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By 
Niels Henrik Gregersen
 on January 09, 2024

Deep Incarnation and the Cosmic Story of Christ

For theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen Christ entered our world in a deeply personal, biological and yet cosmic way. Why did he do it when he did it?

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Beautiful image of planet Earth in space from a distance, surrounded by stars, some dim and other bright. One very bright star emerges on top of planet earth

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

If we were to translate our Big Bang cosmology into a cosmic year, following an original idea of Carl Sagan, then the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago started on January 1st at midnight, and we today are living on December 31st. On such a timescale, each second has a duration of 434 years, an hour 1.57 million years, and a day 37.7 million years! Our galaxy was formed on May 11th, simple life on Earth on September 21st, mammals on December 26th, and anatomically modern humans on December 31st, 8 minutes before midnight. And Jesus of Nazareth entered our cosmic story 5 seconds before midnight.

How beautiful, yet perplexing is that? We have been living on New Years Eve of this cosmic calendar since we came into existence. And Jesus entered this story with mere seconds to spare in our cosmic year. But why did God choose to assume flesh and blood in the person of Jesus? Why did he enter our story when he did, only to live such a short life within it? Why did he choose to become a part of the cosmos itself, rather than remain behind its framework? If God—Father, Son and Spirit—was already present in every part of our cosmic story, then why did he choose to confine himself to a human body? What in the world has the body of Christ to do with the vast body of the cosmos?

As a theologian, I have found myself asking these types of questions. Since the early 2000s, I have studied and developed the concept of “Deep Incarnation,” as a direct response. I coined the term back in 2001, and over the years have fleshed out some of its implications, inspired by scientific insights, and aided by a good group of colleagues across countries and denominations.

The basic idea behind deep incarnation can be traced back to early Christian thinkers like Athanasius (d. 373) and Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395). Later Christology, by contrast, has often focused on the union between the divine and human in Christ, often unintentionally minimizing the connection between Christ and the wider cosmos. I believe it is important for us today to replace our often too anthropocentric view of God, with a cosmic perspective. We miss something important and beautiful about the incarnation when we detach it from this greater context.

I believe it is important for us today to replace our often too anthropocentric view of God, with a cosmic perspective. We miss something important and beautiful about the incarnation when we detach it from this greater context.

Deep Incarnation

In-carnatio literally means “coming into flesh.” Deep Incarnation extends this further by asking and seeking to answer the question of, “Why did God become flesh?” The simple answer it offers is this: to reconcile humanity with God, and to join God and the world of creation so intensely together to give our material world, which is characterized by decomposition, frailty and suffering, a future. More technically, Deep Incarnation is the view that God’s own Word (logos) and Wisdom (sophia) were made ordinary flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. This happened in such a capacious manner that God, by assuming the particular life story of Jesus the Jew from Nazareth, conjoined the material conditions of all creaturely existence (“flesh”), shared and ennobled the fate of all biological life forms (“grass” and “lilies”), and experienced the pains of sensitive creatures (“sparrows” and “foxes”) from within.

Deep Incarnation implies a radical embodiment of the Son of God that reaches into the depth of material and biological existence. The incarnation is not just about Jesus as a male human person, or even about humanity in abstraction from the universe. Rather, in Jesus Christ, God took part in the entire material universe— around us and within ourselves.

When we look to Scripture, we can see evidence of Christ’s close connection with the material world, and the greater cosmos. Jesus is depicted as having a long genetic heritage, going back to the first Adam. The very name Adam is derived from the Hebrew adamah, meaning earth. The birth of Christ is described as mixed up with the whole world around him. With the stars in the night, the angels around him, and the shepherds and sheep gathering in front of him. Indeed, his birth could hardly be any lower in terms of social status but was overflowing with connections to nature. He was to be “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). And if Jesus was really put in a manger as a newborn, he must have imported lots of germs from animal saliva, and from the dust and impure air in the stable.

The nativity of baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and cattle under a night sky full of stars. Only silhouettes are visible; what is most visible or striking is the background of stars.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

There is also an evolutionary depth to human life that Deep Incarnation alludes to since we share a material existence with other creatures shaped by millennia of evolution. The opposite of depth is shallowness. Certainly, Christ did not enter our world in a way that was shallow by any means. He entered it in a deeply personal, biological, and even cosmic way.

