The Essence of Christianity/Chapter IV
THE MYSTERY OF THE INCARNATION; OR, GOD AS LOVE, AS A BEING OF THE HEART.
It is the consciousness of love by which man reconciles himself with God, or rather with his own nature as represented in the moral law. The consciousness of the divine love, or what is the same thing, the contemplation of God as human, is the mystery of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is nothing else than the practical, material manifestation of the human nature of God. God did not become man for his own sake; the need, the want of man—a want which still exists in the religious sentiment—was the cause of the Incarnation. God became man out of mercy: thus he was in himself already a human God before he became an actual man; for human want, human misery, went to his heart. The Incarnation was a tear of the divine compassion, and hence it was only the visible advent of a Being having human feelings, and therefore essentially human.
If in the Incarnation we stop short at the fact of God becoming man, it certainly appears a surprising, inexplicable, marvellous event. But the incarnate God is only the apparent manifestation of deified man; for the descent of God to man is necessarily preceded by the exaltation of man to God. Man was already in God, was already God himself, before God became man, i.e., showed himself as man. How otherwise could God have become man? The old maxim, ex nihilo nihil fit, is applicable here also. A king who has not the welfare of his subjects at heart, who while seated on his throne does not mentally live with them in their dwellings, who, in feeling, is not, as the people say, “a common man,” such a king will not descend bodily from his throne to make his people happy by his personal presence. Thus, has not the subject risen to be a king, before the king descends to be a subject? And if the subject feels himself honoured and made happy by the personal presence of his king, does this feeling refer merely to the bodily presence, and not rather to the manifestation of the disposition, of the philanthropic nature which is the cause of the appearance? But that which in the truth of religion is the cause, takes in the consciousness of religion the form of a consequence; and so here the raising of man to God is made a consequence of the humiliation or descent of God to man. God, says religion, made himself human that he might make man divine.
That which is mysterious and incomprehensible, i.e., contradictory, in the proposition, “God is or becomes a man,” arises only from the mingling or confusion of the idea or definitions of the universal, unlimited, metaphysical being with the idea of the religious God, i.e., the conditions of the understanding with the conditions of the heart, the emotive nature; a confusion which is the greatest hinderance to the correct knowledge of religion. But in fact the idea of the Incarnation is nothing more than the human form of a God, who already in his nature, in the profoundest depths of his soul, is a merciful and therefore a human God.
The form given to this truth in the doctrine of the church is, that it was not the first person of the Godhead who was incarnate, but the second, who is the representative of man in and before God; the second person being however in reality, as will be shown, the sole, true, first person in religion. And it is only apart from this distinction of persons, that the God-man appears mysterious, incomprehensible, “speculative;” for, considered in connexion with it, the Incarnation is a necessary, nay, a self-evident consequence. The allegation, therefore, that the Incarnation is a purely empirical fact, which could be made known only by means of a revelation in the theological sense, betrays the most crass religious materialism; for the Incarnation is a conclusion which rests on a very comprehensible premiss. But it is equally perverse to attempt to deduce the Incarnation from purely speculative, i.e., metaphysical, abstract grounds; for metaphysics apply only to the first person of the Godhead, who does not become incarnate, who is not a dramatic person. Such a deduction would at the utmost be justifiable if it were meant consciously to deduce from metaphysics the negation of metaphysics.
This example clearly exhibits the distinction between the method of our philosophy and that of the old speculative philosophy. The former does not philosophize concerning the Incarnation as a peculiar, stupendous mystery, after the manner of speculation dazzled by mystical splendour; on the contrary it destroys the illusive supposition of a peculiar supernatural mystery; it criticises the dogma and reduces it to its natural elements, immanent in man, to its originating principle and central point—love.
The dogma presents to us two things—God and love. God is love: but what does that mean? Is God something besides love? a being distinct from love? Is it as if I said of an affectionate human being, he is love itself? Certainly; otherwise I must give up the name God, which expresses a special personal being, a subject in distinction from the predicate. Thus love is made something apart: God out of love sent his only-begotten Son. Here love recedes and sinks into insignificance in the dark background—God. It becomes merely a personal, though an essential, attribute; hence it receives both in theory and in feeling, both objectively and subjectively, the rank simply of a predicate, not that of a subject, of the substance; it shrinks out of observation as a collateral, an accident; at one moment it presents itself to me as something essential, at another, it vanishes again. God appears to me in another form besides that of love; in the form of omnipotence, of a severe power not bound by love, a power in which, though in a smaller degree, the devils participate.
