The Incarnation: A Simple Explanation for Children

Son: Dad, I’ve got a problem I need to ask you about.

Father: OK, son, glad to help. But I’m warning you: I know nothing about girls. For that, you’d be better off asking your mother. That’s what she would say.

Son [blushing violently]: Dad! It’s not about a girl! Sheesh!

Father [laughing]: OK, OK; got you good there, son. Man, you kids are so easy to tease.

Son [wearily]: Yeah, yeah. Always with the Dad jokes.

Father [wiping away tears]: I’m sorry, kiddo. What’s your problem. Schoolwork? Better to ask your mother about that, too …

Son: No, it’s not that. I was wondering in church this morning about the Incarnation.

Father: Oh boy. Here we go.

Son: What? What’s the problem?

Father: You guys always seem to pick the hard ones. OK, let’s have it.

Son: Well, how could God be a man? I mean, did he sort of take a break from all his God jobs, in order to come and be Jesus here on Earth for a while? Or what? Who was running the universe while God was Jesus on Earth, eating fish and building stuff and walking around? Was part of him left over up in Heaven, and running things? I don’t get it.

Father: OK …

Son: And then look at it the other way. If Jesus was God, how was there any of his manhood left over? I mean, wouldn’t the God part of Jesus take up everything there was of Jesus? What would be left over of Jesus for the man part? I mean, God is infinite, right? How could he even *fit* into Jesus in the first place? I totally don’t get that.

Father: Hm.

Son: And if Jesus was God, then he knew everything, right?

Father: Right.

Son: Well, then why did he ask questions?

Father: What questions?

Son: Well, like when he asked who had touched his clothes. [Mark 5:30] And why did he ask what his disciples had been arguing about on the road? [Mark 9:33] And why did he ask how long the epileptic boy had been that way? [Mark 9:21] Didn’t he know?

Father: Umm …  hm. you’ve been listening more carefully than I thought.

Son: And not only that. God doesn’t have a body, right?

Father: Well …

Son: But Jesus had a body. And Jesus was God. So God does have a body.

Father: Ai yi yi …

Son: No, come on, Dad. What’s the deal? I know you know.

Father: Do ye, now? I’m not so sure. But, let’s see if we can work this through.

Son: All right. Tell me.

Father: OK. Let’s start with your simplest question. How could God fit into a human body. That was it, right?

Son: Yes. And then, if he did, how could there be any room left over for anything but God?

Father: Let me ask you this. You fit into your body, right?

Son: That’s one of your trick questions. But, OK, yeah, I fit into my body. I sure don’t run into myself anywhere else.

Father: What’s your body made of?

Son: Molecules and stuff.

Father: So are you just a sack of molecules, or are you something more?

Son: I’m more. I’m the molecules, but the molecules have to be organized in a certain way, in order for me to be there. And that organization has to keep going, even though I lose some molecules and gain some.

Father: So if you had nothing but the molecules in a heap, that wouldn’t be you?

Son: Right. It would just be a puddle.

Father: OK. Tell me: if you fit into your body, then how is there room left over in there for any of the molecules?

Son: I don’t take the place of the molecules. I just organize them differently than if they were a puddle.

Father: Good. So it’s the form, the shape or the arrangement of the molecules that is the you of your body.

Son: I guess. And I see where you are going. The form or shape of me doesn’t take up space, the way the molecules do. It’s more like a set of distances between the molecules.

Father: Bingo. What about the molecules? Do they take up the space of their atoms? I mean, is there “room” left over for the atoms to go on being themselves, once they are part of a molecule?

Son: Yes. OK, I get it. I am a form.

Father: Right. You are the form of your body. And, also, of your thoughts, your feelings and experiences, your decisions and actions, everything that you are. You are the form of your whole life, in all its aspects.

Son: So the form of God doesn’t drive out the form of the molecules of Jesus’ body, and in the same way it doesn’t drive out the form of Jesus the man.

Father: That’s right.

Son: OK. But I fit into my body. How does God fit into Jesus?

