Michael Hewat: Christmas message inverts the quest for God

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By sending his only son into the world God is making himself manifest on earth, says Hewat. Photo / AP
By sending his only son into the world God is making himself manifest on earth, says Hewat. Photo / AP

Theists, and perhaps some atheists too, might thank God for Dr Zain Ali's gracious and insightful comments about God and religion. A certain in-the-city church would do well to heed his cautionary peroration, "we need to be careful with God, especially during the Christmas period", but it is his final words which have greatest significance at this time of the year: lest we throw the baby out with the bath water.

I wonder what referents Dr Ali has in his mind for the baby and the bath water? God and religion? Or is he deliberately being opaque, to allow space for all-in religious debate?

Supposing that God is the baby, and that we dispense with the metaphorical and speak literally of God incarnated in the world as a baby, then we come immediately to the heart of the Christmas message and indeed the Christian faith.

Significantly, the Christmas message of God becoming a human being in the person of Jesus turns the whole quest for God on its head.

No longer is it a matter of humanity searching for God, applying its finite faculties to probing the infinite divine, but God revealing himself in a manner that it should be within humanity's limited grasp to understand.

As Dr Ali rightly pointed out, not being able to locate the God of atheistic parodies proves nothing about God's existence - except that it doesn't match any of those parodies.

He might have gone further and asserted that the human quest for God is fatally flawed because until we find God we cannot know what or who we are looking for.

Logically we should, therefore, welcome the notion that God has revealed himself to us in a way that our limited intellectual capacities can grasp. What could be more accessible than God making himself manifest on earth, showing us who he is and what he is like?

The Christmas message is that this is precisely what God did by sending his only son into the world. Jesus, as God's son, laid aside his divine majesty, being born as a helpless babe. He became fully human. Yet while he laid aside his divine majesty - his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence - he nevertheless retained his divine sonship, being born of a virgin, having no human father. He lived on earth, experiencing everything that humans experience, including death.

Yet Jesus was, in some respects, unique. Apart from his virgin birth, he alone lived a sinless life, and he alone has risen bodily from death and ascended to God the Father, assuming once more the fullness of his divinity.

Often I hear people claim that if only God would show up, make himself visible, then they'd surely believe in him. The Christmas message is, he has.

Many, however, reject the biblical testimony to Jesus. They cannot accept the miraculous elements of the story, the very things that make Jesus unique and validate his claim to be the Son of God.

Surely though, uniqueness and something supernatural is precisely what one should expect of God - unless we are to settle for a God in our own image. Moreover, the biblical record is a collection of eyewitness testimonies to Jesus' uniqueness, not least his resurrection body. These eyewitnesses were intelligent, literate people. Their testimony was deemed credible by so many that within four centuries it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity remains the world's largest and fastest-growing religion.

Neither intelligence nor intellectual maturity are the key determinants in matters of faith.

This has always been the case. Jesus' divine origins were, from his birth, acknowledged by poor and rich, uneducated and educated alike, as evidenced by the visits of the shepherds and the wise men respectively.

On the other hand, Jesus was opposed violently by those who felt threatened by the twin claims surrounding his birth: that he would be Saviour and Lord. These claims remain a threat to human autonomy and self-sufficiency today.

Ironically, most non-Western people who reject the biblical Jesus do so because they do not consider him supernatural enough. They simply cannot accept that God would humble himself in the way Jesus did, sharing our humanity, suffering and death. It is the human elements of the story, not the divine, that are offensive and an intellectual stumbling block to them.

Whatever one's view on religion, it makes no rational sense to reject the most plausible human claimant to divinity without first giving serious consideration to whether or not the claims made about him are true. Christmas is an appropriate time to do this.

Celebrating Christmas without Jesus may still have its appeal, but it's surely a strange thing to throw out the baby and hold on to the bath water.

Michael Hewat is vicar of West Hamilton Anglican Parish.

- NZ Herald

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