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"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.

There are 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 close down.

For instance, 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.

The reversal 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?

And besides, 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.

Thirdly, when 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 resurrection).

And again the Kerygma of John preserves this implicit docetic version: the Beloved Disciple attempts to touch Jesus and cannot!

Thus the 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.

Consider the 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 is, 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.

Medieval 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 flesh.

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.

The reason 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.

Tibetan 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.

In practical 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 the rules.

Robert M. Price

October19, 1997




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