Posted by: gcarkner | July 15, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 8.

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 8

The Quest for Communion & Community

Life in the kingdom builds upward momentum. Incarnational spirituality moves us from arrogant Gnostic individualism and boisterous self-assertion to humble servant leadership, mutuality and hospitality. The trajectory is towards a virtuous society. It takes us away from pure self-interest and god-like superiority, and leads us toward respect and responsibility for the other. We escape our isolation, aloofness and indifference, the neuroses of the aesthetic self, and we enter courageously into embedded, embodied vulnerability and trust. It leads us out of our sensuality and sloth into a group adventure that is grounded and hopeful. We move into spiritual formation within community.

In Part III of The Physical Nature of Christianity, Warren Brown and Brad Strawn (2012) write about complex dynamical systems and how this relates to Christian spiritual formation. Their claim is that it is the key context in which people change and are transformedIt is often assumed that speaking to the individual, and encouraging them to change or set high goals is the key strategy component of discipleship. The individual remains important, but it is our significant relationships that actually heal us, as many counsellors would corroborate. We see this tension playing out among the high achiever surgeons on Grey’s Anatomy. Without reconciling significant relationships, they are unable to do their job. Brown and Strawn encourage leaders to pay more attention to entities like social networks, mutual shaping experiences, clusters of relationships, and mutual imitative reinforcement, ideas that they draw from research in the social and behavioural sciences. 

This book offers vital advice for leaders and educators. In church, we often focus too intensely on the individual believer (or potential believer), on feeding them the right information or posing a challenge that will change their outlook, build their character or set their destiny. Are we not catering to the Gnostic mood of the day (radical individualism) when we are so oriented to pitching to the individual with all their desires, quirks, and sense of entitlement. Social formation of people within networks and clusters begs for more attention as we seek to imitate Christ. Millennials and Gen Z could be well-served with this approach, mobilized to contribute through these powerful small groups and networks: where they can begin to learn the art of self-sacrifice and agape love. Ghosts could be transformed into givers, value-adders and lively covenant participants. As mutual trust and commitment grows, it is much easier to ask for help to heal from one’s addictions,  “PTSD” or woundedness. Henri Nouwen called this an environment for wounded healers. I can strongly attest to the value of this approach during my formative adolescent years.

The notion of emptying of self in love characterizes Balthasar’s view of reality, from the relations within the Trinity, through the creation, incarnation and saving work of Christ, on to the expected response of the creature in self-giving love” (R. Gawronski, 2015, 163). 

The incomprehensible love of God meets humanity through the incarnation on understandable and practical terms in the social realm. Jesus Christ addresses each human being individually: each must decide if they will bear the Name of Christ, but immediately he draws them into a family environment. They see and are seen, know and are known, accept and are accepted, experience hospitality and generously share their resources. This process of maturity comes to full fruition within dynamic community, creative dialogue, and growing communion with the Trinity. This process bestows an eternal dignity and healthy self-worth.

Further, Incarnational spirituality reminds us that we are storied, communal selves within a covenant of love, not ghostly techno-hermits playing video games until 4:00 a.m. Respected American sociologist Brené Brown in Rising Strong (2015, 39f) claims that we need to own our stories however difficult or painful. She offers hope that we can re-write them with different outcomes: transcending fate, despair, addiction, dysfunctionality, shame and loneliness. But we cannot do without a larger story of redemption to help us envision this healing possibility. The Bible contains such a narrative. Hermeneutically, Christ is the core inner logic of scripture. The drama of the Word unfolds wonderfully in the breadth of scripture and the life of the church.

We read the Old Testament through fresh eyes, employing the  Jesus story and its teaching— a Christological reading. In light of Christ, we can capture the full narrative journey away from God, back to God, with God, for God, to the glory of God (lostness, alienation, recovery, reckoning, communion). It is a powerful insight to see the entire biblical narrative as the vehicle for God’s transformative work in human culture (Tom Holland, Dominion). God pursues and works with us at our worst, as well as our best, and our story can and does often change. Redemption in and through the incarnate Christ blossoms into harmonious social communion without dismissing the importance of the individual. “In redeeming the created order, Christ redeems social relationships among creatures, relationships that are intrinsic to created human nature” (K. Mongrain, 2002, 199).

