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How Actors and Selfies Demystify the Incarnation

Irrational Contradiction, or Divine Mystery?

The Incarnation is a puzzle, and puzzles are either a lot of fun or a major problem. The puzzle goes like this:

Since God created space, time, and humanity, God could exist without space, without time, and without humans. But in the Incarnation, God becomes a temporal, spatial human. How can one thing be both spatial and non-spatial, both temporal and non-temporal, both human and non-human?

While Christians often respond, “It’s a mystery!,” and non-Christians, “It’s a contradiction!,” both camps tend to see the puzzle as unsolvable. I, however, think the Incarnation makes perfect sense, and want to show you how the solution works. This puzzle, it turns out, is the fun kind, not the major problem kind.

Humans Have God’s Image vs. Humans Are God’s Image

Genesis 1 tells us that humans were created “in the image of God” but what exactly this means is still a matter of debate. One camp says that humans are made in the image of God by being given the image of God. The second says that humans are made in the image of God by being made the image of God.1

For the first camp, the image of God is something within human beings—perhaps our mind or our will—that makes us like God. For the second camp, the image of God defines the human being as a whole. To be human is to be like God, not just to have something inside you that is like God.

In my experience, the first camp is more populous. I, however, belong to the second, and offer the light it sheds on the Incarnation as evidence in its favor.

Images are Representations

A picture of a person represents the person. She may not be there herself, but her picture makes her more present than she otherwise would be. But pictures don’t have to be still. Moving pictures represent as well. They help the football game we are watching to be present to us, even though the players are on the other side of the country.2

Even actors (and not just images of them on a screen) represent. They represent the people they are playing, even if those people are long dead, or never existed.

We Humans Can Represent Ourselves

But representation also happens in courtrooms and legislative chambers. There, one person represents another—or in the case of a politician, many others—and either makes the wishes and choices of that other person (or those other people) present, or distorts their wishes and choices.

In some sense, an elected politician also represents himself (in addition to representing his constituents), since he is a member of his own “legislative district.” And, in fact, we often say that politicians do a better job of representing their own interests than of representing their fellow citizens.

Occasionally, we even hear of people representing themselves in court. Rather than having someone else stand in for them as a lawyer, they stand in for themselves. And, once again, they either do so well or poorly.

You and I, finally, often act as representations of ourselves in everyday life. We quote ourselves to others.

And then I says to him, I says, “Johnny, don’t you go up there,” I says. “I’m warning you. Don’t make me count to three. One! Two! Three!”

When we do this, we make our past “speech acts” present again.

But we also sometimes reenact our own past physical actions. We wave frantically to show someone how we had made a fool of ourselves while trying to get the attention of a friend at the airport. We make a throwing motion as we tell about the time we accidentally broke a window while trying to get a bottle into the recycling bin. We hobble dramatically up the stairs to show how we got around after we broke our ankle “that one time” and were in a cast all summer.

Self-Representation Is both Odd and Obvious

When we reenact our past deeds, or quote our past words, we are making our past selves present. And, in fact, we often narrate our self-representations in the present tense.

“Then I say to him . . .” [quotes self].

“Then I’m like . . .” [begins shadow-boxing].

We speak in what scholars of literature oxymoronically call “the historical present.”

But an oxymoron is not a contradiction. We do not ask, “How can this action here and now be the same as that other action there and then?” We simply encounter one as a reenactment (a representation) of the other. The acts in the present are distinct from the acts in the past, but our present movements and words are like windows through which our past movements and words show up. This “sameness in difference” is just how representations—normal, everyday representations—work.

In the standard case, a representation is a thing that makes another thing present, without being that other thing. But sometimes the thing doing the representing is you, and the thing being represented is also you, just at an earlier time. You are two different things, insofar as your past and present selves are both involved. But you remain only one person.

