Category Archives: Theology

I am more than $

In the last two years much has been made of the Supreme Court decision regarding the case “Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.” Citizens United, as it has come to be know in the press and in the political rhetoric, basically argued that corporations are protected under the First Amendment. Such protection includes the spending of corporate dollars on political advertising. The outrage was such that even President Obama, once a Constitutional Law professor, decried the ruling in his State of the Union address in January 2010.

Most critics have come to dismiss the decision by arguing that it equates a corporation with a person. Now, they say, not only are persons protected by the Bill of Rights, but so are corporations. Of course the root problem here is that individuals are barely able to muster the cash to air expensive political ads while their corporate counter parts can easily gather enough for several ads in every state.

While I often bristle at any conversation related to the Citizens United decision, I have come to take a different tactic of criticism. The problem, I want to argue here, is not with the equation of corporations to persons, but the defining of persons as economic units. In other words, economic theory and practice has come to define everything- politics, people, and speech.

There is not much to gain from arguing against economics as a matter of human existence. The processes of exchange, sharing, distribution are all based on the interaction between human beings. The problem rises when economics is not seen as a tool of interaction but the sum of being; That is to say, when existence is based on systems of production and capital.

The Citizens United decision reveals the extent to which our theories and practices of exchange have come to define us as human beings. Today, humanity is reduced to it’s ability to work, make a wage, and then spend that wage. So in the American political system it is nearly impossible to make any changes to tax structures because of the impact on wage earning capacity, and by extension the freedom to spend that capital based on individual preference.

Take for example any typical debate about taxes. One wing of the political spectrum argues for an increase in state revenue in order to pay for public education and infrastructure needs in the next decade. Immediately, this argument is rebutted by any number of persons/corporations who say that taxes limit the economic potential of the state, thus increasing unemployment. Whether or not the Supply Side theory of economics was laid to rest in the Reagan years, the debate often folds without any consideration of the values of education or infrastructure. Any further redirect would have to accept the terms implicit in the “no new taxes” position by arguing that infrastructure is a boost to economic development. The education element of this scenario would also have to make the case for an educated pool of workers. Then, the human person is again defined as a unit within a purely economic world view- i.e. a person’s value is to be determined in productive capacity.

In the years of the Cold War the sides were defined by two different modes of economic and governmental theory. Often the critique was that socialism treated human persons not as individuals but as parts in a larger system. Free-market westerners often took the moral high road in these debates. Unfortunately, they simply veiled the similar reality. Persons in a Free Market system are only important in so far as they either contribute to or draw from the economic engine. A person is a producer, a consumer, or a means of capital. Rarely are persons seen as individuals with needs and desires.

D Stephen Long offers a helpful example of how economics has come to define all things, including moral values in his book Divine Economy: Theology and the Market. In describing the term “opportunity cost” he describes a fictitous couple whose sexual intercourse is assessed based on the costs- time spent not being productive. What if the husband can find a prostitute for half the cost?  As Long states: “Although ourvalues might be shocked by such a calculation, the economic facts are clear. It costs this couple $25 per hour for sexual intercourse. If he utilized the services of a prostitute and she worked the hour, the economic index of productivity would increase by $75.” (pp 4-5)

Though crass, this cases makes plain that economic practice can quantify any and all parts of our lives. It is no wonder that practices of contraception and abortion are often celebrated as a means to economic recover for a nation. Limit the number of non-productive consumers and the GDP increases. Regardless of the example, however, economic theory tends to define personhood in this producer/consumer matrix. Thus, a corporation must be equated human rights such as free speech since it is merely an aggregate of producers. In this way, a corporation is simply a super-person by it’s economic impact.

Persons of faith should rightly stand against such a definition of personhood, just not for the reasons often trumpeted out against the Supreme Court ruling. Rather, we should have said enough long ago when existence and personhood were defined in economic terms. Reading the opening of Genesis it is clear that personhood is defined by a relationship- just not a relationship to production and exchange. Existence is a gift of being made “in the image of God.”