Niels Henrik Gregersen

In virtue of being a human born under such circumstances, Jesus must have had a rich microbiome. Jesus was what medical researchers today call a ‘holobiont’, a body living in symbiosis and never-ending interaction with non-human micro-organisms such as archaea, bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

In Deep Incarnation, the metaphor of depth seems appropriate given all of these connections with nature. There is also an evolutionary depth to human life that Deep Incarnation alludes to, since we share a material existence with other creatures shaped by millennia of evolution. The opposite of depth is shallowness. Certainly, Christ did not enter our world in a way that was shallow by any means. He entered it in a deeply personal, biological and even cosmic way.

The Cosmic Christ

For me, Deep Incarnation helps bring together the concrete (the particular life story of Jesus) and the universal (the material world of humans and other creatures). I find it helpful to conceptualize this as two parallel but always intertwined axes in cosmic scope: divine nature (vertical axis) and the material world (horizontal axis). This will require some unpacking, so let me begin with the Christian emphasis on the divine nature of God’s love. “God so loved the world that he sent his only son” (John 3: 16). Yet in order to love the world, God must be close to the world, even beyond the skin and cell walls of organic creatures. As Creator and Spirit, God is the everlasting creative and re-creative source of all that is. As the Son forever incarnate, God also shares the conditions under which we live, both the flourishing of life with all its splendors, and the miseries of biological decay and human sin. “Only the suffering God can help us,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, when he was sitting in his death chamber.

Now to the horizontal axis of Christ living in the material world. In Christ, God took on a human life, for God sent his Son “in the likeness of a sinful flesh” (Romans 8: 3). But in the incarnation God also took on the conditions of vulnerability and mortality of material existence. In Christ, God became an earthling, moving from active omnipotence to a creaturely life in which he accepts suffering. Just as leaves of grass, Jesus was susceptible to death; just as any other animal, Jesus was susceptible to pain; and just as any other human he was exposed to social exclusion and unfair judges. In short, Jesus was a microcosm of the cosmos at large, and took upon himself all the sinful meshwork of social life.

An Ancient Story Retold

We’ve probably heard the story of Christ numerous times. Especially around Christmas when are reminded of his birth and the gift of Emmanuel, God incarnate, God with us. I would argue that this ancient story should be carefully re-told in a manner that explains how even the body of Jesus (not to speak of his mind) was internally connected to the cosmic context, into which he was born, and with which he was resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the Christmas story, the body of Jesus was not only skin-deep, but deeply entangled, since it was a body that included non-human bodies (i.e. microbes). In terms of the incarnation, the Gospel has a story to tell about the absorption of material particles and living creatures in the process of the incarnation, in which God says “Yes” to and “assumes” the entire material world, while cleansing the sinful aspects of human existence that can only say “Me” rather than “also You.” The incarnation is a story of God both accepting vulnerability and frailty, while also sheltering the weak, and calling for others to care for the weak, thirsty, and hungry.

This has immediate consequences for Christian theology in the proper sense of the word. Christian faith has a story to tell about the moving back and forth between the omnipotence of God the Father, the self-restraint of God in Jesus Christ, and the new life-giving force of the divine Spirit.

The life of Jesus is the story about a God who is speaking, acting, and suffering everywhere in time and space. This story began in time and space and yet is going on forever and at every place in the cosmos. As a historical figure, Jesus is a bygone person, but the face of Christ is present in, with, and under any creature, as put by the great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure of the 13th century. As a result, Christ is still near to us today who are living even two thousand years after his death.

The life of Jesus is…[a story that]…began in time and space and yet is going on forever and at every place in the cosmos.

About the author

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Niels Henrik Gregersen

Niels Henrik Gregersen (born 1956) holds the PhD from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark (1987). Since 2004 he has been Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Copenhagen. He was Assistant Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion (1986-1989), Associate Professor in Systematic Theology (1989-2000), and Research Professor in Theology & Science (2000-2004) at Aarhus University. Gregersen has been a Fellow of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton since 1996, and the J.K. John Russell Fellow at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, October 2004 and 2013. He has received several international research awards, among them a research award of $100,000 from the John Templeton Foundation for his work on the constructive interface between science & religion. He lectures widely in Europe and the USA, and has been invited to be the main speaker to major conferences in South Africa, China, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. He writes in Danish, English and German, and has been translated into Swedish, French, Dutch, Russian, Romanian, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. His list of publications contains more than 500 entries, including 5 books, 2 co-authored books and more than twenty edited volumes. He has published some 150 articles in Nordic, German and English books and journals.