The Virgin Birth (Or Was It?)

When I was in seminary, I began to study the origins of my faith. It was exhilarating. I was over the moon about it.  It was emotionally/spiritually/mentally intoxicating to be around so many other strange souls who were haunted by the same questions that I was pursuing.  So many other strange souls who believed that this ancient religion was worth their life’s energies.  So many of us had a sense of divine encounter, and miracle, and testimony that had brought us to this place called seminary. So many of us had lived our lives in the rhythm of the Christian church, steeped in traditions, and in a community that helped us to make sense of ourselves and our world. We had known its abundance and we wanted to give back.

My friends, we were those kids who grew up reading Chronicles of Narnia and we had stepped into the Wardrobe. But the world we uncovered was not quite as we expected it to be. I think many of us had gone to seminary with a sensibility that we were trying to answer our own existential questions. This is largely contingent upon the faith communities that raised, shaped, and formed us. Some people came to seminary with a different set of assumptions than I had.  But I had come to seminary with a belief that I was going to leave as an “answer person.” I had come with expectation that I was going to become a professional Christian & professional practitioner.

Imagine my surprise–when I left my first year of seminary with more questions than answers, and with more sophisticated questions than I had ever asked before.  I also had more sophisticated tools to ask these questions. I also had bigger words to form together while asking my questions. What I didn’t have were shrinking questions. The questions seemed to multiply.  Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that I hadn’t gone to seminary to learn “the answers,” at all. I thought I had. But I really hadn’t.  I had gone to seminary to give myself the courage to be less afraid of my own life long pursuit of the questions. What I would slowly surrender in my 3 years of seminary would be any claim to expertise, authority, or answers.

I was eventually awarded a Master of Divinity. A “Master of Divinity” is perhaps the world’s greatest misnomer. At the end of 3 years of Div school, nobody is a master of divinity. If someone purports themselves to be one of those, I recommend that you run away from that person–because it means that they believe that they can stop learning, stop growing.  The pursuit of divinity and its mysteries is not something anyone ever masters, it’s something we spend our whole life chasing. It’s the lump in our throat that you can’t quite explain. It’s the overwhelming joy, the compassion in suffering—the overwhelming ache and longing that you can’t quite name. It’s the privilege of loving and being caught in love’s gaze. It’s the sensibility of being lost in the rhythms of something and found by that same thing. It’s the desire to reveal and be revealed.  After three years of Div School, people should be awarded reverse degrees. They should be invited to surrender claims to wisdom and to adopt the role of  “life long seekers of holy wisdom.”

I remember so clearly the ideas that I found scandalous north of a decade ago. I remember the things that shook me to my core as I learned them. One of the things that I learned was that there had been a vigorous debate about the Virgin Birth. I don’t know why this surprised me. Our own sacred text has captured stories about people trying to make meaning of mystery. That’s pretty much the plot. Some believed easily and often. Others stared into the face of divinity and did not recognize it.

Some scholars genuinely believe the virgin birth as an article of faith, and believed that this supernatural element of Christianity was essential to true Christianity. Other individuals intent on using science to prove the veracity of the claim have suggested that Mary went through human parthenogenesis which allows certain species of animals to reproduce without a mate. Certain species of birds, fish, and reptiles go through parthenogenesis. And in that sense, they are also capable of these miraculous virgin births too. This is a far-flung theory but one that is not without creativity or beauty. Other scholars had different theories. They noted that the original translation for the word “virgin” was a clumsy translation and it’s not clear what that actually means. It could mean a young woman? It could also mean a woman who had not had sexual relations.

In the same way that it is unclear what virginity means today or what it technically means for a person to be a “virgin.” These scholars noted that Paul doesn’t bring this concept of virgin birth up in his writings, and his writings are earlier than many of the Gospels. They noted that two Gospels don’t even talk about the virgin birth at all. Some scholars have hypothesized that the virgin birth tradition was added after Jesus’s death by his most devout followers. Some scholars have pointed out correctly that in the ancient near eastern world–there were many stories that involved a Virgin birth narrative as a precursor for a human to achieve divine status. This was a familiar theme in the ancient world.  Or absent a virgin birth, many figures still ascribed their own birth narrative to divine origins. Augustus Caesar asserted a divine lineage–and called himself a “son of God.”   Some scholars have introduced rabbinic writings which disputed that Jesus was born of a virgin. Other scholars point to a 2nd century greek philosopher named Celsus who claimed that Mary got pregnant via an affair with a roman guard named Pantera. Yet others eschewing the supernatural aspects of this story insist that Mary got pregnant via Joseph (the old-fashioned way).   What are we to do with all of this information?

The pastoral advice I received in seminary was not to bring any of this up if it might injure someone else’s personal faith, and that struck me as really bad advice. It struck me as part of the reason there is a mass exodus from the church. If we can’t talk about our deepest doubts, questions, ideas, and provocations in church—where then? Where is a safe container for our deepest conversations?

Why not bring it up? Why can’t I talk about this? In a world where google and amazon have afforded unlimited access to information to inquisitive seekers and congregants alike, the search for truth has been democratized.  Armchair theologians have access to most of the same resources that I do. Revs are not gnostics. We don’t hold the keys to enlightenment or any sort of special knowledge. A three year degree doesn’t make us experts on thousands of years of religious history.  Many times a congregant comes to me and if they’re really passionate about a topic, and if they’ve read several books on that specific subject, they may have read more than I have or they may have more research  under their belt than I do.

But as a Rev & as a spiritual director, my specialty isn’t knowing all the answers. It’s helping people develop the resources to process their best questions and walking with them to make beautiful meanings with the tools and the resources that I have, that they have, and that we have together.