So long as love is not exalted into a substance, into an essence, so long there lurks in the background of love a subject, who even without love is something by himself, an unloving monster, a diabolical being, whose personality, separable and actually separated from love, delights in the blood of heretics and unbelievers,—the phantom of religious fanaticism. Nevertheless the essential idea of the Incarnation, though enveloped in the night of the religious consciousness, is love. Love determined God to the renunciation of his divinity. Not because of his Godhead as such, according to which he is the subject in the proposition—God is love, but because of his love, of the predicate, is it that he renounced his Godhead; thus love is a higher power and truth than Deity. Love conquers God. It was love to which God sacrificed his divine majesty. And what sort of love was that? another than ours? than that to which we sacrifice life and fortune? Was it the love of himself? of himself as God? No! it was love to man. But is not love to man human love? Can I love man without loving him humanly, without loving him as he himself loves, if he truly loves? Would not love be otherwise a devilish love? The devil too loves man, but not for man’s sake—for his own; thus he loves man out of egotism, to aggrandize himself, to extend his power. But God loves man for man’s sake, i.e., that he may make him good, happy, blessed. Does he not then love man, as the true man loves his fellow? Has love a plural? Is it not everywhere like itself? What then is the true unfalsified import of the Incarnation, but absolute, pure love, without adjunct, without a distinction between divine and human love? For though there is also a self-interested love among men, still the true human love, which is alone worthy of this name, is that which impels the sacrifice of self to another. Who then is our Saviour and Redeemer? God or Love? Love; for God as God has not saved us, but Love, which transcends the difference between the divine and human personality. As God has renounced himself out of love, so we, out of love, should renounce God; for if we do not sacrifice God to love, we sacrifice love to God, and, in spite of the predicate of love, we have the God—the evil being—of religious fanaticism.
While, however, we have laid open this nucleus of truth in the Incarnation, we have at the same time exhibited the dogma in its falsity, we have reduced the apparently supernatural and super-rational mystery to a simple truth inherent in human nature:—a truth which does not belong to the Christian religion alone, but which, implicitly at least, belongs more or less to every religion as such. For every religion which has any claim to the name, presupposes that God is not indifferent to the beings who worship him, that therefore what is human is not alien to him, that, as an object of human veneration, he is a human God. Every prayer discloses the secret of the Incarnation, every prayer is in fact an incarnation of God. In prayer I involve God in human distress, I make him a participator in my sorrows and wants. God is not deaf to my complaints; he has compassion on me; hence he renounces his divine majesty, his exaltation above all that is finite and human; he becomes a man with man; for if he listens to me, and pities me, he is affected by my sufferings. God loves man—i.e. God suffers from man. Love does not exist without sympathy, sympathy does not exist without suffering in common. Have I any sympathy for a being without feeling? No! I feel only for that which has feeling—only for that which partakes of my nature, for that in which I feel myself, whose sufferings I myself suffer. Sympathy presupposes a like nature. The Incarnation Providence, prayer, are the expression of this identity of nature in God and man.
It is true that theology, which is pre-occupied with the metaphysical attributes of eternity, unconditionedness, unchangeableness, and the like abstractions, which express the nature of the understanding,—theology denies the possibility that God should suffer, but in so doing it denies the truth of religion. For religion—the religious man in the act of devotion, believes in a real sympathy of the divine being in his sufferings and wants, believes that the will of God can be determined by the fervour of prayer, i.e. by the force of feeling, believes in a real, present fulfilment of his desire, wrought by prayer. The truly religious man unhesitatingly assigns his own feelings to God; God is to him a heart susceptible to all that is human. The heart can betake itself only to the heart; feeling can appeal only to feeling; it finds consolation in itself, in its own nature alone.
