Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Incarnation as the author appearing in his work

If you conceive of God in the orthodox way — as a non-spatial, non-temporal thing (or, rather, non-thing) without body, parts, or passions, and with essentially no traits in common with human beings — then it’s very hard to understand what is meant by the Incarnation of God as Jesus Christ. The idea that a man could be God seems about as coherent as the  idea that a zebra could be time. (More anthropomorphic conceptions of God do not run into this difficulty. The Incarnation makes perfect sense to a Mormon.)

Recognizing this problem, Kreeft and Tacelli try in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics to make sense of the Incarnation by way of an analogy.

There is analogy in art to the possibility of the Incarnation; an answer to the objection that it is impossible and self-contradictory. Suppose an author inserted himself into his own novel or play as one of his own characters. This character would have a double nature, and would have “come down from heaven,” so to speak — the heaven of the author’s mind — yet he would be a completely human character interacting with the other characters in the story. Alfred Hitchcock frequently did this, inserting himself into his own movies as a character for a fleeting moment. If he can do it, why can’t God?

Forget the Hitchcock reference, which is misleading. Every character in a movie is played by an actor and thus has a “double nature,” and the characters Hitchcock played in his cameos were “himself” only in the superficial sense that he was the actor who played them. As characters, within the world of the story, they are not Hitchcock himself in any sense. Read the screenplay for Easy Virtue, and you would never guess that the fellow who walks past the tennis court is “really” Hitchcock. The actor is not the character. Mel Gibson once played Hamlet, but it would be nonsense to say that Hamlet, as a character, has a double nature as Hamlet/Gibson, or that Shakespeare inserted Mel Gibson into his play. Likewise, if Shakespeare himself once played the ghost of Hamlet’s father, that by itself does not mean that the ghost character is Shakespeare or that Shakespeare wrote himself into the play.

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Setting aside plays and movies, then, where the apparent “double nature” of the characters is misleading, let us concentrate on written narratives in which the author appears as a character — for example, the narrators of Three Men in a Boat, Operation Shylock, or The Divine Comedy.

It’s hard to see how such characters have in any special sense “come down from the heaven of the author’s mind.” Obviously, every character in a novel comes from the author’s mind, and this would seem to be more true for characters whom the author invents from whole cloth, without basing them on himself or on any other one person in the real world.

In what sense can we say that the character of J. in Three Men in a Boat “is” Jerome K. Jerome? Well, he is called J.; he lives in England; he has a friend named George who works in a bank; he presumably has a personality similar to that of the author; and so on. The so-called “identity” of the character with the author boils down to a list of similarities or correspondences — and of course there are differences as well. The real Jerome had neither a dog nor a friend named William Samuel Harris (though Harris is based on his real friend Carl Hentschel), and presumably he didn’t really do or experience many of things the novel depicts him as doing and experiencing.

To say that a particular character “is” the author is only to say there are certain similarities or morphisms between the two — and similarity is a scalar quality, not an absolute one. The narrator of a straight-up autobiography like Rousseau’s Confessions “is” the author in a much stronger sense than is true of the narrator of Three Men in a Boat. The title characters in Don Juan and Manfred and pretty much everything else Lord Byron wrote “are” Byron to a lesser but still important degree. That is, there are striking similarities and correspondences but equally striking differences. Perhaps all characters in all fiction “are” the author to some non-zero extent, though some correspond more closely than others.

The same is true of paintings which include the painter. The head of Holofernes in Michelangelo’s painting has a “double nature” only because it represents Holofernes but physically resembles Michelangelo. Michelangelo could have made that head a little more or less “himself” by increasing or decreasing the degree of resemblance.

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Applying this logic to the Incarnation is obviously problematic. Jesus would not really “be” God in any absolute sense but would merely be highly similar to God, perhaps (as in the cases of Manfred and Holofernes) intentionally so. All you could say of Christ would be that he was more similar to God than anyone else had ever been — not that he in actual fact was God.

