Posted by: gcarkner | July 23, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 9.

The Journey through Community to Communion: Becoming One 

“I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23 ESV) Jesus’ prayer was rooted in the very heart of God. For 2,000 years, it has been a journey for billions of becoming like Christ—in communion with God. We continue in this noble quest, listening to God’s Spirit, asking him where we are in the process, and to call us into deeper communion. 

Human unity naturally operates within the context of community— the spirit of one-anotherness. Made in the image of God, we intuitively sense a feeling of solidarity as we come together in cooperation. We also gain insight into the essence of God as Trinity: three-ness and one-ness. The journey toward communion is sometimes long and arduous, but also exciting and full of surprises. In this short reflection, my deep longings and fulfillment emerge.

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfilment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God. (Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 1986, 60, 61)

Community Discovery in My Family Story

As an only child (born of European immigrants), the absence of competition for their attention made things simple. I lived in love and unity with my parents, a sweet treasure indeed. The first shock to this situation came at age seven as my parents decided to introduce me to my European relatives for the first time—the paternal side of my family. It was the beginning of numerous introductions to our extended family, in what was then West Germany. This coincided with their initial return to Europe since they emigrated to Canada in 1953. They fled Communist East Germany as newlyweds, risking it all on this new venture, starting from the economic bottom.

I was wide-eyed with awe meeting all these new relations as a young, naïve Canadian schoolgirl. My heart was racing with anticipation. I found myself sitting around a table with my parents, my father’s two sisters and a brother-in-law and my three cousins. I studied their features, manner and speech for a familiar resemblance and ring. The adults would exchange intense pre- and post-war stories. There was weeping from so much loss and suffering, mixed with robust laughter and sheer joy in each other’s company. It was a larger than life experience for me, almost surreal. 

My first tense political experience, however, came on another occasion as Mom and I were granted visas to return to the soil from which they fled as a young couple—the former German Democratic Republic (DDR/East Germany). The imposing and hostile Berlin Wall looked down on us an open display of ‘a great divide’ between eastern and western powers. It was rife with the tension of dark rain clouds, guards and angry dogs. As an aside, my father, feeling unsafe, never did cross again into the East after leaving for Canada. This journey with my mother was profound: an opportunity to bridge thousands of miles of distance between our families on her side. Through the various visits by plane and train, alienation has faded into love, joy and the kindest community imaginable. Our precious family was now united despite the political tensions. My East and West were one again through our visits. The wall eventually came down in 1989 as the Soviet Union crumbled and the two Germanies finally reunited in 1990 under Helmut Kohl.  

Witnessing the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Spiritual Longing (Sehnsucht)

One dear, hospitable aunt in the East during the cold war, was most curious for information about life beyond the Wall. Anneliese posed the question about my wonderful experience of community during my sabbatical year of global travel, age 29: “Ute, how could you have come to know all those strangers that you speak about from various countries? How is it that you were invited into their homes, their lives, met their children, ate meals with them? Those conversations provided such an education. How is this even possible?” My aunt’s curiosity was bursting with longing for the kind of communion that was definitely possible among God’s people whom I enjoyed in different countries. But people, even in the small village where my aunt and cousins lived, were taught to be suspicious of each other during the Communist era—the opposite of unity. It was more Darwinian: Trust no one because your life and safety depends on it!

Fullness of Communion is Costly and Humbling

John 17: 20-23 reflects Jesus’ heart for the power of communion between heaven and earth: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me. That they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” ESV

This section of Jesus’ prayer was illumined to me while I was engaged at age 22 with a Canadian Lutheran youth ministry team in India. As a team of eight students, we were asked to host four services that Easter Sunday. I lead one. Witnessing the stark diversity in India and speaking out of this text, a chorus began to rise from within the heart and soul of our team: “That we may be one… that we may be one. Jesus is praying that we may be one.” We sang this daily throughout our eye-opening subcontinent tour, at each venue. I came to such a deep conviction. Because Christ’s actions are always consistent with the will of his Father, his prayer is destined to reach its fulfilment. He himself has introduced to us the way of unity by praying us into the inter-relationships with the members of the Trinity. Our deep and real union with Christ is actually a taste of his union with the Father (I and my Father are one). This relationship within the Trinity is a beautiful model for human communion across difference and diversity, even conflict. 

It is one of the implications of this trinitarian conception of divine agency that the intentionality of divine action is not to be inferred from the structure of the world God has created, but has to be understood as grounded in the revelation in the Son. It is this paradigmatic action that is authenticated by the inspiration of the Spirit which then provides the framework for the interpretation of God’s work in creation. In a similar way the character of the work of the Spirit as inspiration indicates how God involves human beings in the realization of his intentions. It is the context of the interrelatedness of creation, revelation and inspiration that we can talk about God’s action in terms of free, intentional action. (German theologian Christoph Schwöbel, 1992, 70)

Jesus dramatically revealed to us this dynamic oneness. Beyond our clan, family or tribe, we have this God-given reality to back up our quest for community and communion. The desire for unity, demonstrated by years of tears and repentance, led to the dissipation of enmity and to the final 1989 deconstruction of the Berlin Wall. What a celebration! After forty-four years of hostility and cold war angst between political rivals, there came a new hope that walls of all sorts between various people will be deconstructed. We long to mature our understanding of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:14-16: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new human community in place of two, making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing hostility.”  ESV

Paul was making reference to alienated Jews and Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world becoming one community in Christ. There is still work to be done in our time regarding repentance, responsibility, truth  and reconciliation. Recently on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I paused with my daughter dumbstruck seeing multiple toys, shoes and boots to represent Indigenous children lost during a dark period of Canadian history. They represented unmarked graves of precious young ones who were made in God’s image. We felt the tears of the angels. We must remember them and do better.

Our being in the image of God is also our standing among others in the stream of love, which is that facet of God’s life we try to grasp, very inadequately, in speaking of the Trinity. Now it makes a whole lot of difference whether you think this kind of love is a possibility for us humans. I think it is, but only to the extent that we open ourselves up to God, which means in fact, overstepping the limits set by Nietzsche and Foucault. (Charles Taylor, 1999, 35)

As we let go of suspicion and enmity, we enter a life of contrition and repentance towards hope for human communion. This is the route to the heart of God, the route through all our hearts towards the world. Such a trajectory moves us towards a credible posture. Our unity within the body of Christ commends the gospel of peace to a divided world. As Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise states in The Church Jesus Prayed For, “However, defaced or damaged the image is in another, it is never to be diminished and can never be destroyed.” The incarnation and the cross of Christ have opened the gate to mature unity amidst diversity and difference.

That most poignant image of hope, the Kingdom of God, expresses the relation of free divine love and loving human freedom together in depicting the ultimate purpose of God’s action as the perfected community of love with his creation. (Christoph Schwöbel, 1995, 80)

~Ute Carkner, guest blog.

Taylor, C. (1999). In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). God’s Goodness and Human Morality. In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Merton, T. (1986). Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publication

Posted by: gcarkner | July 15, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 8.

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 8

The Quest for Communion & Community

Life in the kingdom builds upward momentum. Incarnational spirituality moves us from arrogant Gnostic individualism and boisterous self-assertion to humble servant leadership, mutuality and hospitality. The trajectory is towards a virtuous society. It takes us away from pure self-interest and god-like superiority, and leads us toward respect and responsibility for the other. We escape our isolation, aloofness and indifference, the neuroses of the aesthetic self, and we enter courageously into embedded, embodied vulnerability and trust. It leads us out of our sensuality and sloth into a group adventure that is grounded and hopeful. We move into spiritual formation within community.

In Part III of The Physical Nature of Christianity, Warren Brown and Brad Strawn (2012) write about complex dynamical systems and how this relates to Christian spiritual formation. Their claim is that it is the key context in which people change and are transformedIt is often assumed that speaking to the individual, and encouraging them to change or set high goals is the key strategy component of discipleship. The individual remains important, but it is our significant relationships that actually heal us, as many counsellors would corroborate. We see this tension playing out among the high achiever surgeons on Grey’s Anatomy. Without reconciling significant relationships, they are unable to do their job. Brown and Strawn encourage leaders to pay more attention to entities like social networks, mutual shaping experiences, clusters of relationships, and mutual imitative reinforcement, ideas that they draw from research in the social and behavioural sciences. 

