The Myth of the Incarnation

I just started reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time this week. This is my initial plunge in the ‘Romantic Era’ of literature. I have to admit that my tendency to prefer the abstractions of philosophical jargon pull me in an anti-poetic direction sometimes and yet good literature always has a way of eluding my rationalism. This is why I chose to become an English major. Rationalism isn’t something I like, nor something I chose, but alas, I have bathed in its ideology my entire life (and even still).

This is why Percy Shelley’s preface to Frankenstein shocked me. He explicitly refused that the proceeding novel prejudiced “any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind.” This is shocking because, obviously, philosophy is unavoidable and if Plato’s Republic teaches us anything about the Poets, it’s that story-tellers are simply unconscious philosophers (in the negative case) or actual philosophers (in the prime case– that of Socrates himself). So, there’s no convincing me that Mary Shelley isn’t about to embark on a philosophical task. But what is even more surprising is that, only a few brief paragraphs earlier, Percy Shelley claimed that the novel “endeavored to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature.” This statement is obviously reliant on philosophical categories. So, is the novel– including the Preface– incoherent? Maybe. But, also maybe it has to be. Or, better yet, maybe there is a deeper coherence at work here.

I don’t think Shelley is refusing philosophy-as-such but rather overly rationalistic philosophies which reduce concrete experiences into abstract categories more apt for applying logical functions and other non-temporal analyses. Such philosophies, for this ‘Romantic’, are deficient in their explanatory power of the human experience. This is why Shelley is perfectly willing to allow ‘philosophical doctrines’ to be suspended in the reader’s mind as much as possible while maintaining that such a suspension will allow them to experience something that is deeply human and thus deeply true– “human feeling,” which is uniquely afforded by myth[1].

Now, while Shelley takes us beyond ‘modernist rationalism’, it is still not far enough. Though the preface to Frankenstein reveals how myth can allow us to experience something deeply true by the expression and invocation of human feeling, C. S. Lewis takes the category of myth beyond mere emotional elicitation.

Lewis shares this ‘romantic proclivity’ of disallowing modern rationalism the ability to speak to the totality of the human experience. In Myth Become Fact, he insists that, even if all myths were merely mythical, “it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern.”[2] Why are myths so vital or nourishing? Here is where Lewis gets interesting. He brings up what he refers to as our tragic dilemma, which is “to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste.”[3] In other words, our dilemma is the unavoidable fact that it is only in concrete experience that we truly know anything and yet, at the same time, to know anything requires abstract reflection. He puts it like this:

“While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples; we are no longer dealing with them but with that which they exemplify.”[4]

How does Lewis ‘solve’ this dilemma between abstract knowledge and experience? With Myth. Interestingly, however, for Lewis, there is only one myth that truly bridges the divide– namely, the myth of God-become-man. The Incarnation is, for Lewis, the perennial ‘myth-become-fact’. This myth allows us to experientially know the most abstract of ideas: God.

The Incarnation is not a univocal revelation of God– that would devolve the abstract completely into the immanent. The Incarnation is also not a merely symbolic signification of God– that would make the God-man a nihilistic figure, possessing no real meaning and thus making Christianity supremely guilty of post-modern deconstructionist accusations. Rather, it is in the incarnation that God is made known in Christ while mysteriously maintaining his transcendence. It is myth that concretizes the abstract and abstracts the concrete.

Furthermore, it is because of the myth of the Incarnation of Christ that we can believe that this world, which is solely given to us in the form of innumerable signs, exists within the mystery of the unknowable God– all the while making Him paradoxically– and yet really– knowable. In short, we can trust that the signs which we experience actually point beyond themselves; they point ultimately to God. It is precisely the medium of myth that allows the transcendent to maintain its inexhaustibility while being revealed to us over and over again, from slightly new and perpetually surprising angles, as we tell/sing/hear/repeat/compose/experience the Christian Myth.


P.S. This is why C. S. Lewis didn’t need to be convinced that the Christian story wasn’t a myth in order to convert; he just needed to be convinced that it was the true myth.

[1] μύθος, literally “story”

[2] Lewis, Myth Become Fact, 2

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 2-3

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