The notion that the fulfilment of prayer has been determined from eternity, that it was originally included in the plan of creation, is the empty, absurd fiction of a mechanical mode of thought, which is in absolute contradiction with the nature of religion. “We need,” says Lavater somewhere, and quite correctly according to the religious sentiment, “an arbitrary God.” Besides, even according to this fiction, God is just as much a being determined by man, as in the real, present fulfilment consequent on the power of prayer; the only difference is, that the contradiction with the unchangeableness and unconditionedness of God—that which constitutes the difficulty—is thrown back into the deceptive distance of the past or of eternity. Whether God decides on the fulfilment of my prayer now, on the immediate occasion of my offering it, or whether he did decide on it long ago, is fundamentally the same thing.
It is the greatest inconsequence to reject the idea of a God who can be determined by prayer, that is, by the force of feeling, as an unworthy anthropomorphic idea. If we once believe in a being who is an object of veneration, an object of prayer, an object of affection, who is providential, who takes care of man,—in a Providence, which is not conceivable without love,—in a being, therefore, who is loving, whose motive of action is love: we also believe in a being, who has, if not an anatomical, yet a psychical human heart. The religious mind, as has been said, places everything in God, excepting that alone which it despises. The Christians certainly gave their God no attributes which contradicted their own moral ideas, but they gave him without hesitation, and of necessity, the emotions of love, of compassion. And the love which the religious mind places in God is not an illusory, imaginary love, but a real, true love. God is loved and loves again; the divine love is only human love made objective, affirming itself. In God love is absorbed in itself as its own ultimate truth.
It may be objected to the import here assigned to the Incarnation, that the Christian Incarnation is altogether peculiar, that at least it is different (which is quite true in certain respects, as will hereafter be apparent) from the incarnations of the heathen deities, whether Greek or Indian. These latter are mere products of men or deified men; but in Christianity is given the idea of the true God; here the union of the divine nature with the human is first significant and “speculative.” Jupiter transforms himself into a bull; the heathen incarnations are mere fancies. In paganism there is no more in the nature of God than in his incarnate manifestation; in Christianity, on the contrary, it is God, a separate, superhuman being, who appears as man. But this objection is refuted by the remark already made, that even the premiss of the Christian Incarnation contains the human nature. God loves man; moreover God has a Son; God is a father; the relations of humanity are not excluded from God; the human is not remote from God, not unknown to him. Thus here also there is nothing more in the nature of God than in the incarnate manifestation of God. In the Incarnation religion only confesses, what in reflection on itself, as theology, it will not admit; namely, that God is an altogether human being. The Incarnation, the mystery of the “God-man,” is therefore no mysterious composition of contraries, no synthetic fact, as it is regarded by the speculative religious philosophy, which has a particular delight in contradiction; it is an analytic fact,—a human word with a human meaning. If there be a contradiction here, it lies before the incarnation and out of it; in the union of providence, of love, with deity; for if this love is a real love, it is not essentially different from our love,—there are only our limitations to be abstracted from it; and thus the Incarnation is only the strongest, deepest, most palpable, open-hearted expression of this providence, this love. Love knows not how to make its object happier than by rejoicing it with its personal presence, by letting itself be seen. To see the invisible benefactor face to face is the most ardent desire of love. To see is a divine act. Happiness lies in the mere sight of the beloved one. The glance is the certainty of love. And the Incarnation has no other significance, no other effect, than the indubitable certitude of the love of God to man. Love remains, but the incarnation upon the earth passes away: the appearance was limited by time and place, accessible to few; but the essence, the nature which was manifested, is eternal and universal. We can no longer believe in the manifestation for its own sake, but only for the sake of the thing manifested; for to us there remains no immediate presence but that of love.
