Beyond the experience of duality

The Incarnation as a Cosmic Event

The Incarnation as a Cosmic Event

Bede Griffiths


Most Christians tend to think of the Incarnation as a unique event, an intervention of God in the history of man which is without parallel.  But there is another point of view which would see it as the culmination, the fulfilment, not only of all human history, but of the whole universe.  

The elements which make up the human body, and therefore the body of Jesus, in his mother’s womb, were being prepared when the original explosion of the matter of the universe took place.  The appearance of the galaxies, of the stars and of the sun, and finally the planet Earth, were all stages in the evolution of matter, which was to lead to the appearance of life on this earth.  Life on this earth again developed over millions of years, to produce plants and animals, until finally the point was reached when consciousness emerged in man.  At this point the universe emerged into consciousness.

We are all of us thinking bodies, bodies composed of the matter of the universe, which has been so organised that it is capable of conscious thought.  Each one of us inherits a body which has been moulded by billions of years of evolution and in each of us the same drama takes place of matter emerging into consciousness.  The child in the womb goes through all the stages of evolution from protoplasm to animal and finally awakes to consciousness as a human being.  It was the same with Jesus in the womb of his mother.  He was linked like every human being with the whole history of cosmic evolution.  In him also a human body emerged which was capable of thought, of feeling and sensation, of language and gesture, of a distinctively human life.

Just as we have a physical inheritance from the first matter of the universe, so also we have a psychic inheritance from the first man.  All human beings are linked not only physically but psychologically with one another.  As we emerge into consciousness, we enter into a cosmic consciousness; we inherit the consciousness which has been developing in man from the beginnings of human existence.  This consciousness comes to us through our own particular family and racial and linguistic tradition, but each such tradition is a branch of the whole human evolution.  Every child inherits certain archetypal images and patterns of thought which have been developed over the course of history.  So also Jesus in the womb of his mother inherited the ‘psyche’ of a Jewish boy.  His mind was moulded by the forces which had created the family of David, the people of Israel, and beyond that his consciousness reached back to Adam, from whom like very human child he was descended.

We have to recognise therefore that Jesus was a child of his time.  He had the body and the mind of a Jew of the 1st century.  His thoughts and feelings, his language and gestures, his understanding of God and creation were determined by his heredity.  There is nothing in the language of Jesus, even in St John’s gospel, which shows that he had any human knowledge beyond the compass of the Hellenistic Judaism of his time.  Philo the Jew, who was a contemporary of Jesus, shows a knowledge of Greek philosophy which is far beyond anything revealed in the New Testament.  Still less could Jesus have any knowledge of Hindu or Buddhist thought or anything outside the limited world in which he lived.

Jesus, therefore, had a body and a soul, a soma and a psyche of the same kind as every other human child, but one who had been moulded by the centuries of experience of the people of Israel.  But, beyond the body and the soul, there is in every human being a spirit, a pneuma, which is his link, not merely with nature and humanity, but with God.  The spirit is the presence in man of the Spirit of God.  In itself it is a capacity for God, a point of human transcendence.  There is in every human being a power of self-transcendence, a capacity to go beyond the limits of mind and matter, to experience what Rudolf Otto called the ‘holy’ and which Karl Rahner has called the ‘holy mystery’.  This, whether it is recognised or not, is intrinsic to human nature.  Man was made with this capacity for the divine which is reflected in primitive religion all over the world.  In many people today this sense of the ‘holy’ has been almost obliterated, yet the urge remains, the urge towards truth and justice and love, which even the atheist experiences.

In Jesus also therefore as a human being there was this presence of the Spirit.  But whereas in other men this capacity of the Spirit is limited and further damaged by sin, in Jesus this capacity of the Spirit was unlimited.  He received from God this gift of the Spirit and his human spirit was able to respond totally to the Spirit of God.  Other men and women receive a portion of the Spirit of God, according to the limits of soul and body in which the Spirit is received.  But in Jesus there was no limit to this receptivity of Spirit.  In him, as St Paul was to say, ‘dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily.’  It was this that enabled him to say, ‘No one knows the Son but the Father and no one knows the Father but the Son.’  He experienced himself in the depths of his spirit as standing in relation to God as a Son to his Father.  He ‘knew’ the Father, that is, God, in a way in which no other human being had because in the depths of his being his spirit was one with the Spirit of God.

But Jesus did not stop at saying that the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father.  He added, ‘and he to whom the Son will reveal him.’  This is where we come in.  Each one of us receives in his creation a capacity to know God, but through the Incarnation, this capacity has been activated.  The sin which closed our spirit to the Spirit of God has been overcome.  Each of us is now capable of receiving the Holy Spirit, in participating in the Son’s knowledge of the Father.  As St Paul again says, ‘The Spirit of God bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.’  But this again is a cosmic event, the emergence of the universe into consciousness, so the awakening of the spirit in man is a further stage in cosmic evolution.  This stage has already been reached in Jesus.  He is the man in whom the cosmic evolution attains its end.  ‘It has pleased God’, a St Paul says, ‘to bring all things to a head in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’  In him the Spirit has taken possession of a human nature, a body and a soul, and nature has been transformed.  

But this event has released a power in nature which penetrates the whole creation.  As scientists today recognise the whole universe is an inter-dependent whole, a time-space continuum.  Nothing happens in any part which does not affect the whole.

In the incarnation, therefore, the destiny of the Universe has been revealed.  As matter evolved over billions of years to produce the planet on which we live, and life was able to appear on this earth, and as life evolved over billions of years to develop consciousness, so human consciousness has evolved over perhaps two or three million years to evolve into divine consciousness.

In Jesus we see the point of the evolution of the universe, when the divine consciousness took possession of a human soul and body and the plan of God in creation from the beginning was revealed.  This is why when we look on the child lying in the manger with the ox and the ass and the star and the angels, we are looking at a cosmic event, a revelation of the purpose of God for all creation and for each one of us.

This article was first published in The Tablet, Christmas 1981