This book offers vital advice for leaders and educators. In church, we often focus too intensely on the individual believer (or potential believer), on feeding them the right information or posing a challenge that will change their outlook, build their character or set their destiny. Are we not catering to the Gnostic mood of the day (radical individualism) when we are so oriented to pitching to the individual with all their desires, quirks, and sense of entitlement. Social formation of people within networks and clusters begs for more attention as we seek to imitate Christ. Millennials and Gen Z could be well-served with this approach, mobilized to contribute through these powerful small groups and networks: where they can begin to learn the art of self-sacrifice and agape love. Ghosts could be transformed into givers, value-adders and lively covenant participants. As mutual trust and commitment grows, it is much easier to ask for help to heal from one’s addictions,  “PTSD” or woundedness. Henri Nouwen called this an environment for wounded healers. I can strongly attest to the value of this approach during my formative adolescent years.

The notion of emptying of self in love characterizes Balthasar’s view of reality, from the relations within the Trinity, through the creation, incarnation and saving work of Christ, on to the expected response of the creature in self-giving love” (R. Gawronski, 2015, 163). 

The incomprehensible love of God meets humanity through the incarnation on understandable and practical terms in the social realm. Jesus Christ addresses each human being individually: each must decide if they will bear the Name of Christ, but immediately he draws them into a family environment. They see and are seen, know and are known, accept and are accepted, experience hospitality and generously share their resources. This process of maturity comes to full fruition within dynamic community, creative dialogue, and growing communion with the Trinity. This process bestows an eternal dignity and healthy self-worth.

Further, Incarnational spirituality reminds us that we are storied, communal selves within a covenant of love, not ghostly techno-hermits playing video games until 4:00 a.m. Respected American sociologist Brené Brown in Rising Strong (2015, 39f) claims that we need to own our stories however difficult or painful. She offers hope that we can re-write them with different outcomes: transcending fate, despair, addiction, dysfunctionality, shame and loneliness. But we cannot do without a larger story of redemption to help us envision this healing possibility. The Bible contains such a narrative. Hermeneutically, Christ is the core inner logic of scripture. The drama of the Word unfolds wonderfully in the breadth of scripture and the life of the church.

We read the Old Testament through fresh eyes, employing the  Jesus story and its teaching— a Christological reading. In light of Christ, we can capture the full narrative journey away from God, back to God, with God, for God, to the glory of God (lostness, alienation, recovery, reckoning, communion). It is a powerful insight to see the entire biblical narrative as the vehicle for God’s transformative work in human culture (Tom Holland, Dominion). God pursues and works with us at our worst, as well as our best, and our story can and does often change. Redemption in and through the incarnate Christ blossoms into harmonious social communion without dismissing the importance of the individual. “In redeeming the created order, Christ redeems social relationships among creatures, relationships that are intrinsic to created human nature” (K. Mongrain, 2002, 199).

It is the real, incarnate, suffering man Jesus who by what he is gives glory to God far greater than any suffering–free schemes of the Gnostics. Other religions all seek to free man from pain and death through liberation or at most great indifference: for Christianity, Christ by taking on himself the world’s guilt and sin on the cross, becomes the greatest proof that God is love.… The Cross is God’s last word about himself. (R. Gawronski, 2015, 180)

An authentic story acts like a good map. Story charts our course but simultaneously unlocks meaning, forms bridges, making sense of disparate ideas and experiences. We see beyond the weeds in our life, to the depth of what is at stake in our trajectory.

The Christian life involves re-understanding our entire lives and the whole world in the light of God’s revelation…. Creation and covenant map our existence, and we need to learn how to read the maps and use a compass to find our way through the territory. (E. Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 172)

Our character develops as we face adversity and our story helps solidify the meaning in our struggles and pain. For example, a creative colleague of mine, Dr. Laurel Borisenko, worked for the United Nations assisting African refugees. She discovered that theatre presentations of their struggle connected them with a healing path. She helped them use their creative imagination to tell their stories of displacement, suffering, poverty and violence. The story of the COVID-19 pandemic does not end with lockdowns and death. There are heroes and villains, but also a future, a new dawn on the horizon. Deeper roots in a tradition free us to move forward in hope with gratitude and joy, make us more resilient to the daily buffeting of adversity. We are released from the dark victimhood to fate—cosmic or social determinism.

Post-Resurrection Presence: Beyond Jesus’ profound bodily presence on earth, he has also been present in his community (John 14-17; Ephesians 4; Romans 12). As agape love incarnate, he left a following to carry the beautiful vision forward, and he commissioned a mentored leadership–the Apostles–to anchor us. This unique community is a historical and real extension of the incarnation. This diverse, worldwide community of Christians (now more than two billion souls) offers a cultural presence, performance and embodiment of God’s goodness on planet earth. It remains an influence of salt and light conscience for society, socially locating divine goodness in diverse places around the globe: pushing for hope, recovery and maturity.

Moreover, it is having profound influence for the good in many sectors, even at great cost. This entails a tremendous responsibility, opportunity and benefit for humankind. Its concern is the flourishing of all, including a profound commitment to dialogue across various traditions with a will to promote peace (M. Volf, 2015; J. Sachs, 2002, 2015). Neuroscientists Brown and Strawn in their salient book, The Physical Nature of Christianity (2012)use the comparison of the community of faith and an the ant colony. Genuine spiritual formation occurs within the integrity of mutual, responsible relational networks that matter to us, that make us whole and full of purpose.  The authors draw on and apply breakthrough insights from current neuroscience, psychology and sociology research. Missioned disciples spread not only the sayings but also the deeds and ethos of Jesus. They authentically act out an ongoing miracle of self-sacrifice and grace, refusing vengeance. Christian community is the active verb of God, the deed-word of God, the shalom of God carrying out the drama of God begun in the Old Covenant, now into the New Covenant. 

There are over one thousand verses of Judeo-Christian scripture dedicated to concern for the poor and marginalized. That ought to catch our attention: God is clearly a friend to the poor. One is reminded of that incredible speech by Portia in the Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice  in defence of the quality of mercy, something that she claims makes us more human. Compassion/concern for the other is an important matter of moral and spiritual weight and substance. Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it poignantly: “The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbour who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.” Moral growth and stature of character develop through careful and consistent service to others, being the divine presence in their lives.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, YouTube Seminars, Author, Mentor

Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau.

Brown, W.S. and B. D. Strawn (2012). The Physical Nature of Christianity: neuroscience, psychology and the church. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Volf, M. (2015). Flourishing: why we need religion in a globalizing world. New haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gawronski, R. (2015). Word and Silence: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West 3rd edition. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press.

Mongrain, K. (2002). The Systematic Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: an Irenaean Retrieval. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Sacks, J. (2002). The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. London, UK: Continuum. 

Sacks, J. (2015). Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. New York: Shocken Books.

Peterson, E. (2010). Practice Resurrection: a Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Posted by: gcarkner | July 15, 2021

Next Public UBC Lecture with Tom McLeish

Wednesday, September 29, 2021 on Zoom: The Poetry and Music of Science 

Biography: Tom McLeish FRS, Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York, also affiliated to the University’s Centre for Medieval Studies and the Humanities Research Centre. He has conceived and led several interdisciplinary research projects, and is a recognized UK expert on formulating and evaluating interdisciplinary research. He co-leads the Ordered Universeproject, a large interdisciplinary re-examination of 13th century science. From 2008 to 2014 he served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University and was from 2015-2020 Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee. He is a brilliant, creative mind and has won many awards for his work and teaching.

