Why does God take an incarnation

That the word becomes flesh is a Christian thought. But it is not entirely alien to Judaism

The divine trace on the face of the other: The Jewish God did not become man, but he too lives among people.

At Christmas, Christians celebrate that God's Word became man in a defenseless child. This belief found its most intense expression in the prologue of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning there was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God." The talk of the preexistence of the logos flows a little later into the famous top-line statement: "And the word became flesh and lived among us."

The prologue can be read as a commentary on the account of creation in the book of Genesis. "In the beginning God created heaven and earth." According to John it is the creative word that calls everything that is into being. His punchline is that this word does not stay with God, but is communicated to people in a human way. It becomes meat. In the Christian-Jewish dialogue, pre-existence and incarnation are regarded as irreconcilable differences.

Martin Buber advocated the thesis of Judaism's «fundamental lack of incarnation». The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas spoke of the divine trace on the face of the other. He can understand the idea of ​​a humiliation of God up to a certain limit, he rejects the incarnation of God in a person. The transcendence of the infinite cannot be bridged by any image. The Jewish ban on images excludes the idea of ​​a living icon of God.

Jean-François Lyotard, the author of the program publication “La condition postmoderne”, has also radically questioned the hyphen between Judaism and Christianity. There is an abyss between the voice of God preserved in the letter of the Torah, which has to be deciphered anew, and the incarnate voice of God in Jesus Christ. The “trait d’union”, the hyphen of the Judeo-Christian, must in truth be regarded as “trait de désunion”, as a dividing line.

Truly God and truly man

Indeed, the Pauline dialectic between law and gospel, between the letter that kills and the spirit that gives life, has repeatedly led to Christian claims to surpass and disinheritance strategies. The Church took the place of the old covenant people early and for a long time as the "new Israel". The development of the theology of incarnation in the ancient Church also largely took place in abstract categories. Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, a person in two natures who coexist unmixed and undivided, this is what the Council of Chalcedon teaches.

If God had not really come close to God in God's Word, we would not have access to him. If the incarnated Logos had not really become fully human, he would not have redeemed us, argues Athanasius in «De incarnatione». At the center of his theology is the motif of deification: God's word came to people as a person so that people could come to God. The crucial point here is the acceptance of human nature by the divine Logos.

This abstraction has the advantage of being able to ensure the universality of redemption. It has the disadvantage that the Galilean coloring of the work of Jesus and also the Israeli theological roots of Christology fade. Jesus was the son of a Jewish mother, he was circumcised on the eighth day according to the Torah, he prayed the psalms of Israel, his message of the beginning kingdom of God is linked to the prophets.

Two gods in heaven

This has never been entirely forgotten in the collective memory of the Church through the recitation of the Gospels. Nevertheless, there were repeated attempts to detach Jesus from his Jewish mother-soil. Most recently, at the time of the “Third Reich”, constructions of an “Aryan Jesus” were developed which wanted to “de-Jew” the Church's faith in Christ. Karl Barth took a clear position against these attempts in his Kirchliche Dogmatik 1953: "The word became - not 'flesh', human, humiliated and suffering human being in any generality, but Jewish flesh."

This dictum by Barth is an impetus to ask about the Jewish prerequisites of Christian incarnation theology. And the thesis I want to propose here is that there are considerable connections between Jewish theologies of inhabitance and Christian incarnation beliefs. Concepts of pre-existence and incarnation are not as alien to Second Temple Judaism as has long been thought. The Judaist Peter Schäfer pointedly spoke of “two gods in heaven”. It sounds as if Israel's monotheism has been given up and replaced by a ditheism. But this is not the case, rather it is about quasi-divine mediators who show that the one God of Israel was by no means conceived as strictly unrelated. The Proverbs of Solomon in the Old Testament, for example, proclaim the wisdom that she was present in the work of creation and played “always” as a “beloved child” before the face of God (Prov 8: 22-30). At the same time, it is the joy of wisdom to dwell with people (Sir 24: 8).

In the tent on Sinai

This urge "to immanence in the earthly world of men" becomes even clearer when it says: "He said: In Jacob you shall dwell, in Israel you shall have your inheritance" (Sir 24: 8). Schäfer comments: "The incarnated wisdom is sent from God to earth to the people in order to live with them." With Philo of Alexandria, the authoritative representative of Hellenistic Judaism, the logos comes very close to God when he is referred to as "firstborn" and "second God", who not only creates human souls but also establishes their connection to God .