When you represent your past self, that past self is beyond the present. It has become eternally fixed in the past, while the “you” in the present is dynamically reenacting it—making it present. But again, there’s nothing contradictory about this. We don’t ask, “But how can you, who are changing here in the present, be the same person who is fixed in the past?” Living life leads to some of our actions being in the past, while others are in the present. And since we are the kind of beings we are, and representation is the kind of phenomenon it is, our past selves are often showing up in the present.

The Parallels between Self-Representation and Incarnation

Now, back to the theology. Genesis 1—on my preferred reading—describes humans as the image of God. In the Incarnation, then, God becomes human. God becomes an image of God. God engages in self-representation.

We understand self-representation perfectly well. In self-representation, we metaphorically “step out of” a past that is now eternally fixed “into” a present that is still dynamic. Similarly, in the Incarnation, Christ “steps out of” eternity into the dynamics of time.

The analogy goes deeper, however. We have two selves, or temporal states of being—one that has become eternally fixed in a past beyond the present, and the other that is reenacting it the flowing present. And Christ has two natures—one eternal, beyond the temporal, and the other within time.

And the analogy goes deeper still. Just as we are one person while having two selves or temporal states, Christ is one person while having two natures. The Hypostatic Union—the doctrine that Christ has two natures while being a single person—follows from the fact that humans are the image of God.

“A Self-Representation of God” = “A Human Being”

Of course, there is the other reading of Genesis 1, where God’s image is some part of us, or something within us. But on that reading, we would expect God’s self-representation to be “embodied by” whatever in us is the image of God. We would need some further explanation of how it is that Christ ended up being a full human, rather than just a human mind or a human will.

In contrast, if humans (as a whole) simply are images of God, then the Incarnation becomes a simple act of self-representation. The act grows even simpler, furthermore, if the connection between being human and being an image of God “goes both ways.”

We take from Genesis 1 that being human means being an image of God. But what if being an image of God meant being human? What if, in other words, “a self-representation of God” and “a human being” were two sides of the same coin, like “standing in the light” and “casting a you-shaped shadow”? Or what if they were equivalent terms, like “water” is equivalent to “H2O”? In either case, for God to engage in self-representation would be for God to create humans.

Self-Portraits vs. Self-Portrayals

There are two ways in which God could create a human, however, just like we can either paint a picture of ourselves, or act as a picture of ourselves. To put it another way, both taking a selfie and playing yourself (on stage, for instance) are ways of representing yourself.

In one type of self-representation, you create something distinct from yourself and hold it out to others as a representation of yourself. In the other, you hold out yourself as a representation of yourself. In both cases you are being represented, and you are the one doing the representing. Thus, both are instances of self-representation. It’s just that in one, you represent yourself by using something else as the representation, and in the other, you represent yourself by using yourself as the representation.

The creation of human beings corresponds with the “selfie” type of self-representation. In it, God uses something other than God to represent God. The Incarnation, however, corresponds with the “playing yourself” type of self-representation. In it, God is the representation of God.


There is also a third type of self-representation, which helps to explain the Fall. But we’ll deal with that another time. Our mission for today has been to see how Genesis 1 helps to solve the puzzle of the Incarnation.

Genesis 1, I claim, portrays humans as images of God. In the Incarnation, God becomes human, and thus becomes an image of God. To be an image of yourself is to be a self-representation, and we understand what it means to be a self-representation from things like actors who play themselves on film, lawyers who represent themselves in court, and everyday people who quote themselves and reenact their past actions.

I should offer the qualifications here that I offered last time,3 regarding using temporal terms when speaking about God. I don’t think, however, that those qualifications hurt my case. The Incarnation is an “act” of divine self-representation, where “acting” for God is something like what “acting” is for humans (though not exactly the same).

But I would also like to insist that saying, “The Incarnation is like when you reenact something you did in the past,” is much more illuminating than the usual, “The Incarnation is . . . well, it’s a mystery. Who knows how it works?” We will never fully grasp what life for a time-and-space-transcending being is like, but we have some pretty good analogies to work with.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

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