Christian resistance, then, should not be so concerned about the Big Business or political repercussions. Instead ours is to protest the defining of persons in economic terms.

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The Word, words and “the word”, Part 2

Many of the early church theologians recognized that God is the supreme object of the scriptures as they worked intimately with the scriptural texts. Though they did not ask the historic or scientific questions as we contemporary readers would present them, these early interpreters recognized that the texts even contradicted each other. The result was a hermeneutic, or interpretive posture to the texts, that looked for the revelatory meaning of the texts.  This was most often described as the Spiritual Meaning of the texts.  Most famously, Origen of Alexandria named several layers of meaning contained within the scriptures. He said in his book On First Principles, that not every text had a historical, or literal meaning, but EVERY text has a spiritual one. The reminder is clear, the texts always point to the Creator Revealer God. That is their prime purpose.

Later, Augustine of Hippo made clear his initial misgivings regarding these “barbaric” texts in his book The Confessions. After his final conversion in Milan, however, this spiritual meaning of the scriptures came to life. He later penned a book, On Christian Doctrine, which also outlined another hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Within that short treatise Augustine outlines a profound theological description of the texts. In a short summary he basically asserts that the scriptures are an incarnation is the same way Christ is The Incarnation. The analogy is simple: Christ is the full sign making clear the nature and power of God. The scriptures are themselves signs that point beyond the physical letters and words to Christ. So the scriptures are to Christ as Christ is to God.

Our modern debates about the authority of scripture have missed both the hierarchical system that I outlined in the earlier post  and the spiritual and incarnational approaches of Origen and Augustine. Theologies of inerrancy and infallibility try to superimpose modern scientific categories onto a text that is not trying to be neither scientific nor historical. They are texts that are revealing God. To assert infallibility and inerrancy is to apply Divine attributes to a physical and created medium. In other words, these categories try to make the Bible into God, rather than treating the scriptures as a witness to God.

Thus, to speak of “Reading the Bible”  as the cure for our social and personal ills is to substitute a book for the God that actually does the changing. Getting more people ot “just read the Bible more” will not change culture nor lives.  Rather, it is the encounter with the God behind the texts we are to seek.  The naming of the Bible as “The Word of God” makes this idolizing all too easy. When Matthew tells of Jesus’ temptation in the desert an interesting statement of Jesus is used to rebuke the Devils test to turn stones into bread.  “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Those who most frequently fall into the Bible as Idol category want this text to justify the words of scripture as Word of God. In fact, the Greek is clear. Here Jesus uses the word rhema- word, as in speech. The Word of God as we know it from the Gospel of John is Logos- the organizing reason of God, that is Christ. The distinction is clear- Christ is the Word of God, not the scriptures. God still speaks to humanity, that is God is still self-revealing. Those are the words that sustain us. The Bible, however, is God’s revealing that sustains, but is not on the same plain as Christ, the Word. These words of the Bible are sustain because they POINT us to Christ the Word.

This might seem like a semantic, or academic distinction. But when we see that infallibility and inerrancy seek to Divinize the Bible, and when we set the scriptures in the proper order of revelation we can see that it is more than a language game. It is a safe guard from the earliest of heresies- making gods of the things of creation in place of God himself.

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The Word, words, and “the word” Pt 1

Last week my Twitter feed exploded with a number of tweets related to the Bible. In full disclosure, I was attending The Uncover Summit. This event, organized by the Forum of Bible Agencies, focused on the need for greater engagement with scripture- A concept I am fully supportive of, but not quite on board with the same theological and cultural baggage that was paraded before those gathered in Orlando.

As with any gathering of church leaders and parachurch organizations, some of he content was good and some of it was simply awful.

So in an a self indulgent effort to debrief, I want to work constructively at my own theology of scripture. This, I hope, will expand what I am looking for related to a robust centrality of scripture while deconstructing the rigid approaches of infallibility and inerrancy, and idolatrous approaches of some. I will work in a traditionally systematic approach, that is working through categories in order to set the Bible in a valuable location within Christian belief and practice. A later post will follow up with some historical references and make more clear the object to which the Bible points and the theological problems of inerrancy and infallibility.

