Narrative natures - A dialectical excursus on the (im)mortality of Jesus

Narrative natures - A dialectical excursus on the (im)mortality of Jesus
"God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt." – Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol 1 (63)

Earlier this week we took a look at Žižek's debate with Milbank about the superiority of dialectic to paradox. Žižek argues that the figure of the crucified Christ is a dialectical figure, not a paradoxical one in the sense Milbank intends. A recent exchange I had on Twitter about the two natures of Christ turned out to be exceptionally fruitful at extending this logic of dialectic when talking about Christ and the life of a disciple of Christ.

What do we make of a God who can die? "Who do you say that I am?" asks Christ to his disciples, and this question is addressed to us as well. If the crucified God stands at the center of our questions, how does his life, death, and resurrection become the new paradigm for understanding this world and ourselves? How can a dying God make sense, and even more importantly, make sense of everything else? I believe the ironic narrative movement of dialectic holds the key to understanding the difficult notion of the crucified God.

Part 1: Persons, Natures, Parts

Earlier this week I saw someone on Twitter counter-dunking on a meme which (presumably) represented a Reddit atheist's attempt to dunk on Christians who believe that their God can die on a cross. This critique has an ancient pedigree, as even Roman pagans made fun of Christians on precisely this point.

"Alexamenos worships his god"

The person who shared the meme provided a standard creedal response to the meme's mockery of Christians' inability to explain how an immortal God can die –

"Jesus has two natures. His divine nature cannot die since it's literally divine. His human nature could in fact die, since it was fully human."

However, I noticed another person responding in the replies to critique the original poster's formulations. This individual said:

"You are not answering the objection. The point is that Jesus the person died. The fact that his human nature died does not prove that he died, since he is more than just the human nature. For example, I do not die just because my right arm becomes necrotic."

This comment points out something important about how we talk about Jesus – persons die; natures do not. The original post isn't precise on this point, so this response has some merit. It's not enough to say that "the human nature died," because it doesn't make sense to say that a nature dies. A nature is not a type of entity such that it could die. Death can only be attributed of a person (or agent), and the creeds are firm that Jesus is one person with two natures.

However, the critic's analogy about a necrotic arm betrays a misunderstanding which is equally important to address, so I shared my thoughts:

"I'm not sure your analogy holds, because Christ's human nature is not a "part" of him (as your arm is a part of you), but rather his human nature is his reality of being fully human, which enabled the person Jesus Christ (this is the creed's language) to die."

Natures are not parts.

Just as natures do not die, so too a nature is not a "part" of a person.

We cannot get out of the dilemma that Jesus the Nazarene died, possessing both a divine nature and a human nature, by saying that "his human nature died" or that he "died in his human nature." Such formulations are oversimplifications which slip out of our mouths when we attempt to explain something difficult, but they are not strictly accurate.

If we are speaking more precisely, and wish to use the language of natures, we should be saying that he died "according to" his human nature. This is not the same as saying that he died "in" his human nature, but rather to say that (1) it was his human nature which enabled him to die, and (2) it was a human death which he died. The "in" formulations from the prior paragraph are fuzzy elisions of the more precise "according to" formulation. Since Jesus was a human possessing mortality, he also died a death which was ontologically appropriate to a human.

Positing a "divine death," strikes me as either the angsty posturing of a teenager cosplaying Nietzsche or the tongue-in-cheek jesting of an atheist speaking in myths. We know what death is on the plane of human existence, but we understand that death is only possible because of the very specific properties of living organisms. The idea of a corresponding notion of death existing in the higher register of divine life does not make sense, because the mechanisms of divine life are fundamentally different from that of creatures which wear down over time and require an external source of nutrients. Thus, Christians claim that God became a human and experienced the full power of human death, but they don't claim that God experienced a "divine death" -- irrespective of whatever such words could possibly mean.

To see this more clearly, we have to purge ourselves of the mental model of natures as parts. When God's divine nature was united to a human nature in the one person Jesus Christ of Nazareth, this was not analogous to two differing substances being glued together for instance. Rather, this was the emergence of a singular individual who possessed the attributes proper to both natures, and thus whose experience could be said to be appropriate for the types of experiences which a being possessing each of those natures might be be afforded.

In Jesus, the human nature and divine co-inhere in a non-competitive and non-exclusionary manner, more akin to two planes intersecting to form a singular shape or two sound registers harmonizing to form one sound. While we can take this analogy too far in an Apollonarian direction (Jesus only appeared to be human) or a Nestorian direction (the divine nature and human nature coincide without any necessary connection), this updated mental model aims to undermine our unreflective intuition that the coincidence of the divine and human natures implies some competition, as though Christ's person is a contested space where either nature annihilates or overrides the other.