Father: Are you sure that it is accurate to say that you fit into your body? I mean, sure, you are embodied, and so your body reflects every aspect of you, in that it is shaped by every aspect of your form. But think about your molecules again. No, think about the electrons of your molecules. Do they have a definite location and shape?

Son: No. Dr. Peters says that they move around so fast that you can’t really say they are even in one place at a given time. By the time you spot them somewhere, they aren’t there anymore. So they are like a cloud or something, with a denser spot at their center where they are more present. But there’s no solid thing like a billiard ball at their center.

Father: OK, good. So is it really accurate to say that the form of the electron fits into its body?

Son: No. It doesn’t even really have a solid body.

Father: So the “body” of the electron is really just the part of the universe where the electron is most strongly felt.

Son: I guess.

Father: But the electron is felt elsewhere, too, just more weakly.

Son: Right. That’s what electric charge is. I guess.

Father: There is a field of influence of the electron, wherein it is felt.

Son: Yes.

Father: How big is the field?

Son: I’m pretty sure it has no limit. I mean, it gets too weak for us to detect, at some point, but the field is way bigger than the atom.

Father: So which is it more accurate to say: that the field of the electron is in its body, or that the body of the electron is in and of its field?

Son: The second way of saying it is more accurate. I see where you’re going with this. It’s not like the form of my body is inside my body. It’s the other way around.

Father: Right. It’s not so much that the soul is embodied, although the soul does indeed have a body, in the sense that it is the form of a body, and not the form of, say, an equation or a sentence or a piece of music. But it would be more accurate to say that the body is ensouled. The puddle of chemicals is informed by the form of you, and so it takes the form of you, or partakes of the form of you.

Son: What do you mean, “partakes”?

Father: Participates. Literally. Your body participates in the form of you: it “takes” a “part” of you. It doesn’t take up all of the form of you so that there is nothing left over, because there are aspects of your form that are not about the arrangement of your bodily participations, or “parts” as they are normally called. For example, there are the parts of you that are about your mother and me, and your sister and brother, and the pets. There are the parts of you that are about school, or your friends, the books you read, and video-gaming, and soccer. There’s even a part of you that is about girls.

Son: Dad!

Father: No, seriously. I’m not even kidding [coughs]. All those things influence the arrangement of your bodily parts [coughs again], but they are not about your bodily parts. It goes rather the other way; your bodily parts are about those other things. If you see what I mean. When you are playing with Rosie, your body is participating in the activity, and is going through all sorts of evolutions in its arrangement. But the arrangement is about playing with a silly dog, and not the other way round.

Son: OK, I get it. So, I really don’t fit into my body at all. My body just participates in me.

Father: Right.

Son: So. Jesus.

Father: OK, OK. Can you see how the body of Jesus could participate in the soul of God, could take the form of God, without ceasing to be the body of a man? I mean, it’s just like the molecules of you participating in the soul of you, without ceasing to be molecules.

Son: Yes. I get that.

Father: And can you see that the form of God would not “drive out” the form of man in Jesus, in just the same way that the form of you doesn’t “drive out” the form of the hydrogen atoms in your body?

Son: Yes. I see that it works. But not how.

Father: No kidding. Me, too. Perhaps that’s the best we can expect. Well, I’m glad to have been able to help! [turns back to historical novel]

Son: Not so fast. What about God’s body?

Father: Oh, right. God doesn’t have a body, except that he has the body of Jesus, so he does. Problem.

Son: Right.

Father: This one is pretty simple. You have hydrogen atoms, yes?

Son: Sure.

Father: But you are not your hydrogen atoms. You are not any of your hydrogen atoms.

Son: No.

Father:  Notice that if you are not any of your atoms, you are not all of your atoms, either.

Son: OK; I get that. I have a body, but I am not my body.

