Posts Tagged ‘incarnation’

The Roman Catholic missal of 2011 reflects a trend then well-underway in the Church to return to pre-Vatican II customs and assumptions, such as on the relationship between the clergy and laity. In particular, the changes in the missal reflect an attempt to more accurately translate the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. I contend that such changes also make the distinctly theological element of the belief system more transparent. It could be that the translations in the 1970s blurred the lines between theological concepts and things from our daily lives in the world. Even though theological constructs are intentionally distinguished from temporal matters, we tend to want to place them as existing or having referents empirically. The religious putrification of the twentieth century can be put in the form of the question, Did it really happen?, even when the it is a concept having the theological attribute of eternal.

For example, when reciting the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith, Jesus being “one in being with the Father” is changed to Jesus as “consubstantial with the Father.” Also, Jesus is not “born of the Virgin Mary,” but, rather, “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” The terms consubstantial and incarnate are theological terms. In other words, they have currency only as theological concepts. Where as animals, including human beings, are born, for example, the term incarnate exists only as a theological construct. One cannot go outside and say, Look mom, there’s something incarnating over there! To expect to find something or someone incarnating is to commit a category mistake by taking a concept that exists in theology and applying it elsewhere. Constructs such as consubstantial and incarnate, as well as transsubstantiation (i.e., real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) exist in the domain of theology. In other words, they exist theologically. Transsubstantiation makes sense only theologically; to look for it otherwise, as though lying in a field somewhere, does not make sense. Indeed, the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident is a philosophical distinction that has no place other than in doing philosophy. The theological concept of transsubstantiation makes use of this distinction. Neither the distinction nor the theological construct are empirical; rather, they involve constructs that have existence in the mind.

Therefore, to equate incarnate with the act of being born, consubstantial with “being made of the same stuff,” and transsubstantiation with a substance that exists empirically (i.e., has an existence apart from the in the mind) is to treat theological constructs as though they were something else–indeed, as something more banal and worldly. The category mistake conflates theology with empirical science or gives the former an existence in the latter. Merely in asking the question, Is real presence in the physical object?, a theological construct is being applied outside of its domain, which is in the mind. A theological question would be: Is the essence of real presence agape (self-giving love)? In focusing on real presence, it is a category mistake to focus on an empirical object as though the construct is somehow in it. Just as the consubstantial relation of the theological Father and Son does not reflect relationships between dads and sons, incarnate should not be thought of in terms of the empirical conception (beginning) of a human being. Hence, to ask whether the Incarnation “really happened”–meaning empirically in history as a fact somehow evidenced by a faith narrative–does not make sense; or better yet, it reflects a category mistake, which in turn evinces a fundamental misconception of incarnate as part of the vocabulary of history rather than theology. Unlike scientific and historical concepts, theological abstractions are not “in” objects existing empirically in the world, even if certain objects are associated with them.

For example, Catholics apply the theological concept of real presence to concecrated bread and wine. That association depends on the mind applying it (and the associated agreed-upon “social contract”), as transsubstantiation is theologically rather than empirically “in” the object. The object is not a mere symbol, however, for the meaning of the theological concept mandates a real theological presence. Even so, if I were to stick a concecrated wafer in your sandwich without you realizing it, your eating it would not convey the theological concept. Nor would there be theological real presence in the Sacred Blood spilt on the carpet and walked on by unknowing people. They would not be walking on Christ’s blood, for it would be again wine on a carpet without the application of the theological concept. For one knowing that the wine had been consecrated, one could simply say that the theological application would not apply to the Blood as soon as it is spilt; the application dissolves because of the incompatible use of the wine. It is the mind’s application of the theological concept that is key here–not some magic quality of an empirical object irrespective of use. Once again, the application does not change or inhere in the empirical object empirically (i.e., in its matter) because the change is theological. The real presence is theological, and in this sense real, but not physical (or symbolic).

To look for a theological concept as though it were a rock or a mushroom is to engage in a quest that must finally be futile. If I am correct, the Roman missal of 2011 represents progress in delimiting theological concepts to their own domain. To refer to incarnate as though it is like born misses the distinctiveness of theological concepts and sets us up for disappointment when we don’t find incarnate among the evidence of births. Even so, I suspect that people will continue to look for unicorns in the country and mistake horses for the abstraction–saying, a unicorn really did exist! It is not necessarily the case that “really” in the empirical/historical sense is any more real than “really” in the theological sense. Indeed, the felt-meaning of a theological concept can be just as real, if not more, to the person of faith. Such a person would instinctively view historical or factual verification as a step backwards. Even more, such an assumed basis would evince a category mistake–indeed, the category mistake when it comes to religion in the twentieth century and I suspect beyond.


Jaweed Kaleem, “Changes to Roman Catholic Mass Will Surprise Majority in the Pews, Survey Says,” The Huffington Post, August 19, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/19/roman-catholic-mass-changes_n_931908.html

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I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. It is possible that Jesus rose from the dead and has since been a person or manifestation of God in the form of a resurrected body.  That no one alive can say he or she has seen Jesus empirically means that it is very unlikely that any of us can know how much of what is said to have happened really happened.  I suppose it is the likelihood that none of us can know for sure that bothers me in the theological debates because some assert the literal or historical dimension.  We were all to agree on the meaning and let history be history and not religion, I think religion would not be so grievous.

I do not believe in the Passion Story literally as in historically the case, although I do believe that what the myth stands for. That is, that compassionate self-emptying is vindicated on account of its inherent strength and value even though it seems weak by the world’s standards.  We seem to have lost the mythic meaning of the passion story, only to concentrate on its historicity and empirical “factness.”   The evangelical Christian would rightly point out to me that I could be wrong on the resurrection being a historical fact.  Neither of us can know the answer.  Faith is by definition in the absence of knowledge (otherwise there would be no need for faith on the matter).   For all I know, Jesus could have been knocking down the books to get my attention.   Compassionate self-emptying would suggest or require that I remember my own limitations and that the “other” could be right…and to treat him or her in such terms.  Too often, I think we presume that our opinions are truth, and that those who disagree with us are not only wrong, but erroneous.  This is a ghost difficult to shake off, but ultimately necessary for constructive religious dialogue in line with the love taught by the world’s religions.   If we could all just remember that we are all in the same boat as human beings in terms of knowing things in themselves we might get along a lot better and enjoy life more.

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