Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Coherence of Christmas PART 2

As Eastern Christians prepare for the nativity according to the flesh of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ the coherence of this most important celebration hangs in the balance.  Last week in PART 1 I outlined the problem of Christmas; arguing that the incarnation violates the law of non-contradiction and is, thus, incoherent.

In this post, however, I will show that the problem of Christmas . . . is no real problem at all. We shall begin our discussion by looking at the nature of paradoxes.

A Brief Note on the Nature of a Paradox 

A paradox is a statement that, on a surface level, seems to be a contradiction; but, upon closer investigation, turns out to be logically coherent. Here's an example:

(a) It is now 11:00 pm and not-11:00 pm.

On a surface level (a) is a contradiction because it conjoins a statement S and its denial not-S. However, upon deeper reflection, we realize that time is relative to the observer. For it is now (at the time of this writing) 11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales but not in Bandung Indonesia (where it is, in fact, 6:00 am). Thus, (a) could be read as:

(a)' It is now 11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales and not-11:00 pm in Bandung Indonesia.

If we interpret (a) as meaning (a)' then (a) is clearly not a contradiction but, simply, a paradox; and one that is quite easily explained. The only way (a) can be construed as a contradiction is if we interpret it as:

(a)* It is now 11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales and not-11:00 pm in Cardiff Wales. 

Another example of a paradoxical statement is:

(b) The torch instantiate's a chemical reaction and does not instantiate a chemical reaction.  

Admittedly (b) is a strange sentence; but, is it a logical contradiction? Again, on a surface level, the answer appears to be yes; as it apparently violates the law of non-contradiction. However, when we dig deeper we realize that, metaphysically speaking, a torch (here conceived as a stick set aflame; like out something from Lord of the Rings)  is a union of two distinct natures--that of flame and wood--joined together to form one hypostasis (i.e., individual, unique, subsisting, entity). Thus, (b) could be read as:

(b)' The torch instantiate's a chemical reaction, with respect to its flame, and does not instantiate a chemical reaction, with respect to its wood.   

Once again, like (a), (b) is not a contradiction; because it could, quite justifiably, be interpreted as (b)'. The only way that (b) can be said to be a contradiction is if we interpret it as:

(b)* The torch instantiates a chemical reaction, with respect to its flame, and does not instantiate a chemical reaction with respect to its flame. 

As should be clear by now, paradoxes strike us as being contradictions at first; but, ultimately, upon deeper reflection, turn out to be coherent statements that often correspond to reality. I submit the same can be said of the doctrine of the incarnation.

The Paradox of the Incarnation 

In PART 1 we said the doctrine of the incarnation, in affirming that Jesus is both fully God and fully man, asks us to accept the truth of obviously absurd statements like:

(c) Jesus is both created and not-created.


(d) Jesus is both mortal and not-mortal.

We, ultimately, concluded the doctrine is incoherent and, therefore, metaphysically impossible. If, however, we take time to reflect a bit more on what the doctrine affirms and how it tells us to interpret statements like (c) and (d), we will find it is not a contradiction but, merely, a paradox. To see that this is true, let's examine an definitive formulation of the dogma.

There are many passages among the writings of the Church Father's we could turn to to find a clear and precise exposition of the doctrine of the incarnation. For our purposes, however, it seems fitting to return to the writings of St. John of Damascus, who responded to this very same objection in the 8th century.  In Book III of his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith he writes:

"And we confess one Person [i.e., hypostasis] of the Son of God incarnate in two natures that remain perfect, and we declare that the Person of His divinity and of His humanity is the same and confess that the two natures are preserved intact in Him after the union. We do not set each nature apart by itself, but hold them to be united to each other in one composite Person. For we say that the union is substantial; that is to say, true and not imaginary. We do not, however, define the substantial union as meaning that the two natures go to make up one compound nature, but as meaning that they are truly united to each other into one composite Person of the Son of God, each with its essential difference maintained intact" (p273-274). 
In short, the Person or hypostasis (i.e., individual, unique, subsisting, entity) known by the name of Jesus of Nazareth is comprised of two natures that perfectly maintain their distinct, essential properties. Hence, that which belongs to the nature of divinity (e.g., being uncreated, uncircumscribable, incorporeal, etc.) remains perfectly preserved in the Person of Jesus. Likewise, that which belongs to the nature of humanity (e.g., being created, circumscribable, corporeal, etc.) remains perfectly preserved in the Person of Jesus. Just as the nature of fire and the nature of wood remain perfectly preserved in the hypostasis known as a torch.

With this in mind, we can interpret sentences like (c) and (d), which appear to be contradictions, in the following way:

(c)' Jesus is both created, with respect to his human nature, and not-created, with respect to his divine nature.
(d)' Jesus is both mortal, with respect to his human nature, and immortal, with respect to his divine nature. 

Like the torch in the example above, we can coherently refer to the antithetical properties existing in the one hypostasis, Jesus, so long as we remember that we are referring to two distinct natures. Hence, just as it is common to say things of a torch like, "Bilbo lifted the torch to light up the cavern," with the understanding that it is not the wood lighting up the cavern but the flame, so it is common to say things of Jesus like, "Jesus wept," with the understanding that it is not his divine nature weeping but his humanity.

 Concluding Thoughts 

I've shown the doctrine of the incarnation is logically coherent; that it is a paradox and not a logical contradiction. This, at least, tells us Christmas is not a celebration of something completely absurd--like the advent of a square circle. However, it leaves the question of the reality of the incarnation completely untouched. It remains unclear, based on our present discussion, whether or not Jesus really is the Son of God who became flesh.  Furthermore, exactly how the divine nature was able to unite itself to a human nature (if, indeed, this happened) remains a total mystery. Nevertheless, those of us who look forward to celebrating the nativity of our Lord this Thursday may rest assured that we are not blatantly irrational.


St. John of Damascus. Trans. John, and Chase, F. (1958). Writings. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. 

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