It has long been a truism in ecumenical dialogue that discussing the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation with the other "peoples of the Book," Jews and Muslims, is radically different from discussing the Incarnation with Hindus. For the monotheistic Jews and Muslims, the notion of incarnation is blasphemy, and that is all there is to it. For the polytheistic Hindus, incarnations happen all the time.
During the Abbey's Summer Vocation Program, I teach three classes a week. One of the advantages of this schedule is that I am compelled to review and reflect on materials whose significance I might otherwise be inclined to take for granted. I find this especially true when teaching about the first four Ecumenical Councils. These councils dealt with many different matters that faced the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries, but for us it seems that their lasting significance has been in Christological matters, that is to say, in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
Greatly to oversimplify, the difficulty was in finding a balance or synthesis between two tendencies. Long before the bishops met in 325 at Nicea in what later came to be regarded as the first of the Ecumenical (or General) Councils, one extreme position that had already been accounted outside the acceptable boundaries of the Church was the point of view known as docetism, an overemphasis on Christ's divinity to the exclusion of his humanity. The docetists (from a Greek word meaning "to appear") asserted that Christ was really divine and only appeared to be a human being.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were those who overemphasized Christ's humanity at the expense of his divinity. Adoptionism was the name later given to the belief that Christ was a human being who was so good that God adopted him as God's son. This divine adoption allows them to refer to Christ as divine, even though he is really only a human being.
The Christological question at issue at Nicea was the proposition of Arius, a priest of Alexandria, who argued that the Logos (or Son) who became flesh was actually neither divine nor human. It seemed to Arius that God's immutability meant that the Son must be less than divine--the first of all creatures and the one through whom all the rest of creation was made, but not really God nor really human. The position embraced by the bishops at the council was that only God can save us and that therefore the Savior has to be divine.
The next two councils, Constantinople and Ephesus, seemed to be developing in an almost Hegelian manner of thesis followed by synthesis. At Constantinople the bishops rejected the teaching of Apollinaris that Jesus Christ was not really human because in him the Logos took the place of a human soul, and at Ephesus they held that Nestorius's suggestion that the human and divine in Jesus Christ were conjoined merely by "good will" (eudoxia in Greek) was inadequate to safeguard the reality and permanent nature of the Incarnation of the Son.
Not until the Fourth Ecumenical Council met at Chalcedon in 451 was Christ defined as being truly and fully God and at the same time truly and fully human. People have been complaining about this doctrine ever since--not only Jews and Muslims, but also Socinians, modern reductionist theologians, and logicians.
Their major objection is that the Chalcedonian definition is logically in defiance of reason, absurd, and impossible. Chalce- don simply proclaimed a permanent union of finite and infinite which yet preserves the distinctions between them.
Considering that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was reached with such great difficulty and has been so unpalatable to so many, I could not help but wonder if what the Hindus meant by incarnation was really something like the Christian doctrine that has proven so controversial.
Rather than attempt to read everything in our library about Hinduism, I decided to take a short cut and ask Fr. William, because he probably has already read everything about Hinduism there. He said (to skip the footnotes) that the two basic Hindu approaches to what we conveniently refer to as incarnation are either basically docetic or adoptionist. For Hindu logicians, a doctrine such as the Chalcedonian Christian teaching on the Incarnation is as impossible as it for other non-Christians--so much for the difference of discussing the Incarnation with Jews or Muslims and with Hindus.
St. Paul says that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself--impossible in the eyes of many, perhaps, but necessary. What we celebrate in the mystery of the Incarnation is the coming of the divine Savior who, because he loved us so much, did the "impossible."