Posted by: gcarkner | October 5, 2020

Quality of the Will: Post 12.

Incarnation Versus Zen

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 grande pensée Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It has been an amazing journey indeed. The consequences of this discussion/debate/dialogue are earth-shaking. The core of it has been 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 an existential identity crisis.

Continuing on from our discussion about how the good can be carried forward in community, we drill down into the concept of the incarnation of the good. How do we traverse late modernity, by the via positiva or the via negativa? James Davison Hunter calls incarnation living faithful presence ( in his important tome, To Change the World. There seems to be a tension in our day between Gnostic and incarnate perceptions of the good. Let us compare below the two radically different stances to reality.

–At the end of the day, everything depends on whether God has spoken to man (John 1: 1-18) or whether the Absolute or Being or the One (Plotinus) remains silent beyond all words. 

The Gnostic Individual

–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 Incarnation Alternative

–This is based on the brilliant insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Kevin Mongrain is a great interpreter of his thought. He suggests that incarnation of the Word (in von Balthasar) is a key biblical narrative in both old and new covenants: “When God reveals his Word, he confronts the finite human mind with a reality it cannot conceptually or speculatively master.” The prophetic tradition (for example, Deutero-Isaiah) in Israel can be read christologically as the site of an ever-increasing incarnation of God in human hearts, opening people to perpetual training, shaping and formation to become worthy bearers of the Word. The prophetic call was to mirror socially God’s goodness and truthfulness in the community of Israel, offering mercy and justice towards the poor, weak, the widow and the orphan, the outcast, the stranger. People were called to glorify God’s revealed grace and holiness through ethical lives of covenant obedience.

But Mongrain holds that the prophetic tradition reaches its zenith in Jesus Christ, uniting old and new covenants in this incarnational dynamic. Jesus reveals the inner life of the Trinity of love, a beautiful, high love which is open to human participation, opened to all races and nations, the entire social status. But beyond what the prophets demanded, Jesus claimed for himself the divine authority to make a decision about the eschatological destiny of every person. There was an unprecedented power in Christ’s redemptive grace and compassionate concern for the marginalized (Sermon on the Mount). 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 /Logos unlike the prophets before him. He was the man in whose human existence God proceeded to his final act of self-utterance, his final speech-act. This constitutes the fullest and most complete incarnation of the Word, through an identification with the existential human condition. The new covenant thereby calculates as the recapitulation and fulfilment of the old covenant.

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. (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

Jesus is the Final 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.

–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)

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

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

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 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. 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.

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.

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. The worthwhile pursuit and practice of virtues builds a solid ground for freedom with depth, freedom in the long run, freedom informed by love.

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. 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 deeply connected to this world and yet also deeply connected to the kingdom of heaven.

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. It is a creative and joyful way of being present to others that creates space for more being, more abundance in life. 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.

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

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