Monday, December 24, 2007

Commonality of nature and the Incarnation

St. Athanasius insists that it was crucial for Christ's redemption of us that Christ both share in the divine nature and in the human nature: in the divine nature to unite us with God, and in the human nature in order to unite us with God. The bond of a common nature with us made his redemptive work applicable to us.

The idea that the common human nature is a genuine bond is a fruitful one. (A lot of science-fiction from the middle of the last century takes this bond to be important. Yes, the aliens of the stories are persons, but there is a special bond that human persons share. However, a number of science-fiction writers confused this special bond with some kind of human superiority to the aliens they populated their stories with. But that is mistaken, a mistake which we will avoid if we remember C. S. Lewis's discussion of two kinds of patriotism--the bad kind where one likes one's country because one thinks one's country is better and the good kind where one simply has affection for one's country and its institutions and culture.)

It is, however, tempting after Kant to see what is significant about us as not our humanity which integrally includes both the personal and the animal aspects of our existence, but just the personal aspects. If we see what is significant about us as just personhood, then Athanasius' account of why the Incarnation was needed loses some of its force. For if what is significant about us is personhood, then the second person of the Trinity already had personhood prior to the Incarnation. Admittedly that personhood was not precisely like ours--if St. Thomas is right, we can term the Logos and ourselves "persons" only by analogy. But nonetheless there is an analogy there, and the fleshly nature of the Incarnation becomes less clearly needed.

It is theologically important to hold on to the idea that we are not just persons. We are also animals. We are human beings with all that this entails. That is one reason why accounts that attempt to reconcile evolution with the divine plan by insisting that God only cared about producing persons, and left it to a chance he did not control whether these persons should be mammals or reptiles, biped or quadrapeds, and so on, are theologically mistaken. A part of the significance of the Incarnation is that our concrete enfleshment matters. The kind of persons we are is defined in large part by our flesh, and the kind of flesh we have is defined in large part by its aptness towards personal activity. Ignoring the concrete enfleshment is apt to lead us to philosophical error, such as the error of those who think that there are two co-located beings in front of this computer, one a person and the other an animal, an error that leads to moral mistakes on issues like abortion and euthanasia.

What is this commonality of nature that all of humans have and which St. Athanasius thought so important? Platonists will say it is our common participation in a single thing, the Form of Humanity. Aristotelians will say that it is our possession of numerically distinct essences, which are, nonetheless, qualitatively the same. The Platonic story fits somewhat better with St. Athanasius' account, but both accounts provide an ontological basis for the commonality of nature.

Christ, having reconciled us human beings with God will also re-integrate our nature, bringing the animal and the personal together, when he transforms us in the resurrection, completing his new creation in us. Blessed be his name!

The Word became flesh. Let us bend the knees of our body and of our soul before him as we celebrate with joy this jarring truth.

12 comments:

Maverick Philosopher said...

It is very plausible to say that we are not just persons, we are also animals. And so our redemption seems to require that Christ share in both the divine nature and the human nature. But perhaps we should distinguish between:

1. To redeem finite persons, Christ must share in their enfleshment

and

2. To redeem finite persons, Christ must share in their humanity.

Presumably, a person can be enfleshed without being human (without being incarnated in human flesh, where 'human' is cashed out biologically-anthropologically.) Think of an extraterrestrial finite person whose flesh (physical embodiment) is different from ours. Are they not also candidates for redemption?

Merry Christmas!

bríde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bríde said...

Christ, having reconciled us human beings with God will also re-integrate our nature, bringing the animal and the personal together, when he transforms us in the resurrection, completing his new creation in us.

I'm a bit confused here. Do you mean to say that personhood is part of nature?

If so, how does that work in the Incarnation?

Thanks!

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good questions.

I am not sure Athanasius would allow that simply sharing enfleshment would be sufficient. If Christ was a member of our species, then he and we would have the same nature, and this commonality of nature is important to Athanasius. To share just in enfleshment and not in species membership would be to have a nature somewhat like ours, and this would probably not satisfy Athanasius, just as it would not satisfy him to suppose Christ's nature was merely like God's. In both cases, he thinks sameness is needed. He could, of course, be wrong.

Anyway, if this view of redemption is right, then if non-human enfleshed persons need to be saved by an incarnation, this would have to be another incarnation, as a member of their species.

Having the human nature entails having personhood. But Christ's personhood does not derive from his human nature--he is a person independently of being human.

MG said...

Alex--

You wrote:

"If we see what is significant about us as just personhood, then Athanasius' account of why the Incarnation was needed loses some of its force."

I am sorry but your subsequent discussion of this did not clarify for me why it follows from "just personhood is significant" that "Athanasius' account of why the Incarnation was needed loses some of its force".

You wrote:

"Admittedly that personhood was not precisely like ours--if St. Thomas is right, we can term the Logos and ourselves "persons" only by analogy. But nonetheless there is an analogy there, and the fleshly nature of the Incarnation becomes less clearly needed."

If the Logos is a person only in an analogical sense, and the person of the Logos does not change at all in the Incarnation, then isn't it true that Christ is a human person only in an analogical sense?

Merry Christmas

Alexander R Pruss said...

MG:

That's a really interesting question. The Tradition has generally stayed away from calling Christ a "human person". His personhood is eternal, and "human person" makes it sound like he has personhood in the way we have it, e.g., as deriving from the human nature.

If this is right (and it might not be; there is no Ecumenical Council teaching this, for instance), then commonality of nature is even more crucial, because personhood is shared only analogically.

One argument for this position is the one you suggest--his personhood, being divine, cannot change. Another argument could an inference to best explanation from the fact that Christ cannot sin even though he is fully human (the beatific vision, however, is an alternate explanation, and at least in the West is the generally accepted one).

But I am not completely sure this is right. There may be a way of finessing the position. Christ is not a human person in the sense of having a personhood deriving from humanity, but he is a human person in the sense of being a person, being a human, and having some personal attributes deriving from being a human.

bríde said...

Do you think, then, that certain personal capacities of God the Son replace the ones that would have been present in a non-divine human being?

My concern is that you are suggesting that personhood is part of nature, perhaps as a set of "personal attributes", rather than a thing united to, but distinct from, person.

bríde said...

I'm sorry - I really should make sure I've said everything I want to say before hitting the "Publish Your Comment" button.

You say, "Christ . . . is a human person in the sense of being a person, being a human, and having some personal attributes deriving from being a human."

He has "some personal attributes deriving from being a human", but not all? The thing that tips me off to this statement is the whole of the Definition of Chalcedon, which goes to great lengths to make sure it is understood that Christ is both fully God and fully Man, lacking nothing of what it means to be either. Do you feel your statement is reconcilable with Chalcedonian Christology?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Christ has all of the human nature--that is what the Councils teach. So every human personal attribute that derives from human nature is an attribute that he has. However, one might call "having one's entire personhood derive from one's humanity" a "personal attribute" that we have. And if so, then this is a personal attribute Christ doesn't have.

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, you can always take it for granted that I won't intentionally contradict what the Councils say. And if I am shown to contradict what the Councils say, I will withdraw my statement and be grateful to be shown the truth.

bríde said...

Well, just to be clear - I am well aware of my status as a less than perspicacious undergraduate student, and thus I am not at all deluded enough to think myself capable of proving you wrong. Rather, my questions are an attempt to understand and learn from your arguments.

Thanks for letting me do this, and I'm sorry if I've come across as a bit belligerent!

Alexander R Pruss said...

Bride:

Actually I really appreciated your comment, because you pointed out a problem with at least my choice of wording, and perhaps with the whole idea.