Thoughts on the Incarnation of Jesus

Charles Cottle —


Manger scene of Jesus' in the stable
The Birth of Jesus

On Christmas day, 2015, there appeared in the New York Times an essay entitled, “The Christmas Revolution” by Peter Wehner. In the essay Wehner presents a provocative set of observations about the incarnation of Jesus. It is Wehner’s view that Jesus’ birth was a revolutionary event, not only for those reasons that are well known, but also for reasons seldom discussed. I encourage you to read the essay. In the meantime, I have summarized the main points below.

  • The incarnation is the source of much of the humanistic tradition.
  • The incarnation rejected the Platonic notion that the material world was evil.
  • “The incarnation also reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person. . . .”
  • From the point immediately above flows our “entire democratic inheritance.”
  • From the dignity and worth of each individual we derive the Christian compassion for the poor and for the practice of charity. Jesus’ example of how he treated the poor and outcast was radical for his time and ultimately created the concern for the poor as a cultural given.
  • Just as God places “inestimable” value on human life, “regardless of social status, wealth, and worldly achievements, intelligence or national origin,” so should we.

I cannot speak to each of these points, but I would like to make the following observations. First, I think it is a stretch to say that Plato and his followers thought the material world “evil,” as Wehner suggests. In my understanding, Plato’s doctrine of forms argued that reality was found in the world of ideas, as the things in this world were copies of them. This is not to say that the material world was evil, but rather less perfect than the ideas that gave rise to them.

Second, in my own religious background, it was the flesh that was evil. Piety consisted in resisting the temptations of the flesh. One might suggest that this view is more a product of culture rather than religion, but it seems to me in this case that culture and religion are so tightly woven as to be inseparable.

Finally, Wehner’s suggestion that the humanistic tradition flows from the incarnation of Jesus is provocative. This is the first time I have encountered the connection between the two. Most often I have encountered the view that humanism is a turning away from God as it is centered in human, rather than divine, concerns.

I find the topics raised by Wehner’s essay to be interesting and worthy of discussion. If you have views on this or related topics, I invite you to share them.

One thought on “Thoughts on the Incarnation of Jesus

  1. Interesting! Thanks for this link. My education in the history of religious belief is limited to popular-press books and fascinating discussions with my theology PhD candidate niece, so I was hesitant to take issue with Mr. Wehner–until I found his online biography. I can now say: He’s full of s***.

    I shouldn’t be flippant; I take religion and spirituality very seriously, but that’s all the more reason I have little patience with right-wing politicos who use–distort–religion to advance their very un-Christian agenda. Here’s the about page for the Ethics and Public Policy Center:
    It looks to me like a fairly typical billionaire-funded right-wing think tank, with a uniquely religious design.
    Wehner’s own education and career have had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with right-wing politics. (

    With that out of the way:

    1) The Christian Jesus was not, by a long shot, the first human incarnation of the Divine, not even the first in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Hindu world, Vishnu has been incarnating in various forms–the most celebrated being his 9th incarnation, Krishna–for millennia. Accounts of Vishnu’s incarnation are integral to the Mahabarata, one of the two major epics at the center of Hindu beliefs. The Mahabarata may have been taking form as early as 3000 BCE and was without a doubt being told and written by 400 BCE.
    I won’t cite any source for this; Google or pick up any explanation of Hinduism–this is Hinduism 101. If Wehner had even a basic acquaintance with comparative religion, he would know this.

    But even in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, god(s) were walking around in human form long before Jesus. “The History of God” by Karen Armstrong gives a fascinating account of the evolution of the Judeo-Christian God. In Babylonian sacred myths (which date from around 2000-1500 BCE and serve as the first draft for a lot of what is in today’s Christian Bible), the very first human was an incarnation–a transformation–of the god Kingu. Not much later, the people of Canaan–much more directly responsible for today’s beliefs about Abraham et al were telling stories of….heck, I’ll just quote Armstrong:
    “Abraham’s god El…appears to Abraham as a friend and sometimes assumes human form. This type of divine presence, known as an epiphany, was quite common in the pagan world of antiquity. Even though in general gods were not expected to intervene directly in the lives of moral men and women, certain privileged individuals in mythical times encountered gods face to face. The Iliad is full of such epiphanies.”
    But Wehner didn’t have to pick up any book other than the Bible itself to see an incarnation that pre-dated Jesus! Genesis 18 tells a story of when Abraham’s god came to him in human form–even ate dinner with him.

    2) About Plato: Amen to what you said.

    3) The rest of Wehner’s piece is just as ethnocentrically naive as the parts you and I have argued with to this point. It is absolutely untrue that Christian beliefs are the original source for “the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity.” Earlier civilizations didn’t always conduct themselves in accordance with the belief that all humans are created equal before the God(s)–any more than Wehner and his right-wing buddies do–but you can find expressions of that sentiment all over the place in religious beliefs that pre-date Christianity–Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, ‘pagan’ religions–all of it.
    Quoting Armstrong again, on Babylonian beliefs: “In the natural world, men and women and the gods themselves all shared the same nature and derived from the same divine substance. The vision was holistic…All gods and all humans shared the same predicament, the only difference being that the gods were more powerful and were immortal.”

    One thing that particularly bothers me: Wehner’s contention that humanity has value only because God loves us. For one thing, it contradicts something he had just said in the previous paragraph: “The … the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image.”

    For another thing, it’s just obscene to assert that the value of humanity is not inherent, but is contingent on not just the existence of a divine being of the sort that Wehner is promoting, but on the humanly imagined, human-like emotional attachments of that separate being.

    Much better theology: I’m now working my way through a really fabulous book about the nature of God: David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss” I highly recommend it!

    Liked by 1 person

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