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Incarnation: Towards an embodied spirituality…

February 9, 2009

…the church lives in the world as a new society to bring to civil government a vision for a new redemptive order.  It cannot do this in a triumphalist way, but in modesty and humility, aware of its own need for repentance.

Duane Friesen, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers

We are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tiny particle whirling in the endless depths of the universe.  Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe; we are mirrored in it, just at the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us.

Vaclav Havel, Liberty Medal ceremony in Philadelphia, on July 4, 1994

Incarnation is a theme that we are exploring deeply at SMC.  It has to do with the relationship of spirit and matter…inner/outer…private/communal.  The Christian view of this begins with a Creation perspective on the world we live in.  Inherent in this view is that the material world exists because of the purposeful act of the divine community–Ruach Elohim, Logos.  We are integrated beings–from dust and the ruach of God.  We are not just biological beings engaged in an existential  survival of the fittest.  Humans are image-bearers who carry the divine spark.  All that exists, visible and invisible, is the work of God.  In the Hebrew poetry through which we receive this view of Creation we also understand that it is good.

poster842245141This perspective has profound implications as we examine Culture from a Christian framework.  History…Culture… have an integrative center beyond progress (modernity)…beyond the liberation of enlightened individuals.  The integrative center is only possible as we imagine a holism that purposes more than the mere  survival of the species.  The holism–the integrative center has to do with justice, beauty and truth.  It is revealed in text and art, but ultimately must be translated into the physical and social realities of human living.

The Christian view goes beyond this however.  We are not just deists who then are left to discover these “self-evident” truths of the created order through the ways and means of Enlightenment rationalism.  The Christian claim would be that God speaks another word besides the word at Creation, beyond the words spoken to a particular people in antiquity (Hebrews).  In Jesus Christ, the claim would be that God speaks a universal–cosmic Word.  The Incarnation itself–God enfleshed in a human body–is the most technicolor sign of what the eternal order of righteousness, beauty and justice is like.  The Incarnation is engagement with a particular culture.

The Incarnation offers possibilities for imagining how the Good News of the Kingdom intersects with a political realm.  It imagines victory through a cross and the only sword wielded by the Messiah is one that comes from his mouth.  Thus, Jesus Christ becomes the norming norm of a new creation that exists within and alongside the broken, fragmented human order.  The restoration and renewal of creation–the cosmos–is what Jesus is about.  In Christ Jesus, God stakes a claim within history and says this is not a throw away world.  Salvation is not the great escape at the end of time.  Rather it is the hope of rebirth, renewal, restoration.  It is the promise of justice, beauty, and love.  It is the possibility of healing and hope in a world of fragmented despair.  The Incarnation provides a framework through which we might imagine our own participation in Culture.

Incarnation calls us to reunite spirit and matter.  We see a prevailing current in the West toward a dualism which ruptures this integration.  The Gospel of sin management (Dallas Willard)–on the right (getting to heaven) on the left (ethics).  This rupture has profoundly shaped the development of Christianity–how we read Scripture, see the world, and understand the mission of God in relation to space and time.  Incarnational theology which is rooted in Trinitarian Christology will profoundly shape how we understand the relationship of church and culture.
hamas-leader1Our bodily life matters.  Where we live…how we live matters.  Baptism matters.  Communion matters.  Gathering to worship as physical bodies matters.  Participating in a communal liturgy that keeps alive our communal memory matters.  Context matters.  Relationship matters.  How we use the resources of creation matters.  How we treat our neighbor matters.  How we imagine the Good News of Jesus Christ intersecting with our bodily life in the social order and in creation matters.  Is it Good News primarily for individuals or for the whole of creation?  Is it Good News primarily about life after this bodily life in time and space or is it Good News for here and now?  Important questions as we seek to embody a socio-political reality that reflects Christ.

I submit that many Christians are acting irresponsibly in relation to creation, geo-politics, because the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is understood only to have spiritual significance. The notion is that what matters most is intellectual ascent/emotional response to truth–dogma.    Right belief is the essence of “salvation.”  This view has also contributed toward a privatized version of Christianity–where the integrative center is a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Truth is disembodied.  The actual life and teachings of Jesus is not the point.  It’s more about a legal transaction to free humans from guilt.  It denies the significance of Incarnation for how the Kingdom of God breaks in through weakness to transform the social order–Culture.  Politics of healing through a cross.  Radical stuff.

This gospel is the fruit of Western Enlightenment liberalism (Lock, Rosseau).  It continues in the tradition of Augustine and Luther of separating the world into two dominant motiffs–the city of God and the pragmatic order of this world.  We find that this way of reading scripture has contributed much desecration in history.  Right praxis–embodied spirituality–the union of spirit and matter  is seen as of secondary importance.  This view becomes the dominant one in the Christendom model of Christianity.  Nation-state and church synthesis provide a vision of the intersection of spirit and matter which appropriates some Christian language, but avoids the more radical teachings of Jesus.  Friesen, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers:  Seeking the Peace of the City, and McClendon, DoctrineEthicsWitness, provide an alternative vision for how an integrative holism might shape the people of God who seek to live as agents of healing and hope in this present age (even as we anticipate the consumation of all things in the age to come).

So we pray, may your Kingdom come (this day) on earth as it is in heaven. I wonder what we imagine that looking like and does it have anything to do with the life and teachings of Jesus. What would it look like to embody behaviors that are aligned with the Kingdom of God? In the Middle East? In Washington D.C.?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. joehackman permalink
    February 10, 2009 2:19 pm

    Hi Brian…thanks for linking the “how” of cultural engagement with the incarnation…keep calling us to flesh and blood as we worship in spirit and in truth.

  2. kdking permalink
    February 10, 2009 8:56 pm

    You lead us on with mastery of the language. Thank you for that. I also look to you to help put into words that which we feel. Your quest is essentialy that same as mine. Your call is to a congregation and mine is to a High School. We are talking around the same dilema; finding the spirit’s leading in descerning a middle between the extremes of our core people.

    I look forward to the continuing work in our class.

  3. just an apprentice permalink
    February 11, 2009 7:29 am

    I appreciate your comments Joe and Kirby. I posted a topic for discussion on the FB group for our class. I would be interested in your responses.

    What is the Good News in relation to the historical Jesus? How would we articulate the meaning of the Incarnation?

    Kirby, I believe this is what you were getting at in the questions you are posing at Dock…

  4. February 11, 2009 11:13 am

    It seems to me that historically, Anabaptists have had a basic understanding of Incarnational living. But I have also seen that, when we don’t give a clear theological reason or review our theological reasons for a particular form of praxis, then the “spirituality” of the praxis itself comes into question. Or, worse, it falls by the wayside or becomes watered down/tainted by the status quo.

    In terms of incarnational living, I think I have always recognized the essential integration of spiritual/physical realities. However, your emphasis on this as of late has been helpful to me as I explore new examples/new areas where the two realities exist, but I never thought about it. Thank you for persisting through this foundational understanding of the Gospel we are called to proclaim!

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