Posted by: gcarkner | October 5, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 12.

Zen Versus Incarnation

Beyond Gnosticism to the Logos Made Flesh in Community

In this series, we have been exploring the recovery of ethics, moral agency and identity through a reflection with our grande pensée Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It has been an amazing, enlightening journey indeed. The consequences of this discussion are earth-shaking. At the core, we have been positioned by a retrieval of the language of the good, the hypergood, the moral framework, preserving the good within community, the transcendent turn towards agape. We have become aware that Millennials and Gen Z need this message in a big way as they grapple with their existential identity crisis and their loss of hope.

Charles Taylor’s Concept of Moral Realism by Gordon E. Carkner

Continuing from our discussion about how the good is carried forward in community as an embodied lifestyle entity, we now elaborate further the concept of the incarnation of the good. In which way do we traverse late modernity? Is it the via positiva (incarnation frame) or the via negativa (Gnostic or Zen frame)? This is a crossroads for us in the West, it is very consequential. Do we try to escape the world and our responsibilities or do we find that deeper calling towards a thick self by taking responsibility for the world and for our behaviour?

The Big Comparison

We compare, through the scintillating quotes and reflections below, two radically different stances on truth and reality, spirituality and identity, personal hope and destiny, moral empowerment and deep freedom.

–Everything depends on whether God has spoken to humankind (John 1: 1-18) or whether the Absolute or Being or the One (Plotinus) remains silent beyond all words.

The Gnostic Frame of Mind

–Natural (Gnostic) man tries to escape from this world of limitation, finitude, death. Individualistic schemes of salvation lead him to dissolve his individual humanity or to dissolve his ties with the rest of humanity in attempts at union with the Absolute. In the end, all systems of natural religion or religious philosophy are based on attempts at identity. Without the revelation that comes from a personal God, a personal Absolute, reason tends to take over and reason projects itself as a monologue, the union is ultimately with oneself…. The way of human religion and religious philosophy is the way of ascent—towards God to be sure, but most significantly away from the world of multiplicity, individuality, relativity…. One is in danger of losing both the world and God. There remains absolute emptiness, Nirvana…. The ascent is always the way of silence [negation]. (Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence, 69-70)

–Zen is apex of East Asian development of negative theology: Selflessness as Emptiness, The “Unword” –Anima technica vacua creates hunger for Zen in the West, a soul technologized to the point of emptiness which seeks fulfilment in the occult, in Zen. –Zen was the tradition of the élite in China and then Japan, now in the post-Christian West. –Zen is the view of absolute nothingness, Non-Being, Nirvana = Samsara—a religious nihilism (double negative of being and non-being)–. Zen represents the most intense, the extreme human attempt to escape the limits of the human condition.– It implies the annihilation of God, man, and the world—the emptiness of Sunyata. Speech and meaning disappear. Finality and form are to be overcome.

–We are talking about “absolute nothingness.” Illusion is Being, therefore Nirvana has the name of “Non-Being” = the Truth– Being is actually itself Non-Being: the way of Zen is one of realizing the identity of Being and Non-Being and living accordingly in contemplation and everyday life. Thus the Zen philosophy of selflessness (practiced loss of self).– It is a radical religious nihilism—the belief that all things come from nothingness and are nothing. The Absolute is ineffable, inexpressible. We are dealing with the mystery of emptiness, a total paradox.– Therefore, Zen is the unword, silence, self-annihilation, the void. It is dis-incarnation.

The allure of Gnosticism is that religion appears to be under my control, with a technology to rise higher similar to the myth of Icarus. But there are problems with this assumption.

The Incarnation Frame of Mind

–This insight is rooted in the brilliant, rich writing of Hans Urs von Balthasar and other top theologians. Kevin Mongrain is a great interpreter of his thought. He suggests that incarnation of the Word in Balthasar is a key biblical theme in both old and new covenants writing: “When God reveals his Word, he confronts the finite human mind with a reality it cannot conceptually or speculatively master.” The prophetic tradition in Israel (for example, Deutero-Isaiah) can be read christologically as the site of an ever-increasing incarnation of God and God’s will in human hearts, opening people to a perpetual training, shaping and formation in order to become worthy bearers of the Word incarnate. The ancient prophetic vocation was to mirror God’s goodness and truthfulness to the community of Israel, to adjure them to offer mercy and justice to the poor, weak, the widow and the orphan, the outcast and the stranger. People were called to glorify God for his grace, mercy and holiness through ethical lives of covenant obedience. This was on a trajectory of deep freedom and purpose, a means of flourishing in the world as a community in love with God. The people often left this mandate for selfish, greedy pursuits and suffered for it, even experiencing exile under foreign superpowers. Disobedience, moral corruption led them into devastation.