There was a point in my life where it would have been important to me to ask historical/scientific questions about the Virgin birth in a quest for answers. Now, I’m comfortable holding space for all I do not know and all that I cannot possibly know.  The virgin birth falls into the category of things I cannot possibly know or scientifically validate. Now, I would be less inclined to invite people to build the scaffolding of faith on answers, but rather to build the house of faith by living and leaning into our best questions.

Sure, at the end of the day, I have some opinions about the birth of Christ and how the whole thing might possibly have gone down, but that’s what I have—my opinions. My opinions are far removed from actual events. My opinions are based on oral stories passed down through generations of people who were curious about, inspired by, transformed because of—and brought into community around these Jesus stories. I think that’s pretty miraculous. Living, breathing stories.  These stories about Jesus rocked my world and turned my life upside down. I know to be unequivocally true. And in signing up for the larger Christian community, I became part of an organic living story that is still unfolding. A story that existed before me, and a story that will outlive me.

Here is the truth: you can live a deeply fulfilling and rewarding life whether you adhere to longstanding traditions around the Virgin birth or whether supernatural events and possibilities have been excluded from your conception of how the world operates. You can find radical life altering and ultimate meaning in Jesus whether he was born of a virgin or not.  I’m less interested in what you believe about the virgin birth than how you want to take your beliefs (whatever they might be) and translate them into making the world more beautiful, loving, kind and peaceable.

If you are persuaded that the Virgin birth was a miraculous event that happened as recorded and transmitted via tradition, what does this mean to you? What gift do these supernatural events and miracles add to your faith? What stirs inside you? What does this do in you and for you, and how does it compel you forward and onward toward a sense of mission and purpose in this world? That’s what I want to know.

There are those who fall into my camp—I have always had a ferocious appetite for beauty. And because of that, I can’t rule out a magical world where supernatural events  happen—I won’t rule out a world of wonder and miracle simply because I don’t want to. I’ve seen this world and tasted its sweetness. I’ve seen too much beauty.  The world is too amazing a place for me to feel like I’ve got my hands around how the whole thing works. By the same token, I do not need a supernatural event or a virgin birth to have ushered in the life of Jesus for Jesus life to be the grandest of miracles. I do not need a virgin birth for the Jesus story to have radically altered and changed my life forever.  I don’t wake up in the morning dwelling on thoughts of the virgin birth as the central motivator of my faith.  I’m no expert in theological gynecology.  That’s a small niche field to be sure. Anymore, I don’t pretend to know the intimate details of how Jesus arrived here?

By hook or by crook, and against all odds,  Jesus did arrive here on this swiftly spinning planet. And that’s miracle enough for me. The world thought so too. Hope was personified. Hope was given a face and a body and beating heart and a name–in the Christ child.  That God was in Jesus and Jesus was somehow in God. And that through Jesus that promise extends to the human family —making us all kin by the Spirit. That to me is pretty amazing.

Shepherds were drawn to this baby. Kings and those in power were terrified of this baby. The political order was turned upside down.  Middle Eastern Zoroastrian astrologers–practitioners of a different art—kept seeing something, kept seeing someone in the stars. They chose to cast their lot with their gut intuition—and trusting this revelation–they followed a star leading to a backwater town, to hang their hope on a peasant teenager, her husband and their son.  Jesus probably wasn’t born in a barn, but rather a house where animals were stabled. However, even those details are up for debate. But wherever Jesus was born–he was born. And wherever these strangers were headed, they arrived. And when they saw the Jesus. They saw the answer that they sought–because what they sought was not a doctrine but divine encounter.  When they sought was not logic—but beauty, and truth revealed in the most unusual of mysteries. They saw the face of God in a baby in a manger, and they were forever changed by it.

These days instead of searching for answers—I try to live my best questions, and I try to devote my time to asking better questions still. Depictions of the holy family and Jesus in particular are always influenced by geography, cultural context, theological context and by our own limitations—our own location in time & history. Jesus is timeless. We are not. We are time bound. We are location bound.

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking in 2017. In a nation where we have cut significant Government funding for refugees, is it significant that the first family fled as refugees? Yes. Now what? In an America which has still not admitted nor healed from the sin of white supremacy, is it significant that Jesus geographical location likely made him a man of brown skin or at least olive skin? Yes. Now what?

Jesus belongs to all of us, and there is a sense in which I get excited at the prospect of cultural malleability and cultural exchange, at the ability for all of us or any of us to see ourselves in the face of Jesus. To see our struggles, our hopes, our dreams.  Recently, I’ve been looking at Nativity sets from around the world. I recently saw an Alaskan nativity in which the artist took license and Jesus was born in an igloo and a penguin waddled on over to bear witness to Jesus. I’ve seen a few South American nativities and Asian nativity sets where I’ve noted that the animals at the scene were probably not common to the Middle East. But the Jesus story is a gift that belongs to all of us as it stirs hearts and minds and souls.

In a fearful world we were not given a king or a strong military or a president or a political victory for the party of our choice–as an answer, we were invited deep into the heart of a question. We’re invited to ponder the workings of divine wisdom in which we are given a baby and told that God was somehow in this baby and this baby in God and that all of our fates were inextricably tied to him and to each other. In a year has been politically contentious and scary, I’ve been journeying with the question of where I see myself, when I look at Jesus face. Where I see my own story?  I’ve been journeying with the question of whether I have been searching for my neighbors faces in the face of Jesus.  Where I see their story in Jesus story. And in a world that seems more divided and disunified than ever, I’ve been on the search for the stories behind this story–our connective threads, our common hopes, our common questions, our common dreams.

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