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.

*

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.

*

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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4 Comments

Filed under Christianity, God, Philosophy

4 responses to “The Incarnation as the author appearing in his work

  1. @Wm – You really paint yourself into a corner!

    “a lot of smart people in the past believed something incoherent” – this is not a correct characterization of what is going on. 1. Smartness is irrelevant, holiness is the important attribute. There aren’t really many/ any very holy people nowadays in the West, and *that* is the problem. 2. Incoherence is inevitable if the description in words is supposed to capture *everything* about that which is being communicated.

    Here you take an analogy – which may help some people attain understanding, while leaving others cold or being misleading – and you pick it to pieces. But this can be done for any analogy; and can be done for any short and comprehensible description in any science (since all descriptions are analogies and/ or incomplete and biased summaries).

    The incarnation is a mystery. Nobody ever said it could be captured in a few sentences. Nobody understands a mystery such that they can describe what it means. But plenty of people have lived by it; which is what you do with a true mystery.

    But I think Tolkien got closer (by sub-creative imagination) than anyone else of whom I know, in the writings I discuss here:

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/tolkiens-marring-of-men.html

  2. Thanks for the comments, Bruce.

    Of course I don’t expect a few sentences to demystify the Incarnation — but I had sort of hoped that the analogy would give me an angle from which to approach the issue and perhaps shed some light on it. No such luck.

  3. chrstphre

    i liked that song.
    it often amazes me at the breadth of your cultural references.

    – – –
    In Propositional Logic & Fractional Propositional Logic, there are 16 Operators:

    # name / f.p.logic / conventional binary logic / type
    ……
    1 Null / 0 / 0 / constant
    2 Not Or / 1-(Max(p,q)) / p q OR ) NOT / binary operator
    3 Just Because / Min(p,(1-q)) / p NOT ) q OR ) NOT / inverse conditional
    4 Not q / 1-q / q NOT / unary function
    5 I Said So / Min((1-p),q) / p ( q NOT ) OR ) NOT / inverse conditional
    6 Not p / 1-p / p NOT / unary function
    7 Not Equal. XOr / ABS(p-q) / p q XOR / biconditional
    8 Not And / 1-(Min(p,q)) / p q AND ) NOT / biconditional
    9 And / Min(p,q) / p q AND / binary operator
    10 Equal, Not XOr / 1-(ABS(p-q)) / p q XOR ) NOT / biconditional
    11 p / p / p / variable
    12 Because / Max(p,(1-q)) / p ( q NOT ) OR / conditional
    13 q / q / q / variable
    14 If Then / Max((1-p),q) / p NOT ) q OR / conditional
    15 Or / Max(p,q) / p q OR / binary operator
    16 Tautology / 1 / 1 / constant

    In Extended Fractional Propositional Logic there are Considerably more ‘Functions’ which Incorporate List & Set, Arithmatic & Algebraic Functions with which they are used to Manipulate & Structure ‘Where Ideas Come from’.
    But that’s an Experimental & Wholly Under Developed System ( ! )

    What i was thinking though;
    Is that This ‘Ordinary’ Propositional Logical System should include one more ( At least one more ) Function, which we may tentatively call;
    The gawd Function.

    17 gawd / ∞ / ∞ / permanent exclusionary principle

    The Tautology Function is used when some proposition is meant to be always True, Under All Imaginable Circumstances. It’s use will invariably lend a considerable Imbalance to any Argument.
    But there are Arguments that require an Even more Radical Propositional Function which Throws All Other Variables & Logical Expressions out The Window.
    This is The Operational Purpose of The gawd Function.

    The gawd Function is used when attempting to create a Reasonable & Logical Argument to Defend or Apologize for The Story of Adam & Eve, Noah’s Ark, The Redemption of Mankind’s Sins through The Crucifixion & so on.
    The gawd Function simply infers that once The Idea & Resources of gawd are Introduced into Any Argument; The Desired Conclusion is Preemptively True.
    Logic be Damned. ( Literally no doubt. )

    The point being; Any Argument or Apology that ‘May’ make use of The gawd Function, is meaningless to argue logically.

    : – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – : o

    It seems to me that a much more effective Trope would be that of A Simulicon Creator Entering their Computer Driven Creation.
    This Fractional Reality could resemble Our World as much as possible, Or it could be quite different; Just as Our World, which may be A Simulicon, is very different from The True Reality.
    The True Reality may not have anything like Gravity or Electromagnetism.
    These ‘Forces’ in our World would not have any underlying physicality or Causal Mechanisms, other than a few lines of programming in Our Reality Generator that simply instructed all people & other loose objects to stick to The ground.

    If Jebus was An Entity from The True Reality & for whatever Reasons, Came down to our Level of Existence, How Easily could S’he/it adapt to A Reality that is Very Different from Their Own Environment?
    Is this even an interesting question?

    If The Reality Generator held The Incarnation of Jebus to The Rules of This Reality; S’he/it would be under The Same Constraints as any other Entity that is Born as a Baby & allowed several years to adapt to it.

    Wouldn’t ‘Any’ Disincarnate Ghost face these same hurdles.
    Why do Disincarnate Beings ( Us ) become Incarnate into A Reality that would presumably severely limit their boundless capabilities?
    Are our Dreams glimpses of The True Reality?
    Do we become Incarnate to use this Reality as a Playpen that holds us down while we learn how to Navigate This & Other Realities?

    Another Kooky idea that has occurred to me;
    What if This was a Simulicon Fractional Reality, Created by Beings that may or may not, be very different from Us, From a Reality that may or may not, be very different from this Reality.
    This Reality ( Our Reality ) was created with Autonomous Conscious Entities whose function is (x ( ? ).
    This Reality ( Our Reality ) was created to allow The Creators to Enter this Reality is Some Manner; Perhaps even trapping them, Such that this Reality may be somekind of Prison or Insane Asylum for The True Reality,
    But these True Beings that Created it, As mischievious as Beings in Any Reality are – – – Inserted numerous ‘Backdoors’ which would allow these creators to perform ‘Magickal’ ( Rule Breaking Effects ) that The Reality Generator would Interpret in such & such A Way, If these Routines were Accessed in Their Proper Manner.
    These ‘Entry Codes’ would have to Easily Performed by Any ‘Normal’ Entity inside The Reality, As all Trapped Entities ( Humans ) would be essentially Equal.
    These Entry Codes would take The Form of Improbably Spoken Sentences, Weird; But simple Graphic Illustrations as Pictures, Symbols or Pictoglyphs.
    The Entry Codes may also take The Form of Musical Tones or Sequences, Dance Movements, Mixing Various Chemical Concoctions together, or Creating Machines that shouldn’t be capable of performing any useful functions.
    Such Enactions may also Require something more subtle, Such as in internal Brain State that became manifest when The ‘Magickian’ =Believed= what they were doing, would actually work ( ? )
    Whenever The Independent, Autonomous & Fully Conscious Reality Generator discovers any of The Equally Autonomous Entities Enacting any of These Entry Codes / Back Doors; They Allow Branch Routines to Be Executed, which Sharply Deviate from The Way The Universe Usually Works.
    e.g. Magick ( or Miracles ) Occur.

    The thing that always annoyed me about Jebus though, is not that S’he/it performed so many ( or so many ) Miracles, But that his Presence was so amazingly lame.
    Sure; S’he/it ostensibly started another World Wide Fantasy Camp,
    But if A Principle Reality Creator Descended to This Tier of The Realities Spectrum; Wouldn’t you, kind of, Expect more from them?

  4. chrstphre

    ( or Not so many ! )

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