“I don’t believe in God,” begins Julian Barnes in his book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, “but I miss him.” Though he admits he never had any faith to lose (a “happy atheist” as an Oxford student, Barnes now considers himself an agnostic), he still finds himself dreading the gradual ebbing of Christianity. He misses the sense of purpose that the Christian narrative affords, the sense of wonder and belief that haunts Christian art and architecture.
“I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm.” Such are the thoughts that surface as Barnes attempts to confront his fears of death and dying in this memoir. He believes Christianity to be a foolish lie, but insists, “[I]t was a beautiful lie.”(1)
There is certainly room for beauty in the description the apostle Paul gave of the gospel. Like Julian, Paul saw its foolishness clearly as well: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). He also noted the weakness inherent in the Christian proclamation. At the heart of the Christian religion is one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form” (Philippians 2:7). On this much Paul and Julian agree: however beautiful, foolishness and weakness imbibe the Christian story.
But unlike Julian, Paul saw the foolishness of the gospel as a reason not to disbelieve, but to believe. “For God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). It is indeed difficult to explain why at the heart of the Christian narrative there is a child, why God would answer the dark silence of 400 years with the cry of a displaced and homeless infant, why God would take on the weakness of humanity in an attempt to reach humanity with power, dying as the Messiah. Most of us would know better than to create, or to perpetuate, a story so foolish. However beautiful, the story of Christ is difficult to explain; that is, unless it was not crafted with human wisdom at all.
The story of a Savior coming as an infant in Bethlehem is indeed astonishing, as astonishing an idea as the resurrection. That God chose to come into the world with flesh, flesh that would suffer, is strange and paradoxical, beautiful and foolish. Perhaps it is also wise beyond our comprehension. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Though the word incarn is now used infrequently, it was once used medically, describing the flesh that grows over a wound. Applied to healing, the word refers to the recovery of wounded flesh due to the presence of new flesh.(2) The Incarnation, the astonishing event at the center of Christianity, the story that has inspired music, architecture, and hope, is God’s way of doing exactly that: Christ comes in flesh to cover our mortal wound. God comes near in body and in weakness to bring healing to weak and wounded bodies. Indeed, God’s own body is mortally wounded only to rise again in flesh and blood. This may seem a foolish mission, but to the blind who receive their sight, the lame who now walk, the diseased who are cleansed, the deaf who hear, the dead who are raised, and the poor who have good news brought to them, it is the most beautiful foolishness ever known.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).
(2) Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature (Edinburgh: John Brown, 1816), 53.