Abstract: In this address, Dr. McLeish suggests that the ‘Two Cultures’ division between the arts and the sciences is not the best classification of creative processes, for all creation calls on the power of the imagination within the constraints of form. The three modes of visual, textual and abstract imagination have woven the stories of the arts and sciences together, using different tools. As any scientist knows, the imagination is essential to the immense task of re-creating a shared model of nature from the scale of the cosmos, through biological complexity, to the smallest subatomic structures. McLeish draws on past testimony and personal accounts of scientists, artists, mathematicians, writers, and musicians to explore the commonalities and differences in creation. He offers close-up explorations of musical, literary, mathematical and scientific creation, illustrating how creativity contributes to what it means to be human, drawing on theological ideas of the purpose of creativity and the image of God.

Posted by: gcarkner | July 9, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 7.

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 7.

The Viability and Vitality of Faithful Presence

In the movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela wisely displays the insight that positive social change must begin with a different sense of identity, one where we become aware of belonging to the other. Individualism and self-interest must be sacrificed for the good of the group. The ability of people of different races and interests to imagine their common destiny would be key to breaking down racial barriers and healing resentments erected during the time of Apartheid in South Africa. The rugby team became a lightning rod for this quest in the movie. Mandela offered a vision of a new humanism and won the world’s admiration for his heroic efforts to reunite the country and redress terrible imbalances, racial tension and injustice. He headed off a civil war. I know one insider who relayed how close it came to a bloodbath. Many religious leaders and believers supported this vision and put much effort into its actualization. Incarnational spirituality has such a vision for renegotiating relationships, wealth and power in late modernity, offering a reconfiguration. This posture sets the stage for a new narrative of mutual flourishing, a new code for life . 

Thus, when the Word is enacted within the whole body of Christ in all of its members through an engagement that is individual, corporate, and institutional, not only does the word become flesh, but an entire lexicon and grammar becomes flesh in a living narrative that unfolds in the body of Christ; a narrative that points to God’s redemptive purposes. It is authentic because it is enacted and finally persuasive because it reflects and reveals the shalom of God (J.D. Hunter 2010, 254).

Rooted in God’s pursuit, identification, sacrificial love, offer of life for humans just like us, the incarnation is all about presence rather than absence. Within this kind of spirituality, we want to explore the dynamics of what renowned University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter calls faithful presence (J. D. Hunter, 2010, 238-54). We resonate with his project for witness and social change and his mandate for servant leadership. It extends the concept of suffering service to others, with deep relevance. Hunter emphasizes its urgency in our cultural situation in late modernity. Under the banner of the incarnation, faithful presence offers a way to credibly re-articulate the narrative journey of self, to find a new home beyond the barbed wire of war, hate, resentment, control and narcissism. 

Without a commitment to ideals that transcend the self and that direct life beyond self-interest, one is left with a despair that is not only joyless but also is indifferent towards need and thus incapable of addressing need. Hope is intimately tied to beauty for it is images of beauty and loveliness that inspire imagination and expand human possibility. (J. D. Hunter, 2010, 263) 

We use this language of presence to communicate this important concept of closeness to the divine, but also generosity towards others. For example, the entire biblical message is the offer of life marked by goodness, peace, truth, beauty, joy, fruitfulness—shalom. Hunter writes that shalom also offers something serious to society at large, and it would be astute for the Christian community to pay attention to his voice. This is a robust sense of being with others, taking responsibility for the other. “The practice of faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness—not just for Christians but for everyone.” (J. D. Hunter, 2010, 263)

The shalom of God is the presence of God (Ephesians 2:14) in the world. Incarnational community means that followers of Jesus are mandated to be and bring this faithful presence, this incarnational kind of humanism to their circle of influence, to everyday work and family life. Humans can be fully present to each other within the community of faith and fully present to those who are not at the moment part of that community. We pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives towards the flourishing of one another. 

A vision of order and harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy and well-being…. Christians are to live toward the well-being of others, not just to those in the community of faith, but to all…. Pursuit, identification, the offer of life through sacrificial love—this is what God’s faithful presence means. It is a quality of commitment that is active, not passive; intentional, not accidental; covenantal, not contractual. In the life of Christ we see how it entailed his complete attention. It was a whole-hearted, not half-hearted; focused and purposeful, nothing desultory about it. His very name, Immanuel, signifies all of this—“God with us”—in our presence. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 228, 230 and 243).

Faithful presence is an Everest-like ascent into virtue and character. It offers a transformation of relationships within the immanent frame, one that reaches beyond this frame for sources of the self, sources of the good. It is a powerful source of a thick identity (Charles Taylor), one that has resilience and sustainability. Servant leadership is a critical posture of this kind of engagement with the world, one of commitment and enduring promise. People who carry this vision are now creating structures that incarnate blessing, beauty, meaningfulness and purpose for others, not reinventing the world to suit only themselves. This includes former cynics, secularists, anarchists and nihilists, the haves and the have-nots, as well as people of other faiths. The incarnational posture makes a claim on us as a different plausibility structure—a new social imaginary. Policy pursued and law practised in light of the justice of God is a witness to right ordering of human affairs.  Inquiry, scholarship and learning with an awareness of the goodness of God’s created order is a discovery of what is higher in tertiary education.

I have argued that there is a different foundation for reality and thus a different kind of binding commitment symbolized most powerfully in the incarnation. The incarnation represents an alternative way by which word and world come together. It is in the incarnation and the particular way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ that we find the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution and difference. If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate. When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our spheres of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 252) 

The practice of faithful presence is the incarnation of a fresh and constructive kind of servant leadership and mentorship (Robert K. Greenleaf, 1998; Don Page, 2009) in all realms of life, all careers—it issues in a new lifestyle. Dr. Don Page, former speechwriter for the Prime Minister of Canada, and Professor Emeritus at Trinity Western University where he ran the Masters in Leadership, understands this profoundly. He made a substantial contribution to servant leader culture (including China) through his talks and book, Servant-Empowered Leadership. He casts a vision for the productivity of constructive, servant-posture leadership. 

The gifts, resources, and influence one stewards are not one’s own to use as one wishes but rather they belong to God: they exist under his authority, and believers are held to account for how they steward them for the good of all. It simply makes sense that offering dignity and respect for employees creates a better work environment and a more successful company in the long run. It creates significant opportunities and space for others to participate and develop their contribution. It champions the giftedness, creativity and potential of those we mentor. The focus is on the physical, aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and social health of the community. The reason leadership is sacrificial and selfless is because its practice is an expression of “power under submission” (Hunter). This is the opposite of Nietzsche’s culture as a will to power which has fuelled much of postmodern thinking. I saw it writ large in Michel Foucault whom I studied for my PhD.

Some striking examples of how faithful presence can be expressed come to mind. It often starts with one person taking the incarnation vision seriously; this person begins to live sacrificially and creatively for the other. One inspired person who wants to be faithful to the divine incarnational perspective of servant leadership is all it takes to begin a movement. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke of the Taizé Ecumenical Community in Burgundy, France. They have had an enormous influence, captured the imagination of many European youth who wanted to engage the world constructively. Taizé has ambassadorial cell groups living among the poor in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This effort towards integral relationships amidst difference “represents a serious political concern, an eagerness to listen and learn across cultural boundaries, a sensitivity for certain styles in art and liturgy, traditional but spare and contemporary in expression, a profoundly contemplative spirituality” (R. Williams, 2005, 124).

Dr. Hunter mentions in his book a group in the state of Michigan, hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008, who build not-for-profit housing to address the scourge of poverty and homelessness. A friend of mine mentioned a company that subsidized solar panels for poor areas and trained people in installing these for others. The Mennonite Central Committee sponsors Ten Thousand Villages stores with low overhead to assist talented artisans in developing countries to sell their work in the West, promoting shalom in both worlds–building creative bridges to shalom. Students and faculty on campus at UBC have been delighted with the meaning of such a display in the student centre—it incarnates faithful presence so well. David Brooks brings this vision for virtue and character development, standards for high morality, in his important written contributions: The Road to Character (2015); and The Second Mountain (2020). These fine people and projects are interested in a world that works for everyone, not just the elite few.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author, Blogger, YouTube Seminars

Hunter, J.D. (2010). To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 

Williams, R. (2005). The Truce of God: peacemaking in troubled times. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Page, D. (2009). Servant-Empowered Leadership. Langley, B.C.: Power to Change.

