No sooner had I written the heading for this blog post than I knew I was in trouble. Immaculate Conception. One word, the second, is non-problematic. A medical word. A human word. No problem. The preceding word, immaculate, in normal use is equally non-problematic. Put the two together and we enter a territory posted widely with advance warning signs.
To recap. For Catholics the two words, Immaculate Conception, refer to the scriptural and doctrinal teaching that Mary, a young woman in first-century Palestine was conceived, free from orignal sin. St. Augustine expended much intellectual energy and ink on the doctrine of original sin. However, he was less explicit about the idea of Mary having been born free of Adam’s original sin. He speaks of Mary having been “without sins“.
In the popular mind, however, this Augustinian inference which became dogma in the Catholic Church in 1950, is often conflated with the teaching on the virgin birth of Jesus. Today, December 8th, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In Ireland, it is the traditional pre-Christian shopping day, acknowledged as such long before there was ever a Black Friday or Cyber Monday.
Of course, the idea of virgin birth, as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett would probably remind us, was a commonplace in the ancient mythologies, and elsewhere, too. I came across this view for the first time back in 1979 in John Hicks’ The Myth of God Incarnate. In the introductory essay to this book, Maurice Wiles, the noted liberal biblical scholar, suggested strongly that belief in the Incarnation was not an essential doctrine for Christianity. Many have argued as much since. However, it is true to say that for most Christians, this doctrine is still regarded as fundamental for their faith.
All of this was in my mind this morning as I prayed the liturgical Office of Readings. I expected the language of divine incarnation. But, unexpectedly, and perhaps because my theological antenna were acutely erect, I found myself drawn into the text and discovered a subterranean cluster of more contemporary ideas to which previously I had paid no attention.
The readings were from St Anselm and St Sophronius of Jerusalem. From St Anselm I read:
Yours was the privilege of carrying God into the world. (St Anselm)
Right there St Anselm pens in literary metaphor the traditional doctrine of the Church. I stumbled a little on the doctrine. But I admired the metaphor. And, then, thinking of a friend of mine whose baby is near term, I see the rightness of the language. What greater privilege is there for a woman than to bring a new human consciousness into the world. Men can’t do it. But focusing the new lenses of contemporary theological insight, there is a sense in which bringing a new human consciousness into the world is a birthing of the divine. Something akin to incarnation. It’s not just biological and evolutionary stuff.
To see human birth as a process through which the divine enters the world is an inheritance from the ancient world. Democritus, Epictetus and the Stoics, somewhat contemporaries of Jesus, believed this to be so. For them every human soul contained a spark of the divine. Equally, many of the Eastern religions see human beings as possessing the divine presence. Every human birth is an incarnation of the divine, they would say.
Today, we no longer believe that the human world alone is the locus of consciousness. From the work of people like David Chalmers (1995) we are invited to see consciousness as more widely present in the natural world than we hitherto believed. This remains disputed, of course. Nonetheless, many believe consciousness to be widespread and present throughout the natural world. John Feehan, among others, consistently stresses this insight (see his book, The Singing Heart of the World, 2012.
At the same time, self-consciousness is a defining feature of human identity (and not just reason as Kant would have it). On its own, the Universe cannot utter an “I”. Only with the emergence of the human has a consciousness of an “I” and a recognition of a “Thou” become possible. For this reason, many of our contemporaries understand evolution as the story of the Universe becoming conscious of itself.
So, we can say, with St Anselm, that the human experience of giving birth participates in the transcendent mystery of the divine becoming present in the Universe. No wonder that he goes on to say:
The Universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the Blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.
Were these words from the pen of Matthew Fox or Brian Swimme we might not be surprised. But St Anselm of Canterbury! The Universe feels the presence of God. Strong language. And this presence is linked to Mary’s giving birth to Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, it is true that the divine presence in the Universe has existed by the very act of Creation itself. The Universe is sacred. But human consciousness introduces the capacity for that presence to be recognised and come to being. And, in that sense, God is born, the divine comes into being.
That is what Incarnation is about. It is a myth. It is a reality. It is a daily miracle. And it is more. We celebrate Mary’s role in this miracle on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Truly, in Mary, all nature is blessed.