1) The creating God- The prime object of all creation, worship, and the scriptures is God. This God is the creator of all, including Human Beings. This, by definition, makes clear one thing- God is God and humanity is not, a creator and a created. We, by our very nature fall on the created side of the line.

Yet, this same God reaches over he creator/created boundary to interact with the creation. In this way, God’s very nature is to reveal God’s self to humanity. So along with Creator, God is Revealer. That just has to be. Since God is so other to us, God has to give us some clues along the way. Ironically, we experience God in the opposite order. We first come to know God as Revealer since that is the first gracious action we experience. After becoming aware of God and coming to know God as revealed, then we come to know God as Creator, because that as well is an understanding given by God. As we see in the modern scientific age, it is possible to encounter and understand the world without God’s actions, or even God himself. To speak of God as creator is already to invoke Revelation as source of understanding, and thus to speak a position of faith.

2) Christ, the full revelation- Fall, atonement, and soteriiology aside, the person of Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God to humanity. In other, more classical and scriptural terms, he is God with us. In the familiar opening to the Gospel of John, this Christ is called the Word. It’s a great theological and poetic narrative which plays on speech as a revealing act.  God creates and reveals with words, but the fullest representation is The Word above all words.

3) The People of God- Since the nature of God is to interact with and be self revelatory, there are people who are engaged by God. These people at various times have been called Israel and later the Church. Both of these names make explicit the Divine and human interaction. First, Israel is the people that wrestles with God. Second, the Church is the people called together by God.

4) Scripture, the testimony of the peoples of God– These interactions with God, necessarily, must take place in time and throughout time. Since the nature of humanity is to communicate, both with God and with one another, there is a need to gather these divine encounters to shared through time, at first through stories shared by word of mouth and then in the technology of writing. Soon, because the technology allowed it, this communication about God and the experiences of God took the form of direct written communication. Thus, we have human attempts to narrate the Divine encounter both in stories and letters.

Since its too easy to fake an encounter with God, over time these people of God gathered the normative stories and texts together. These scriptures are the texts by which all new encounters are assessed and measured. This means one thing: the writers did not set out to write the definitive account of God but narrated their encounters. Over time, the people’s of God, along with the revealing work of God’s Spirit, have said these are The Stories above all stories, and are to be trusted as tests for each generation. They are set aside for God’s people throughout time. They are Scriptural Canon for the people of God.

This hierarchy makes several things clear. First and foremost, God is behind the scriptures every step of the way. God is present in the first revelation, with the persons who did the recording, and with the peoples as they set apart the text as the measurement of all later understandings. Second, as scripture, these texts witness to this chain of Divine self revelation. They are thus not historical or scientific in the way we conceive them today, but texts revealing God and God’s self revelation.

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“Culturally Brethren”: A Response to Carl Bowman

Recently, Carl Bowman at Brethren Cultural Landscape created a thread based on a statement I made with some overstated rhetorical flourish.  Though we could quibble over context and rhetoric, I think the question as he posed starts to get at some deep aspects of being Church today.  Rather than post a lengthy reply and overwhelm the discussion, I posted my argument here. Enjoy!
 

It’s not news that one of our tag-lines in the Church of the Brethren has been “Another Way of Living.” I can remember some time ago at Annual Conference there were some webbed wristbands going around trumpeting the acronym AWOL as a kind of retort to the What Would Jesus Do? craze of the mid-90’s.

There was much truth to that tagline, despite it’s other militaristic connotations. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren has been a tradition which has championed the living of faith as an alternative to both the Christendom traditions and the wider secular cultures.

In that regard, being Brethren is about being a part of another cultural system. Or in the phrase of Wittgenstein, a different language game. Ultimately, that is what comprises a culture- words, symbols, practices, art, music and even clothing. Much of the debate about dress, the ban, and military service in Brethren history is connected to the desire to be of another culture.

Yet, within the tradition of the Church of the Brethren there is another element to this alternative culture, this other way of living. When Alexander Mack and the others entered the water for baptism, they were not just setting out to be sectarian, or counter-cultural. They were dunking one another in an act of faith. They were bring to life their beliefs. They were giving flesh to their Christian beliefs.