Brooks, D. (2015). The Road to Character. New York, NY: Random House.

Brooks, D. (2020). The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. New York: NY: Random House.

Greenleaf, R.K. (1998). The Power of Servant Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Zimmermann, J. (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church in the world. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic.

White, R. (2006). Encountering God in the City: onramps to personal and community transformation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP

Wallis, J. (2014). The (Un)Common Good: how the Gospel brings hope to a world divided. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Granberg-Michaelson, w. (1984). A Worldly Spirituality: the call to care for the earth. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Delsol, C. (2013). Icarus Fallen: the search for meaning in an uncertain world. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books.

Dr. Don Page’s Principles of Servant-Empowered Leadership

  • Serves the followers for their benefit. Invest in people for their growth.
  • Primarily serves the interests of the followers above selfish or narcissistic interests.
  • Responsibility to followers is more important than positional entitlements.
  • Based on respect and love for the followers. Maintained through internal influence.
  • Willing to step aside for someone more qualified to lead. The position is held lightly.
  • Never pulls rank to get one’s own way, as that would be hurtful to the colleagues.
  • Accountable to everyone in the organization and outside constituencies as well. Concerned about the common good, not just individual good.
  • Welcomes regular personal evaluations as a means of improving the ability to serve followers. This kind of vulnerability speaks volumes.
  • Loyalty comes through the inspiration in the heart and soul of the followers. Have a low turnover rate because people are valued for their contribution to each other and to the organization.
  • Primary interest is in the well-being of their followers for their sakes. People on your team are seen as an end in themselves, not just a means to your ends.
  • Puts the spotlight on others. Servant leaders are generous with praise to others, but not shrill.
Posted by: gcarkner | July 6, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 6

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 6.

Seven Principles of Incarnational Theo-Praxis.

a. A philosophically derived negative theology (via negativa) must not be allowed to supplant the revelation of the supernatural mystery in Christ (R. Gawronski, Word and Silence. 2015, 75-132). See my YouTube video: The Way of Zen versus the Way of the Incarnation. This is to distinguish mystery from the mysticism of the un-word (found in Zen). The incarnation is the deepest, richest and most permanent source of infinite divine mystery in the finite order. It assumes that the transcendent Creator God of Jewish monotheism is the same God who became fully incarnate (enfleshed) in Jesus of Nazareth. Humans have no fuller access to the Creator other than in the incarnate Christ. We know this by reflection on the events of history rather than mere speculation. Humans do not invent, but instead recognize, this reality. The incarnation becomes a fresh and profound hermeneutic on God’s relationship to humans, his pursuit of them and identification with their struggles.

b. Theologians and pastor leaders must allow God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ to interpret itself in the lives of believers through the work of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, we see revealed the holiness of one transparent life of sacrificial love. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is against abstract, modern re-interpretations or epic views such as those found in German philosopher G.F.W. Hegel. The problem of epic theology is that God tends to be either absorbed into the cosmos (pantheism) or he is totally banished from it (atheism/exclusive humanism). Aberrations from the incarnation always entails some sort of reductionism, some distancing from full particularity, full reality. We want the whole truth about God’s presence and impact in the world.

c. Christian theology (Kevin Mongrain, 2002, 204) must always maintain that the eternal divine realm and temporal created realm are separated by an absolute ontological gap and this gap is bridged, but not erased, by Christ’s mission of redemption. It remains one salvation narrative in two acts: creation and redemption. The incarnate Word interprets itself through the Spirit as ontologically asymmetrical yet with a mutual glorification of time and eternity, finite and infinite, human and divine. Incarnational theology and spirituality is focused on both the temporal and eternal at one time. In other words, a theo-centric perspective can coexist and be consistent with a cosmo-centric and anthropo-centric perspective. This offers an important balance, issuing in theological holism. God, Creation and Humans are all key players in this drama; we are interested in theology, science and anthropology at the same time. 

d. The Johannine Comparative (K. Mongrain, 2002, 204): The allure of Christ leads to the experience of the ‘ever-greater’ mystery of God. The glory and wonder of the Christ continues, opens up reality to humans, as they realize the power of the resurrection is made available to them in their lives and in community (Ephesians 1: 19-23). He is the enticing window into the divine that opens the potential to be known by, and to know God. Christ both fascinates and leads us into more authentic freedom. Contemplation of the incarnation is a key element to a robust, integrated theology. The divine Word is the total expression of God in human flesh. Jesus himself is the Gospel, the Word-Deed. Jesus is the Mission, the Answer to the longing of human hearts and forgiveness from guilt and shame. This anchors us amidst a changing and fragile world of upheaval.                

Unlike systems in which the word is uttered out of silence, in Christianity, the eternal word is uttered from the eternal fullness of the Father, and the Incarnation from the fullness of the Trinitarian life. In the word of words, fragmented utterance, Jesus becomes the speech of God to man and man to God. On the Cross, that speech gathered into an incoherent, formless cry as He enters the great emptiness of death, as the Word given over to silence [temporarily]. (R. Gawronski, 2015, 172)

e. Furthermore, the unity of creation and redemption, the synthesis of faith and love, contemplation and action shows that faith must be lived by both word and deed in order to be fully grasped and understood. There is an irreplacable existential dimension of faith. Contemplation is not sufficient to authentic faith in the incarnate one. Theodrama plus praxis, doctrinal teaching plus ethics, are a critical combination to avoid Gnosticism on the road to truth, beauty and goodness, to true and fulsome religion, to personal renewal and growth. We find this beautiful balance in Paul’s letters. He always includes one or more chapters on how we are to live out the gospel of the kingdom in daily life, within the context of Christian community and the larger world in which we live. The redemption continues in an ongoing fashion in our relationships and communal lives (see below a sample of what James Davison Hunter brilliantly articulates as faithful presence, 2010, 237-54).

f. Based in the unity of Christ and the church, any legitimate Christian theology and praxis must locate itself within the context of ecclesia (Christian community) and be fully accountable to its historic mission. Abstract, high-flying theologies imposed from outside can become a big problem and lead to much distress and confusion. This keeps theology, ethics and spiritual formation from becoming esoteric, ahistorical, unaccountable and ungrounded, even Gnostic. Theology and praxis thereby become public automatically, challenging dehumanizing forces within society, challenging the post-truth trends of our day. The church must practice incarnation as a model of love, joy and generosity (Philippians 2). University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter opines on this note:

If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate. When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our spheres of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 252)

Faithful presence is a palpable interpretation of the incarnation of the Christ in and through the church, into the world of everyday life, society and politics. Epiphany speaks of a motivating divine presence dynamic within human culture. We want the whole truth on this front. It answers the question: “What does love require?”

g. Called and missioned disciples (Jesus followers) rightfully spread the deeds as well as the sayings of Jesus, following his example. They follow Matthew 25 in caring for the stranger, the homeless, the prisoner in his name. Messiah gets rearticulated as suffering servant deeds, attitudes, posture, ethos. In the beginning, there was the Word and the Deed. Creation was Deed-Word (R. Gawronski, 2105, 166-69): “God spoke and there was light”. God’s word is so identified with God’s deed that we can never distinguish between what is God’s Word and what is God’s deed in revelation; they are quite entwined.  Everything about Jesus was word and everything about him was also deed.  Seamlessly connected, the deed explains the significance of the word, the word/teaching the significance of the deed or miracle. Christian community is primarily an action/praxis of God, an active participation with God in communion, one that carries through the redemptive drama into the contemporary world to provide healing and wholeness.

