Posted by: gcarkner | August 4, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 11.

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 11.

Self-Sacrifice, Giving of Oneself is Key to Incarnational Community

The triune God is a lively relation of three persons. My I is a Thou for God; I can only be an I because God wants to become my Thou. Human and divine realities are dialogically connected. It is God’s calling of the individual that gives each their unique worth.  One only becomes an “I” as awakened by the love of the “Thou”. The I-Thou of the Trinity finds its epiphany in the I-Thou between God and humanity, within history. Martin Buber speaks much of this vital I-Thou relationship.

In the relation of God and humanity, it is the unlimited “I” of God that calls the limited “I” of humankind into existence. 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) 

Agape Self-Giving Love  How can we produce real character depth versus the superficial, consumer attitude? Consumer spirituality sets up believers for recruitment by cults, prosperity gospel charlatans. How do we protect them from becoming drones in a technological matrix, weaponized for nefarious politics? The church needs resilient believers who view creation and the world through the prism of the cross, who see sacrifice for the other as a great aspiration and a holy calling. We need the encouragement: Do not escape the world; do not worship or possess the world, but rather cultivate a life of love for others. This highlights the very meaning of life as service to the other. In giving oneself away, it is much easier to discover the deeper meaning and joy of life. We need an incarnational hermeneutic. How do we make Christ as suffering servant present in the world?

In the three persons, there is a versatile and dynamic oneness, yet there are also roles and primary actions that proceed uniquely from Father, Son and Spirit. God the Father: God bringing everything into being and holding everything together by his word. God the Son: God entering our history, showing God in action in human terms that we can recognize, accomplishing salvation for all. God the Spirit: God present with and in us, inviting us, guiding and counselling us, wooing us into participation in all God’s ways of being God. All these operations of God are in evidence as Paul directs and accompanies us in the process of growing up in Christ. (E. Peterson, Practice Resurrection,2010, 197)

Gnostics seek glory without suffering, strive to go around suffering or drown pain in pleasures, adventure, consumerism, social media, or binging on movies. In contrast to such escapist thinking, Christianity is more about obedience than knowledge, or a fulsome knowing that only emerges through obedience–faithful presence. The alternative facing us today is either Promethean arrogance or the greatness of humble obedience. Christian faith is primarily a listening obedience to a Person and the service to the sister or brother for whom Christ died (not a quest for a light that is greater than God). Love and obedience are united at the core (John 14: 21). On topic, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams writes: “At its center and permeating its relationships is the conviction that truth can only be shown and spoken in compassion—attention to the other, respect for and delight in the other, and also the willingness to receive loving attention in return.” (R. Williams, 2005, 123)

We are suggesting that Gnostics can be lured away from their fantasies, disengagement and isolation into sacrificial community where people flourish as robust community. They discover a fresh human dynamic and learn the skills of listening, empathy, patience and compassion, practical actionable behaviour that builds up. This can provide a safe home as belonging, trust and servanthood grow. The passion of Christ is a statement that God is love at core, even through the deepest darkness. The cross is the unsurpassable  goal of the incarnation, the final stop in the descent of the Son (Philippians 2). The Logos becomes incarnate in the man Jesus in a selfless act to redeem mankind, giving up part of his freedom for the human other. It is a move from above. This is the opposite of Gnosticism where one seeks to rise from beneath to become one with the Absolute. Christ Incarnate displays the amazing self-giving character of God. Tom Holland (2019, 103) captures it:

The Son of God, by becoming mortal, had redeemed all humanity. Not as a leader of armies, not as the conqueror of Caesars, but as a victim, the Messiah had come. The message was as novel as it was shocking–and was to prove well suited to an age of trauma.