Often I wonder if Mack or the early Brethren would be excited to see how Brethrenism has come to be a way of living without necessarily proclaiming a Christian confession of faith. I wonder if they could have imagined a people claiming the name Brethren as a kind of heritage, a kind of family name, without claiming the faith the 8 sought to embody.

Now the reality of any faith tradition is that it is a culture. It includes practices, symbols, and language just as do local and national cultures. As part of this reality persons within a particular culture may not hold, explicitly or implicitly, the beliefs of that particular context. In fact, with faster travel and increasing communication it is easier to embody a particular context while importing the ideas or practices of a rather different realm.

For many traditional faith communities this is often the case. Entire cities today are comprised of people on the move who come from a particular religious tradition, Jew, Muslim and Christian. Yet, their way of life looks more like the society in which they live. Many fundamentalist or sectarian wings of these traditions view this merging as a kind of apostasy while many others celebrate this bricholage of cultures. It is quite common to meet some one who claims a religious culture as a personal identifier while hedging that the beliefs of that tradition are not part of who they are. So we find persons who are American first and Christian second, or who are Jewish by birth but atheist by choice, or just marginally Catholic.

Brethren have not been immune to such combinations. For some children of Brethren families these cultural hybrids sound pretty familiar. It is not uncommon to find Brethren young people who champion their Brethren roots or preferences while at the same time outright rejecting the faith which the culture seeks to proclaim.

This is extremely problematic for a tradition which emphasizes personal decision as part of its faith tradition. Whatever it is called, no-force in religion, a rejection of pedobaptism, non-creedalism, or waiting for the age of accountability, the Brethren have expected a personal adoption of the faith and life from young and old alike.

Now there is always the question of which comes first- the chicken or the egg, the belief or the way of life. I am not one to say there is a hierarchy involved here at all. There simply need not be a single door, but the expectation that anyone can believe and slowly learn the way of life or adopt the way of life and grow in belief. It is just expected that the member of the culture come to adopt and grow in BOTH life and belief. One of our denominational agencies has used a slogan that sums this up well: Come as you are, Go not as you came.

Now some will be quick to say that this is too limiting, too authoritarian. Who gets to decide what the belief is? Who defines the way of life? How can everyone do it all? No one is “good enough” in this way of thinking.

Actually, this is indeed why I am Brethren. For 300 years the Brethren have, in various ways, assumed that this is a journey taken on both as individuals and as a community. There is no elite, no caste of “Better Brethren” who establish the rules of the language game. Rather it is the community of disciples as it is in that time and place which discerns the doctrine and practices for that time. Yet, even within that discerning there is an expectation, nearly a single requirement, that persons of the community grow as disciples of Christ.

The core around which these beliefs and practices evolve is, from my perspective, that which is said in the baptismal covenant. For we live this way and believe the way we do as an acceptance of Christ as the Messiah and a living out of the deep desire to follow Jesus in all that we do. To divorce the Christian element of this culture is to try and remove one side of a coin.

If such a perspective is deemed accusatory, all I can say is that the finger points both ways. Those who assume they can believe without living it out are in the same position as those who say they live the life without holding the beliefs. The culture of the Brethren is explicitly form and content. So to say that there is “No room for cultural Brethren” is to say that Brethren in name only, absent belief or practice, is not really Brethren at all.

The common project then is the growing. No matter where one is in the acculturation process, we all are moving, changing, and developing. We are growing as did Jesus, in stature and wisdom.

James K.A. Smith has been helpful in giving this argument shape. As Carl says in his blog post questioning my statement that there is no room for cultural Brethren, everything is culture. Yet, all of these cultures differ in form as well as in content, in practice and in belief. In his book, “Desiring the Kingdom”, Smith discusses the wider cultural realities of our lives, even going so far as to say that these cultures are religious. Such a perspective flies in the face of Enlightenment assumptions that there is a sacred culture and a secular culture, clear and distinct in content and practice. All cultures, in Smith’s way of seeing them, seek to instill beliefs and define our practices. In essence they all try to define our ultimate concerns and desires.