The proximity to the Johannes prologue is palpable here. The fourth evangelist, however, goes a decisive step beyond Philo when he speaks not only of indwelling but of the "incarnation" of the divine Logos. It is unclear whether there is already a polemic against the Gnostic idea that God's Word only possessed a pseudo-body and did not really suffer. The talk of the incarnation is supplemented by the motif of indwelling: "and lived among us" (Jn 1:14). The Vulgate translates: "et habitavit in nobis".

The talk of habitation can be read in the resonance chamber of the Old Testament. Because the dwelling of the word among us, literally pitching one's tent, alludes to the revelation tent at Sinai, in which the glory of God is settled. Rabbinic theology continued the idea of ​​God's dwelling through the teaching of the Shekhinas after the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

God in history

Even in the time of exile without a temple, God was testified as the one who went with and who suffered. Both the Christian belief in the Incarnation and the Jewish doctrine of the Shekhina go beyond the categories of the philosophical doctrine of God. They connect God to human history. With Plato the divine is the non-personal idea of ​​the good, with Aristotle we encounter the thought of the immobile mover who moves everything but cannot let himself move, since this would be detrimental to his perfection.

The ontological abyss between the divine one and the many in the world remains unbridgeable. In the holy scriptures of Israel, on the other hand, there is talk of a God who acts in history and lets himself be affected by the fate of Israel because he wills it. A God who could not go along and suffer would be a God who could not keep his covenant promise and ultimately could not love.

The idea of ​​the Shekhina is based on a historical closeness of God to his chosen people: in the burning bush, in the cloud and in the pillar of fire when passing through the desert, on Mount Sinai, in the federal tent, in the temple, but also in the beleaguered and suffering community. God does not stay in and for himself, he condescends and leans towards his people, whom he chooses in love and in whose midst he wants to live. Through this special “property people” (“am segulah”) God ultimately wants to turn to all people.

The backdrop of the drama

The name "Immanu-El" - God with us - mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 was rewritten by rabbinical theologians to refer to the indwelling of God: "Immanu-Shekhina". The Shekhina, however, is even described in anthropomorphic terms. As the earthly presence of the heavenly God, a human face, but also physical attributes such as "feet" or "wings" can be attested - attributes that can already be found in the Old Testament despite the prohibition of images.

The doctrine of the Shekhina, which still left traces in Jewish post-Holocaust theology and in the poetry of Paul Celan, must not be appropriated by Christianity. But it is related to the Christian belief in incarnation in that it connects God to history through the motif of indwelling. The religious philosopher Michael Wyschogrod notes: «The Christian teaching of the incarnation of God in Jesus is the intensification of the teaching of the indwelling of God in Israel insofar as it speaks of indwelling in a single Jew instead of distributing this indwelling to the people of Jesus as a whole . "

Indeed, the letter to the Colossians states that "God wanted to dwell in him with all his fullness". As an Orthodox Jew, Vyshogrod rejects this focus on the person of Jesus. But in the sense of a Jewish interpretation of the incarnation, for which, as he admits, his eyes were only opened in conversation with Christian theologians, he formulated the memorable sentences: “If we are ready to take the implantation of Jesus into his people seriously, if The Israel that produced him and whose borders (spiritual, geographical, linguistic, intellectual, etc.) he never left, is more than just the backdrop of the drama, the background from which Jesus should rather be distinguished than integrated into it, if that all changed, then what is true for Jesus must, in essence, be true for the Jewish people as well. And that includes the incarnation. "

At Christmas, Christians celebrate that the incomprehensible God made himself understandable and showed his face in the incarnate Word. This belief is linked to Jewish theologies of the inhabitants, even if in the end it clearly goes beyond that. Buber's word that Judaism is “fundamentally incarnate-free” is thus relativized. The proximity between the Jewish theology of the inhabitants and Christian incarnation Christology also justifies holding onto the hyphen between the Jewish and the Christian against Lyotard - and defending this connection against all attempts to detach the Christian faith from the Jewish roots. An uprooted Christianity would ultimately have no future.

Jan-Heiner Tück is professor at the Institute for Systematic Theology of the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna and editor of the magazine «Communio». In autumn, Herder-Verlag will publish his book «Praise you, Nobody. Paul Celan's Poetry - A Theological Provocation »has appeared.