And how “similar” can anyone really be to God, anyway? An artist can only write himself into his novel or paint himself into his picture as a human being — or as something very close to a human being. Orwell wrote real people (not himself, but the principle is the same) into Animal Farm as animals — but as anthropomorphized animals, human in all but name. Can you imagine writing a story about animals — real animals, thinking and doing only such things as real animals can think and do — and making one of the pigs recognizable as Leon Trotsky? I didn’t think so.

But the “novel” God is writing is not about Gods but about creatures which are so fundamentally different from their Author as to have virtually nothing in common with him. What could it possibly mean if E. O. Wilson were to say that he had written himself into his novel Anthill — as one of the ants? How could a fictional ant “be” Dr. Wilson in any remotely meaningful sense? How much could they possibly have in common? And the difference between God and a man is far vaster than the difference between a man and an ant.

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But of course all characters in books are fundamentally, metaphysically different from their authors. Rousseau was a man, but the character “Rousseau” in Les Confessions is a pattern of French words, instantiated perhaps as marks on paper or pixels on a screen — or even as corresponding words in English or some other language. What could that abstract pattern of data possibly have in common with a man? How can it be meaningful to say that certain parts of a book bear a striking resemblance to a certain man who lived in 18th-century Geneva? Yet of course there is a meaningful sense in which Rousseau himself appears in his book. The principle is not similarity in the strict sense, but correspondence (which is why I hedged with “similarities or morphisms” some paragraphs ago) — and correspondence, unlike similarity, is possible in principle even between entities which are metaphysically unlike — possible, perhaps, even between man and God.

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Douglas Hofstadter writes in Le ton beau de Marot about trying to “translate” chess to a hexagonally tiled board. What would be the hex-chess equivalent of a bishop? What would “move diagonally” mean on a board where “diagonal” has no meaning? (He comes up with a pretty good solution to that particular problem — though of course not a perfect one, since it is not in the nature of translations to be perfect.) The Incarnation would mean something much more challenging: “translating” the idea of God to the human world. What would “eternal and uncreated” mean in a world in which everything is time-bound and created? Since all humans have bodies, parts, and passions, what would be the human equivalent of not having them?

These are insoluble questions. Equivalency requires context, and God has — can have — no context.

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But suppose it could be done. Suppose there could be a human being which, while necessarily dissimilar to God in virtually every way, somehow corresponded to God, had qualities which could be mapped non-arbitrarily to the qualities of God. Would this be, for Christians, an adequate way of conceptualizing the Incarnation.

I think not. Actual similarity is indispensable. Jesus would have to actually have the attributes of God in a way that Rousseau-the-character does not and cannot have the attributes of Rousseau-the-man. Rousseau was (say) six feet tall; no part of his book is six feet tall. Rousseau composed music; no part of his book can compose music. If I saw Rousseau drowning in a lake, I would have a moral duty to save him; if I saw his book in a lake I would have no such duty. In contrast, people assume that if God is good and wise and powerful, Christ must also have been good and wise and powerful; if we have a moral duty to obey God, we also have a moral duty to obey Christ; and so on. The Incarnation cannot be reduced to Christ’s being a mere allegory of God, to his being Truth only in the rather feeble sense that Una in The Faerie Queene is truth.

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And yet mere similarity is not good enough, either. If Christ has some of the attributes of God (such as wisdom and power) and lacks others (such as timelessness and non-physicality), that’s not enough to make him God in any real sense.

The Incarnation has to mean more than similarity, more than correspondence. Christ has to actually be both God and a man — which makes no sense. And the analogy of an author putting himself into his book does nothing at all to clear it up. This line of thinking takes us nowhere.

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Theology is a mug’s game, and one of these days I’ll finally decide I’ve had enough of it. So a lot of smart people in the past believed something incoherent, just as smart people have always done and always will do. Get over it, and move on. There’s no need to keep giving their ideas another chance, and another, and another. But somehow I keep doing just that.

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