Father: Yes: it’s natural for us to think of bodies as basic, and minds as somehow added in on top of them, because almost all our thinking has to be about manipulating bodies; but really it goes the other way. You are the form of your body, and of the rest of your life. Jesus is not all of the atoms of his body, either. Neither, then, is God. God has a body – indeed he has at least two: the body of Jesus, and the body of all the faithful, the Church. That’s what he means when he says that wherever two or three are gathered together in his Name – that is, under the rule of his ordaining power, his form – he is there. The bread at Mass is his body, too. He has bodies. But he is not any or all of those bodies. Clear?

Son: I suppose, yeah.

Father: Excellent. [raises book]

Son: Hold on. What about the questions?

Father: Oh. Right. Why did Jesus ask questions about factual matters if he knows everything because he’s God.

Son: Yeah. I mean, obviously most of his questions are just a way of speaking, like when he is setting someone up for a lesson. But sometimes he asks about stuff that has happened. Why?

Father: I don’t know.

Son: What? What? You don’t know?

Father: Yeah. It’s a staggering thought, isn’t it? But there it is.

Son [horror blossoming into exalted amusement]: Wait till I tell Mom. [calls out] Hey, Mom!

Mother [from a distant part of the house]: Yes, love? What is it?

Son: Dad admitted there’s something he doesn’t know!

Mother: [laughing] It’s about time! [laughs harder; blows nose] Oh, dear.

Father [smiling grimly]: Thanks, son. Appreciate it.

Son [gleeful]: Got you good, Dad.

Father: Glad I could help.

Son: That’s not … that’s not really all you’re going to say about it, is it?

Father: You know me, son. What do you think? [winks]

Son [relieved]: OK, good. What is it, then?

Father: Mummy was right. It’s about time.

Son: Oh no. Not time and eternity again.

Father: Just a touch of it; not the full dose. The hydrogen atoms of your body have no idea what your plans are, right?

Son: Right. I suppose they don’t.

Father: We don’t know for sure, but I think it’s a good bet. I mean, somehow or other they get clued into your plans, because they cooperate with your plans pretty well. But it’s not as though they are sitting there thinking, “OK, Jeremy is looking forward to eating a hamburger this evening.” They are just cooking along being good little hydrogen atoms, and the form of you is informing them, influencing their motions, so that their activities as atoms are properly coordinated in the life of your body. They know nothing about your plans or worries, or the book you’ve been reading, let alone your awareness of the War, say, or of the City, or of Ancient Babylon, or the Milky Way. Their perspective is quite narrow, compared to yours.

Son: Right.

Father: So say there was an absolutely perfect hydrogen atom in your body, and say that it was also perfectly coordinated to your plans and intentions. Your form was influencing it perfectly. Another way of saying that would be to say that there was no part of your form that failed to influence it. It was fully a hydrogen atom, and it was fully you. Are you with me?

Son: Yeah. You’re saying that Jesus the man was like that perfect hydrogen atom.

Father: That’s part of it, yes. Jesus was the perfect man, participating fully in God. But his manhood was manhood, not Godhood. In his manhood, he knew perfectly what men can know perfectly. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot. People seem to be able sometimes to know what is happening in distant places, or in the future. Your Mum sometimes knows where lost things are. And she can often tell what I’m thinking. But it goes way deeper than that. There is a current to things, and we seem to be able to tune into it. Indeed, I guess we have to be able to do that. How could the hydrogen atom be influenced by your plans and intentions, if it could not somehow tune into them? How could the various parts of the universe be coordinated, if they weren’t somehow tuned into each other, and to the general flow of things?

Son: The Tao, you mean? Dr. Lewis was talking about it last week.

Father: That’s what the Chinese call it, yes. The Way of Heaven. In the Hellenistic world, including Judah and Israel, the Greek speakers called it the Logos. That’s what Saint John called it in his Gospel. In English, we call it the Word.

Son: But isn’t that what we call the Bible?

Father: Yes. The Hebrews call it the Torah, the Law or Teaching. They use the same word for their Bible.

Son: So the Bible and the Tao are the same thing?

Father: Not quite. Just as your body is an expression of your soul, but is not simply the same thing as your soul, so with the body of God.