It is the real, incarnate, suffering man Jesus who by what he is gives glory to God far greater than any suffering–free schemes of the Gnostics. Other religions all seek to free man from pain and death through liberation or at most great indifference: for Christianity, Christ by taking on himself the world’s guilt and sin on the cross, becomes the greatest proof that God is love.… The Cross is God’s last word about himself. (R. Gawronski, 2015, 180)

An authentic story acts like a good map. Story charts our course but simultaneously unlocks meaning, forms bridges, making sense of disparate ideas and experiences. We see beyond the weeds in our life, to the depth of what is at stake in our trajectory.

The Christian life involves re-understanding our entire lives and the whole world in the light of God’s revelation…. Creation and covenant map our existence, and we need to learn how to read the maps and use a compass to find our way through the territory. (E. Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 172)

Our character develops as we face adversity and our story helps solidify the meaning in our struggles and pain. For example, a creative colleague of mine, Dr. Laurel Borisenko, worked for the United Nations assisting African refugees. She discovered that theatre presentations of their struggle connected them with a healing path. She helped them use their creative imagination to tell their stories of displacement, suffering, poverty and violence. The story of the COVID-19 pandemic does not end with lockdowns and death. There are heroes and villains, but also a future, a new dawn on the horizon. Deeper roots in a tradition free us to move forward in hope with gratitude and joy, make us more resilient to the daily buffeting of adversity. We are released from the dark victimhood to fate—cosmic or social determinism.

Post-Resurrection Presence: Beyond Jesus’ profound bodily presence on earth, he has also been present in his community (John 14-17; Ephesians 4; Romans 12). As agape love incarnate, he left a following to carry the beautiful vision forward, and he commissioned a mentored leadership–the Apostles–to anchor us. This unique community is a historical and real extension of the incarnation. This diverse, worldwide community of Christians (now more than two billion souls) offers a cultural presence, performance and embodiment of God’s goodness on planet earth. It remains an influence of salt and light conscience for society, socially locating divine goodness in diverse places around the globe: pushing for hope, recovery and maturity.

Moreover, it is having profound influence for the good in many sectors, even at great cost. This entails a tremendous responsibility, opportunity and benefit for humankind. Its concern is the flourishing of all, including a profound commitment to dialogue across various traditions with a will to promote peace (M. Volf, 2015; J. Sachs, 2002, 2015). Neuroscientists Brown and Strawn in their salient book, The Physical Nature of Christianity (2012)use the comparison of the community of faith and an the ant colony. Genuine spiritual formation occurs within the integrity of mutual, responsible relational networks that matter to us, that make us whole and full of purpose.  The authors draw on and apply breakthrough insights from current neuroscience, psychology and sociology research. Missioned disciples spread not only the sayings but also the deeds and ethos of Jesus. They authentically act out an ongoing miracle of self-sacrifice and grace, refusing vengeance. Christian community is the active verb of God, the deed-word of God, the shalom of God carrying out the drama of God begun in the Old Covenant, now into the New Covenant. 

There are over one thousand verses of Judeo-Christian scripture dedicated to concern for the poor and marginalized. That ought to catch our attention: God is clearly a friend to the poor. One is reminded of that incredible speech by Portia in the Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice  in defence of the quality of mercy, something that she claims makes us more human. Compassion/concern for the other is an important matter of moral and spiritual weight and substance. Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it poignantly: “The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbour who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.” Moral growth and stature of character develop through careful and consistent service to others, being the divine presence in their lives.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, YouTube Seminars, Author, Mentor

Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau.

Brown, W.S. and B. D. Strawn (2012). The Physical Nature of Christianity: neuroscience, psychology and the church. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Volf, M. (2015). Flourishing: why we need religion in a globalizing world. New haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gawronski, R. (2015). Word and Silence: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West 3rd edition. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press.

Mongrain, K. (2002). The Systematic Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: an Irenaean Retrieval. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Sacks, J. (2002). The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. London, UK: Continuum. 

Sacks, J. (2015). Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. New York: Shocken Books.

Peterson, E. (2010). Practice Resurrection: a Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


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