"In the beginning was the word... and without him
nothing came into being. And the word was made flesh." These are the words
of the Logos hymn, the prologue of the Gospel of John, on which I happen to be
teaching a course this semester. One of the major concerns on which these
verses have historically been brought to bear is that of Docetism,
or the reality of the incarnation. Did Jesus Christ, a heavenly being, actually
assume a body of flesh and blood for his appearance on earth among mortal men
and women? Or did it merely appear (Greek: dokeo) so?
On one level
these verses seem to return a positive answer about the incarnation, that he
did really bear a body of solid flesh like you and I do. And so this text has
been brandished like a talisman to ward off the theological spook of Docetism, the doctrine that Jesus was a spook.
other points as well at which John's gospel seems to want to address and refute
Docetism. But each time it cannot seem to help
contradicting itself. In the very same moment it draws back and by the very
same stratagem of refutation reopens the very question it seems to be trying to
in John 4, the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, Jesus is tired,
hungry, and thirsty. While his disciples go to the delicatessen in nearby Sychar to get food, Jesus asks a Samaritan woman to give
him a drink from the well. There is a fleshly Jesus receiving no mercy from the
Noonday Devil, a man desirous of a the most elementary
favor, the one the child wakes the parent in the night for: "Can I have a
drink of water?"
But the talk
soon turns instead to a kind of metaphysical refreshment, the provision of
Living Water, which, if the Samaritan had known Jesus possessed it, she would
have requested of him. And this water Jesus has in abundance. He need not ask
her for it.
is precisely like that seen between Mark and Matthew at the baptism: Mark shows a needy Jesus seeking the water of
forgiveness, the ritual washing away of guilt before God. As
Nietzsche would say, "Human, all too human." Indeed, too human
for Matthew, who has Jesus appear only to hear the demurral of John the
Baptist, "You come to me? I need to be baptized by you!" Even so, John has reworked a story in which
Jesus truly needed a favor and rewritten it so that instead the person whose
aid Jesus sought is shown to need Jesus' help instead. Jesus' own ostensible
thirst is entirely forgotten.
And when his
disciples return with the food, he will have none of it! "Master,
eat!" they urge with the same misplaced concern of Jesus' relatives in
Mark 3, who, because the busy Jesus is skipping meals, think he is insane and
wish to take him into custody. To the disciples he says, dismissively, "I
have food to eat that ye know not of." (The disciples think their trip
into town was perhaps a waste of time. "Did someone else bring him food
after all?" they whisper among themselves, thinking no doubt of the
Samaritan woman! And they are close to the truth--Jesus had asked her for
refreshment, just as he had sent them food-shopping, but he has now rejected
both. Why? Because he has chosen to duplicate his feat as Kafka's Hunger
Artist, fasting another 40 days? Though that would be
plausible, it is not quite the point: he is not so much ascetic as docetic, a pure spirit who merely appears as a man and
needs no earthly nourishment.
So what first
appeared as if it would be a demonstration of the fleshly reality of Jesus soon
undermines that very notion. It happens again in chapter 20, when supposedly we
witness the fleshly Jesus raised from the dead and
offering to prove the reality of his fleshly form to Thomas, the first
empirical theologian, though Henry Nelson Wieman is
usually accorded that honor. Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and reach into
Jesus' side, into his nail-holes, not yet closed over. Thomas, cowed by the
miracle, falls to knees and confesses, "My Lord and my God!" Case
closed? Point proved? Again, you would think so, but again no! For it is
conspicuously not said that Thomas touched the resurrection body of Jesus. He
has only seen ("Have you believed because you have seen?"), whereas before he said he would have to touch the
apparition as if to assure himself that it was no mere apparition. He had been
willing to grant that the other disciples had seen something--a ghost perhaps,
or a figment of the fevered religious imagination. But seeing wasn't believing, touching was--or was supposed to be! Had
the divine Word become flesh?
even if we do envision Thomas putting forth his hand into Jesus side, his
palms, how can we be sure the original point of this not-quite-told tale was
not that Thomas extended his own solid digits expecting to meet resistance--but
met none! That he "put his hand into Jesus' side" because there was
no solid flesh! This is precisely the way the docetic
version of John reads (The Kerygma of John embedded
in the Acts of John). There John son of Zebedee
recalls how when he used to try, say, to tap Jesus on the shoulder, he touched
but thin air.
we read of the Easter appearance to Mary Magdalene (chapter 20 also), we hear
the Risen One warn Mary "Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to my
Father." We are immediately inclined to read the scene as a doublet of
that in Matthew's gospel where Mary and her sisters encounter the Risen Jesus
and weepingly clasp his feet. And this presupposes
that he had feet that one might grasp. "Take hold of me and see,"
Ignatius quotes some other gospel, "and see for yourselves I am no
bodiless ghost." No Docetism.
