Posted by: gcarkner | August 14, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 12.

Presence, the Key to the Existential Power of Incarnation

Faith requires infrastructure and its own plausibility conditions as Charles Taylor would say. His template of moral identity creation in the age of authenticity is located below. Incarnational spirituality involves a radical moral conversion, the growth of moral language skill, moral intelligence within a covenantal outlook. A morally relativist culture is weak and ineffectual; it tends to isolate people from each other. Relativist thinking about the moral goods is superficial, inadequate and self-contradictory. University of Virginia’s renowned sociologist James Davison Hunter stakes out the language of faithful presence which adds texture and definition to this needed conversion. Richard Foster reveals some key merits of the Incarnation Tradition in Streams of Living Water. This short essay is about the power of presence: divine and human. It matters immensely.

As we read more deeply in the letter I John and the Gospel of John chapters one, and fourteen through seventeen, the incarnation forms the four pillars and agape love forms the main structural beam in the house of faith, the body of Christ. This infrastructure is core. Incarnation is a key concept in the history of Christianity and its nuanced definition involved no small amount of debate in the early church. The New Testament authors draw heavily on the prophet Isaiah (7:14, 45: 21-24, 49, 52-53, 61) to reason about the implications of Jesus’ identity, his life and passion. They sincerely believe that Jesus is the anticipated, Spirit-anointed Servant who is ultimately God’s Son, that he has come to heal Israel, and in turn the whole world. The Incarnation is an extraordinary phenomenon, unparalleled in history. Without the fleshly Jesus who is fully God and fully man stated in the Athanasian Creed, we would have a different religion, not Trinitarian Christianity.

Taylor’s Moral Self-Construction Diagnostics Category A (Creativity)

(i) Creation and construction (as well as discovery) of the self.

(ii) Pursuit of originality in one’s self-crafting.

(iii) Opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what one recognizes as morality, or the moral order.

Category B (Social and Moral Accountability)

(i) Openness to horizons of significance prevents one’s self- creation from losing the background that can save one from insignificance and trivialization (self-destruction of meaning). This can include God and tradition.

(ii) Self-definition needs to be developed in dialogue with significant others, that is, fellow moral interlocutors within a community and a narrative. (Taylor, 1991, 65, 66)

Late modernity tends to emphasize Category A of Taylor’s template with the emphasis on individual creativity and original self-invention (M. Foucault). It also entails a rebellion against societal norms as a form of oppression. There is a strong neo-Marxist component at work ideologically. What is missing or weak in such thinkers is the Category B emphasis on a broader basis for meaning, social accountability and identity. Taylor’s critique along with people like Emmanuel Lévinas is that it is far too individualistic, lacking the emphasis on interlocutors. Incarnational spirituality involves both A and B in balance, but it doesn’t take a jaundiced view of public morality. Allow us to explain.

Leadership in our Brave New World

Yuval Noah Harari (2019) sounds the alarm on our current biotech and infotech (artificial intelligence, machine learning) disruptive revolutions in his 21 Lessons for the Twenty-first Century. This revolution challenges some of our most sacred liberal and Christian values of liberty, equality, rights, human flourishing and meaningful work. We could also refer to Duff MacDonald’s culturally insightful 2017 book: The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. Everywhere we look, there are serious problems with our moral substance, infrastructure and standing. We will need grounded leadership to help us through this transition.

In the movie Invictus, Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, who wisely displays the insight that positive social change must begin with a different sense of identity, a consciousness of belonging to the other. The ability of people of different races and interests to imagine their common destiny is key to breaking down racial barriers and healing resentments erected during the Apartheid era in South Africa. Mandela offered a vision of a new humanity and won the world’s admiration for his heroic efforts to reunite the country and redress terrible imbalances, racial tension and injustice. It was an incarnational healing stance to politics. DeKlerk was also a key factor in the transition. Many religious leaders and believers supported this vision of a new South Africa. Incarnational spirituality has such a vision to renegotiate relationships in late modernity, offering a new set of power relations, new ways of being present to each other. It sets the stage for a new storyline of full mutual flourishing.

Faithful Presence The incarnation is all about presence rather than absence. With this kind of humanism in mind, we want to explore the dynamics of what renowned and uber articulate University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter calls faithful presence (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 238-54). We resonate with his project for social change and his mandate for servant leadership. It extends the concept of suffering service to others from the previous post, with deep relevance to the common good. Hunter emphasizes the urgency of a fresh, binding outlook in our cultural and identity crisis.

Under the banner of incarnational spirituality, faithful presence offers a way to credibly re-articulate the narrative journey of self within late modernity, to find its new home beyond the barbed wire of war, hate and control, will to power, greed and narcissism. We use this language of presence to communicate this important concept of closeness to the divine. 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 (E. Lévinas).