Incarnational theology is rooted in profound underlying dynamics: the unity of Creation and Redemption; the unity of Old  and New Testaments (covenant-narratives); the unity of Christ and the Church. The New Testament makes the amazing claim that Jesus is, in the flesh, the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Corinthians 1: 24), the nexus and integral relationship of faith and reason. As divine logos (John 1: 1-4), he is the transcendent word made flesh, the underwriter of all human thought and language. Truth ultimately is found in a person, a presence, not a mere idea or a philosophy. Jesus is reason personified, the raison d’être and purpose of it all. The narrative is clear. He is the answer to our deepest questions: Why are we here? What is our calling or purpose? Where are we going? Who are we really working for? What do we love? God’s speech is embodied, full-blooded, not flat, lifeless or atomistic. Kevin Vanhoozer (2009) calls the incarnation a communicative action. It is loaded with spiritual vitality, inspiration, hope and meaning.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator UBC Postgradaute Students, Author, Blogger, YouTube Seminar Leader

Gawronski, R. (2015). Word and Silence: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West 3rd edition. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press.

Hunter, J.D. (2010). To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 

Mongrain, K. (2002). The Systematic Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: an Irenaean Retrieval. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Zimmermann, J. (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church. Downers Grave, IL: IVP Academic.

Daniel J. Treier, Incarnation. Pages 216-42 in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic. Edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Vanhoozer, K.J. (2009). Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 

Posted by: gcarkner | June 27, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 5.

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 5.

Building on the Infrastructure/Foundation of Wisdom

Our globalized world can be confusing, even overwhelming with the current speed of change (Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st century). We are going through revolutions in biotech (especially Epigenetics) and infotech (Artificial Intelligence) and still face the nuclear and climate threat. The clash of superpowers hoping for world domination is regularly in the news. We clearly need discernment to traverse such an age. Who do we trust after all the questions raised by the pandemic? What can we count on for good policy? How do we solve our intractable global problems?

The New Testament makes the amazing claims that Jesus is, in the flesh, the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Corinthians 1: 24), the nexus and integral relationship of faith and reason. As divine logos (John 1: 1-4), he is the transcendent word made flesh, the underwriter of all human thought and language. Truth ultimately is found in a person, not a mere philosophy. Jesus is deep reason personified, the raison d’être or meaning of it all. The narrative is clear amidst these provocative claims. The incarnation is a communicative action (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2009), not just letters, words, propositions or sentences. It is spiritually saturated with wisdom that offers a foundation for our future.

We are called to seek such wisdom (discernment) with all our energy, to take captive our minds to his Lordship (II Corinthians 10). We are called to change the way we think and perceive reality–our entire worldview. In other words, we need his oversight, his scrutiny as we think harder and act more practically and responsibly, as we pursue noble character and virtue. He is intensely interested in our new ideas and thoughts for a more just world (one that includes the marginalized and the broken).

Jesus is the omega point, the ultimate fulfillment, of every human spiritual, religious, moral and philosophical aspiration. The Apostle Paul claims such as he opens a dialogue with the Greek philosophers on the Areopagus in Acts 17. He connects with them through their own poets and philosophers. It is the incarnation that shows he has healed the broken semiotic relationship between word and world (J. D. Hunter, 2010) that is endemic in late modernity. The Creator of all things, all peoples, has come to live among us. He is public truth, available to examine by everyone of every belief persuasion, every form of scepticism. He adds that je ne sais quoi , that “something more”, the chance to make sense of life itself–a window on the river that runs through it. Jesus is wisdom of God, the shalom of God in the flesh, full presence, providing for us a fulness and fecundity of existence.

Wisdom shows up as an Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) personification in Proverbs 8. Lady wisdom provides a framework and a profound motivation for our thinking and reflection, our discernment. It addresses some of the perennial problems we face: grinding poverty, inequity, oppression, governmental and business corruption and overbearing control, insatiable greed, pride and entitlement. Heaven knows that we need wisdom today, as a book by Professor Eugene Soltes reveals (Why They Did It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal, 2016). Jesus as personal wisdom from God cries out with insight to late moderns in the public squares of our towns and globalized mega-cities: “Come to me. Learn from me. Take a minute. Let’s talk about the constructive way forward. Let’s deal with your anger.”

There is a sense in which Jesus draws together all the words of Old and New Testaments. He is the fulfillment of all the promises made to the ancient Hebrew patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Israel) and the prophetic utterances and longings of the ancients, the Jewish Messiah, fulfilling the promise of redemption, renewal, and justice for the poor (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 2007). Humans have spent much time anticipating someone who could show a better way to do politics and economics and promote human dignity. He entered this world to save us from our own destructive violence and vengeance, while teaching us the higher wisdom of God (James 3:13-18). His life is a unique story, a powerful human narrative of restoration and renewal, of resurrection. It forms the apex of God’s compassionate, redemptive initiatives.

People need not suffer a shallow, purposeless existence, or give up their freedom of speech, reason or identity to stripped-down materialism, manipulative determinism, addictions to social media or propaganda wars of the right and the left. They can live a richer, fuller lifestyle, living for the other. Philosophical theologian Jens Zimmermann’s summary insight on this point represents a fresh articulation of reality within the infrastructure of wisdom. Jesus lived no ordinary life of a good moral teacher. He is rather a sure anchor in the storms of life, hope in the midst of despair.

Christ the creative wisdom of God, and God’s active Word in creation, is enfleshed in the temporal-historical dimension of our world as the concrete Jewish Messiah, Jesus the Christ…. This is the Word through whom all things were made, and the Word hid in the eternal bosom of God, the Word who spoke through the prophets, the Word whose mighty acts defined the history of Israel. In Jesus the Christ this Word has become flesh, and the eternal has become temporal, but without ceasing to be eternal…. In Christ temporality and eternity are conjoined…. In the incarnation, creation, the world, time and history have been taken up into the God-man, who is the center of reality…. Faith and reason are inseparable because their unity is in Christ. (J. Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 2012a, 264-5)

Divine active poetic language or speech act (John Searle) starts with creation: God spoke and the heavens, the stars, the seas, the plants and trees and living creatures, man and woman came into existence in abundance. Jesus the Son was there with the Father and the Spirit at creation’s dawn, calling it forth into fruitful existence, motivated by love. He is the creative source of all human life, of the moral good and justice, of imagination and artistic expression. Divine speech continues in Jesus as the robustly truthful Son of God–public truth. As divine logos, he provides the very architecture of creation. Biology and meta-biology are a whole in Christ; science and human meaning join in synchrony. Isaac Wimberley give an artistic rap rendition of The Word below.

He is God’s true revelation, located and embodied truth, claiming that, “If you hold to my teaching, you will be my disciples. Then you will understand the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8: 31-32). These words have had a profound impact down the centuries. In a separate blog post I reflect of What is Truth and Why Does it Matter? We can count on him as the solid way forward. There is palpable power in these words for human sojourners. Jesus is the way of wisdom, the way of deep structure integrity and personal wholeness. He is the sign of something more to the world, the signifier of God’s great interest in mankind and the signified as the goal of all history. Musician Kari Jobe’s rendition of the song Forever captures something of the breadth and complexity of this insight. There is a very fruitful dialogue possibility for those who are curious about the resurrected man. It has earth-shaking implications.

This insight on wisdom demonstrates that we must look beyond mere human flourishing in terms of safety, self-interest and sustenance, towards the fullest benefit to mankind, our fullest humanity, a thick self. We need to dig deeper and climb higher. In the birth, life, teaching, sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ, we are offered a new architecture for human society. His life, care and teaching represent an inspiration, a gripping and tantalizing call to a higher life, a journey up the challenging mountain of moral growth and a breathtaking perspective on human machinations and self-dealing. The Word is a symbol of a whole new relationship between humanity and the cosmos. It also poses many questions to push out the bounds of what it means to be human, raising the bar to expand our identity way beyond the closed-off immanent frame. Yet, it is also extremely relevant to the practical issues of everyday social and political life (raising children, sorting out disputes, voting and responsible government).

