“How infinite that wisdom,
The plan of holiness,
That made salvation perfect
And veiled the Lord in flesh,
To walk upon his footstool
And be like man, almost,
In his exalted station,
And die, or all was lost.”
W.W. Phelps, “O God the Eternal Father,” Hymns 175
Theologians often distinguish between a “high christology” and a “low christology.” The former emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. It is called “high” because it begins with Jesus as God, and looks at his descent to earth. A “low christology” on the other hand, is primarily interested in Jesus as a human being, in his mortal experience. The two approaches are not seen as being in conflict; they simply have differing emphases.
Latter-day Saints, I think, tend to talk about Jesus with a “high christology” orientation. We strongly emphasize his divinity. I do not think this is in and of itself a bad thing. However, the danger of focusing too much on this is that it can leave one with the impression that Jesus wasn’t really quite human, as can be seen in phrases like the one in the hymn I’ve quoted above: “to be like man, almost.” This leads to several problems.
One issue is that to deny the real humanity of Christ can make it difficult to accept our own humanity. Traditional Christian theology speaks of the Incarnation as the revelation of not only of what God is, but also what humans are. I think this is true in the context of LDS beliefs about Christ as well. Yes, we look to him to understand God. But we also look to him to understand ourselves, to make sense of what it means to be human. And this requires an understanding of him as genuinely human—not as a divine being who just kind of floated through life without really being engaged in it in any kind of meaningful way.
In talking about Jesus as the literal Son of God, we often talk as if this gives him a certain spiritual advantage. But if Jesus is different from humanity in some fundamental way, if he is endowed with some kind of special divine super-powers, he can hardly be said to be having a mortal experience comparable to the rest of humanity. Yet according to the book of Hebrews, “we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”1 To truly understand human experience, Christ must experience it as we do, in the context of ambiguity and limitation.
What does it mean, exactly, to talk about Christ’s divine heritage? I can see several possibilities. One is that it is tied back to his divinity in the premortal life. Another comes from a belief in his divine parentage; here it is notable that Mormons tend to maintain a belief in a literal virgin birth, and God as the Father of Christ as a mortal being. Another possibility is a future-looking one, often proposed by eschatologically-oriented theologians—Christ’s divinity is fully revealed in the resurrection, and it is from this perspective that we can understand his life. Another possibility is a relational one, that his divinity is connected to his relationship to the Father. While LDS discourse most commonly draws on the second of these to describe Christ’s divinity, Christ as having a divine parent in addition to a mortal one, I actually see it as the most potentially problematic, because it makes his situation more akin to that of Hercules, the mythological child of Zeus and a mortal mother, than to the experience of ordinary humans who have two mortal parents. Regardless, the point I wish to make here is that however we understand Christ’s divinity, it cannot be something which hinders his ability to genuinely experience life as a human being.
I see a particularly difficult question in that Christ freely chooses to die. “No man taketh [my life] from me,” he says in the gospel of John, “but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”2 Yet one of the most definitive features of mortal experience is its precariousness, our awareness that death is something out of our control. How could a being who has the power to determine when he will give up his life truly understand what it is to be mortal? This is where I think we need not only the confident Johannine Christ, but also the Jesus of the synoptics who expresses the desire to let this cup pass from him, a story reinforced by verses in the Doctrine and Covenants in which Christ describes the experience saying, “and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink.”3 Here, I suggest, we see a deeply human Jesus, one who truly experiences what it is to fear death and the unknown.
This is where a low christology is powerful. Alma tells us that Christ “will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”4 Christ knows “according to the flesh” because his experience of mortality is like ours, because he is an actual human being and not a superhuman of some kind. This means that we do not have to fear him—there is no human experience that is foreign to him, after all—and also that we do not have to fear ourselves, or our human experience in all of its complexity.
In the Incarnation God is shown to be so devoted to creation and humankind as to enter completely into the human situation, knowing firsthand its joys, limitations, and burdens. Simultaneously, the Incarnation discloses the essence of being human, namely, openness to God and the longing to enter into relationship with God.5
He knows all that. He’s been there. He’s been lower than all that. He’s not waiting for us to be perfect. Perfect people don’t need a Savior. He came to save his people in their imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He’s not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief.6
Jesus, then, isn’t just “almost” human. He’s fully human.