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God Newborn

by Elizabeth Bettenhausen

Elizabeth Bettenhausen learns and teaches feminist theology and theory at the Women’s Theological Center in Boston. She is a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis December 12, 1988. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


"God’s my size! " The three-year-old girl jumped up and ran to tell her mother. "Mom, God’s my size!" She got the idea while lying on her stomach looking at the creche beneath the Christmas tree. Eye-level with a baby is a good position from which to do theology.

At Christmas God is newborn, less like Michaelangelo’s muscular men and more like an infant in wet diapers sucking milk from its mother’s breast. God is less like an equation in theoretical physics and more like a hungry three-year-old in a refugee camp. At Christmas God is less like a come-of-age, postmodern adult and more like the toddler laughing at being able to walk.

II

Adults look at the baby and say, "This can’t be God! This is a bawling baby!" The protests are diverse. "This can’t he God! This baby is Jewish. This baby is poor. This baby is illegitimate. This baby is male. This baby is traditional. This baby is a refugee. This baby is, well, a baby."

Children look at the baby and say, "God’s our size!"

Adults look at the baby, shuffle their feet in the straw, and mutter to each other:

"Adoptionist Christology is preferable to Incarnation."

"The Ancient Near East was full of Incarnation myths."

"Doesn’t Mary look well, theologically speaking?" "This wouldn’t he necessary except for sin."

"This would he necessary even without sin."

"When he’s older he’ll amount to something."

Meanwhile, children touch and say, "God’s our size!"

III

Christian theology is done by adults for adults; it is God-talk which usually neglects children. Whether as Lord, Liberator, or Lover, Jesus is portrayed as an adult for adults. We judge our Christologies by how well they suit adult needs only. We write our anthropologies as if being human begins at adulthood. When we accuse someone of "playing God" or urge them "to God," it is not a gurgling infant or a three-year-old refugee we have in mind.

Christmas celebrates God as newborn, wholly dependent. This baby is not just a preview of the real thing: an adult. Dependency does not mean decreased or incomplete humanity. Adults uneasy with their own dependence on each other and on children hasten to warn against "sentimentality" at Christmas, and rush to make this liturgical season only a prelude to adult history.

IV

How can we talk about God in this age? Is it feminist to talk about God as a human baby? What does a crying baby have to do with the federal deficit, not to mention the debt? Will the mainline churches grow or shrink if they say God has wet diapers? If God is a child, does the Vatican need a new study on the representative nature of the priesthood? Isn’t the God question more related to charmed and colored quarks and quantum mechanics? Why not attend to the preborn God? How does liberation take place in a manger? How can you posit an incarnate God in a situation of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue? Doesn’t celebrating Christmas reinforce codependence? Why not engrave a baby on this crystal pyramid? The blizzard of questions muffles any good news.

But at Christmas adults are offered again grace abundant in the newborn and embodied in three-year-olds. Theological sophistication will have its day. Ethical complexity will have its place. Working for justice will have its season. But at Christmas it is all right to lie on the floor -- dirt or carpet, prison or home, office or shelter -- eye-level with a baby, listening to a three-year-old, near or far, call out, "God’s my size!"


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