Son: So Jesus the man with a body was like the Wise Men or a prophet or something, totally tuned in to the Tao, or seeing visions of it?

Father: Well, yeah, he was that, sure. But there’s more to it. Jesus wasn’t just tuned into the Way of Heaven, he was the Way of Heaven. Or rather, is. So he had to have been omniscient, omnipotent, and all the rest: everything that goes along with being God. But to be a perfect man, he had to act as a perfect man would act; he could not go ahead and just blast his enemies into smithereens by thinking about it, for example, the way a god might. I mean, he could have done that if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to, because that would have defeated his purpose in being Jesus, which was to be sacrificed as a man. To fulfill his purposes, he had to let his enemies strike him, and flog him, and kill him, just as they would have done with an ordinary man who was not God.

Son: What about all his miracles?

Father: Well, they were certainly miraculous, at least as events in this world as we know it. But there is a suggestion that in the world as it is meant to be, the miracles of Jesus would not be miraculous deeds for men at all, but natural. There are hints that we were originally designed and intended to have the powers we have usually ascribed to gods or angels. And it is told that other men have occasionally done the same sorts of miraculous things that Jesus did, from walking on water to withering plants, from healing to prophecy, from teleporting to raising the dead. But as a perfect man, and as a perfect expression of the intended nature of our whole world, Jesus did miracles all the time. He was the walking, talking Kingdom of God, here already on Earth, despite its corruptions and failures. For him miracles were as normal as eating is for us. That’s why so many of his contemporaries thought Jesus was a great wizard. And they were right! But he was more, of course. The clue to that is his Resurrection. The Resurrection wasn’t like his other miracles. I mean, there were other resurrections, like that of Lazarus. But after Jesus raised him, Lazarus eventually died. Jesus was the first man resurrected to everlasting life, the first to beat death permanently. But not the last.

Son: So I’m confused. Was Jesus a super-duper man? A Natural man?

Father: Yes. But he was more. He was lots of things – mage, seer, miracle-worker, teacher, prophet, priest, king – but he was more than any of these things, or all of them. He was a perfect expression of the natural, ideal form of man, but he was also a perfect expression of the form of God, of the Logos. Not that he was a work of the Logos, although in his human nature he was indeed that; but that he was the Logos. Is, I mean. See, the only way to be the perfect expression of a thing is to just be that thing, period. A perfect expression of you is just you. And as the perfect expression of the Logos, Jesus just was the Logos. But really it goes the other way: as the Logos, Jesus was automatically the perfect expression of the Logos, too.

Son: OK. So if Jesus was the Logos, why did he need to ask questions?

Father: I don’t know. That’s what I’m getting at when I say that I don’t know, and that it’s about time. He was in time, as we are. And that means that, as a man like us, his knowledge was bounded by the limits of time and space that are natural to man. But he was the Logos, so he was also in eternity, as God is; so he was omniscient, too. I don’t know what it is like to be in eternity, or to know what the Father knows. So I can’t know what it was like for the man Jesus to be God. How could I, any more than the hydrogen atom could know what it is like to be you? At my very best, I know what it is like to be a good hydrogen atom; from time to time, I manage it for a second or two.

Son: How can someone be in time and in eternity, both?

Father: Time is in eternity.

Son: Oh, right. You said that the other day.

Father: Alright then. Clear?

Son: No! I don’t understand it at all. I can see that it works, but I can’t see how it works.

Father: Hah! That’s just what we said a moment ago about the God in Jesus not crowding out the man in Jesus. Well. I’m glad that’s settled. [turns back to novel]

Son: Not so fast. What about my first question?

Father: What was that?

Son: What happened to the Logos when it was Jesus?

Father: Nothing. He kept right on with his work, without interruption or distraction. Remember, the Logos is infinite. He expressed himself fully in Jesus, but he still had an infinite supply of Logos left over for his other expressions – or processions, as they are technically called. Plenty, certainly, to keep things running in this universe, and all the others. It’s not as though God has a budget, and he can spend only so much energy, and then he gets worn out. When you’re infinite, even an infinite amount of work doesn’t cost you anything.