Tübingen theologian Christoph Schwöbel (1992, 76) notes that divine goodness, a communion of love, “finds its social form in the community of believers as the reconstituted form of life of created and redeemed sociality.” The point is that this community is called to communicate, mediate, and live into their baptism, live into and mediate such divine goodness. They are called to promote the virtues of charity, humility, reconciliation and mercy as a redeeming influence in society. Award winning historian Tom Holland notes how influential this has been down the centuries continuing to this day (Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World). He reminds us that Christian imagination has been vital in shaping our culture with its values. The old ethics of raw greedy acquisition and ‘conquer or be conquered’ barbarity is not the last word. Through this contemporary living incarnation, average people are invited to become entrepreneurs of the abundant goodness of God in the places that they live, move and have their being. Goodness operates at a deeper depth than suffering and evil and helps people get perspective on their lives and suffering. They learn to suffer with one another–compassion. This international community welcomes the challenge to engage human brokenness without becoming crushed by it, to treat people with dignity. 

Goodness as we define it as divine transcendent trinitarian goodness is no idealistic fantasy. It is empowered in the human theatre and human relationships through this accessible I-Thou relationship. This aspect of the incarnation is a profound sign that God has invited humans into communion within the Trinity. This communion offers a ground for social being itself, the basic framework of human community. In this sense, Jesus is the hermeneutic of a new, reconciled humanity, drawn from all the nations, religions and ideologies around the globe, inviting us to climb up to higher moral and spiritual plane. This high calling of suffering love is promoting a new way of seeing, the way of becoming renewed people in communities small and large–demonstrating the plausibility of resurrection life. It is a call to a new humanity committed to practice forgiveness, gratitude and making peace, to become a life-giving presence, a sacrament of grace

It may look tough at first because of the gap from where we now stand, but we are not alone. In community, roped together, we work as a team, receive gifts from others and learn how to share our giftedness. Christian community is all about gift and grace. These gifts, this transcendent economy of giftedness, makes life rich and meaningful, surprising and delightful (C. Schrag, 1997, 139-143). It engages us at the various interfaces and transitions of our lives. We bravely face the quest for a new identity. The chaos, bigotry and greed within our world inspire us to take action, to use our giftedness for the benefit of others. This is the way out of the cultural prison camp of nihilism in late modernity:

We depersonalize God to an idea to be discussed. We reduce people around us to resources to be used. We define ourselves as consumers to be satisfied. The more we do it, the more we incapacitate ourselves from growing up to a maturity capable of living adult lives of love, adoration, trust and sacrifice…. In our identity-confused society, too many of us have settled for a pastiche identity composed of social security number, medical records, academic degrees, job history, and whatever fragments of genealogy we can salvage. (E. Peterson 2010, 66, 79) 

We become empowered and resilient. Within incarnational community, human suffering, vulnerabilities and alienation can be taken seriously and dealt with through communal care: our pain finds meaning and redemptive power. Jesus of Nazareth accepted the mandate of the Suffering Servant spoken of by Isaiah the 8th century BCE prophet. He is the servant who empathizes with our vulnerabilities. He does not stand far off. He is the servant who suffers with us while protesting against the way things stand. The call of Abraham and of Isreal was to become a blessing to the nations, tous le monde. Jimmy Myers captures it succinctly: 

He [Jesus] exemplifies and creates a people committed to what David Bentley Hart calls ‘strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness’ to those whom Nietzsche would have annihilated [and Hitler did]…. The beauty of this person, wholly man and wholly God, lies in the mystery that he brings salvation to the world not by excluding suffering but by uniting himself to it. (J. Myers, First Things, 2015) 

Jesus’ compassion offers moral spine to the incarnational community, and in turn to the larger human community, as an exemplar and pioneer. He models and mentors us in the virtues and the graces of a brave new world. At the end of his life, Nietzsche (Dionysus Versus the Crucified) realized that it came down to a choice between the Christ (suffering love) and Dionysus (self-indulgence, narcissism and entitlement). Nietsche despised Christian agape love and the vulnerable concern for the weak, the victim. Late moderns would do well to ponder the consequences of such a choice, as they continue to stare into their own personal abyss. Jesus’ suffering is not weak, frustrating or pathetic, but rather a highly effective, healing, redemptive love. He brings to an end the human obsession with sacrifices and scapegoating behavior (René Girard, 1978 and 2012). He breaks the back of evil and helps us expose its dark mechanisms and tactics, its weaponized lies. He is the ultimate victim who calls a moratorium on all victimization and violence against the neighbour. 

