I realize Easter isn’t about the incarnation of Jesus, it’s about his death and resurrection. But honestly, Good Friday has always seemed so brutal to me, I get stuck on the story of his suffering and never arrive at the empty tomb. I’m too creeped out by the cruelty.
So even if it’s unseasonal, I’d rather dwell on this idea of incarnation. On Epiphany, I wrote about how much I love the idea that we all have divine potential – that we all have a spark of the divine within us. Now, having dabbled in womanist theology for my Religion, Gender, and Sexuality class last quarter, I’ve come to realize that the incarnation isn’t just a lovely idea. It’s key to transforming Christianity into a religion that would be sex-positive and free of racism, sexism, and heteronormativity.
I grew up in a pretty progressive denomination (the United Church of Christ), but even so, I remember hearing far more about Jesus-as-God than about Jesus-as-human. His miracles and perfection totally overwhelmed the idea that he was also fully human. Sure, when he was a kid he disobeyed his parents to sit at the feet of the rabbis, but we don’t hear about him sassing Joseph and Mary or getting blisters on his feet from all his travels or enjoying the water he turned into wine.
What would change if we take the incarnation literally and seriously? In Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective, Kelly Brown Douglas aruges that a great many social and personal wounds can be healed by embracing the idea that Jesus was wholly embodied. If he inhabited his flesh just as we mere humans do, then we have to regard our bodies as the temple and vehicle of God’s love. She suggests that black Christians can contest the Western tradition of body-spirit dualism by drawing on African traditions that see no contradiction between flesh and divinity.
Douglas defines “passion” not just in terms of Good Friday (geez, I can’t quite avoid it, can I?) but also as a deep commitment and enthusiasm that nourishes and celebrates life. God’s passion, she says, encompasses both suffering and ardent love/commitment to life; human passion is a divine energy that compels us toward life-affirming activities. Sexuality is not the only vehicle for expressing this passion, but it’s a very important one because it’s a sphere of life that depends wholly on our embodiment.
In her womanist theology, Douglas outlines the anti-racist implications of revaluing the body and sexuality. It can help counter vicious stereotypes that portray black men as violently hypersexual and black women as either sexless mammies or treacherous jezebels. By valorizing sexuality as a gift from God, her theology also undermines the marginalization of LGBT people in Christian churches.
As a white woman, I don’t want to facilely co-opt her arguments, which are rooted in black Christian traditions. And yet, there’s no question that dualism has been wielded against women of all colors. Denigration of the body has helped prop up sexism and heterosexism.
As someone who went to a German-American brunch today instead of attending church, I don’t have a personal stake in reforming Christianity. But maybe even we hopeful agnostics can find comfort and inspiration in the idea that our bodies and sexuality can express something greater than our own little selves? Maybe even we secular humanists can see our embodiment as a miraculous gift?
Does the very improbability of our embodiment put us in the realm of miracles and wonders? Just in statistical terms, the chances of my existing are infinitesimal. Unitarian theologian Forrest Church addresses this eloquently:
Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to 1 against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back 10 generations, this miracle must repeat itself 1,000 times—1¼ million times going back only 20 generations. That’s right. From the turn of the 12th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately 2½ million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when our ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery.
(The whole essay – which Church wrote after learning he’d been stricken with a highly aggressive form of cancer – is powerful and moving; you can read it here in Stanford Magazine.)
In the face of those odds, you can still reject the idea of supernatural design; you can embrace a scientific, reality-based view of the world. And I do. That doesn’t diminish my wonder and awe in the slightest. Our flesh and our consciousness are still great gifts, even if I don’t posit an Almighty Giver who bestowed them on me. And we can still celebrate them in this season of rebirth.
Easter eggs dyed by mostly by the Bear and the Tiger, with a little help from their parents.