Son: And the Logos was – wait, is – everywhere. It’s the form of Jesus, but that doesn’t mess up what it’s doing in all the other galaxies.

Father: Very good. So, now do you understand?

Son: No. You haven’t helped me understand a single bit of it. I can’t see how any of this works. But at least I can see that it makes sense to think that it works, somehow.

Father: In the final analysis, that’s the limit of all our knowledge, son, even the most trivial. You can see that the plant grows, describe in great detail what happens as it grows. But you can’t see how it’s done. It’s the same way with moving your body. You can do it, but you can’t know how you do it. You can’t see precisely how events come to be related to each other as they do. That’s the Logos. He can see how events come to be related to each other, because he is how things come to be related to each other; he is the way things come to be.

Son: So really it’s a mystery.

Father: Yes. How do you feel about that?

Son: I suppose I feel sort of scared and happy and relieved, all at the same time. And excited.

Father: Me, too. Makes me want to sing with all my might, but it also makes me want to be as still as I can.

Son: Yeah. Huh! [ponders quietly]

Mother [calling from a distant part of the house]: Come and eat!

Son [takes Father’s hand]: Let’s go get some burgers, Dad.

Father: Yeah. Let’s go, kiddo.

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17 thoughts on “The Incarnation: A Simple Explanation for Children

  1. Pingback: The Evangelical Adoption Scam | Occam's Razor

  2. Thank you Kristor. I just finished Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series. Depending on how old your son is, he might enjoy it. The most metaphysically sophisticated fiction I’ve ever read (only contender that comes to mind is George McDonald).

    • The boy who played the role of my interlocutor in the dialogue is now 28, deeply interested in theology (he knows more at 28 than I did at 48), and about to have a daughter of his own. But he still might enjoy that series. I had never heard about it, so I thank you for the recommendation.

      • Gene Wolfe is outstanding. In fact, he’s so good that he’s ruined other fiction for me—the rest just seems so pedantically obvious now. This, from The Book of the New Sun, still gives me chills:

        We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.

      • The caution is due to Mr. Wolfe’s somewhat gratuitous and frequent sensuality, but he should be able to handle it.

        Congratulations to you and the father-to-be.

  3. Compare word counts.

    Word count in Kristor’s dialog:
    spirit (0)
    soul (6)
    flesh (0)
    body (49)
    form (33)

    Word count from Strong’s Concordance of the Bible (KJV, NIV)
    spirit (456, 488)
    soul (432, 126)
    flesh (369, 124)
    body (152, 228)
    form (23, 30)

    Why avoid the Biblical vocabulary in teaching our children, teenagers, or adults? And why is so doing considered particularly orthodox?

    • The inference that I avoided Biblical terms is unjustified. It might have cut some ice if, e.g., I had used “coordinate in configuration space” rather than “form,” or “constrained generating procedure” rather than “spirit.” Even if I had, why should that be considered at all heterodox?

      Even if such translations were heterodox, the data upon which the inference rests fail to support it. For one thing, the sample sizes of the Bible and the dialogue are incommensurate. Then also the Bible talks about all sorts of things, while the dialogue focuses on the relations of forms to substances, so naturally spirit and life are not going to appear as much as form and soul on the one hand, and body on the other.

      • Kristor,

        I didn’t charge you with heterodoxy. Your dialog is quite Catholic, moving easily into transubstantiation. I lean towards Zwingli on that point.

        I merely pointed out that your dialog relies very heavily on the word “form” rather than using more commonly used words that to explain how we are more than just our physical bodies. One might have started with, say, Gen. 2:7. The beginning, as the song goes, is a very good place to start.

        Moreover, form is never explicitly defined in your dialog. The word form in the Bible typically means shape. See, for example, Gen. 29:17. Shape is also a typical dictionary definition of form. By form and “coordinate in configuration space” do you mean shape?