This is most helpful when it comes to the way Smith uses a typology of practices, rituals, and liturgies. Imagine the three as concentric circles working their way out from liturgies to practices. This diagram helpfully shows that all liturgies are rituals and all rituals are practices. However, working from the outside in, not all practices are rituals and not all rituals are liturgies. Smith, contrary to common definitions, expands liturgies beyond smells, bells and church buildings. In fact, the opening of his book describes how a trip to the mall is a liturgy with movements, ritual, and symbols in a kind of choreography. This trip also includes beliefs about human life and sets out a vision of what a good life looks like. By opening liturgy in this way Smith reveals the foundational beliefs and formational practices within all cultures. So to reply to Carl’s “Everything is Culture”, I would add “Every Culture is Religious.”

So when we talk about a strain of Christianity as a culture, it seems to me that its liturgical elements revolve precisely around this practical and doctrinal core. That is to say the liturgy is an enacted invocation of God. It contains movements, language, and symbols and is thus a typical culture. As a religious culture, it includes the proclamation of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Since every culture is religious, the question then is which culture are we adopting as our own. Can one truly be culturally Brethren in the typical sense, that is with taking the language, ideals, or some random practice, without assenting to the Christian element? Sure, but the deeper question is what is the true or dominant culture? What practices and beliefs are we truly living into while trying to remain comfortable in a community that isn’t asking much of us?

I appreciate how Pete Rollins recently described this while preaching at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids: Christianity is a materialistic religion- it defines what what we do with the things of our lives everyday.

So to rely on our gene pool, last name, vision of peace or a familiar community of people to give us some identifiable category without growing in belief or practice is to invoke the name in vain. In essence it is to tell a lie. It is to not name our true home or our true culture. That is why I say that, in a religious culture which assumes a personal conviction and assent to a way of life and belief, being a Cultural Brethren is a non-sequitur.

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Saying the Creeds

I call the Church of the Brethren home.  The tradition is really part of the second generation of Anabaptists (1708).  That is to say that ours is a mode of Christianity birthed both in the dawning of the Enlightenment and following the violence of political/religious struggles for power.

So what does this mean?

Primarily, it means the Brethren have a healthy skepticism of the creeds.  In the wake of the Reformation battles, the one litmus test for many regions in Europe was the recitation of the creeds.  This became increasingly important as traditions divided over which creed was acceptable and which confession of faith had legal status within a territory.  The Enlightenment responded through projects of legal and philosophical separation of faith and practice, or the privatization of belief.  Religious communities followed suit by rejecting confessions and creeds out right based on their violent and limiting use at the hands of princes and bishops.

For the early Brethren, this translated into an act of civil disobedience- they would not cite the creeds in their gatherings or in the presence of authority.  Over time we have come to understand this practice in very Anabaptist terms:  “We have no creed but the New Testament, as read in community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Some have taken this as a way to expand the historic creeds in order to include the full life of Jesus.  Others have taken this as an opening of the definition of what it means to be Christian.

In my own spiritual life, I have journeyed this open pasture and find myself resting in the frames of the creeds.  As Richard Rohr noted in his book Everything Belongs, some times the question must be explored from every angle, only to arrive back at the original answer….albeit with a whole new understanding.

So how is that this Radical Pietist, Anabaptist, and staunch critic of the Constantinian form of the Church can stand in worship and find the creeds spiritually sustaining?

First, the Nicene formula makes tw0 things clear.  God is God. And Christ is God.  In the ancient language, begotten not made, light from light, true God from true God.  So why is that important?  Early in the debates the ancient theologians wanted to maintain the distinction between creator and created.  To place the Word (Logos) on the created side of that line would be place the saving Christ on the side of those needing saved.  In essence giving sand to parched.  This made even more clear that the very salvation offered by God was a result of God’s coming to us, making even more poignant the beauty of the Christ hymn in Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (2:5-8)

Or as Athansius of Alexandria said: God became human so that we could become divine.