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)

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 human compassion to their circle of influence, to everyday work 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, 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 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, 243)

Faithful presence means the virtuous ascent towards a virtuous society. It offers a transformation of relationships within the immanent frame, one that reaches beyond this frame for sources of the self (C. Taylor, 1989). It is a powerful source of the thick identity, one that has sustainability. Servant leadership is a critical posture of this kind of engagement with the world, one of commitment and enduring promise. People who feel called to this vision are now creating structures that incarnate blessing, beauty, meaningfulness and purpose. This includes cynics, secularists, anarchists and nihilists, the haves and the have-nots, as well as people of other faiths. We claim this incarnational posture as a different plausibility structure—what Taylor calls a new social imaginary. Shalom is the basis for dialogue, because effective dialogue with moral interlocutors requires love and respect for the other. Hunter highlights and sharpens the point of faithful presence as it reveals the impact of the incarnation, as if through a new prism. He speaks of the sacrament of everyday life.

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 and endeavors. Don Page, former speechwriter for the Prime Minister of Canada, and Professor Emeritus at Trinity Western University in the Masters Program in Leadership, has made a substantial contribution to this servant leader culture around the world. He casts a vision for the productivity of constructive, servant leadership. It simply makes sense that offering dignity and respect for employees creates a better work environment and a more successful company. It creates significant opportunities and space for others to participate and develop. It champions the giftedness, creativity and potential of those whom we mentor. His work is literally changing the world in Canada, Africa and China, changing values in the workplace and with it the financial success of corporations.

The practice of faithful presence generates relationships that are covenantal. These create space that fosters meaning, purpose and belonging … They provide for the physical, aesthetic, intellectual and social health of the community as a good in its own right. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 266)

Some striking examples of how faithful presence can be lived It can often start with one person who takes the incarnation vision seriously and begins to live sacrificially for the other, for the common good. One inspired person who wants to be faithful to the divine incarnational perspective of humble servant leadership is all it takes to begin a move for the common good. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke of the Taizé Ecumenical Community in Burgundy, France. They have had an enormous influence, and have 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).

Hunter mentions a group in the state of Michigan, USA hit hard by the recent Great Recession of 2008, who build not-for-profit housing to address the scourge of poverty and homelessness. A friend of ours 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. New York Times journalist David Brooks bring this vision of the virtuous life and society to the fore in his important contributions: The Road to Character (2015); The Second Mountain (2020).

Servant leadership with courage, depth and grace comes from Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist from Texas, who has demonstrated incredible patience with climate change denial. She has pursued with exceptional fortitude and resilience her message of care for the future of our biosphere and our grandchildren. She was once featured in Time Magazine as one of the hundred most influential women. Reverend Dr. Ray Aldred at Vancouver School of Theology is a powerful advocate for healing relations with Indigenous Canadians. His patient listening care incarnates agape love and inspires many others to participate in this dialogue and concrete reconciliation. His talk at UBC in March of 2021 gained much attention. Jim Wallis, a social compassion expert of Sojourners Community fame in Washington, DC, has put in endless hours building bridges and promoting justice though lobbying government and through social compassion work. His outreach to the poor, healing political fragmentation is promoting the common good of society as a key priority. There are many others who are finding deep meaning in helping others, in moral growth, in creating a new precedents, a new social ethos. Like genius inventor Buckminster Fuller, they want ‘a world that works for everyone.’ To the big issue at hand, Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, says “The reality is that vaccine inequity threatens us all: it provides the space for the virus to continue circulating and changing, increasing the risk of new, more dangerous variants emerging.”

We refer to ten things from Jim Wallis to suggest how one can be a faithful presence in family, society and work (J. Wallis, The (Un)Common Good, 2014, 297-98). At the end of the day, we must make key decisions, set strategic priorities and goals, take responsibility for our world–pursue the good, the true and the beautiful. This will invest wisely in the future for the benefit of everyone and for the planet. We believe that discovery of this integral relationship between our personal interests and those of others (the common good) is our best chance in late modernity for a brave new world of unity amidst diversity, providing social glue and hope. It is the best chance to master the Everest summit morally, spiritually, ethically and politically. It is a strong hope that we hold out for a better tomorrow as a human community, a fresh new economy of relationships. These are our suggestions, this is what we want to bring to the table of discussion, dialogue and debate. Please examine the inner merits of the position and put it to the test. It is not enough to interrogate and escape from nihilism, violence and anti-humanism. We must carve out a new space to be fully human, set new habits and precedents for a new philosophy of human flourishing (Miraslov Volf, Flourishing). It can become our new home, a new place to rest our hearts, to discover passion, joy and meaning in life.

