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.


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