Fortress Press

Divine Becoming: Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation

Divine Becoming

Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation

Charlene P. E. Burns (Author)


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The universally human element of Jesus' incarnation

Despite the feverish pace of publishing in historical Jesus studies, biblical scholars and theologians have not notably progressed in addressing the meaning and significance of the figure of Jesus in ways credible for contemporary persons.

In this creative and insightful work, Burns seeks to understand the significance of Jesus and his incarnation through the category of participation. The central theological claims in the traditional concept of incarnation are anchored and illumined by Jesus' particular ability for empathy, sympathy, attunement, and entrainment. This notion, derived from the psychological research of Daniel Stern, allows Burns to show that incarnation — the capacity to participate in the life of others — is present not only in Jesus but to some extent in all people and in all religions. It further illumines features of God's trinitarian life and our lifelong journey into God (deification).
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9780800632786
  • Pages 208
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 8.5
  • Publication Date November 7, 2001


"This book will be … at the center of future christological discussion."

"What Charlene Burns attempts to answer in Divine Becoming is surely one of the knottiest contemporary christological puzzles: how can orthodox christology be understood, that is, made persuasive, really internalized, deeply appropriated? She does so by a creative and credible use of psychological analysis (of empathy and sympathy), showing that God and the human belong together, not only in Jesus, but in all of us. This book will be, I believe, at the center of future christological discussion."
— Sallie McFague, Carpenter Professor Emerita, Vanderbilt University
Distinguished Theologian in Residence, Vancouver School of Theology

"Beautifully articulated and carefully reasoned"

"Divine Becoming is a beautifully articulated and carefully reasoned book, conversant with the classical theological tradition. Charlene Burns creatively incorporates interdisciplinary research into the human phenomena of entrainment, attunement, and altruism to interpret the meaning of incarnation. Where divine empathy meets the human capacity for self-transcendence on behalf of others, there deification occurs like unto Jesus."
— Craig L. Nessan, Academic Dean and Professor of Contextual Theology
Wartburg Theological Seminary


Excerpt from the Preface The problem of how to understand the figure of Jesus has plagued Christianity from the outset. It is one of history’s great ironies that controversy over Jesus’ identity has at times flared so intensely that the foundations of the faith were threatened. In fact, contention over the divinity and humanity of Jesus during the early centuries made Christianity seem unfaithful to Jesus’ message. The formative years (especially the fourth century) were turbulent times when believers and theologians literally took christological debate to the streets. Exile, excommunication, imprisonment, riots, church burnings, military maneuvers, political machinations, covert operations aimed at discrediting prominent bishops, even beatings and torture: all were employed by devout Christians campaigning over what was to become the orthodox Christian interpretation of the incarnation, formalized at Chalcedon in 451 CE. It is an embarrassment to the faith that so much violence was employed in working out the doctrine of God incarnate.

Although less prone to physical violence these days, theologians in the past two centuries have again tackled the issue with great energy. In a reversal of history, this time the outcome is potentially more threatening to the faith than the process. There is a growing consensus that the christological enterprise as traditionally undertaken is bankrupt. In the words of one prominent thinker, "the dogma of Jesus’ two natures, one human and the other divine, has proved to be incapable of being explicated in any satisfactory way." If this is so, Christianity may well be, like the fabled emperor, doctrinally naked with delusions of being clothed in finery. In this book I hope to demonstrate that Christianity is in fact fully clad in the raiment of the divine. The problem with christology lies not so much in the claim it makes but in theology’s tendency to privilege philosophy over other forms of reflection in speech about incarnation. I believe we can explicate the doctrine satisfactorily through appeal not to philosophy but to the social sciences.

