Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation: Terror Management Theory, Death, and the Body of Jesus

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation: Terror Management Theory, Death, and the Body of Jesus

Article excerpt

Throughout Christian history, at different times and places, believers have expressed ambivalence regarding the Incarnation. There has always been something scandalous and shocking about God taking a fully human form. What is the source of this discomfort? Recent work in Terror Management Theory has shown that people feel ambivalent toward their bodies and bodily functions because the body functions as a mortality/death reminder. If this analysis is correct it might explain why many Christians, from the earliest days of the church, have resisted the notion of the Incarnation. Thus, it was the thesis of this study that existential concerns are intimately involved in Incarnational ambivalence. The study sought to test this formulation by assessing Incarnational ambivalence, death anxiety, and other facets of an existential faith orientation to determine if existential fears were implicated in Incarnational ambivalence. Overall, the results of the study supported the predictions. Respondents reporting greater death anxiety and displaying a more "closed" faith orientation, existentially speaking, were the most likely to reject strong body-scenarios involving Jesus, finding these scenarios uncomfortable, demeaning to Jesus, unrealistic, and unbiblical.

Death, the Gnostic Impulse, and Incarnational Ambivalence

Throughout Christian history, at different times and places, believers have expressed ambivalence regarding the Incarnation. There has always been something scandalous and shocking about God caking a fully human form. In the early centuries of the church this Incarnational ambivalence--discomfort in imagining a fully human Jesus--was observed in the Gnostic and Docetic heresies. Yet Incarnational ambivalence has been observed in every era up to our own, particularly in Protestantism (Hall & Thoennes, 2006; Lee, 1987). What is the source of this discomfort? Why do many Christians feel queasy about the Incarnation? Recent work in Terror Management Theory (Solomon, Greenburg, & Pyszczynski, 1991; Green-burg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997) may provide one answer. Specifically, across a variety of studies it has been shown that people feel ambivalent toward their bodies and bodily functions (e.g., sex) because the body is a mortality/death reminder (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenburg, & Solomon, 2000). If this analysis is correct it might explain why many Christians, from the earliest days of the church, have resisted the notion of the Incarnation. Perhaps a fully human Jesus is theologically and psychologically worrisome because Jesus becomes too vulnerable to the forces of decay, the very forces that cause us such deep existential dread. Phrased another way, a super-human Jesus, one not affected by bodily functions, pain, or vulnerability, might seem a better prospect, psychologically speaking, to rescue us from our existential anxieties. Thus, it is the thesis of this study that death concerns are intimately involved with Incarnational ambivalence. Consequently, this study sought to test this formulation by assessing Incarnational ambivalence, death anxiety, and other facets of an existential faith orientation to determine if existential fears are indeed implicated in fleeing the body of Jesus.

Feeling Queasy About the Incarnation: The Psychology of Gnosticism

Gnostic views of the body and the Incarnation. As noted above, ambivalence concerning the body and the Incarnation has a long history in Christian thought starting with the Gnostic heresies. Although an in-depth account of Gnosticism is beyond the scope of this study, a theological overview of the Gnostic influence upon Christian thought will help place the current research in a larger context, particularly as body and Incarnational ambivalence is still encountered in various sectors of Christianity. (For an excellent account of the influence of body and Incarnational ambivalence within Christianity see Hall & Thoennes, 2006). …

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