One implication of the incarnation is that Christianity is no mere religion, it is the participation in the very life of God. This presence defined by Christ is true and ideal human image bearer (R. Middleton). He clears the brush to our full humanization. Others before him, including Israel as a nation, have tried to measure up to the noble kingly and priestly calling of Imago Dei. The incarnation (John 1:1-5, and14; Colossians 1: 15-20) provides a vision to restore late modern broken relationships such as racism and radical economic inequality. He can heal us from fragmentation and disenchantment, bring us back from the abyss of nihilism and paralyzing hate. It is in this world, this neighbourhood, that Christ offers change (Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good).

Both Christ himself, and the church which he left behind upon his ascension, are an incarnation. At their best, they act out a faithful presence (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 237-54). This conviction involves an important union of Christology and Pneumatology. We find it in the Apostle John’s writings in John chapters 14-17. It is the unity of Christ-Spirit and the church. They are always working together as part of the Trinity. Redemption in Christ blossoms into harmonious social communion, avoiding extreme individualism, without dismissing the importance of the creative, entrepreneurial individual. Here is a quote from Hunter:

I have argued that there is a different foundation for reality and thus a different kind of binding commitment symbolized most powerfully in the incarnation. The incarnation represents an alternative way by which word and world come together. It is in the incarnation and the particular way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ that we find the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution and difference. If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with  whom  we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate. When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our spheres of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. This is the heart of the theology of faithful presence.

~James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. OUP, 2010.

The vision of the incarnation is that one becomes a unique person with a distinct role and responsibility to play out in the community’s effort to transform the entire created order (Romans 8). This individual human uniqueness is rooted in the absolute uniqueness of God and Christ. “In redeeming the created order, Christ redeems social relationships among creatures, relationships that are intrinsic to created human nature” (K. Mongrain, 2002, 199). He came to heal and unify humanity, not to fragment or to polarize people into tribes. Incarnation affirms and elevates the whole human in their fullest context and promotes servant leadership. Theodrama according to Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says:

The audience’s nonneutral, contemplative awareness forms a “communion” between the author’s (God the Father) vision, the actor’s (Jesus the Christ) visible embodiment of the vision on stage and the audience’s (human) cooperation in the presentation of the vision. The audience is invited on stage into this theodrama by the Holy Spirit to participate in the play, thus opening themselves to being enraptured by the divine mystery revealed in Christ’s incarnation. (K. Mongrain, 2002, 201)

The drama of the Word unfolds wonderfully in the life of the church. The witness of the Spirit is also part of the incarnation. He is against any disincarnate or Gnostic spiritualization. The closer one comes to the Son, following his call, the more unique, free and interesting one will become. The notion of emptying oneself in love characterizes Balthasar’s view of reality, from the relations within the Trinity, through the creation, incarnation and saving work of Christ, onto the expected response of the creature in self-giving love” (R. Gawronski, 2015, 163). This incomprehensible love of God meets humanity on understandable and practical terms, promoting shalom.

Jesus Christ addresses each human being individually: each must decide if they will bear the Name of Christ and accept the unique mission God has for them. It is only by identifying with this mission that humans become persons in the deepest, existential and theological sense. Their personhood is not dissolved as in Gnosticism, but enhanced as they receive the word and partake, become articulate world and culture makers (Andy Crouch, Culture Making). They see and are seen, know and are known. God’s great work of art inspires them to become creative artists in their own right.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author: Mapping the Future; The Great Escape from Nihilism; Ten Myths About Christianity.


Peterson, E. (2007). The Jesus Way: a conversation in the ways that Jesus is the way. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

–Crouch, A. (2008). Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP.

Hunter, J. D. (2010). To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

–Kevin Mongrain, (2002). The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: an Irenaen Retrieval. Herder & Herder.

–Zimmermann, J. (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church in the world. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

–von Balthasar, H. U. (1993). Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. Ignatius Press.

–Gawronski, R. (2015). Word & Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West. Angelico Press.

Wallis, J. (2014). The (Un)Common Good: How the gospel brings hope to a world divided. Grand Rapids: Brazos.

Harari, Y. N. (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st century. New York: Penguin.

Posted by: gcarkner | June 24, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 4.

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon, Part 4.

Discerning the Imago Dei: God’s Icon

Many people today sense God calling them to be something more than they presently experience, calling them upwards out of their self-pity, obsessive compulsive narcissism, consumerism and sullenness. Perhaps they are even called to launch a journey, innovate a solution to a problem, or follow a life-changing quest to improve the world. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (2005, 96) asks insightfully, “What makes human life significant, more than animal? Not clothing, not acquisition of coverings for the naked ego, but the conscious participation in an order of compassion.” In his thoughtful work, The Truce of God, Williams wants people who have become fearful, disengaged and alienated to take responsibility for their world as constructive peacemakers, community builders and servant leaders with integrity.

Innovative ideas emerge when we break free from our intense self-absorption, become vulnerable and engaged in good faith with others. Late Modern Writer Andy Crouch discusses this search for wisdom, “Making sense of the wonder and the terror of the world is the original human preoccupation. And it is the deepest sense of culture that most clearly distinguishes us from all the rest of creation” (A. Crouch, 2008, 24). At our best, we are meaning makers, stewards, purpose-oriented contributors. Terrorism, fear, violence and murder are not the last word. Long-term battles are won by the right ideas of fresh alternative strategies, the right art, new ways of seeing and perceiving.

The wonder of the incarnation presents humanity with the possibility of full, but finite, personal embodiment of Logos, the will and wisdom of the divine. As a fleshly, personal wisdom, it sets out an alternative paradigm from self-mastery, self-invention and self-promotion. Jesus is the image (icon) of God that we long for in our honest moments, the most excellent representative of God on earth. He makes sense of us and our world of struggling humanity. He is fully God and fully human. In this way, he provides an exemplar of life lived in the presence of God, offering us an archetype of human goodness that is inspired by heaven itself. Brilliant Duke University theologian D. Stephen Long (2001) appeals to the moral normativity of the life of Jesus, revealing that we are hard wired for such a transcendent-immanent, I-Thou relationship.

In Christian theology, Jesus reveals to us not only who God is but also what it means to be truly human. This true humanity is not something we achieve on our own; it comes to us as a gift …. The reception of this gift contains an ineliminable element of mystery that will always require faith. Jesus in his life, teaching, death and resurrection and ongoing presence in the church and through the Holy Spirit … orders us towards God. He directs our passions and desires towards that which can finally fulfill them and bring us happiness. (D.S. Long, 2001, 106-7)

Over against Gnosticism, transcendent goodness is made present and accessible in the human sphere, our embodied existence, through the incarnation. It offers us a transcendent turn to a new kind of humanism centered in agape love. Transcendence of the strong variety (Calvin Schrag, 1997) does not mean apathy, aloofness or indifference. Nor is it a burdensome or unreachable abstract standard of perfectionism. Rather, it is a creative, palpable engagement with the world: individuals, society and public institutions. Jesus shows that this goodness can be lived out in the human theatre; it is no mere Kantian ideal. The final litmus test of a good moral philosophy is its applicability, its praxis.

Jesus provides such an interpretive lens for the human imagination. Although this claim is challenging, Paul in Colossians 1: 15-20 speaks of Jesus as the source and ‘glue’ of creation and the purpose or end (telos) of creation, both its creative alpha and omega, beginning and final trajectory. He is above all things in creation and at the same time the creative basis, the very ground of being. He is that without which nothing would exist, without which this very text would be meaningless. All the fullness of God dwells in him. He is God incarnate, in the flesh, fully God and fully man, as the Athanasian tradition states. In him, God’s eternity connects with creation’s temporality. Paul writes it large: “Jesus is the Yes and Amen to it all” (II Corinthians 1: 18-21). He affirms the human condition while transforming it and setting out new vision for moral capacity, for spiritual hope, both in one’s individual and social identity.

