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.

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