The Power of Grace as Presence We do not have to do it all on our own, as radical individuals or prima donnas. This world is a gift from God to be enjoyed, not owned or worshipped. Grace is paramount in all our thoughts and activities. Christ helps us roll out the implications of his kingdom on earth, in time and space. His ministry, significantly, was only three years long, to demonstrate who was supposed to bring in the kingdom of grace on earth—his disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit. The church, as God’s redemptive agency for the world, should embrace its fullest calling as a conduit of this grace and a faithful presence (J.D. Hunter, 2010). We can rebuild like Nehemiah with persevering commitment and dedication. Christ, within his community, leads by example, inspiration, and empowerment of others. He calls us into our true humanity, cross-shaped, compassionate suffering and servanthood towards those for whom Christ died. Warren Brown and Brad Strawn (2012, 110) write: “the purpose of the church is the formation of a community of persons that is characterized by the reign of God, and as such, reflects God’s presence as a means of grace to the world.” A powerful moral conversion it is. German Theologian Dr. Gabriel G. Braun has written her PhD and recently published a good study on the theme of God’s presence (God’s Praise and God’s Presence, 2020).

Further examples come from Richard Foster (Streams of Living Water, 1998, 251-60) via an excellent example of such faithful presence in Dag Hammarskjöld, former President of the United Nations from his diary called Markings. Foster writes powerfully about how he allowed grace to seep down into his daily life and work for the benefit of the world of international relations.

He transformed the United Nations from a forum for conference and controversy into an agency of creative action for peace. As Henry Van Dusen has written, “probably no other individual in history has effected so large a work of mediation and pacification among nations.” (R. Foster, 1998, 259)

Foster has a couple other brilliant contributions to this discourse.

Foster on the Strengths of the Incarnation Tradition ( R. Foster, 1998, 266-7)

  1. It underscores the fact that God is truly among us in the warp and woof of our very earthly existence. “The world is charged with his grandeur.” writes Oxford poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. God is revealed in and through the material world.
  2. It roots us in everyday life, saving us from a spirituality divorced from the stresses and perturbations of ordinary life. There is respect for the secular world as the place where we live and move and have our being, the best place to practice incarnational spirituality.
  3. It gives meaning to our work. We have a heightened sense of the sacramentality of work as colabourers with God, as we bring good into the world and make a difference. See the Benedictine notion of the dignity of work or the Puritan notion of calling or vocation. We can decide to allow our entire life to be a channel of divine love.
  4. It is a valuable corrective to the Gnostic dualism of spiritual and material worlds (as we have shown in previous posts).
  5. It constantly beckons us Godward. The Sacraments shock us back into reality by making specific and concrete our identity.
  6. It makes our body a portable sanctuary through which we are daily experiencing the presence of God; learning to work in cooperation with God and in deepening dependence on God. Through his presence, we nurture the true, good and beautiful throughout society.
  7. It deepens our ecological sensitivities. We grow in our stewardship of the earth, for we know it is God’s good creation and that we must tend this garden wisely for future generations (Genesis 1-3). This is part of the cultural mandate which is rooted in the creation narrative, also impinging on the arts, political, judicial and institutional life.

Invite the Presence into Every Space: So we invite God to enter every experience of life. We invite God to set our spirit free for worship and adoration. We invite God to animate our preaching and singing and praying…. We invite God to heal our bodies. We invite God to inform our minds with creative ideas for our business [and academic] enterprises. We invite God to touch broken relationships and resolve conflicts at work and home. We invite God to make our home holy places of worship and study and work and play and love …. We invite the grace of God to come in loving response to our invocation. (R. Foster, 1998, 269)

On Presence in Our Work: We have a sense of calling, a God-given ability to do a job with a God-given enjoyment in doing it. We have a sense of responsibility to do something in our own time that has value. We have a sense of freedom from the burden of the workaholic, for we are not asked to do more than we can. We have a sense of creativity that enables us to place the autograph of our souls on the work of our hands. We have a sense of dignity, for we value people over efficiency. We have a sense of community, for we know that our life together is more important than the end product. We have a sense of solidarity with the poor to empower them to do what they cannot do by themselves. And we have a sense of meaning and purpose, for we know we are working in cooperation with God to bring the world one step closer to completion. (R. Foster, 1998, 270)

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

YouTube Channel:

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.

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

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

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. 

Page, D. (2009). Servant-Empowered Leadership. Langley, B.C.: Power to Change.

Greenleaf, R.K. (1998). The Power of Servant Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Foster, R. (1998). Streams of Living Water: essential practices from the six great traditions of Christian faith. New York: Harper Collins.

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: Random House.

Braun, G.G. (2020 ). God’s Praise and God’s Presence: a biblical-theological study. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Hammarksjöld, D. (1964). Markings.

Brother Lawrence (2016 Reprint). The Practice of the Presence of God. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing.

Steiner, G. (1989). Real Presences. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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