In his thoughtful book, J. Richard Middleton (The Liberating Image, 2005) claims that Jesus accomplishes all that was anticipated in humans to become a proper regent of God on earth. He faithfully fulfilled this vocation as that strategic representative. Jesus is the complete human, a fullness of humanity, the true icon of God. He is the presence of God in the world, the nexus of the eternal and the temporal. He is a powerful exemplar of divine goodness, to direct our passions and show us the way to live robustly, honestly, humbly and justly. We don’t want to retreat from or fear our desires, but rather redirect them for the good inspired by the accessible goodness of God in Christ. One implication of the incarnation is that Christianity, at its best, is the participation in the life of God and in his presence, a presence as defined by Christ as true and ideal human image bearer. 

He came to take us higher morally and spiritually, in terms of justice and mercy: out of the murky shadows of our lies, lust for power, addictions and deceptions, and into the light that is God. In the popular television program Scandal, Olivia Pope, the fixer, is hired to save people’s reputation in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. She sees so much darkness that at times, she longs to leave it all, quit her job, and step out into the light. Jesus is the reason for this human longing for a noble character, moral clarity and true virtue. He is the reason for doing the right thing even if it not the easy thing, for remaining faithful to one’s highest convictions and principles. This will entail a whole new spiritual diet. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Christian humanist during the Second World War, part of the resistance to fascism as well as a theologian. He rightly regarded full humanity as the ultimate goal of God’s work in Christ and he learned the cost and joy of this outlook.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author, Blogger.

Williams, R. (2005). The Truce of God: peacemaking in troubled times. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Middleton, J.R. (2005). The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Crouch, A. (2008). Culture Making: recovering our creative calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Long, D.S. (2001). The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Schrag, C. (1997). The Self After Postmodernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Posted by: gcarkner | June 22, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 3.

Incarnational Spirituality, Part 3.

The Grand Invitation to Dialogue

Why are we here? What is our calling or purpose? Where are we going? Who are we really working for? What do we love? These are some of the key existential questions that humans continue to ask, generation after generation. How do we make sense of justice, freedom, power, relationships? Why do we suffer? Where do we find hope and joy? –Religion at its heart attempts to answer questions of meaning, identity, longing (Sehnsucht), guilt, suffering and death.

Science has not replaced religion in late modernity, explains philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (2007). In fact, we are quite haunted by transcendence these days. Abraham Joshua Heschel claims that God has not given up on mankind; he continues to show an interest in our wellbeing, to take initiative. Humans are addressed by God himself, in the call of Abraham, the burning bush of Moses, the entreaties of Hebrew prophets for moral and spiritual reform, in the call of teenage Mary. There is a draw upward into a stretching dialogue with our divine interlocutor. We are strongly encouraged and attracted to reason and commune with our Creator. Individuals are identified as loved, valued, nurtured, embraced and included.

These perlocutionary events act as a speech act (John Searle), one that produces an unavoidable impact on those addressed. He is the one who knows us in our true self, calling us into our fullness, our highest purpose. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (R. Gawronski, 1995, Word and Silence) sees the Word of God revealed in three rich and powerful ways, three forms of articulation: in Creation, in Scriptural Narrative, and robustly in the Incarnation. While all three are different types of speech, each is powerful and laden with meaning, engaging the big questions of our existence. Each offers a powerful language usage that complements and is entwined with the others. By their light, we can make sense of the world: theos, cosmos, anthropos.

Thus, the incarnation has phenomenal explanatory range for late moderns who take time to listen, reflect and respond. It reads backwards into history and forwards into our future. The journey offers an epiphany for those who will attend to transcendent speech. As the pinnacle of God’s engagement with humanity, the incarnation’s call to dialogue is profound indeed. Alister McFadyen illuminates some important nuances concerning its character. In the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, one sees God communicating and relating, not as a tyrannical, coercive, absolute sovereign, but as a vulnerable human individual, a humble suffering servant, as someone who was one of us and knows our pain. He radically identifies with our situation.

[By] incarnation in the body of the crucified one implies that God’s freedom does not, after all, entail a transcendent aloofness from the world, but a form of involvement with it in which the divine being and freedom are staked. God subjects Godself to the risks, vulnerabilities and ambiguities of historical existence, including the risk of rejection, suffering and death, as well as of misinterpretation. God’s freedom and sovereignty must be of a radical kind: the freedom to give oneself in relation; to be with and in creation in ways that are costly to God, but which do not abrogate God’s sovereignty, freedom and transcendence. (A. McFadyen, 1995, 42)

This move unites the divine freedom of self-giving agape love with the life-world and individual freedom of human beings. Divine love is the most completely free love. In the Christ event, one is confronted with a divine power that is deeply and thoroughly personal and grace-filled, a power in weakness. It is hospitality writ large that consequently has impact through forms of interpersonal communication and personal presence. It is not a divine monologue of commands or sayings, but a hospitable dialogue in which humans are attended to, and respected as subjects with their limited but highly valued freedom of choice. They are allowed to ask questions, discern and wrestle with divine speech in creation, scripture and above all in the incarnation, Jesus himself.

The problems of secularism actually beckon us to learn from the incarnation. Modernity has hit a wall in many ways, as religion and culture scholar Jens Zimmermann notes (Incarnational Humanism, 2012a). He argues that a proper Christian focus on the incarnation heads off a host of early and late modern philosophical dead ends, all while stimulating a vision of a robust, recovered humanism and enlightened spirituality. 

UK top thinker John Milbank argues that science was never meant to become a dogma or a worldview (exclusive humanism). It is, rather, a self-limited methodology, a tool for discovering certain things about the physical dimensions of the world (secondary causes). It always needs a larger context and other layers of meaning in order to function as it should. We have argued in a YouTube video that science needs faith to survive and flourish. Unfortunately, contemporary science has been hacked by the ideology of scientism in the minds of many intelligent people. This deception leads them straight into nihilism, the loss of meaning, unhappiness and ultimately into a deprivation of being–a reduction of their full potential.

Even while consciously living in the immanent frame of late modernity, we often long for transcendence (if we have not settled for a Closed World System: Charles Taylor). Oxford literary scholar C.S. Lewis at one point in his journey came to the end of modernity’s game in his mind, and mourned that it did not give him the life for which he longed. Rationalism left him feeling dead inside. Materialism left him deflated and bored, showing that this kind of narrow reasoning was insufficient and incomplete, didn’t’t meet his spiritual longings (Sehnsucht). Reason needs faith and love to complete it. Lewis’ imaginative explorations in ancient myths helped to revive his mind and his creative imagination. The CBC Ideas presentation on the Inklings illustrates this transition in Lewis, this experience of being surprised by joy, by the something more.

The resulting Narnia Chronicles and Space Trilogies, which refused the coldness of nihilism, materialistic naturalism and despair, is now some of the most celebrated literature of all time. Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkein refused to be blind-sided or stifled by scientism, or broken by cynicism from two world wars. Eventually Lewis found what he was looking for in a robust Christian faith with its commitment to compassion and a complex and fruitful humanism. He began to see where religion meets culture and animates it, illuminates it, where reason embraces the imagination to spark more resilient identity, meaning and purpose. Joseph Loconte captures it in his book (2015) A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18.

This dialogue with God awakens us from our nihilistic, foggy individualistic slumber. It captivates us. We are in awe, strangely moved by divine whisperings as well as great beatific announcements and revelations, by miracles that break the ideology of scientism. By addressing us in person, God calls us to become beings with different kinds of calling: culture makers, covenant keepers, gardeners and artisans as well as scientists, technologists and business persons (Andy Crouch, 2008). Many a top scholar has broken their mind on the anvil of the incarnation and its radical implications for humanity. Jurgen Moltmann, for example, notes (The Spirit of Life, 90) that “this kind of spirituality will be the restoration of a love for life, a resounding yes to life, drawing from the well of life. Vitality and liberty are linked.” It is grounded in social bonds which it shares with the Other. It is social in its very nature.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, author of The Great Escape from Nihilism; Mapping the Future; Ten Myths about Christianity.