But I think,
again, the evidence is like Janus and points
simultaneously in the exactly opposite direction. For instead of Matthew, we
ought first to think of Tobit chapter 12:15-21,
probably John's source for this episode. Here the angel Raphael, who has been
accompanying the hero Tobias, throws off his disguise, revealing himself as a noncorporeal heavenly being. He can tell them since he is
about to reascend to where he was before, back to
heaven with God. The humans could never have touched him had they tried on
account of his illusion of physicality. Here is a scene very much like that in
John 20, and the words recall those of Jesus' warning not to touch him in these
final moments before his assumption into heaven. By parallel to Tobit, it implies their attempts would be unsuccessful.
Like the angel, he only seemed to have a body (or now only seems to in his
And again the Kerygma of John preserves this implicit docetic
version: the Beloved Disciple attempts to touch Jesus and cannot!
gospel of John presents us with a strong yet strangely paradoxical statement on
Docetism: the gospel seems to be presenting a truly
incarnate Lord Jesus, but in fact, that presentation itself turns out to be
"docetic," i.e., only an appearance! Does
the Gospel of John actually teach that Jesus was "made flesh" or does
it only appear to teach this? I should
say, on the evidence I have just offered, and more besides, that it only
appears to teach so.
And so I come the
long way round to the Johannine Prologue again. For
it contains the weightiest NT statement of anti-Docetism.
"The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." On this verse hangs the
whole catholic, orthodox worldview: that even the spiritual one must not write
off the material world as evil, filled to the brim though it may be with
temptations to sin. No, since the holy Word of God deigned to metamorphose into
flesh, either flesh must already have been considered good by God (as in
Genesis One: "And it was good"), or the incarnation itself must have
sanctified it. In either case, this saying, "And the Word became
flesh" is held to disqualify gnostic neurotic
flesh-hating, hyperspiritual pleasure-shunning.
And yet it is
just here where John's gospel most seriously subverts the traditional,
mainstream, "healthy-minded" view. True, this verse refuses to draw a
line between the worldly appearance of the Word and the appearance of the world
in which it appears. It refuses to make the Word an exception to the general
ontological rule. But what we fail to see is that it leaves both the world and
the Word together on the wrong side of the great divide! Neither is
substantial! Both are alike illusory! The text fosters what Thomas Ligotti calls a hallucinatory view of existence. The world
and the Word are alike mere functions of maya, or
illusion, or of laya, divine play. The world is as
insubstantial as the word, the echoes of the first half of which are sounding
unto dissipation even before we have finished pronouncing the latter half!
Divine play? Not that there is a God who is at play. No,
play, dissemination of the word, wordplay, precedes God. God is an idol
produced by our freeze-framing of the word which is living and active.
Traditional Nicene theology makes of the Word an
hypostasis, a substantial personification of God. The reverse of the case:
"God" is a futile hypostatizing of the Word.
irony of the pious Jewish rule of never writing the word "God" on a
black board or a slip of perishable paper, lest the holy Word be destroyed! But
every word is destroyed the second after it is said. It is the built-in doom of
words as such, and the word God is no exception. The pious just doesn't want to
be reminded of the fact! The incarnation of the word "God" by writing
it down is to give the lie there and then to the illusion that this word,
unlike all others, is eternal. "Why is this word different from all other
words?" In that we do not write it or possibly even say it? Because in this one case, we cannot afford to behold it dying by
the entropy of echoes. We must preserve its illusion inviolate, and the
only way to do that is to preserve it from incarnation. For incarnation is
surrender unto death. Never say it or write it.
there can be, no eternal Word. That is a contradiction in terms. And
nonetheless the word is prior, as in the word order of the Gospel of John,
prior to God. Not because "the Word was God," i.e., the same in some
sense as a God who already existed, but rather because God is one more word.
God is a word, and the category word takes precedence over the category God.
But there is a
quasi-ontological priority of Word over God, too, since textuality
is prior to ontology, as Derrida sees. Differance,
the precondition of textuality, of meaning, subverts
any claim to static or eternally real meaning. In the Kerygma
of John we have the classic statement of divine polymorphousness:
the fact that the apparently incarnate Jesus is not seen the same way twice in row, or the same by
different onlookers, means that he has no true form at all. Even so, says
Derrida, words have no "proper" meaning since they can mean anything.
Their near-infinite possible-meaning is possible precisely insofar as there is
no one definitive prescribed meaning taking priority over the others (This was
the gist of the debate between Derrida and Searle in Limited, INC.)
