For a few days, I wasn’t sure what to make of Mark Zuckerberg’s uncanny “Meta” video. The thought crossed my mind that it might be a parody: after all, we’ve been using “meta” as a slightly snarky buzzword in philosophy since at least the 1990s and it’s a term well past its peak, more at home in an old comic book than a new corporation.
I found something about Zuckerberg’s invitation to the metaverse profoundly disturbing, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
I knew that I found something about Zuckerberg’s invitation to the metaverse profoundly disturbing, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was about Facebook’s new incarnation that made me so uneasy. Then I realized: the problem is that it is not an incarnation at all. It is precisely the opposite of a dream of incarnation. Zuckerberg’s utopia is one without bodies, without the material, without weight. It is Exhibit A in what Charles Taylor calls the modern prejudice for “excarnation,” the idea propounded by Descartes and others that we need to distance ourselves from embodiment in order to arrive at a clear understanding of things.
So today I find myself strangely grateful to the Zuck for giving me a new appreciation of the beauty of Christ’s enfleshment.
The Word became Flesh
John 1:14, after all, allows for no beating around the bush. Let us be quite plain: the word translated “flesh” in most modern English Bibles (sarx) has a semantic range that includes “meat.” It is almost certainly going too far to translate the verse as “the Word became meat,” but such a provocative rendering does make the point that the word sarx can be used for both human and animal flesh. The least we can say is that the “flesh” Jesus took on was no different to that of any other human body. One could not have told, merely from examining his bodily tissue under a microscope, that there was anything different about this man. His heart was like your heart, his lungs like your lungs, his brain like your brain. No doubt he caught colds, went through teething and growing pains, got dirt under his fingernails, sweated in hot weather, and was equally subject to all the other stresses and strains that befall embodied individuals like you and me, and all the more so as we advance in age.
It is this visceral carnality that John emphasizes at the beginning of his first letter (1 John 1:1–3). “That which was from the beginning” and “the eternal life, which was with the Father” describe the same one whom, in a crescendo of three sensory encounters of increasing proximity, John affirms “we have heard … seen … touched.”
The Bible and the Body
The importance of material reality and material bodies is not something that becomes apparent in the Bible only with the incarnation of course. We see its prominence in the “very good” material creation of Genesis 1, and as Jacques Ellul argues:
[t]he entire Old Testament … exalts the body, love in its carnal reality (the Song of Solomon!), and shows that nothing is experienced without the body.
The idea that I can drift away from my body and yet remain myself is foreign to the Bible.
Augustine agrees: bodies are “not an ornament, or employed as an external aid; rather, they belong to the very nature of man.” In the terse formula of Christian existential philosopher Gabriel Marcel: “I am my body”. The idea that I can drift away from my body and yet remain myself is foreign to the Bible. No wonder that Archbishop William Temple came to the view that “Christianity is by far the most materialistic of the great religions.”
For those who labour under the Enlightenment (and latterly Zuckerbergian) prejudice that ideal reality is immaterial and universal, the notion that God could have a body is quite a scandal. But it is deeply, deeply good news that the Word “became” flesh. It means, to put it in the bluntest terms possible, that bang-average bodies like yours and mine are not bad. Late modernity works hard to make us dissatisfied with our bodily existence, and Meta is but one sorry chapter in this long and vicious attack. Who can be unaware today of the impossibly photoshopped or filtered images of Venus-like female wraiths and Hercules-like male hunks that torment the sensibilities of the young, hammering home the message that we must all be gods and goddesses now. I was recently struck by the depiction of Hercules, the mythical strongest man on earth, in the 1963 film version of Jason and the Argonauts. The comparison with the 2014 Dwayne Johnson version is striking. Nigel Green’s 1963 Hercules looks like a matchstick beside Johnson, such has our image of the ideal body-type become ever more inflated in the intervening decades.
But in addition to these beatific bodies there is also the more ubiquitous and more insidious disembodied dream of virtual reality that tempts us with the unlimited possibilities of an existence outside all physical constraints, in which we can be anyone, go anywhere (even two or more places at once), see anything and do everything, existing in a parodic pantomime of divinity undergirded by capital and privilege. The message is clear: my body (and yours!) is a handbrake on human ambition, a dirty ore from which to smelt away the pure metal of the monetizable mind.
As the incarnate Christ descends to take on human flesh, it is as if the modern world passes him on the way up.
And—what irony—as the incarnate Christ descends to take on human flesh, it is as if the modern world passes him on the way up, scrambling and straining to leave our own miserable bodies behind as we enter Zuckerberg’s proprietary paradise. Meta is on the cutting edge of the second century, belting out an etherial “Amen” to the heretic Marcion of Sinope who considered the incarnation a “disgrace to God” because it would be beneath the deity to take on a human body “stuffed with excrement.” The Bible, thank goodness, does not agree.
There is a powerful pathos to this late–modern striving to be rid of the body. As Dietrich Bonnhoeffer writes: “[w]hile we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human”. Whereas modernity is embarrassed and frustrated by the body, the Bible embraces our corporeal existence from the top of our heads to the tips of our toes, and brings a message of healing and hope to late moderns who want to damage or deify their bodies: a message of comfort and confidence to anyone unhappy in their own skin. Perhaps it will become the lot of Christians in the coming decades to be thought backward for our embrace of ordinary bodies. If that is so, let us wear the moniker with pride: we are following in the footsteps of our Saviour!