The intellectual journey that led me to write this book began during Easter break, 1992, in a Tokyo book store. Browsing for something to read during the trip home, I picked up The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Although it cost 1880 yen (almost twice what it would have cost at home), its thesis was so captivating that I rationalized the purchase. The book promised to divulge "the ways in which individuals in a culture are tied together by invisible threads of rhythm." This was my introduction to the fascinating phenomenon of entrainment, the human ability to enter into what amounts to unconscious states of rhythmic physiological synchrony with others. It would be five years, however, before meditations on this intriguing human capacity for sharing in the lifeworlds of others began to bear theological fruit.

Intimations of the connection between entrainment and empathy first beckoned me when reading Max Scheler’s work on sympathy. His description of sympathy as an act of self-transcendence distinct from emotional contagion, shared feelings, or identification, resonated with the concept of entrainment. Just how that might be the case and what the theological implications were did not become clear until I undertook a full-scale exploration of the role of empathy and sympathy in healing, human development, and psychoanalysis. I traced the development of empathy as a concept through Sigmund Freud, D. W. Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, to Daniel Stern, and there it all fell into place. It was then a fairly straight path from that point to this book, in which I show how it is that Christianity’s talk about divine and human natures in Jesus can indeed be satisfactorily explicated for believers today. ...

From Chapter 1

Jesus and Incarnation

The goal of this work is to demonstrate that, contrary to much modern-day opinion, the concept of an incarnate divine being is quite intelligible for believers today. Given that all speech about christology and the incarnation aims to describe Jesus’ identity in a manner true to the tradition and credible to the times, talk of incarnation must begin with the humanity of Jesus and a fortiori with the present state of knowledge about the human person. Research into the historical Jesus can be understood to support claims of incarnation and can do so most effectively with some revision of the traditional language of incarnation.

Interpreted through the lens of faith, the flood of historical data can be shown also to support Christian teachings. Yes, there were a number of men who preached a messianic message around the time of Jesus. The Romans executed some of these men, just as Jesus was executed, for the threat they posed to the status quo. A few were crucified, just as the Christian messiah was. Yet the life, teachings, and death of only one of these men influenced his followers so profoundly that within a few hundred years of his death the Western world believed him to be a true revelation of God. There were other messiahs, other prophets, but only one whose life and death demonstrated to the world that God so loved creation as to make God’s own self a part of it, through the incarnation.

I am attempting a revision that goes against the tide of recent theological opinion. No one, except perhaps theologian Karl Rahner (1904–1984), has even come close to a way of talking about incarnation that preserves the ontological sense without the taint of physical substance metaphysics. For this reason, I must clarify at the outset the presuppositions upon which my argument is based. This reframing of the doctrine of incarnation is an ontological one, but not ontological in the sense imported from Greek substance metaphysics. Ontology is the study of being, existence, of true reality. I claim that incarnation is somehow a part of what it means to be — the incarnation of God in Christ can be understood as an ontological event, but not inevitably as an ontologically unique event. And so this understanding of incarnation must necessarily allow for the presence of some capacity for incarnating — making present — the divine in all human beings. To make ontological claims about the divine-human relation in Jesus, and at the same time to insist on the absolute uniqueness of its occurrence in one man’s life, is to require that Jesus be understood as other than human. No matter what language, no matter how elegant the philosophical arguments offered, if one says that Jesus was fully human and at the same time ontologically related to God in a way that substantially differs from you and me, it is impossible to avoid a docetic christology. That is, Jesus will merely seem human. We can speak ontologically of incarnation but only if all humanity is understood to possess the capacity for it, at least to some degree. Humanity as a whole — not just Jesus — is so constituted as to be capable of incarnating the divine. Correlatively, and in keeping with Eastern Orthodox Christian thought, we can say that as God continually incarnates the divine in and through humanity, human beings are enabled through the grace of God to become God.

