Friday, December 9, 2011

Objections to the Virgin Birth

Theodicy and Antinaturalism
Theodicy is the term used for the manners and theological-philosophical systems by which one levels or balances blame for moral and natural evil in the world with the assumed goodness and omnipotence of God.
“If God is good and all powerful, why doesn't God intervene and end suffering?”
“If God is all powerful and good, why does God permit natural and moral evil to prevail?”
Beginning with classical theistic models in which God is indeed both all good and all powerful, there are no good solutions to these questions, and theodicy rightly becomes a high moral ground for atheism. The God of classical theism stands wholly outside of creation, able to intervene as desired but withholding goodness and reprieve at every moment. In classical Christian soteriology, God does intervene to enact redemptive events. The classical models have God, in Jesus, “coming down” to dwell with humanity, entering the womb of Mary through a miraculous interruption of the created order. Deus ex machina. Just as humanity was about to propel itself off the precipice of depravity, God interrupted the human narrative, stooped down to the estate of a Jewish peasant, and was born of a virgin.
Classical Christian theology bequeaths substance language to theological discourse. It is hence difficult to speak of God-world relations without using a substance rhetoric that depicts God as substance in distinction to the world/creation as another substance. Despite my objections to substance language, I am using it.
Theodicy and Incarnation
Theologian Knight (2004) asserts, “...there is a widespread sense that the doctrine of the incarnation can be safeguarded only through a strong antinaturalist stance” (57). What is an antinaturalist stance? Antinaturalism is a position that gives countenance to breaks in the natural order of cause-effect. With regard to the virgin birth, antinaturalism is a description of the deus-ex-machina interruption of natural events to cause the virgin birth. The virgin birth is a preternatural event; it breaks from the normal course of cause-effect by removing the necessity of the natural human sperm meeting the human egg.
A God that interrupts the natural order to affect the virgin birth is considered antinaturalist. The same antinaturalist God who is capable of interrupting the natural order is the same God who is also the enigma and moral monster of theodicy. The fact that God can interrupt and doesn't, this is the effective fuel of atheistic theodicy. This is where classical theism collapses into monarchial-patriarchal models of God the seemingly arbitrary agent and giver. God the monarch-patriarch coercively delivers the seed; creation passively and irresistibly receives it as a vessel of God's bidding (Hartshorne, p. 60). God is absolute Power and unchanging Potentate, capable of intervening as demonstrated in the virgin birth but withholding good things from his children. The virgin birth then is a philosophical argument in favor of the failure of classical theism and theodicy.
Alternate Models of Incarnation
There are models of incarnation that maintain the integrity of naturalism and close the door on classical theism and its failed theodicy.
Knight (2004) states:
The divine aspect of the person of Jesus represents...is not something essential alien to the world—a supernatural intrusion—but rather a coming to fullness of something present in the world from the beginning (p. 58).
Knight goes on to develop models of incarnation that depict a “bottom-up” movement for the incarnation in which the incarnation is the coming into maturity, the blossoming into flower, of something already present within the natural order. Though I will not be developing his position here, he presents what he calls pan-sacramental naturalism in which God, as in the Anglican understanding of the eucharist, metaphorically works in, with, below the natural order and is limited thereby by either kenotic self limitation or ontological necessity.
Aruther Peacocke, the late and esteemed theologian and biochemist who wrote extensively on the relationship between science and faith, opines as follows:
[The incarnation] uniquely exemplifies [the] emergence-from-continuity that characterizes the entire process whereby God is “informing” the world... [W]e can now interpret “incarnation” not involving a “descent” into the world by a God conceived as “above” (and outside) it—as so many Christian hymns wokuld have us believe—but as the manifestation of what, or rather of the One who, is alread in the world though not recognized or known (which is what the first chapter of John actually says). The human person Jesus is then to be seen, by virtue of his human response and openness to God, as the locus, the ikon, in and through whom is made explicit the nature and character of the God who has never ceased to be present, continuously creating and bringing divine purposes to fruition in the order of energy-matter-space-time (pp. 37-38).
Peacocke's God-world model presents God in mutual dependence on the cosmos: panentheism. His panentheism is wholly naturalistic—God works persuasively within the natural order, not interrupting the laws of nature or the chain of cause-effect. Resorting to substance language, God's power is limited by the space required for the cosmos. That is, the freedom of the natural order and of human moral agents is a limit to God's power. In his model, God cannot interrupt, God can work at the level of persuasion and creation can chose to cooperate, or not.
For Peacocke then, incarnation is a coming into being, a germination of what is already present in the natural order. God does not cause incarnation unilaterally, God woos, persuades, and draws into being, into incarnation. Incarnation is realized by a bottom up process. What practical implications does this hold for doctrine of incarnation? I appreciate Peacocke's words below.
We have come to Jesus the Christ as the distinctive manifestation of a possibility always inherently there for human beings by virtue of their potential nature. This makes what he was relevant to what we might be, for it entails that what we have affirmed about is Jesus is not, in principle, impossible for all humanity (38).
It should be noted that this model of incarnation and God-world interaction provides a fruitful venue for further thought about the integrity of science, the place of faith, questions of theodicy, etc. In my next posts on this topic I will address the passages of Scripture that are either used to support the virgin birth or that do actually teach it. It will be found that the “Old Testament” does not teach the virgin birth, and the “New Testament” went too far with the idea.

Works Cited
Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. State University of New York, 1984: Albany.
Knight, Christopher C. “Theistic Naturalism and the Word Made Flesh” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Eerdmans, 2004: Grand Rapids
Peacocke, Arthur. All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century. Fortress Press, 2007: Minneapolis.

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