Virgin Births and why they matter: because our bodyselves matter
So, I ask again, why does the Virgin Birth matter to Christians? For some Christians, it falls in the same “literal” category as the “creation” accounts—these Biblical narratives are factual accounts and that is what constitutes the “truth” of the faith. While I tend not to fall into this category of “literalism” I surely understand part of the concern. If the Christian faith has no grounding in the way things really are, if Christianity is simply a “myth” in a simplistic way, then it will not matter to the flesh and blood of creation. I believe that Christianity is “literally” grounded in the Incarnation—God dwells in the creation, sets up camp in this world.
So, the incarnation is a beginning point for me in understanding events like the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, and transfiguration of Jesus the Christ. And if I believe that God created this world then incarnation and creation are in a sense, one and the same. Or to put this in the words of the early church fathers and mothers: grace is not something “extra” added onto nature, but grace inheres in and perfects nature. Nature is good, created by God, and the place in which God dwells.
So often when something extraordinary happens, Christians label it as a “miracle,” that is, something done outside of the natural world by a supernatural force (God). This supernatural God interferes/intervenes periodically with special providence. For some Christians, this works. It does not for me because I would rather believe that there is so much more to nature and God’s relationship to nature that we can know or understand. I find some of the Eastern Orthodox theology helpful at this point: that divine grace is not something “added” to the creation, but is indeed in the act of creation itself. (Maximos the Confessor) God is present “in”, “with”, and “under.” This sacramental language is also present in much of the Western tradition. This is a version of what we might call panentheism.
When I think about the Virgin Birth, I think about God’s grace co-inhering in the natural order. God’s incarnation doesn’t come apart from it, but deeply within it—in Mary’s womb, even if it is in ways, which we do not understand. Modern science can help us interpret much of the natural world, revealing how complex and mysterious God’s creation really is. The process of birth, of parthenogenesis, of reproduction is amazing in and of itself. But there is always “the more,” the mystery that transcends or deepens our awareness of God’s creation. God takes the world so seriously that God enters into divine partnership with Mary, a poor Jewish woman, to become incarnate. Mary does give her consent. I believe the Virgin Birth is not about “purity” or “sexual abstinence.” These notions of “purity” can be dangerous in a world that already discounts women and the poor. What God does is much more than that. And what Mary does is certainly more than being a passive, pure “vessel.” To quote Philip Hefner: “We are what nature can become.” And this is because God becomes within us, in our bodyselves, fully and naturally in Christ. The virgin conception of Mary is not some supernatural, external magic trick by an intervening God but instead a manifestation of the gracious, creative God who so loves the world that God chooses to become deeply embodied within it.