Mongrain notes that the prophetic tradition reaches its zenith in Jesus Christ, uniting old and new covenants in the incarnational dynamic of the Word. Jesus reveals the inner life of the Trinity of love, a beautiful, high love (agape) which is open to human participation, opened to all races and nations, to the entire social strata. Going even further than what the prophets offered as the caretakers and defenders of the divine Logos, Jesus claimed for himself the divine authority to make a decision about the eschatological destiny of every person. That was new, dramatic. It included an unprecedented power in Christ’s redemptive grace and compassionate concern for the poor and marginalized (The Sermon on the Mount). Kevin writes “The glory of God shines through the poor, powerless, obedient Word of God in the crucified and resurrected rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. He was not just a temporary vessel of the Word, unlike the prophets. He was the man in whose human existence God proceeded to his final act of self-utterance, his final speech-act.” Another top theologian D. Stephen Long (2009, 177) writes: “Jesus Christ is the ‘way’ or ‘logic’ of our speaking of God, for he is the Procession who takes on creatureliness without confusing it with divinity in the concretion of his one Person.” Jesus embodies the Logos, constitutes the fullest and most complete incarnation of the Word. He dwelt among humans, offering a full identification with the existential human dilemma. The new covenant thereby calculates as the recapitulation and fulfilment of the old covenant.

The Incarnation is God’s Great Masterpiece in Creation

The Christian insistence on history is an insistence on the reality of the world, and so the action of God is a saving action, rather than one of dissolution. Religion for Israel, is in its relation with God. It is not a means by which the world is negated, nor is it the lens through which the light of a (Platonic) God is filtered. Rather, it is a relation with God in a covenant, a God who created the world and who wants the world to be lived in—according to his intention. It is not the world that must be overcome or negated, but rather it is a sinful alienation from the will of the Creator that is to be overcome by the saving action of God [in Jesus]. (Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence, 62) 

–Since the resurrection, the choice for man is ultimately one between myth and revelation.– The one who became flesh brought the fullness of heaven to earth and by so doing showed that the Unity of God need not be destroyed when expressed in the multiplicity of the world, including statements and concepts and images and judgments. The good news for Balthasar is the Evangelium of a God who speaks, a Trinitarian God of three persons, who wants to share his Being, who wants to engage in dialogue with others, with free beings, and who will communicate His speech in a Word which becomes flesh and in a Spirit which gathers together all the scattered syllables of creation to return them to the divine speech. (Raymond Granowski, Word & Silence, 134)–

Creation is the First Speech of God—Ignatius of Antioch

Scripture is His Word Written–Martin Luther

Jesus is the Final/Ultimate Speech of God–Hans Urs von Balthasar

–The triune God is a living—and lively—relation of persons. My I is a Thou for God; I can only be an I because God wants to become my Thou. This is at the heart of Balthasar’s theology. Human and divine reality is dialogical. It is God’s calling of the individual that gives each one his unique worth.  One only becomes an I as awakened by the love of a Thou. The I-Thou of the Trinity finds its epiphany in the I-Thou between God and man. –– In the relation of God and man, it is the unlimited “I” of God that calls the limited “I’ of man into existence, and this is His Word: to be human means to be addressed by God in the word and to be so created in the image of God, that one can receive the word and answer the word. (Raymond Gawronski, Word & Silence, 142) This is where deep identity is located.

The Call of the Divine Word Made Flesh

–Jesus Christ addresses each human being individually: each must decide if he will bear the Name of Christ and accept the unique mission that God has for each one, within the mission of His Son. It is only by identifying with this mission that we become persons in the deepest, theological sense. (Gawronski, Word & Silence, 144)––. Person for Balthasar means uniqueness.  An eternal dignity is bestowed upon individual being, not to be dissolved. To dissolve the individual would be to remove the possibility of love. Therefore divine-human distance from the other is important. We are first sought by God, and then become seekers of God. In Christ, we have both immanence and transcendence, physical and spiritual, earth and heaven, human and divine together. Anthony Thiselton says that the mystery of the Incarnation is too profound for human discovery by reason alone. It requires divine revelation. But, the right posture and intellectual virtues can help us fathom the implications.

–God’s self-communication to man then develops  in a level of conscious address and response…. God’s speech in and through the prophets was a mission given to selected individuals which yet was different than the core of their beings: they performed a role, or bore tidings, but in no case was the role, or the news identical with their person. The words which they spoke bore witness to the Word in whose Spirit they spoke, and yet… they were not the Word.” (Gawronski, Word & Silence, 157-8)––.

Jesus is the Superword (Überwort), the Word above all words, the very speech of God, the full expression of God. Word means something like the full expression of abundance, the word abundantly expressing the abundance from which it is uttered, from the beginning of creation. The word is also deed; it is grace-imparting deed-word. All the fragments of reality, all the words, are drawn to him as metal shavings are to a magnet. He is the primordial Word before all words—the Urwort—who as sharing in the divine essence is also an Überwort, the alpha and omega…. In the flesh he speaks words, fragments themselves which are cast out like a net to gather the original fragments, turned away from their telos by misused human freedom, leading them not to destruction, but to fullness. (Gawronski, Word & Silence, 188).