The clearest, most irrefragable proof, that man in religion contemplates himself as the object of the Divine Being, as the end of the divine activity, that thus in religion he has relation only to his own nature, only to himself,—the clearest, most irrefragable proof of this is the love of God to man, the basis and central point of religion. God for the sake of man empties himself of his Godhead, lays aside his Godhead. Herein lies the elevating influence of the Incarnation; the highest, the perfect being humiliates, lowers himself for the sake of man. Hence, in God I learn to estimate my own nature; I have value in the sight of God; the divine significance of my nature is become evident to me. How can the worth of man be more strongly expressed than when God, for man’s sake, becomes a man, when man is the end, the object of the divine love? The love of God to man is an essential condition of the Divine Being: God is a God who loves me—who loves man in general. Here lies the emphasis, the fundamental feeling of religion. The love of God makes me loving; the love of God to man is the cause of man’s love to God; the divine love causes, awakens human love. “We love God because he first loved us.” What, then, is it that I love in God? Love: love to man. But when I love and worship the love with which God loves man, do I not love man; is not my love of God, though indirectly, love of man? If God loves man, is not man, then, the very substance of God? That which I love—is it not my inmost being? Have I a heart when I do not love? No! love only is the heart of man. But what is love without the thing loved? Thus what I love is my heart, the substance of my being, my nature. Why does man grieve—why does he lose pleasure in life, when he has lost the beloved object? Why? because with the beloved object he has lost his heart, the activity of his affections, the principle of life. Thus, if God loves man, man is the heart of God—the welfare of man his deepest anxiety. If man, then, is the object of God, is not man, in God, an object to himself? is not the content of the divine nature the human nature? If God is love, is not the essential content of this love, man? Is not the love of God to man—the basis and central point of religion—the love of man to himself made an object, contemplated as the highest objective truth, as the highest Being to man? Is not then the proposition, “God loves man” an orientalism (religion is essentially oriental), which in plain speech means, the highest is the love of man?
The truth to which, by means of analysis, we have here reduced the mystery of the Incarnation, has also been recognised even in the religious consciousness. Thus Luther, for example, says, “He who can truly conceive such a thing (namely, the incarnation of God) in his heart, should, for the sake of the flesh and blood which sits at the right hand of God, bear love to all flesh and blood here upon the earth, and never more be able to be angry with any man. The gentle manhood of Christ our God, should at a glance fill all hearts with joy, so that never more could an angry, unfriendly thought come therein—yea, every man ought, out of great joy, to be tender to his fellow-man for the sake of that our flesh and blood.” “This is a fact which should move us to great joy and blissful hope, that we are thus honoured above all creatures, even above the angels, so that we can with truth boast,—my own flesh and blood sits at the right hand of God, and reigns over all. Such honour has no creature, not even an angel. This ought to be a furnace that should melt us all into one heart, and should create such a fervour in us men that we should heartily love each other.” But that which in the truth of religion is the essence of the fable, the chief thing, is to the religious consciousness only the moral of the fable, a collateral thing.
- “Such descriptions as those in which the Scriptures speak of God as of a man, and ascribe to him all that is human, are very sweet and comforting —namely, that he talks with us as a friend, and of such things as men are wont to talk of with each other, that he rejoices, sorrows, and suffers, like a man, for the sake of the mystery of the future humanity of Christ.”—Luther (T. ii. P. 334).
- “Deus homo factus est, ut homo Deus fieret.”—Augustinus (Serm. ad Pop. p 371, c. 1). In Luther, however (T. i. P. 334,) there is a passage which indicates the true relation. When Moses called man “the image of God, the likeness of God,” he meant, says Luther, obscurely to intimate that “God was to become man.” Thus here the incarnation of God is clearly enough represented as a consequence of the deification of man.
- It was in this sense that the old uncompromising enthusiastic faith celebrated the Incarnation. Amor triumphal de Deo, says St. Bernard. And only in the sense of a real self-renunciation, self-negation of the Godhead, lies the reality, the vis of the Incarnation; although this self-negation is in itself merely a conception of the imagination, for, looked at in broad daylight, God does not negative himself in the Incarnation, but he shows himself as that which he is, as a human being. The fabrications which modern rationalistic orthodoxy and pietistic rationalism have advanced concerning the Incarnation, in opposition to the rapturous conceptions and expressions of ancient faith, do not deserve to be mentioned, still less controverted.
- “Nos scimus affici Deum misericordia nostri et non solum respicere lacrymas nostras, sed etiam numerare stillulas, sicut scriptum in Psalmo LVI. Filius Dei vere afficitur sensu miseriarum nostrarum.”—Melancthonis et aliorum (Declam. T. iii. p. 286, p. 450).
- St. Bernard resorts to a charmingly sophistical play of words:—“Impassiblis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis, cui proprium est misereri semper et parcere.”—(Sup. Cant. Sermo 26.) As if compassion were not suffering—the suffering of love, it is true, the suffering of the heart. But what does suffer if not thy sympathising heart? No love, no suffering. The material, the source of suffering, is the universal heart, the common bond of all beings.