I’ve been pushing “weak theology” recently. I’m not sure there’s a better example of it than the Christmas story. According to “strong theology,” God is this perfect, non-contingent being. That is, God relies on nothing, needs nothing. And yet, the story that Christians tell about God coming into the world has God showing up as a helpless little baby, the most dependent creature possible. Without the love and support of his family, Jesus would not have made it very far. If we’re going to take the incarnation seriously as a suggestion of who God might be, maybe we should consider utter dependency as a possibility.
First, let’s talk a little about incarnation. One of the primary questions from the beginning of Christianity is whether Jesus is God. In the words of a famous man, “That depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” There have been numerous councils to answer that question and I’m not convinced by any of them. However, more recent theologians have come to some more digestible possibilities. For example, the process theologian Schubert Ogden describes Jesus as “the decisive re-presentation of God.” That is, Jesus makes God present to us again. It is not decisive because it is the final or ultimate or only presentation of God, but because this presentation puts us to a decision. Are we going to live into this presence of God? Are we going to make God present in the lives of others? Are we going to support God’s coming into the world as Jesus does? What does it look like if we do? Well, it looks a lot like Jesus.
The other important thing about incarnation is that, well, it’s important. If God is this transcendent hyper-being that needs nothing, then the last thing God would need is to be incarnated. But here we are telling this story of God coming into the world. Incarnation matters. Bodies matter. And bodies are fragile, dependent things, especially little, tiny bodies that can’t feed themselves.
When we tell the Christmas story, it is a picture of utter dependency and helplessness. Perhaps we imagine that this is just the starting point. If Jesus is the hero of our Westernized tale, he would come from humble beginnings and rise to prominence. Our scrappy do-gooder would become the King of Kings. All the presents are in respect for what Jesus would be, not what he is at that moment. The wise people see the future, so they know what is ahead. But if they know what is ahead, they should know how it’s going to go down.
The vulnerability of Jesus did not end with his babyness. Every time Jesus has a chance to grasp at power, he rejects it. When he is tempted in the desert, the entire world is laid at his feet, but he turns it down. Throughout his ministry, he had no place to lay his head; he depended on others for support. He never failed to stand by those who were marginalized. In his final moments on the cross, he is mocked and tempted to call down angels to save him. Instead, he accepts his forsakenness. The only people that stuck by him were the powerless, the women. Those who thought he was, as John Caputo says, “weakness with power up its sleeve” went home. He dies in humiliation, so only those without pride of place, without position, could stay by his side. They had nothing to lose but hope.
What if, instead of respect for what Jesus would become, the wise people brought gifts to bring glory to what he was, the most vulnerable? What would the world be like if we glorified vulnerability instead of strength? I’m sure we’ve all seen those listicles telling women what not to say in meetings in order to be taken seriously. They are all about confidence, projecting certainty, telling everyone the right answer. Most women speak in a way that is open and vulnerable, admitting uncertainty, and inviting input from others. The irony is that in pastoral care and therapy and in leading conversations that are inviting, I have had to learn to speak like most women do. I’ve also spent plenty of time in corporate meetings and I can tell you that the ones who are the most certain are least likely to know what they are talking about, which means we end up at the wrong conclusions more often than not. The projection of masculine strength is a delusion. Unfortunately, it is the way of the world.
Christmas is the story of something new breaking into the world. The world as we know it is a world of competing projections of strength. But the new dawn shows us a world that is interdependent and cooperative. As God is re-presented in vulnerability, we see our own vulnerability and, therefore, the necessity that we hold onto one another. We need to love each other, not just in private, but in public, seeking justice. We do not, if we follow in the Way, commit ourselves to conquering and conversion, but to invitation and shared insight. I know that it is impossible, but so is the thought of a baby coming to save us. The impossible is the work of God in the world.