        If we are explaining things to children or teenagers or adults, we ought to use terms like shape that they are familiar with. And by the time our children are teenagers, they can understand that our DNA does provide a blueprint for our shape. Our DNA is arguably a “constrained generating procedure.” But I think by form you mean something else than genetic code. Or do you?

        It’s not so much that you ideas are wrong. It is that they are imprecise, sometimes to the point of confusion, but in a way helpful to your argument.

      • It was an explanation for children – honestly, it was – rather than for analytical philosophers. I wanted to use the most general term I could that would be familiar to a 12 year old boy, without violating the sensibilities of any analytical philosophers or theologians who might read the dialogue. “Form” is an extremely rich term, with a rich history, and therefore freighted with many fruitful connotations, without being too tied up with any of them, so as to cry out for definition (as would have been the case for, say, concept or idea) ; yet it is both clear and precise.

        “Shape” and “arrangement” would not have done, because they are too closely tied to the strictly geometrical aspects of form. A servant, e.g., has no distinctive shape, but he does have a distinctive social form.

        The argument would not change if you used any of the alternative terms of comparable breadth, such as “idea.”

  4. There is no link to this article at that Occam’s Razor Magazine pingback. They are using some kind of spamming technique. I noticed because they keep trying to plant one-sided pingbacks on my About page. I don’t know if there is worthwhile content there or not, but I don’t indulge spammers.

    • @Kristor (9/29)

      I have replaced “form” with “idea” in the dialog.

      “Son: Yes. OK, I get it. I am [an] idea.”

      The word idea is hardly in the Biblical vocabulary at all, and the word “thought” appears mainly as the past tense of the verb to think.

      The young William Blake is said to have told his parents that the angels he had seen in the trees “looked like Ideas.” I am not sure what his parents were supposed to make of that. That would have been a very interesting dialog. For the record, his parents beat him, presumably for telling tales, but he nevertheless grew up to be a remarkable poet. It is said that he and his wife read Paradise Lost together while naked and that he died singing.

      • I had not heard that story about Blake. It’s interesting, because there is a tradition that the angels are the principal actualizations of Platonic forms or ideas. Charles Williams explored that notion in his novel Place of the Lion.

        Leo, are you seriously trying to argue that we should only discuss theology using terms that appear lots and lots of times in the Bible? How many occurrences would put a term over the threshold? And, where in the Bible is that proscription to be found? Is the Greek morphos, shape or form – used in Philippians 2:7, and referred to in the OP – legit?

        If you have a way of showing that the *actual arguments I make* are somehow messed up, please share it. I’d love to learn what I’ve got wrong. But if you don’t, then, well, you don’t.

  5. I want to share with you, Kristor, a post I put on my FB page (accompanied by a link to this blog post). Here it is, with thanks:

    “OK. *blinks* So. *blinks again* This is the FIRST TIME in 57 years that I have ever – EVER – intellectually understood and could accept ANYthing – ANY THING – about the intrinsic details of the faith I was assigned by my birth… that is, IF THIS IS A “TRUE” EXPLANATION AT ALL. Although the author wrote this as a “simple” explanation for children, my heart tells me it goes a lot deeper than that. I’d very much appreciate it if ALL of my friends of ANY/ALL or NO FAITH(S) would PLEASE read this, and then tell me what you think. Namaste.”

    • I’m glad you found the post useful. Perhaps you would profit also from the other Simple Explanations I have posted. You may be more Christian than you had suspected.

      • Kristor,

        I am still trying to understand why we need to indoctrinate children in Platonic thought.

        Do you imagine that when the boy Jesus was teaching the Elders in the Temple he was explaining to them how Judaism made a lot more sense when read through the lens of Plato and Aristotle or, worse, that it only made sense if read that way?

      • Leo, I repeat:

        If you have a way of showing that the *actual arguments I make* are somehow messed up, please share it. I’d love to learn what I’ve got wrong. But if you don’t, then, well, you don’t.

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