The earliest heresies in the Christian Church came from those who couldn't believe that God actually became human. They believed that, in some sort of divine trick, Jesus only appeared to be human.
Part of the basis for this belief was the corruptibility, indeed the profanity, of all that is physical. God, in the view of these people (known as Docetists) could never be lowered into the physical realm. God would defy, and defile, his own nature to become human like us.
This heresy was formally condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451. But it has lived on over the ages, not so much in its purest form as in other forms of hatred of the flesh.
Jansenism, for example, didn't teach that Jesus was a spirit who only appeared to be a body. But it denied the existence of a human ability to cooperate with God's grace to achieve salvation. For the Jansenists, one's eternal fate is predestined because human flesh does not have the capacity for acts of will which can make a difference. Nevertheless, people of this conviction made enormous efforts to crucify their own flesh to give a sign that they had been saved.
The second round of heresies came from those who contended that while Jesus was surely human, he wasn't quite God. These heresies took form in various movements — such as the Arians and Nestorians — which were also formally condemned by a string of church councils in the fourth through the sixth centuries.
The problem here wasn't hatred of the flesh and the world. In fact, it may have been an overly trusting attitude toward the human will. Jesus, after all, was seen as deeply linked to God, even if he was essentially human. For the Arians, we could achieve salvation through our own actions, almost apart from anything God did.
Again, we see a tendency which continues to this day. Although few practising Catholics would assert that Jesus is a man but not God, popular portrayals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell do cast him in such a way.
What has been refreshing in the post-Vatican II church is that many Catholics — primarily by paying greater attention to the Gospels — have recovered a sense of the humanity of Jesus. Jesus has become more real, more personal, someone with whom one can have a relationship.
But there is a danger in being so focused on Jesus our brother that we lose sight that Jesus is Lord. It must be noted that Jansenism began as a reforming movement within a church that had grown spiritually lax. Its desire to restore a strong sense of the otherness of the divine and the fallenness of humanity is a legitimate one, one which unfortunately was carried to extremes.
From the above description, it should be clear that our attitudes towards Jesus' divinity and his humanity are related to how we view the human person and to how we act. If one sees the human body as an unholy cesspool of desires, it may mean one has grasped the transcendence of Jesus, but is out of touch with his humanity.
If one sees the human person as intrinsically good to the point where sin is almost out of the picture then one likely sees Jesus, if one sees him at all, as our brother, but has little grasp of him as our savior and redeemer.
Pope John Paul deals with this issue in his 1991 encyclical Mission of the Redeemer. The pope worries about the current tendency towards "the gradual secularization of salvation" (no. 11). In his view, we today are threatened more by the tendency to view the person purely in "horizontal" terms than by an overemphasis on the "vertical" relationship with the transcendent God.
If the pope is right, we can expect a Jansenist-type reaction to follow. An over-emphasis in one direction is surely followed by an over-emphasis in the other.
But the pope says we ought to focus on "integral salvation" — roughly defined as saving both the body and the soul. This full salvation offers us the possibility of becoming God's adopted children.
We ought to strive for a balance in our understanding of who Jesus is. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a simple, but rich, formula for keeping that balance: "He became truly man while remaining truly God. Jesus Christ is true God and true man" (no. 464).
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