The Instrument of the Divine: Christ’s Human Avatar?
The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
I’ve been enjoying a bit of conversation this week with James Anderson (Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC), who made a guest appearance on the Gospel Coalition blog on Tuesday. Anderson thoughtfully and rigorously engages a reader’s question about divine immutability — in short, whether becoming human in time means that the eternal God has changed. By the reckoning of John 1:14, this ‘becoming’ seems to me to have a great deal of ontological force. On the other hand, the Christian tradition has regarded it as important to explain the incarnation in ways that do not lose divine immutability.
In a follow-up post tomorrow I’ll come back to some of Anderson’s comments on the relation of the two natures in Christ (a relation of unity-in-distinction). For now, I’d like to discuss the analogy he offers to illustrate his point:
In the movie Avatar the protagonist, Jake Sully, is enlisted to operate a Na’vi-human hybrid body. Given the close mental connection between Sully and his ‘avatar’ — he acts and experiences everything through that body — we might well say that he inhabits the hybrid body and that he now has two bodies. So consider this question: Can Sully run? Well, yes and no. He can’t run with respect to human body (he’s a paraplegic) but he can run with respect to his avatar body. Similarly, we can say that Jesus was resurrected with respect to his human nature but not with respect to his divine nature. Only in his humanity did he undergo change.
Anderson acknowledges that the analogy is imperfect and only meant to illustrate how a subject can act in a human way (or, in the analogy, in a Na’vi way) without himself being changed by the ‘becoming.’ Furthermore:
I should note as an aside that this analogy is not meant to imply that God the Son merely inhabited a human body! That would be the ancient heresy of Apollinarianism. It’s only meant to illustrate how we can apply the distinction between Christ’s two natures. According to Chalcedon, Christ’s humanity consisted of a soul as well as a body.
In context, the illustration is meant to demonstrate how we can think of Jesus acting with respect to his humanity in some things and with respect to his divinity in others. The relationship between the subject of the Word of God and his human body is therefore analogous to the relationship between Jake Sully and his Na’vi flesh — the Word exists in a divine way and a human way, and can act distinctly in and according to each. He sustains the universe in His divine way of being, and dies in His human way of being.
The Avatar analogy is reminiscent of the instrumentalist view of the incarnation. Now let’s be clear that Jake really does fully inhabit this body, even while he remains, mind and body, in the safety of the laboratory. In the same way, Anderson says, the Word did not merely ‘inhabit’ a human body (i.e., as if His true subjectivity was elsewhere). This point is vital: the connection between Jake and Na’vi, or Word and flesh, is stronger than, say, that of a video game player and his on-screen avatar. The latter indicates a disembodied control: the player is never herself present in the game environment, but acts upon it viz. a digital point of influence. But Jake fully inhabits his Na’vi counterpart — he sees through its eyes, feels sensation on its skin, and perhaps even begins to think in Na’vi ways of thinking. Human flesh is not a mere tool in the Word’s hand, since He joins His Self to it. To fail to acknowledge the fully embodied nature of the instrumentalist account is to not do the position justice.
This notwithstanding, the Word still retains not simply two natures but two distinct ways of being, and the relationship between these two is instrumental. The agent of the Word transcends His human existence in a way similar to Jake Sully, who exists independently of his avatar. In the same way, then, Anderson suggests that the Word of God experiences some things that are proper to his human body (death, resurrection) only in the human way. These experiences do not apply to his divine life, because — like the human Sully back at the lab — there is an uncompromised distinction between the two natures.
The analogy seems to have broken down at this point: Sully’s more authentic self or ‘subjectivity’ is back in the lab, and he can disconnect himself. Scraping his knee while running through the forest doesn’t affect his human body. Here I’m pressing the analogy much farther than Anderson intends. But what becomes clear is that a greater risk than Apollinarianism is Docetism — the belief that the Word of God only appeared to take on flesh. The worry over Anderson’s Avatar analogy is that Jake doesn’t really become a Na’vi (well, let’s save the end of the film for the spoilers section) — he embodies and controls a Na’vi, and ontologically speaking those aren’t the same thing. Jake has a life apart from his avatar (the extra Calvinisticum?); he is a part of the Na’vi when he is plugged in, but the Na’vi isn’t a part of him (again, the end of the film shakes this up). Ultimately, Jake has the ability to disconnect from his avatar — even leave Pandora and return home. When he takes control of his Na’vi avatar he brings his mind and soul with him, but leaves his human body behind — a better analogy for an out-of-body experience or reincarnation than the incarnation.
Perhaps is might be worth exploring whether Jake’s state at the end of the movie is the better analogy for the Word’s authentic becoming. But that would have its own problems: Jake, though his mind and soul are human, leaves behind a key part of his humanity.
Granting the imperfections of the analogy, the question I would like to ask is this: Are we willing to suggest that the Word exists so independent of the flesh that He can decouple from it and leave it behind? That the Word controls or embodies a human life, but does not become irreducibly human? I suggest that instrumentalist ways of thinking about the relationship between the Word and his humanity can’t sustain the fullness of Christ’s humanity. Because they hedges on ‘becoming,’ these accounts must ultimately end in a separation of God from authentic human experience.
What do you think — not just of the Avatar analogy and the work it is doing for the distinction between the two natures in Christ, but of the instrumentalist way of viewing the Word and his own human ‘avatar?’