He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
– John 1:11-13
This Christmas season I’ve been thinking about the whole question of the dogma of the Virgin birth of Jesus, and how important that is to the Christian faith. The most basic question is, what is the basic reason for believing that Jesus was born without his mother ever having had sex with anyone? Besides proving that one’s belief in the Bible narrative is stronger than one’s trust in a scientific understanding of such matters, what might be the point in such a belief?
I don’t toss out the rhetorical jab against scientific thinking in complete cynicism. I have many friends, on line in particular, who consider my faith to be somewhat suspect because I don’t prioritize a doctrine of the Bible’s “verbal plenary inspiration”: essentially the belief that the complete factual flawlessness of the Bible needs to be the starting point for any discussion of Christian belief between believers. This teaching is loosely based on one verse in Paul’s epistles (II Timothy 3:16) but more essentially it is based on a medieval understanding that any rational argument requires some sort of fixed starting point, and that is what the Bible is supposed to provide us with. Belief in the Bible’s reliability in this way was important to medieval monks in the same way that belief in the fixed position of the Earth within the universe, built on a firm foundation placed there by God himself (Psalm 104:5), was important to their attempts to rationally analyze the motions of the planets and stars in the sky. And for Protestants, who tossed aside the foundational function of church councils and papal decrees, this role for the Bible became even more critically important.
Thus one argument for believing in the virgin birth of Jesus is that it goes with the broader collection of things that Christians have historically believed in. Thus the argument would go that to consider oneself a truly believing Christian one must consider every word of the Bible –– especially the New Testament, and within the New Testament especially the message of the Gospels –– to be beyond factual reproach. This would mean that one should never dream of questioning the veracity of Mary’s reported reply to the angel in Luke 1:34. So believing for the sake of believing as a starting point for discussion among Christians has its own relevance and importance… but is there more to it than that?
One huge part of the question has been the idea that there is something essentially “yucky” about sex, and for Jesus to have been a perfect human being he could not have been, like everyone else, the product of such a yucky process. This is not a directly biblical teaching (though it is perhaps implied in some interpretations of I Corinthians 7:7), but it runs very deeply in Christian tradition, particularly in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions Augustine makes it clear that as a young man he was deeply troubled by sex, in that he had a very difficult time thinking with his “big head” rather than his (ahem) “little head”, and when he became a believer God delivered him from this “curse”. Thus one of the principle blessings of Christianity, according to Augustine and his followers, was to deliver us from the power of sex. But for those not ready or willing to become completely sexless beings there was always marriage. There the yuckiness of sex could be “redeemed” by its function of making lots of new members for the church.
One of the big questions of the Protestant Reformation was whether this Augustinian perspective on sex could be rejected outright. Besides allowing priests to marry, part of Luther’s basic emphasis seemed to be that sex (within marriage at least) was not merely a regrettably necessary means of procreation, but wonderful gift of God unto itself. From an Augustinian perspective, which the Catholic Church clung to dogmatically at least until the time of World War 2, this sort of perspective opened the door to all sorts of problems. It was only with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that the Catholic Church started to admit that Protestants might have some legitimate points in these (and other) matters. Shortly after this council the Pope Paul VI declared that as long as sex was only practiced between people who were married for that purpose, only done in a vaginal penetrative way, and not utilizing any “artificial” means of preventing pregnancy, it could be done for its own sake rather than primarily as a means of making babies. But the whole question of how sexlessness relates to Mary’s perfection as the mother of Jesus has not been substantially re-thought since then. Nor has there been a significant Protestant tradition of promoting the beauty and potential for deep spiritual experience within sex that would counter-balance the Augustinian tradition in this respect. For Christians of all sorts with advanced enough English skills to understand the lyrics, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah remains something of a guilty pleasure. Thus Jesus’ mother still needs to be seen as a virgin.
A completely different perspective on the matter has to do with the ancient understanding of the biological workings of sexual reproduction and the role of fatherhood therein. In simple terms the ancients, at least as far back as Aristotle, believed that within each potential mother there was a reserve of some bloody mass that provided the material from which babies could be made, and then there was this milky stuff that came out of potential fathers which contained all the pattern information necessary for baby-making. When this male-determined pattern properly imprinted itself on that bloody mass within the mother-to-be’s uterus the miracle of pregnancy would begin. If this happened in the optimal way it would result in a strong and healthy male child. If the “imprinting” of the sperm upon the bloody stuff was a partial miss, the result could be a female child, or a baby with some other sort of birth defect (the Ancient European perspective, not mine!). If it missed entirely, pregnancy would simply fail to happen. The point was that every sperm was seen as having all of the data necessary for making a baby, and thus the essence of what makes the baby who he or she is was believed to come entirely from the father’s side.