He [Jesus] brings the whole festival of divine grace to a world that has excluded itself from it and invites… humanity to take part, to enjoy a feast of resurrection where all divisions, segregation, and exclusion are transcended, where all have their place at the supper of the Lamb, where all, who see the face of the Beautiful One and in that seeing are transformed, are inundated and radiated by Beauty itself. In a word, to paraphrase St. Athanasius, he becomes the Ugly One so that we, the original ugly ones who have made this world ugly with our violence, might become beautiful. (J. Myers, First Things, 2015)

Jesus is also a sign of anger against, and rejection of, exploitation, victimization, marginalization and injustice. In fact, all ancient and modern prophetic traditions have been concerned with justice for the poor and marginalized. He is intolerant of evil and cruelty, opposing ideals, institutions and structures that seek to undermine human flourishing and seek to exploit others for personal gain or lust. Moreover, he is against politicizing religion, against using public rage for the purpose of controlling the masses. David Bentley Hart (2009) makes an excellent case for the transformative power of Christian love in shaping history and institutions. This agape community provides a home (Luke 6), a safe space of refuge amidst the challenges, conflicts, tragedies, and transitions of life. It addresses directly the pressures from the tectonic plates of our time—inequity, xenophobia, refugees, climate concerns, international debt, and terrorism. 

The agape community offers a space where we can become persons in a fulsome sense. It offers hermeneutical capacity to exegete life differently. It gives us ideas and courage to embrace the virtues. It provides a context for peacemaking and reconciliation. “Peace does not come without integrity, wholeness of human desire.” (R. Williams, 2005, 103). Incarnate communal life releases us from unconscious fear, anxiety, defensiveness and the ingrained compulsions of rivalry. We recover the art of contemplation: awareness of our vulnerability, interdependence, mutuality, contingency and humility in the presence of the divine and human other. Jesus followers, at their most authentic, do not accept injustice and violence, oppression and exploitation as the inevitable human condition.

For example, the United Nations International Charter of Human Rights is a landmark statement on the value of each human being and how they ought to be treated. It draws philosophical nourishment from incarnate spirituality. Charles Malik, former President of the UN General Assembly, was a key player in drafting the document and getting a majority of nations to sign. He was motivated by his Christian faith and his concern for justice and peace in the world after an immensely destructive World War II rooted in hate. Jesus’ followers interrupt the victimization of others and call the aggressors out on their bullying tactics (M. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 1996). They do not promote or tolerate social chaos and anarchy. They carve out a redemptive path, a hope for truth, forgiveness and reconciliation amidst the conflicts of life. Another example of this courageous stance is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in both South Africa and Rwanda.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw how the solidarity of mutual love could empower social change and call us to our better selves. He understood the critical testimony of the ‘Beloved Community’ rooted in the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. This kind of suffering love is depicted in the feature film Selma; it came from a deep, non-violent faith base. It was a daily experience for him and his colleagues to risk life itself on this love. His dream continually called people to the mountaintop of virtue, reconciliation, hope and justice. 

When Jesus is asked by his disciples who will be first in his kingdom, he tells them it will be the servants of all. Humility is one of the most poorly appreciated values in our intensely competitive culture, economy and politics. (J. Wallis, 2014, 49). 

One key historical marker for the inauguration of the new community is the resurrection. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin calls it a starting point, a singularity that cannot be explained by anything prior. It stands as a new beginning, a brilliant hope for change. The resurrection represents a cultural breakthrough. This is why Eugene Peterson (Practice Resurrection, 2010) focuses a whole book on growing up into maturity in Christ around the theme of resurrection. Articulate writer Andy Crouch captures its profound cultural and historical impact. 

