A long, long time ago – 1995 – Joan Osborne became a one-hit wonder with a song called “What if God was One of Us? Maybe you remember it. It is marked by Ms. Osborne’s remarkable voice, Eric Bazilian’s brilliant guitar playing (he also wrote the song), the ironic tone of the lyrics, and an earnest inquiry about the nature of God and humanity.
I am always a little frustrated by the lyrics, though. There’s a slight nod to Christianity:
If God had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that you would have to believe
In things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints
And all the prophets?
But that’s it. It suggests that thinking about such things is fraught with tension, because if you ask these questions – if you see the face of God – would one have to move from simple curiosity to faith in something much bigger? Or would God somehow be reduced in humanity:
What if god was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.
And when I hear that question as a Christian I want to respond, “But he did become one of us!” I don’t know if Jesus was a slob, although a lot of people denigrated him for hanging out with the wrong crowd, and when he was arrested he had to be pointed out by Judas because he was indistinguishable from his disciples or other Jews of the time. While we might have this image of a movie-star Jesus in our head – Jeffrey Hunter, Willem Dafoe, Max von Sydow, or James Caviezel, perhaps – we really have no idea what he looked like, although all the evidence is that he was quite ordinary. No, he did not take a bus, but like ordinary folk, he would have walked everywhere. And the reaction to Jesus was all over the map: faith, consternation, anger, wonder, pain, gratitude, curiosity, devotion, betrayal, superiority, and indifference. There was no necessary reaction to encountering the face of God in Jesus.
Of course, in a little over four minutes one cannot expect a deep theological treatise. And yet, I wish Mr. Bazilian had paid a little attention to some elements of Christology, because for 20 centuries it has asked precisely his question. In the first chapter of the Gospel according to John we read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . .”. On the basis of this passage and similar ones in the New Testament Christians have been proclaiming that in Christ God became human. The incarnation (“enfleshment”) tells us something about God, and it also tells us something about humanity. Christology tells us about both theology and anthropology.
In the second chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians he tells us that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not consider divinity something to be grasped onto or exploited . . .
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
The Greek word translated “slave” here is δοῦλος (doulos), which is sometimes translated as “servant”. The point of this passage is that the incarnation was not just about God trying out humanity for their own selfish purposes, as the Greek myths sometimes have their gods do. Rather, Christ empties himself to become human to be a servant, one who is humble and obedient to the point of death. One could slide into substitutionary atonement here, but I don’t think that that is what Paul is getting at. The point is that the divine reaches out in abject humility in servanthood to humanity, subverting the stereotypes of God – “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes” – to show us something more profound about divinity.
Orthodox theology has always held that in the Incarnation humanity is transformed. Thus, to become like God one is transformed into the image of Christ – a servant, humble, living for others. This does not sound like the kind of person we are told by society we need to be – powerful, autonomous, rich and famous. It subverts our 21st century ideas of what it is to be human just as much as it undid 1st century ideas in Greco-Roman society about the importance of dignitas.
Orthodox theologians describe the process of becoming like God, or being sanctified in God’s image, as theosis. So, what if God was one of us? How would we change if we truly accepted the radical nature of the incarnation?