We can illuminate this mental model by reference to how creation and God relate generally. While the union between The Eternal Son and the man Jesus Christ goes beyond the Spirit of God's general movement in creation, they cannot be so different as to be fundamentally opposed. The union of the divine and human nature in the singular man Jesus Christ is a singular and unique instance of God's ability to have free intercourse with His creation generally. He relates to His creation in such a way that His being there does not push creation out, but rather creates the space for creation to be itself. God's activity and creation's activity operate on different planes such that their intersection produces the transcendental shape (incomplete, open outwards) of our finite experience.

Returning to the exchange on Twitter – my interlocutor didn't find my answer satisfying. He pressed me by positing the dilemma in clearest possible terms – If Jesus has the attribute of immortality by way of his divine nature, how can he die? Either Jesus is not divine, or the divine nature is not immortal.

(I later learned that my interlocutor had chosen to resolve this dilemma by picking the first option – Jesus is not divine – and he seems to believe that I should gore myself on the same horn of the dilemma upon which he has chosen to fall himself.)

Stating the dilemma in this way certainly has precedent, and the creeds of the early church were drafted in part to provide responses to quandaries of this sort. We have one person who with two natures which possess contradictory attributes – Jesus of Nazareth is both mortal (able to die) and immortal (unable to die) simultaneously. Jesus is an immortal man, just as he is an omnipresent man (three cheers for the extra Calvinisticum). How do we resolve this dilemma?

Part 2: A dialectical resolution in ironic narrative

I propose that we resolve this dilemma at the level of narrative. A contradiction must be expressed in time as a story, that is, it requires an ironic narrative movement with an unexpected resolution. In this way, a seeming paradox can be mobilized within the experience of time-bound finite creatures such as ourselves.

This is, I believe, what Žižek intends by the notion of dialectic which he opposes to Milbank's paradox – the task of thinking is to enact an intervention which is demonstrably faithful to the original problem. We must be motivated by a fidelity to the vice grip of the paradox itself, but we must also assume the responsibility of mobilizing that paradox within the particulars of our situation.

Paradox maintains that the resolution to the contradiction already perpetually exists on a higher ineffable plane, and thus requires no creative intervention within our state of affairs. All that remains is for you to just trust us (usually an authority figure). Paradox provides a cover for behaviors and ideologies which run counter to a core set of principles by providing these actions a mechanism for justifying themselves by way of appeal to a mystical harmony. This can come in a religious flavor, such as an abusive pastor who preaches love, or in a secular variety, such as in Žižek's example of Stalin's appeal to abstractions like historical determinism or the will of the people to justify his acts of terror and violence.

With respect to the contradiction of how the God-Man Jesus could die – we confess that Jesus is both mortal and immortal by saying that Jesus Christ died a human death on the cross, but because he is also the immortal God, he cannot stay dead. We confess that God the Father raised His Son Jesus from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in this narrative display the Triune God shares with us the fullness of His divine nature in precisely the place where our comprehension is located – time and space.

St. Athanasius says that God took to himself a human nature not only so that He could die, but also so that humans could become divine. Thus, resurrected humanity, of whom Christ is the first and the promise of what is to come, presents us with a dynamic resolution to the apparent paradox that a God can die – a human can become immortal. The narrative production and union of these two contradictory images – the dying God and the resurrected Man – provides us with the solution to our inquiry about how a man possessing both the attributes of mortality and immortality simultaneously can actually die.

The beauty of this solution lies in its ability to become a dynamic engine for action and thought, rather than serving as an anaesthetic by which our minds are stupefied. I recently wrote about how St. John's image of "the lamb who was slain" starkly represents the conceptual departure between Christianity and Buddhism's conception of human beings, and I think it functions here as well. When Jesus is raised from the dead, even though he possesses what St. Pauls calls "a spiritual body," he nonetheless retains the wounds of crucifixion. The lamb who was slain which appears in St. John's visions in "Revelation" presents us with this dialectical synthesis of God and humanity in which the wounds of mortality are now inexorably included in God's person, and yet these wounds become the gateway whereby human beings can also be joined into God's divine life.

As we learn to inhabit our creaturely wounds, we also find God's own wounds there, but by God's spirit these wounds become for us a path to travel deeper into the fullness of life which God has opened up for us through His love. This discovery transforms us and sends us, impelling us towards others in love as we are motivated by an overflowing spirit of gratitude to God. God's act in history becomes an intervention which opens up hitherto unimagined spaces and possibilities for flourishing, but God's wounds make the dialectical demand that we take up our cross to follow Him deeper into the pain – from the cross to the dark silence of the tomb. True life and living water beckons from the other side.

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