Several days ago the majority of Christians in the West celebrated the most important event in the history of the Universe: the day that God came down from heaven, was born of the virgin Mary, and became man.
For many, however, this is a very difficult teaching. In fact, there is a serious prima facie case to be made that Christmas is a complete irrationality. It almost goes without saying that atheists, who doubt the very existence of God, find it impossible to accept; but, they are not the only skeptics. For, there are just as many theists who find the story of Christmas objectionable; arguing that the very idea of God becoming man is incoherent.
The question we shall endeavor to answer is this: Is the incarnation reasonable? By reasonable, in this context, I simply mean coherent or free from logical contradiction. The answer I shall defend in PART 2 is: yes, quite reasonable.
For now, however, let's take a closer look at the problem.
The Problem of Christmas
Simply put, the problem of Christmas is that the doctrine of the incarnation is a logical contradiction and, thus, completely absurd. Let's unpack this inflammatory statement to see why.
The text book definition of a logical contradiction is as follows: the conjunction of a statement S and its denial not-S. To grasp what this means, here's a simple example:
(a) Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit and not a Hobbit.
The reason (a) is a contradiction is because it violates what logicians call the law of non-contradiction--the rule that a statement and its denial cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect. In other words, this law asserts that it can't both be true that Bilbo is a Hobbit and also true that he is not a Hobbit. Claims like (a) are simply incoherent.
If (a) is incoherent it also follows that it is metaphysically impossible for a Hobbit/not-Hobbit to exist.
Likewise, says the problem of Christmas, the incarnation violates the law of non-contradiction by claiming Jesus is both God and man. The 8th century Greek theologian St. John of Damascus, who was well aware of this objection, summed up the issue as follows:
"... how can one nature comprise different substances that are contradictory? How is it possible for the same nature to be at once created and uncreated, mortal and immortal, circumscribed and uncircumscribed?" (p272).
In other words, the doctrine of the incarnation, in asserting that Jesus is both God and man, asks us to accept the truth of statements like:
(b) Jesus is both created and not-created.
(c) Jesus is both mortal and not-mortal.
Like (a) these statements clearly violate the law of non-contradiction and are, consequentially, complete nonsense.
This, of course, creates a problem for Christmas; or, more precisely, for those who truly celebrate Christmas. For if statements like (b) and (c) are logically incoherent this counts as a defeater for the incarnation; because it entails the incarnation is a metaphysical impossibility. In other words, it means there is no possible world in which God could become man.
The problem of Christmas, thus, undermines the central tenet of the Christian faith . . . or does it? In PART 2 I'll respond to this objection and argue that the incarnation is both reasonable (i.e., logically coherent) and metaphysically possible.
St. John of Damascus. Trans. John, and Chase, F. (1958). . Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.