The world is a
thick tissue of words. The Zohar comes close when it
lays bare the words by which the God of Genesis creates: "Let there be...
and there was..." The Zohar has it that the
universal framework, the scaffolding, the skeleton, the lattice of creation was
the 10 Sephiroth, the 10 letters. The resulting
universe is an acrostic poem spun by the muse of the Almighty, as if the
choking Prophet Muhammad should have, on Gabriel's command, recited the world
into being. Oracular creation by poetic composition.
Pythagoras saw that the world is made of numbers. But the ancient languages
used the same digits for both letters and numbers. And the world is made of
letters, of words. Without the Word, nothing came into being, John says.
Aristotelians debated whether the individuality, the specific reality, of a
thing is determined by its form or by its matter. Mustn't it be the thing's
matter? Any chair or any pig would be like every other member of its species if
all they consisted of was their blueprint, their category. No, it is their
particular hunk of matter, which may be a bit divergent or deficient, which
instantiates this particular pig or chair, that makes it an instance of its
type. The word must become flesh to become a definite instance, a particular
speaking of the word that names. Otherwise it cannot
escape the two-dimensional life of the dictionary definition and make it into
the three-dimensional world of experience as "one of them."
But you can,
indeed, you must, argue it the other way, too. As long as the cookie-cutter of
form, of specifying word, is not brought down to differentiate the dough, the
world is a yeasty mass of sameness. All will be mere matter, raw matter, prime
matter, potentially anything, but actually nothing. But do we escape that fate?
Is there any day on which we have definitely become and are now Being? Or do we rather never cease to become, even if that
is by the down-hill becoming of decay? And to become is to lack the parking
brake of Being, it is to roll down the hill forward or
backward with nothing to stop you.
And being Word
incarnated is not the brake. It is not Being, only
more becoming, because words are in flux like everything else. Categories,
realities to which things conform, are unstable, too. They never quite fit.
They seem to fit, like last year's clothes, only for so long.
All the world is a vast seething coruscation of energy and
information. Quanta of embodied codes. The word became
flesh. And what is that word? It is said differently every time, but I do know
how to spell it. You spell it DNA. You are the sum of information stored along
the double helix of the DNA molecules in your cell nuclei. You are a CD with
certain digital information stored on it that may be retrieved. You are
information. The Aristotelian form that differentiates matter in your case from
mine or from that of the piece of cheese is the word which has become your
As you and I
spend considerable time thinking, listening, reading, learning, trying to
increase in wisdom, we are information seeking to store away yet more
information in our memory cells. As Hegel said, knowledge becomes the knower,
just like "you are what you eat."
You seek to
perpetuate some imprint of the information contained in your DNA into the next
instantiation, your offspring, so as to perpetuate your particular
constellation of information beyond your death. In the same way, whatever you
have come to understand, to believe, to discover, is knowledge you hope to
maintain by means of propagating your ideas. It will be to keep your
information alive and available in the great mix, the great flux, a product on
the shelf in the great marketplace of information. You want to extend the dying
echo of the utterance that is you, the pond-ripple that is your life, a mere wave pattern which nonetheless, like a radio wave
pattern, can communicate.
In Star Trek,
the theory of the transporter beam is described as the reduction of the body to
its component information and energy and their subsequent reintegration. The
word is momentarily abstracted from the flesh, then
spoken anew into that medium. If something goes wrong, though, say if your
pattern remains stored in the buffer for too long, it will disintegrate. But
this is what is always already happening anyway! Dr. McCoy needn't have been
worried overmuch about stepping into the beam! He was already, just like you
and me, a slowly disintegrating pattern of information occurring in the
unstable medium of matter, a wave traveling through the water for a brief time.
that our playing of language games is not a matter of talking about the world
is that the world is the word! Talk does not cook the rice, perhaps, but then
the rice is nothing but talk! Zen masters knew this: when one gets past words
for an instant, one sees the true reality beyond, which is nothing! To
understand is to stand under, which happens to be the same thing "substance"
means: that which stands under, even if that is nothing! There is no
ontological ground of Being. No, the earth is fixed
upon the void, hung on space.
Buddhists drew a significant inference from this word-game view of existence.
They found room in their worldview for sorcery, a way to cheat at their own
language game, as we sometimes do at solitaire. Call it creative grammar. Call
it a case of characters in a play stealing a look at the script in which they
occur, deciding they do not like it and making it up for themselves
from there. They realized that if you "understand" the world, i.e.,
as language, then you are yourself the substance of the world and it might as
well be you who pulls the strings.
terms, this is what you are doing insofar as you understand others and the
games they are playing better than they do themselves. As a psychologist or a
parent or a gnostic you can see the game someone is
playing and show him or her how to win, even if by, and especially by, bending
Robert M. Price
Copyright©2007 by Robert
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