The resurrection was a culture-shaping event…. If indeed it happened as Jesus’ followers proclaimed, [it] changed more of subsequent human history, for more people and more cultures, than any other event one can name… The resurrection of Jesus is like a cultural earthquake, its epicenter located in Jerusalem in the early 30’s [C.E.], whose aftershocks are being felt in the cultural practices of people all over the world, many of whom have never heard of, and many more of whom have never believed in, its origins…. The resurrection is the hinge of history–still after two thousand years as culturally far-reaching in its effects as anything that has come since…. It is a cultural triumph–an answer, right in the midst of human history, to all the fears of Israel in the face of its enemies…. Indeed one of the most dramatic cultural effects of the resurrection is the transformation of that heinous cultural artifact known as a cross. An instrument of domination and condemnation becomes a symbol of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed; an alternative culture where grace and forgiveness are the last word…. The cross, the worst that culture can do, is transformed into a sign of the kingdom of God–the realm of forgiveness, mercy, love and indestructible life. (A. Crouch, 2008, 143, 145, 146) 

The incarnation is a game changer, a paradigm shift, regarding how we discover our individuality and spiritual wholeness. Within the outlook of moral-communal inclusiveness rather than through the pursuit of radical autonomy, our perspective can be altered for the good. We are capable of living alternative lifestyles, ones that are rooted in contemplation, compassion, receptivity, responsiveness to the aspirations and needs of others. The mutual respect of collaboration, cooperation and complementarity subverts fear, mistrust, and tribalism. It reduces violence as we seek new and fruitful ways of being human together. This perspective can handle difference, diversity, and plurality without fragmentation or ghettoization. It can help mitigate the centrifugal forces that seek to fragment contemporary society, providing a strong source of the good, and a centre that can hold. The alternative is just too frightening and destructive to consider. 

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author of Mapping the Future, Mentor.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: the making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, R. (2005). The Truce of God: peacemaking in troubled times. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Zimmermann, J. (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church. Downers Grave, IL: IVP Academic.

Crouch, A. (2008). Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downer’s Grove, Il: IVPress.

Peterson, E. H. (2010). Practice Resurrection: a conversation on growing up in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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

Wallis, J. (2014) The (Un)Common Good: how the gospel brings hope to a world divided. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Schrag, C. (1997). The Self After Postmodernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Myers, J. ( July 25, 2015). Is it True that “The World Will be Saved by Beauty?” First Things Journal.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). “God’s Goodness and Human Morality.” In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and Revelation (63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

Girard, R. (2001). I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Orbis Books.

Hart, D. B. (2009). Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. Yale University Press.

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: a Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Postscript: Good & Evil according to Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen.

Definition of Evil: the Greek concept of diabolos–“he who separates, divides through aversion and hate; he who makes unjust accusations, denigrates, slanders; he who envies, admits his repugnancy.” The absolute Evil identified by our contemporary takes the form of racism, exclusion or totalitarianism. The last in fact appears as the epitome of separation, since it atomizes societies, functions by means of terror and denouncement, and is determined to destroy human bonds (examples: apartheid and xenophobia). (61)

Definition of the Good: For contemporary man, the notions of solidarity and fraternity, and the different expressions of harmony between classes, age groups, peoples, are still associated with goodness. The man of our time is similar to the man of any time insofar as he prefers friendship to hate and indifference, social harmony to internal strife, peace to war, and the united family to the fragmented family. In other words, he seeks relationship, union, agreement, and love, and fears distrust, ostracism, contempt, and the destruction of his fellow…. The good has the face of fellowship, no matter what name it is given, be it love, the god of Aristotle, or the God of the Bible. (62)

The certitude of the good finds its guarantee in the attraction it induces. The separation of the diabolos occurs constantly, but one day or another it will be pursued by mortal shame…. By experience, we know that evil lies in the excesses of [a particular] good. That is why we refuse to search for the rational foundations of the good, why we voluntarily allow our conception of the good to remain purely instinctual. (62, 63)

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