The Opening of Divinity in the Opening of Arms: A Cruciform Phenomenology of the Humanity and Divinity of Christ
“Open arms are a gesture of the body reaching for the other. They are a sign of discontent with my own self-enclosed identity and a code of desire for the other. I do not want to be myself only; I want the other to be part of who I am and I want to be part of the other.” –Miroslav Volf
For two thousand years Christians have debated over how to intelligibly conceptualize and reconcile two descriptive categories of Jesus in the canonical Gospel traditions on philosophical grounds. One category meets us in the immanent and ordinary dimension of existence: the humanity of Jesus, a life-trajectory that begins with birth in a feeding trough and terminates in a bloody death on a wooden cross, complete with all of the sorrow and joy of life in between. The other category meets us in mythical transcendence: the divinity of Christ that arrives to us in the power and impact of Jesus, whose life-trajectory discloses through enacted parable the character of God, exploding through Resurrection as the transformative consciousness of an expanding community named by Saint Paul the ‘Body of Christ.’
Several councils met throughout the first five centuries to accomplish a reconciliation between Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Two schools emerged–one in Antioch and one in Alexandria–one emphasizing humanity over divinity and the other emphasizing divinity over humanity. The Antiochene School taught the sublation and truncation of divinity under a totalization of human essence, positing that Jesus was a human person uniquely created and empowered by God to reveal God’s wisdom and intentions through the indwelling of God’s Spirit. Conversely, the Alexandrian School posited that the divine Creator took on fleshly form/appearance so as to accomplish our salvation through transforming human flesh, thus truncating and sublating Jesus’ humanity beneath and within a divine totality. The ongoing tension between Antioch and Alexandria terminated in compromise with the acceptance of an unresolvable paradox at the Council of Nicaea: Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.
But what if this paradox only manifests itself within an outdated metaphysical framework? In both the Platonic and Aristotelian paradigms of the early church age–the former grounding Alexandrian Christology and the latter grounding Antiochene Christology–incarnation was a major philosophical problem. The divine essence was seen as completely distinct from human essence and thus incapable of being mixed with it. But we now know, by way of quantum physics, that all ‘matter’ is composed of energetic relationships where the Higgs Field cools down. The old problem of incarnation is how two essences can occupy the same space. But from the contemporary scientific perspective, incarnation is ubiquitous if God is understood as “light” (a mythic archetype for divinity), which in physics amounts to pure energy: the very basis of matter. God then must be incarnate in all being as its very ground and future. The new question then is not how God’s incarnation in Jesus is possible, but how it is unique.
If we thereby presuppose that incarnation is a universal reality, the incarnation of Jesus would have to be different by degree, not kind. What then is this degree? My own position is that it is Jesus’ ecstatic unity with the divine through the wisdom of agape that makes him fully human, and it is his full humanity that makes him fully divine. In this way Jesus becomes triumphant over the multifarious forms of alienation in human life. Jesus is not other than human but more deeply human. [Side note: One may ask, does this mean that only a human person can be fully divine? My answer is no, because the realization of divinity is simply the realization of the full positive potential of any given genus in its respective habitat. What follows is simply my thoughts on the divine in human form.]
Unlike the Antiochene Jesus who becomes superhuman by making a special claim on the being of God that you and I cannot, and unlike the Alexandrian Jesus who is the God-in-flesh who makes a special claim on human being that we cannot, the real and actual and weak Jesus opens his arms toward both poles of being as a meeting space. With one arm reached toward divinity and one toward humanity, he simply makes himself a space of near-nonbeing—an open convergence between the divine and the human. He becomes not a demigod but a space between being itself–an opening of emptiness that is simultaneously a fullness.
The symbol of Jesus spreading out his arms is found on the cross itself. On a hill called Golgotha–the ‘place of the skull’–a cursed ‘outside’ where tribal identities no longer persist, Jesus becomes subject to nonbeing and otherness. In this place of self-emptying, he opens his arms toward the other, welcoming the other into a cruciform way of life where identities are crucified and transformed so that each person may embrace the other in authenticity and love.
Through the self-forgetful embrace of the other, self-alienation is dissolved into holistic self-completion. It is here that one may become fully human. And it is only as one becomes fully human that she may become fully divine, for the divine is disclosed for us in the space of nonbeing where being leaves itself to join with the other toward the creation of fuller Being. It is the sacred and ecological space of emerging wholeness wherein alienation is traded for loving embrace, and it is finally the sacred, differentiated unity of beings in love as a collective manifestation of the divine Life.
Christ hangs at the intersection of two lines: one is vertical divinity, and the other is horizontal humanity. As such, the cross is the place of intersection, staked into the very ground of nonbeing and nonidentity. The cross crosses out tribal identity insofar as it honors the human as human, allowing us to flourish as more fully human and thus become more fully divine.