|God & Nature Magazine||
Deep Incarnation & the Cosmos: A Conversation with Niels Henrik Gregersen
by Ciara Reyes & Niels Henrik Gregersen
CR: In this issue of God & Nature, our topic is “Cosmology & Theology,” which you have extensively and beautifully explored through your writings on incarnation theology. For our readers, what is the incarnation, and what is the relationship between what you describe as, “the grand-scale story of the world of creation, cosmic in scope and pitiless in its operations, and the small-scale story of Jesus as embodying divine empathy?”
NG: In a way, it is quite simple. First, presuppose that we live in a great world of creation, intrinsically dynamic and interconnected. Second, take seriously the Gospel of John, according to which God’s own Son/Word/Wisdom went into the world of flesh, thus also “becoming flesh” (Jh 1:14). In-carnatio literally means “coming into flesh,” and hence becoming flesh. Accordingly, the incarnation is not only about Jesus as a male human person, or even about humanity in abstraction from the universe. In Jesus Christ, God became part of the nexus of the entire cosmos – around us and within ourselves.
Jesus Christ was an outstanding person, yes, but not only that. As a human being he was also a material being. His body was composed of material particles coming from the explosion of stars. His blood was red due to the iron running in his veins. And, like any other mammal, he was hosting a great hidden microbial world (bacteria and other microorganisms) that he carried with him, and without which he could not sustain his life as a human being. The biblical concept of “flesh” has this broad-scale material meaning underneath the particular meanings referring to concrete bodies and the world of sin.
Hence, living in the flesh means living under the conditions of vulnerability and mortality. Just as leaves of grass, Jesus was susceptible to death; just as any other animals, he was susceptible to pain; and just as any human being he was exposed to social exclusion and unfair judges. In this sense, Jesus was a microcosm of the cosmos at large, and of all the meshwork of social life. What theologians should learn from their colleagues in the sciences, is to rethink Christian faith on this bigger canvas. Incarnation was not only an event that took place once upon a time in history, but takes places at any moment.
Now Christians believe that God entered and assumed this kind of world. “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” (Jh 3:16). But now the thought experiment begins: If God was truly “in Jesus”, and Jesus was radically enfleshed “in cosmos”, God was in the cosmos as well, and exactly as the lover of this world. Hence, Christian faith is about taking confidence in the God who is not only creating and re-creating the cosmos as Creator, but also shares the conditions under which we live – both the splendor of reality and the ugliness of its miseries, as the God of Incarnation.
Just like God befriended our world, so should we befriend our cosmos, marveling at the stars, being grateful to our fellow-creatures around us, within our bodies, and on the surfaces of our skin – and taking care of the intricate biological balances.
However, we should also acknowledge that our life-time, long or short, is always limited. Mountains are great structures, but rocks may also fall upon us. The human microbiome is overall symbiotic with a healthy life, but some microbiota may also turn against us – just as we turn against one another. In my view, Christ did not only come to overcome the sin that human beings provide for one another. He also came to be our fellow-sufferer (the life and cross of Christ), and finally to overcome the misery of our shared existence (the resurrection of the flesh).
CR: What is deep incarnation, and why the metaphor of “depth?”
NG: The opposite of “depth” is shallowness. There is an evolutionary depth to human life since we share the material conditions and most of the evolutionary strategies with other creatures. But we are not just extended phenotypes driven by a zombie-like genetic greed. We are also cultural creatures that can take distance to ourselves, and this is what Jesus required of his followers. Accordingly, there is also a historical depth of human culture that comes to the fore in the Jesus tradition: Who’s in the center, and who’s in the periphery? Who takes part of the meal, and who does not? Jesus was re-orientating cultural codes, while at the same time building on deep historical assumptions.
More technically, “deep incarnation” is the view that God's own Word (logos) and Wisdom (sophia) was made ordinary flesh in Jesus Christ in such a capacious manner that God, by assuming the particular life story of Jesus the Jew from Nazareth, also conjoined the material conditions of all creaturely existence (“flesh”), shared and ennobled the fate of all biological life forms (“grass” and “lilies”), and experienced the pains of sensitive creatures (“sparrows” and “foxes”) from within. Deep incarnation thus presupposes a radical embodiment of the Son of God that reaches into the roots (radices) of material and biological existence as well as into the darker aspects of creation, from the breaking down of material structures to animal and human suffering.
I’m happy to say that the basic contents of the view of deep incarnation has strong traction with earlier Christian theology, not least with the so-called logos-sarx Christology of Athanasius (d. 373) and Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395). Later Christology, by contrast, has often focused on the relation between the union between the divine and human in Christ, thus potentially obliterating the connections between Jesus and the wider cosmos. However, also after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined the person of Christ as “two natures, a divine and a human, in one person”, one can still find traces of the deep incarnation perspective, for example in Bonaventure (d. 1274) of the Franciscan school. Today, we have to retrieve these traditions, overcoming a too anthropocentric view of Me-and-God.
By comparison, my own contributions are quite modest. I coined the term “deep incarnation” back in 2001, and I have subsequently fleshed out some of its implications, inspired by scientific insights, and aided by a good group of colleagues across countries and denominations.
CR: In your writings, you metaphorically describe deep incarnation as, “God’s reach into the very tissue of material and biological existence,” to emphasize the important interconnected relationship between Christ’s divinity and flesh embodiment. Can you elaborate on this?