On the basis of this understanding of biology the church fathers who gathered for the second official church council, in Constantinople in 381, added a clause to the Nicene Creed stating that Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds”. In other words the perfect pattern for Jesus, ready to be imprinted onto the bloody stuff with Mary, was already up in heaven with God, fully conscious and ready for action, before the world was made. This was part of the understanding of how Jesus could really be God. From there once this pre-existing and fully conscious pattern was able to sexlessly stamp itself onto the bloody material within Mary the fact of Jesus’ complete humanity and simultaneous complete divinity became a reality. Except we have since discovered that biologically it doesn’t work that way…
I’m still sort of amazed that Gregor Mendel was never tried as a heretic, since his scientific discoveries, published while he was a monk on the payroll of the Catholic Church, totally exploded the reasoning behind this dogma that had been a core teaching of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Maybe it was that they had just got done “rehabilitating” Galileo for daring to point out the church’s mistake in insisting that the Sun revolves around the Earth rather than visa-versa, so they didn’t want to challenge any scientists for a while. Perhaps it was just that the offices of the inquisition had too many other fish to fry at the time. Perhaps they actually never heard of this Czech monk until it was too late and he was already dead and gone. Whatever the case, by proving that fathers and mothers play equal roles in determining the genetic pattern of their offspring, and that this pattern cannot exist prior to the sperm uniting with the material within the mother, he completely undermined part of the core theological reasoning behind belief in the virgin birth, and he was never made to pay for this arrogance.
But then what remaining idea could there be for believing in the virgin birth if we dismiss the reliability of belief for its own sake as , the idea of sex being inherently yucky and fatherhood consisting of imprinting pre-existing patterns on stuff in the mother? Speaking strictly for myself, while having a bit of residual respect for Christian tradition for tradition sake in spite of its epistemological limits, the main point remaining in the idea of the virgin birth is Jesus’ message of completely breaking with the tradition of alpha male power. To state it in the sort of terms that have recently become acceptable as basic “locker room talk,” Jesus was not the heir of a long line of “pussy grabbing winners.” In fact he completely rejected everything this tradition stood for. This is the true miracle of Christmas; so miraculously unexpected that many today are still unable to conceive of it as such.
The Jews, at Jesus’ time in particular, were looking for a sort of ultimate macho man Messiah, who could do like Gideon and mobilize a tiny army, against all rational odds, to overcome all the oppression that the people of JWHW faced. The rest was details. The fact that Gideon managed to have 70 sons from his “legitimate” wives, and more on the side (Judges 8:30-31) went with the territory. Conquering heroes were entitled to all the women they wanted. Why wouldn’t the same apply to the long expected Messiah?
That is not to say there weren’t some mixed messages involved the Jews’ Messianic expectations. The “hymn of the suffering servant” in Isaiah 53 in particular seriously messed with their testosterone-stoked images of a conquering hero. But even Isaiah painted this suffering Messiah as being a bit of a bad ass when he had to be: ready to bring revenge against all those who had made life miserable for the Jews. Isaiah laid this out in chapter 61, where the second verse says that the Messiah’s job is “to proclaim… the day of vengeance.” Then along comes Jesus, who the local folks hoped might be the sort of conquering leader they were looking for. Everyone is stoked for a major declaration as this local boy goes into the synagogue and takes his turn to read the worship text, which happens to be the very portion of Isaiah which tells of the vengeance proclamation. Everyone waits with bated breath he reads the part leading up to it, about good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind and all that, but then right when he gets to the part they were most interested in –– the vengeance part –– he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down!
Jesus went on to teach the sort of stuff we have recorded in the Sermon on the Mount: All the people he regarded as blessed were those who alpha male competitors would label as losers. Rather than taking vengeance, love your enemies. Chill out and trust God the way the grass of the field does. How is this guy supposed to free us from our Roman oppressors the way a messiah is supposed to do? Turns out that isn’t at all what he is about. He’s rather come to free us of our own need to think of ourselves as “winners”.
Jesus’ point is to set the whole question of “being a winner” aside; to completely adopt the form of a servant so that his followers can do the same. He was deeply passionate about going after those who misrepresented God as a nasty, demanding ogre, or who tried to turn a sleazy profit off of people’s desire to know God; but for everyone else the point of his teaching was for people to accept forgiveness in spite of their failures, and to pass that forgiveness forward in terms of forgiving others. As his “beloved disciple” John summarized the matter in the introduction to his gospel, quoted from at the beginning of this piece, Jesus gave us the right to be God’s children, but this is completely not a matter of passing on the sort of macho heritage based on the power of (sexual) aggression that Gideon and company represented: “not of blood [the presumedly biologically female bit], nor of the will of the flesh [the presumedly biologically male bit] nor of the will of man [the macho aggression factor], but of God.” In other words John is saying that God gives those who are truly his people the capacity to act outside of the control of their “selfish genes”; to live a life not programmed by their “pussy grabbing” urges.
This was not written as a description of Jesus, however, but of his followers, to whom he gave the right to become children of God. John’s point here was not to emphasize Jesus’ supernatural heritage, nor his mother’s sexual purity, but the essence of his followers’ relationship with God. The core question is whether we are ready to live beyond our urge to associate ourselves with the alpha male thing that Jesus so definitively set aside. What do we need to believe about Jesus and his biological origins to live according to the sort of values that John points us towards? Then on the other side of the question, for those millions of professing Christians who are using that label primarily as a means of advancing their macho power interests, what good does a profession of belief in Mary’s virginity (either at the strategic moment, or perpetually thereafter) do them before God?
I do not claim to have special access to God’s own perspective on such matters, but the more I consider these issues the less worried I become about being accepted as sufficiently orthodox by those who set out to conquer in Jesus’ name.
Meanwhile my wish for the season is this: may the true miracle of Christmas –– the defeat of the alpha male drive thing within each of us –– come into the lives of all those who truly wish to be God’s children, towards the end that someday there truly may be peace on earth, and among God’s people in particular.