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.


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