NG: Admittedly, “reaching into” is a metaphor, but so are most terms in language. Matter, for example, derives from the Latin materia, which again is derived from mater, meaning “mother”, that is, Mother Earth. Likewise, existence comes from ek-sistere, “standing out of one self”. “Reaching”, I guess, comprises a personal sense of intentionality by combining the root metaphors of “reaching out with one’s arms” and the spatial metaphor of “spanning”. I think that both terms function much like root-metaphors for God-language. Take mind and intentionality away from the concept of God, and “God” is turned into a word for a cosmic function. Likewise, take the all-encompassing span-width away from the idea of God, and God is relegated to a point outside the universe – which makes no sense at all!
CR: In deep incarnation theology, what does it mean for God to be present in all that is, including “the realm of evil, suffering and death?”
NG: The point of deep incarnation is that the incarnate God is encompassing, or spanning, all-that is. Yet given the compassionate picture of the gospel stories about Jesus (in whom God is supposed to dwell), the incarnate God must be particularly present for those in pain, anguish, and disruption. At least this is the point of the story of Christ being present in and for those who are hungry, thirsty, unwelcome, and imprisoned, and asking others for help in the mask of these endangered human beings. “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me” (Matt 25:45).
CR: In Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Son of Adam, Son of God,” she writes that “perhaps some part of the divine purpose in the Incarnation of (the) Son of Man was and is to help us to a true definition (of “what is man?” or rather what it means to be human).” How can deep incarnation theology help us not only better understand questions like “Why did God become human?” or “Why did God become body and flesh,” but also questions of self-identify and place in the universe, such as “What does it mean to be human?”
NG: I happen to be a great admirer of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and essays, and I fully agree that we do not have (and will probably never achieve) a full understanding of what it means to be a human person.
What is human existence, and our concrete lives, finally about? When it is said that Jesus was “truly human”, it is also suggested that the most of us are not yet genuinely human, but less than what we could be, and should be. Unlike Jesus, we do only rarely welcome people that appear to be strange to us; we do not often say about prostitutes that they exhibit exemplary love; we don’t exactly love our tax collectors (but would like to pay a little less); we do only rarely pray with fully open hearts; we do not live in an uninterrupted trust; we do not have the courage to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of love, etcetera. Perhaps Jesus is alone among his race in not having his self-identity in a bolstered self, but living with a fully open-minded and God-trusting approach to reality.
Accordingly, the deep incarnation perspective that Jesus is just like us in being embodied in and with the material world, does not imply that we are like him in his full and capacious humanity. This is the problem called sin, alienation, or subultimate living in a realistic Christian view of humanity. In this context, Jesus appears as the exemplary icon of the “new Adam” and the “second Job” in one and the same person.
CR: You are a Lutheran theologian - What have you learned from theologians like Martin Luther [,now that this a Reformation year, remembering the 500 years of Luther's initiation of the Reformation], and how does it affect your understanding of the natural world?
NG: I’m trained as a classic theologian at a rather secular university. The faculties of theology in Denmark are placed at the public universities, being non-confessional in orientation. Nonetheless, a “principle of proximity” is at work. Since the majority of Danes are voluntary members of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church (in 2016 76%, including immigrants), the writings of Martin Luther take up a good part of the studies in historical theology.
What I have learned from Luther, among other things, is that Christian faith is not an end-to-end solution that has answers to all types of question. We need a good secular common sense, for example in establishing a healthy tax system (knowing that most people are selfish) and when institutionalizing sober-minded academies (knowing that intellectuals tend to prefer ideologies to complexity and nuance).
At the same time, I have learned from Luther (and many others) that secular and religious points of view are not mutually exclusive but easily overlap one another. God is present “in, with, and under” very worldly things, as Luther said. Having a job also means having a calling in which to serve one’s neighbor. Being a parent means taking care of one’s own child whilst knowing that it is basically a child of God. Similarly, I have no problem being a Darwinian Christian, or a Christian Darwinian, though I’m also disinclined to think that evolutionary biology possesses the holy grail for addressing and answering all kinds of questions – from the physical structure of the universe to the orders and disorders of society. Being a practicing Christian means listening to other perspectives, and looking for good news in the small things as well.
CR: What are your research interests broadly, and what questions are you currently exploring?
NG: Basically, I’m working in the field of contemporary Christian theology. I explore how to think, and rethink, what it means to be part of God’s grand world of creation, seen through many lenses, including the sciences. In the last decade I have developed a view of “deep incarnation,” seeing the significance of Jesus in the context of biological and ecological understandings of what it means to be a human person. For example, human persons live in ecological and cultural niches; accordingly, other organisms do not only live in the landscapes around us, but also with us, as domesticated animals, and even as symbionts within in our own bodies, from brains to guts. What if Jesus is seen as an extended and inclusive body in this sense? Currently, my aim is to explore ways of formulating a view of the divine Spirit in a post-secular world, that is, a world which is both secular and open to religious appreciation.
Dr. Niels Henrik Gregersen (born 1956) is a Danish theologian working on the critical interface between science and religion, especially in relation to theoretical biology and the sciences of complexity. Formerly a Research Professor in science and theology at Aarhus University, he was in 2004 appointed as Professor of systematic theology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The concept of deep Incarnation was explored in his R.J. Russell Lectures, published in the journal Theology & Science 2013:4, and again in the Goshen Lectures 2017. The discussion volume, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology (Fortress Press, 2015), written by theologians and scientists discuss the pros and cons of deep incarnation. Since then he has edited, with Mikael Stenmark, Naturalism and Beyond: Religious Naturalism and Its Alternatives (Peeters, 2016), and Reformation Theology for a Postsecular Age (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017) on the so-called “Scandinavian Creation Theology”.
Ciara Reyes is a scientist, singer-songwriter and freelance writer, who joined the God & Nature staff in June 2017 as Managing Editor. She has a Ph.D. in Cellular & Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, and began training in theology at Vanderbilt Divinity in Fall 2016.