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)

Incarnation makes a whole world of difference in how we see ourselves and others.

Author of this article/free download: Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

[M]y discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live. (C. Taylor, The Language Animal)

The New Testament can also act as such a parental discourse. It 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 is ultimately found embodied in a person, a presence, it is not a mere idea. Jesus is reason personified, the raison d’être of it all. He helps us make sense of life’s essence. We are still haunted by transcendence in our secular age. The narrative is clear and profound. He is and has the answer to our deepest questions:

Why are we here?

What is our calling or purpose? 

Quo Vadis: Where are we going?

Who are we working for?

What or whom do we love? 

God’s speech is embodied, full-blooded, not flat, lifeless or atomistic. The incarnation is a most powerful communicative action (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2009), so much more than mere letters, words or sentences. It contributes unusual levels of energy to human creativity and culture and affirms the physicality of our world and our bodies. It is loaded with spiritual vitality and meaning.

N.T. Wright on Incarnation

It rings with the poignancy of the poetic, prophetic, and pedagogical. Bonhoeffer scholar Jens Zimmermann’s stunning summary insight on this point represents a fresh re-articulation of incarnational reality—the opposite of ghostly Gnosticism. It shows that there is something deeply meaningful about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who is both Son of man and Son of God. God has acted vulnerably in and through the form of a human individual, by uniting the divine freedom of self-giving agape love with the agency of a free human being, acting in a community, within a historical-cultural context, within a tradition. In the Christ event, one is confronted with the intensely personal, which consequently has impact through forms of interpersonal communication and personal presence. Individuals are identified a loved, valued, nurtured, embraced and included. The incarnation has phenomenal explanatory range for late moderns.

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, 2012, 264-5)

This incarnational posture moves us from Gnostic self-assertion to humble servant leadership, mutuality, community and hospitality, into the virtuous society. It takes us away from pure self-interest and prideful, god-like superiority, and leads us toward a welcomed responsibility for others. Our mandate is to let God be God. We escape our isolation, aloofness and indifference, and re-enter courageously into embedded vulnerability and mutual trust. Goodness is embodied in Jesus Christ and his teaching. 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.

[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)

It leads us out of our sensuality and sloth into an adventure that is grounded and hopeful. We have been rumbling with reality and we are not afraid, because we have discovered just how important the incarnation is for everyday life and discipleship, for basic human flourishing. The worthwhile pursuit and practice of virtues builds a solid ground for freedom with depth, freedom in the long run, freedom informed by love, freedom connected to the good–moral freedom committed to the common good. Jens Zimmermann notes that a proper focus on the incarnation heads off a host of early and late modern philosophical dead ends, all while stimulating a vision for the recovery of a robust humanism. Oxford literary scholar C.S. Lewis at one point in his journey came to the end of modernity’s game. He mourned that it did not give him the meaning for which he longed: rationalism and materialism left him feeling dead inside.

Gordon Carkner Reading from his book The Great Escape from Nihilism on the theme of the Incarnation: The Imago Dei

This series has helped us step back from the abyss of nihilistic despair and cynicism, the end game of Gnosticism. In the end, we are not hard-wired to be gods or to retreat to nothingness. We can discover in the incarnation a new transcendent-immanent horizon of vast meaning. God has invested deeply in this physical-spiritual world, this soulish-body which is his temple. We are thereby deeply connected to this world and yet also deeply connected to the kingdom of heaven. Many people today sense God calling them to be something more than they presently are, calling them upwards out of their self-interest, consumerism and sullenness. These intimations may lead to a life-changing quest–community builders, peacemakers, truth-defenders.

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)

An incarnation posture helps us recover an empirically honest human anthropology, which is also more hopeful in its potential for individual and social change. This positioning of the individual self within community makes possible the ability to love self, the world, the other and God, and to recognize hopeful signs of progress, while recognizing corruption and the pain it causes. It is a creative and joyful way of being present to others that creates space for more being, more potential in life, more joie de vivre. Individual identity is strengthened and thickened, becomes more resilient, through generosity, gratitude and mutuality. Incarnation is this and much more.


–Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation.

Gordon Carkner, The Great Escape from Nihilism, Chapter 10. “Transcending Nihilism: Incarnational Humanism Offers a Recovery of Our Passion.”

Warren Brown & Brad Strawn, The Physical Nature of the Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology and the Church.–

Jim Belcher (2009). Deep Church: a Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. IVP

Kevin Mongrain (2002). The Systematic Thought of Hans urs von Balthasar: an Irenaean Retrieval.– New York: Herder & Herder.

Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence: Hans ursvon Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West

Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience.

James Davison Hunter (2010). To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press.

Jens Zimmermann (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic

We recommend the Netflix movie Social Dilemma on a deep structure problem in today’s society worldwide, on the loss of freedom.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Jesus as the Wisdom & Truth of God

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