created this nasty, stinky old material world.

But flesh and spirit aren’t separate. We’re unified persons, and our personhood is inseparable from our bodies. That’s why Christians treat the body with respect. That’s at least part of why the Church historically has disallowed cremation.

(That’s even why marriage is gendered, not unisex. Men and women, moms and dads, are not fungible – but I’ll let someone else address that if you’re interested.)

So great is the dignity of human sarx that the second person of the Trinity, having assumed it (as celebrated at the Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ), did not leave it behind when he ascended again to the Father.

He remains incarnate. The Incarnation is forever.

That is why Christian churches should, and some do, still celebrate the Ascension. It is difficult to imagine that those for whom God-in-the-Flesh, Theanthropos, acsending to God the Father in human flesh is no big deal, are adherents of the Christian faith in any serious sense.

Gnosticism has lingered for 2000 or more years. I guess the urge to think that it doesn’t matter what your body does so long as “your heart’s right” is damned near irresistible.

But there is no room for gnosticism in the Christian faith proper, even if it persists in Christendom. God becoming human sarx drove a silver stake through that monster’s heart.

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I wrote the material above before I began my Lenten reading, including Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s The Jesus We Missed. I suspect that before I’m done, I’ll wonder why I presumed to write anything so puerile as this.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Natural Law Smackdown

Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart argues in First Things that the terms of the harmony between cosmic and moral order are not as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine. Edward Feser promptly replies in a First Things blog:

Now I have nothing but respect for Prof. Hart and his work. But this latest article is not his finest hour. Not to put too fine a point on it, by my count he commits no fewer than five logical fallacies: equivocationstraw manbegging the questionnon sequitur, and special pleading.

Because these two are philosophers, I probably couldn’t get away with saying “Hart has his own Wikipedia article and you don’t, Feser, so neener, neener, neener!” That would be, if not a fallacy strictly speaking, a shameless ad hominem.

In fact, I think Feser has the better overall argument, a conviction buttressed by his own blog’s engagement with Rod Dreher’s pre-Feser commendation of Hart’s position.

Feser:

As I noted in my response to Hart, what natural law theorists of either of the two main contemporary stripes (“old” and “new”) maintain is that there are objective moral truths that can be known through purely philosophical arguments, entirely apart from divine revelation, scriptural authority, or ecclesiastical diktat.  They do not deny that the philosophical arguments in question are controversial and sometimes difficult for the average person to understand.
In this respect, natural law arguments are no different from the arguments of Rawlsian liberals, utilitarians, libertarian economists, feminists, or what have you — all of which are, needless to say, also controversial and sometimes difficult for the average person to understand, but all of which also make no reference to revelation, scripture, etc.  And that is the point.  If these other arguments have a place in debates over public policy despite their controversial nature, then there are no grounds for excluding natural law arguments.  In particular, the moral conclusions the critics of natural law don’t like — concerning abortion, “same-sex marriage,” or whatever — cannot be excluded on the assumption that they have no justification other than an appeal to religious authority.  For that assumption is false.
Now Dreher is right to maintain that the specific philosophical theses that natural law theory rests on, however rationally defensible, are going to meet a great deal of resistance in a culture in which materialism, individualism, and allied doctrines are widely and lazily taken for granted.  That is one reason why, in my own work, I have emphasized that it is the entire set of false metaphysical assumptions (about causation, substance, essence, etc.) that have come to define modern thought that the defender of natural law (and of natural theology and traditional philosophical anthropology, for that matter) has to challenge.  There is no short cut.
But that entails only that the work of the natural law theorist is more difficult than it would have been in previous generations, not that it isn’t worth doing ….

Philopsophers, like bloggers, put their pants on one leg at a time, too (at least if they’re male philosophers), and Hart may be predisposed by his Orthodoxy to dismiss Thomistic natural law theory, Thomas Aquinas having post-dated the Great Schism (which could invite the “not invented here” response) and the scholastic mindset – in religion especially – being alien to the Orthodox mindset (which aversion runs deeper and is more ineffable).

But while I fear that some of the big cultural battles of The Culture Wars have been lost by my side (a fear Dreher shares and Hart reinforces), something in me can’t give up arguing for the older view anyway. Maybe it’s because I was dabbling in Natural Law arguments even when I was a Protestant, and tended to credit them as based on general revelation (roughly the basis of philosophy) rather than special revelation (roughly the basis of religion).

Dreher can’t give up arguing, either, even as though he says arguments don’t work. His, then, may be a more heroic posture than mine:

This is why I don’t have any faith in the natural-law-based arguments against same-sex marriage.  It’s not that I disagree with them necessarily; it’s that a) they are hard for ordinary people conditioned by our culture’s modes of thought to grasp, and b) partly because of this, they (understandably) prompt a, “So what?” response.

Feser is having none of it:

But suppose the liberals or secularists of generations past had taken a similar attitude.  Suppose that, in light of the conservative and religious sensibilities then prevalent, a liberal or secularist in 1970, 1980, or 1990 had written:
This is why I don’t have any faith in [feminist, Rawlsian, utilitarian, libertarian, or gay liberationist] arguments [in favor of abortion, acceptance of homosexuality, or] same-sex marriage.  It’s not that I disagree with them necessarily; it’s that a) they are hard for ordinary people conditioned by our culture’s modes of thought to grasp, and b) partly because of this, they (understandably) prompt a, “So what?” response.
Obviously, had such an attitude won the day and the liberal arguments in question not been relentlessly propagated by the intelligentsia — in academic journals, in the classroom, and in the simplified journalistic form that ultimately influences popular culture and electoral politics — then the sensibilities Dreher identifies would never have come into being in the first place.

So there’s no short cut, but the worthwhile work of the natural law theorist is more difficult than it would have been in previous generations.

Thanks, Coach. I needed that. Keep it up and you may get your own Wikipedia article.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

God’s Justice

Saint Isaac of Syria famously said “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” …

God’s justice is inscrutable. We cannot know it or fathom it or understand it. It’s a useless concept when it comes to understanding our obligations to God. God is just because He is not unjust. But what it means to say that God is just is simply beyond our ken.

The results of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing about God’s justice is a God that is not worthy of worship. There are those who not only glibly consign sinners to hell but also postulate that the righteous will rejoice in the torment of sinners because of their delight in the goodness of God’s justice. Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions. Those who embrace such heresy have their soul’s perverted desire for infinite justice confirmed. Such theology doesn’t heal the soul; it corrupts it further and feeds its passions.

Father Stephen Freeman, Justice Enough?

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.