Gawronski, R. (1995). Word and Silence: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West. New York, NY: T & T Clarke.

Loconte, J. (2015). A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). “Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom.” In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (36-56). Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zimmermann, J. (2012a). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church in the world. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic.

Heschel, A. J. The Wisdom of Heschel.

Moltmann, J. (1992). The Spirit of Life. A Universal Affirmation. London: SCM.

Milbank, J. (1993). Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thiselton, A. C. (1993). Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: on meaning, manipulation and promise. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke.

Posted by: gcarkner | June 18, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 2.

Incarnational Spirituality Series, Part 2.

A Comparison of Gnosticism and the Incarnation Worldview

Ancient GnosticismContemporary Gnosticism Incarnational Spirituality
Physical world is inferior.Your world is inferior and your body is inferior, blocking your fulfilment. It must be fixed or changed.Creation is good, although many broken relationships have resulted from the rebellious fall of humans. Christ has won, but all creation still groans towards its full redemption (Romans 8). It is a world in process of redemption, containing both good and evil.
Matter is the problem. We must fear our lower bestial nature.The mundane is the problem. Boredom is bad for you and must be resisted.Sin, disobedience and rebellion are the problem, creating a bad relationship with the loving Creator, with oneself and with creation.
Solution: escape the body to perfect the spirit, reach the heights of self. Ascend towards the Light.Turn your body into a perfection (get a make-over). Take it to the edge of thrills and adventure.Jesus’ gift of grace has freed us from sin, guilt and shame. His life is incarnate Son of Man, a fully free life of servanthood. There should be no fear of one’s body—it is God’s temple. Humans are soulish/spiritual bodies, embodied beings, embedded in social networks and relationships. There is healing for the whole person and for culture in Christ.
Look inward to find the truth and the god within (that fragment of a divine spark remnant in you at creation). Look inside to find the real you and your full potential. You can be all that you desire to become with the right advice and modifications.God opens our eyes to fullness of being, wisdom, virtue and reality/the true nature of things. Salvation is this-worldly, including all things: matter, bodies, relationships, morality, institutions, education, society and culture.
Escape this inadequate world to a perfect spiritual place or plane of existence.Escape the mundane for the most amazing. You can have it all, now! Avoid commitments that restrict your freedom or choices.There is joy, fullness, deep meaning and purpose found in worship and service to God and his kingdom purposes in this time-space frame. Our spirituality is embodied, our worship of God (not the world) corporate. Incarnation brings together transcendent/heaven and immanent/earth in the God-man and in the Body of Christ (the church).
Move towards perfection through finding special hidden knowledge (gnosis) from a guru or special spirit guide.Move towards perfect body, life, marriage, career through tips, tweaks, hacks, self-help secrets of success. Self-create, or re-invent yourself as you like, as an original.Pursue righteousness, justice, wholeness, authenticity, Christ-likeness via full social and communal redemption (within your relational networks). Find forgiveness and reconciliation here, now. Look forward to the new heaven and new earth, resurrected, glorified bodies when the world’s redemption will reach it final apex.
You are a seeker, pursuing higher spiritual truth and hidden knowledge through special techniques (magic). You try to avoid imploding into the bestial.You are a seeker pursuing fulfilment through incredible experiences and pleasures (travel, sex, fun, adventure, extreme sports, internet, social media, artificial intelligence).You are the recipient of profound common and special grace, pursued and deeply loved by God. Heal that relationship and re-engage his covenant love to flourish in this world. You will never be a god, but can become a redeemed, flourishing human being and mediate your relationship with God through Christ, your advocate. The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth in this embodied, socially embedded life. Let God be God! Practise Jesus’ Lordship and humble obedience.
Move past the inferior god (demiurge) to find the real god—you yourself. Lose your individual self in the infinite One or AbsoluteMove past organized religion, moral codes, and traditional codes of behaviour/thought and find the type of spirituality that suits you. Doctrine or religious sources are not important. Mix a variety to see what works for you. The Creator God seeks to partner with you in his mission through the church, the incarnation of Christ on earth. Model the character of humility, fruits and gifts of the Spirit within a healthy church body, a healing and witnessing community that impacts society for the common good. Become a moral light, a godly citizen and a loving neighbour. Live into a new story rooted in God’s great drama of salvation.
Break past all boundaries left in you by the inferior creator and become fully divine.Move past barriers of tradition, religion, authorities. Through innovation, seek your own unique spiritual path.Gain wisdom and self-giving skill through a community of believers writing a new story of kingdom values: integrity, joy and hope. Find your calling and use your gifts to promote shalom and the common goodPractice faithful presence, love your enemies and live humility.
When you finally arrive at this higher spiritual plane, you will discover that you are the god you have been seeking. Nothing can stop you now.It is all about you, your passion, your subjective feelings and sensibilities, what you desire, need and are entitled to. Be all that you can be.It is all about God and his story of loving, wise redemption for you and for the planet. Only he is God, you are properly human with limits and yet a high calling under his leadership. Jesus is the God-man at the right hand of the Father and he will return to bring the final fulfilment to all human seeking and spiritual aspirations. His death on the cross is the climax of God’s redemptive story and a model of humble servanthood.
Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-Educator UBC Postgraduate Students

Posted by: gcarkner | June 14, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 1.

Incarnational Spirituality Series: Part 1.

Figuratively speaking, we ascending a great mountain. We are dissatisfied with a mediocre life (mere getting and spending, paying taxes) and long for something more: more adventure, more hope, more truth, beauty, goodness, more reason for living. Our trajectory involves a transcendent philosophical turn towards incarnational spiritual wholeness. We want to see better, think better, live better. This series builds on our previous discussion of agape love in the Qualities of the Will series. This present quest (similar to The Medieval Quest for the Holy Grail) we believe offers an interpretive key to recover a thick, resilient identity, and wins through to a whole new social imaginary: ability to see, interpret and experience reality with fresh eyes.

As we ascend, we can perhaps escape the trap of damaging and restrictive ideologies and cultural Gnosticism. This kind of incarnational humanism has a scholarly reach all the way back to Saint Augustine, it is sourced in the biblical religions, and it is very much alive today. The integrative hermeneutic at hand concurrently provides both a challenge that pushes us to our limits, and an inspiration to pull us forward as towards a magnet. We are feeling very alive, our imagination is on fire.

The journey begins with a conversation, an I-Thou dialogue. We are addressed by the transcendent. There is a high degree of resonance with the Creator’s dialogue with his creation, despite the contemporary cacophony of conflicting voices. We are addressed, invited to open our hearts and minds to fresh wisdom and self-understanding, to new levels of attentiveness to our divine interlocutor. Such communication is writ large in the incarnation. In fact, the incarnation of Jesus the Christ is a great gift to humans, God’s grand masterpiece, the apogee of his revelational speech acts. It draws us upwards into a new dimension of life, a new caliber of thinking and living, opens us up to reality in fresh ways.

The increased awareness is similar to the way that the Hubble space telescope expands human sight out into 13.8 billion light years of universe with its billions of galaxies and stars. Perseverance and patience are in order if we wish to discover what we came for–the fulfilment of our deepest spiritual longings. We dare not rest until we have captured a full perspective on our new home, one where our hearts can rest with a thrilling sense of peace and ongoing adventure. Thank you for travelling with us. We believe that your endurance will be rewarded. Like in the Camino de Santiago reflective pilgrimage, we must name our fears and hesitations, and then set them aside in the name of powerful discovery and tangible personal growth. It may involve suffering and struggle to get to truth, but we will not remain the same at the end.

In Christ, we have both immanence and transcendence, physical and spiritual, earth and heaven. Brilliant UK hermeneutics scholar Anthony Thiselton says that the mystery of the incarnation is too profound for human discovery by reason alone, it requires divine revelation. It is beyond our limited imagination to capture. But open-minded reasoning engages, and is engaged by, such an epiphany. The right posture and intellectual virtues can help us fathom the profound implications. It can change our perception like a paradigm shift in science.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator UBC Postgraduate Students.

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