At first glance, to argue that each of us in some sense possesses the capacity to incarnate the divine might seem to obviate claims to uniqueness in the Christian understanding of Jesus as Son of God. But the uniqueness of Jesus’ openness to God is not lost in this reimagining of the tradition. Something very like this understanding of the divine-human relationship, lost to the church in the West, remains central to the Eastern churches in their doctrine of salvation through deification, an idea to which I will return in the closing chapters. I agree with Marcus Borg’s caveat on the human capacity to incarnate the divine: Any of us could be like Jesus, but in the same sense that any of us could be like Wolfgang Mozart or Albert Einstein or Mother Teresa. Each of these individuals is every bit as human as you or I, and yet they differ in that each life expressed what is a normal human capacity — for music, for mathematics, for compassion — to an extraordinary degree. Jesus is fully human, and yet he is more than simply human. We can be like Jesus, but we cannot be Jesus.

Another presupposition has to do with the encounter with other religions. In the circumscribed world of previous centuries, it was possible to maintain exclusivist tendencies in Christian teachings on salvation. Jesus was seen as the only way to salvation. Christology faces a special challenge today in that credibility of absolutist claims for Jesus has disintegrated. The more we learn of the history of world religions, and the more Christianity encounters other religious traditions, the more difficult it becomes to claim exclusive ownership of salvation and even of divine incarnation. To claim that the only true instance of incarnation happened in the life and death of one man is not only naïve but also a gross limitation of the concept and detrimental to the message of the faith. While it does remain important to ground christology in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian understanding of incarnation must be revised to accommodate the fact that the idea of God’s coming to earth in human form predates the life of Jesus, and indeed appears nearly universally in human religious history. This means that Jesus is constitutive for the Christian faith and at the same time "normative but not constitutive" of Christian claims to truth. In other words, Christianity exists by virtue of Jesus’ life and death. His example and teachings provide the focus for Christian faith and hopes for salvation. For Christians, Jesus is normative for our faith. He is also normative — provides the rules, so to speak — for Christian claims to truth. But he does not constitute truth, meaning that he is not the only possible truth of divine revelation.

Corollary to this: as long as we limit the incarnate Logos to one human life, our christologies will be (and have been) so thoroughly anthropocentric that we miss God’s real presence, to the detriment of the rest of creation. This has led to an "objectification of nature," the destructiveness of which we have only just begun to comprehend. To correct the tendency toward indiscriminate use of nature to the advantage of the human, we must speak of incarnation in broader terms than those of the human capacity for relation with God. A broadened and deepened ontological understanding of incarnation is needed to help correct Christianity’s complicity in the devastation of the environment. To say that God was, once and for all, incarnate in a single human life requires a thoroughly anthropocentric christology. It necessarily limits our ability, perhaps even our desire, to speak reverentially of all creation as manifestation of the divine. Given that the Christian tradition teaches the divine origin and end of all things, one would expect that talk of the incarnation would not, indeed could not, lead to a denigration of creation. That the doctrine has been interpreted so as to support destructive anthropocentrism in relation to the nonhuman and material world points to problematic aspects of the traditional interpretation. Christian theologians have begun to attend to these issues, and a new specialization, ecological theology, has grown up. ...

Table of Contents


1. Was Jesus God?
Jesus and Incarnation
The Capacity for Incarnation
A Road Map
Integrating Theology and Culture

2. The Question of Incarnation
The Many Incarnations of God
Incarnation in a Christian Key

3. A Short History of Christology
From Nazareth to Chalcedon
Deification, Incarnation, and the Energies of God
Western Revisions of the Chalcedonian Paradigm

4. The Empathic, Relational God
A Mutable God
God's Fellowship with Humanity

5. The Empathic, Relational Human
Developmental Psychology and Selves in Infancy
Cosmic Sympatheia: Entrainment and Altruism in Nature
Drawing Near to a Theological Anthropology

6. The Incarnation as Participation
Jesus the Man: Fully Human
Jesus as Symbol: Fully Divine
The Incarnate God
Jesus as Christ: Fully Human and Fully Divine

7. Participation in Good and Evil
Creating Compassionate Community
Learned Compassion in Buddhism
Sin and Evil in Participatory Creation