Second, I deeply value the Chalcedonian definition (451).  For most, this means nothing.  Yet, most of our ideas about Jesus as the Christ emerge from this statement of faith and not the Nicene creed.  Each time a pastor or Sunday school teacher says Jesus Christ is both human and divine they intone the Chalcedonian definition.  More specifically they unknowingly reference its central claim that Jesus is;

one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.

Behind all the fancy language and technical terms of substance and nature is a fundamental conviction, stated clearly by Gregory of Nanzianzus but here paraphrased: That which God did not take on of the human person is not redeemed.  Here we have the Incarnation of Christ spelled out in full.  Not only does God come down, but God puts on everything of our bodied existence…and in so doing restores material living.

So what is all this to say?  Simple.  Despite the horrific uses of the ancient creeds and definitions, the theology of these texts is amazingly liberating.  God is God, yet God also so values created and embodied existence to take on flash and bone, life and death … and life.  No getting around it, the Incarnation redeems and restores bodied life, empowering us to be human beings fully alive.

In essence, this Brethren boy longs for the times of reciting the creed, times of true profession of faith.

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Print and Power

History is clear that who ever can communicate defines the ideas and outcomes of a each age. The Reformation is the perfect example of the impact of a communication medium on the social landscape. As ideas could more easily be shared through pamphlets printed on movable type presses rather than hand copied tomes, the people began to take control of their own spiritual lives. In fact, it is no coincidence that translations of the scriptures flourished as they could be accessed in homes and not just the local cathedral.

The dark side of this historical maxim is that those who control the means of production, control the ideas and their dissemination. In simple terms, the printers took the power to speak from the abbots and bishops. It is no wonder that, in the age of the internet, there is a sea change in who speaks for the culture. In essence, there is a cacophony of voices all competing for attention and supremacy.

The television editorialists like Olbermann, Beck, and Maddow are clear examples of this speech battle, but it goes much beyond our flickering screens.  News writers vie with politicians for appropriate language for new events, trying to define the public consciousness through print and spoken word.  Underneath this struggle for listening ears is a market place where words are judged based on the power gained or the dollars accumulated.

Lest we think this is a 21st century development, the same was the case for the Reformation.  In that age, not only was the Church at war with itself over theological ideas and practice, secular leaders and bishops competed for the monetary allegiance of the people.  The most convincing speaker won the economic clout of the people.  For example, Luther’s critique of indulgences was not just a theological one but an economic challenge.  The buying and selling of grace was a form of economic oppression of the laity.  The princes of the day often sided with the reformer aware that money once dedicated to the Church would now be freed for local expansion of powers.  This was indeed possible now that publication was possible for everyone, not just the literate clerics in their scriptoriums.

Little has changed in the 16th century.  The Church continues this war of words and ideas through the printed medium.  Our congregations are often the front lines of this power struggle.  There, the words and ideas deemed orthodox by leaders are disseminated through official publications.  At the same time, market driven publications, both secular and religious, compete for the allegiance of the members.

The early modern view of information, then, is still pervasive within our religious structures.  Even for as democratizing as the Radical Reformation was, it has continued to assume an official voice can define the ideas and practices of a diverse church.  The rise of social networking and internet communication is radically challenging this assumption.  Now, even most hierarchical traditions, are faced with the expansive diversity of the once unified Church.  All it takes is a few minutes with Google to read of communities and individuals who have tenuous connections to the traditions which they claim.

The knee jerk reaction is to increase the forms of official speech by translating previous ideas into multiple media.  In a way its the same practice with added layers of production. Yet, the fundamental sense that words trickle down and form people without relationship or attention to their context is still present.  Unfortunately, this just adds to the flood of words, the battle for attention and allegiance.  In a way, the Church becomes just one more voice among the pundits.  The unfortunate result is that people will not weigh the ideas, but gravitate to the ideas that are the most familiar, or the one who speaks “just like me.”


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Part 2, The Christological Critique

The Christian emphasis on the Incarnation challenges any simplistic Gnostic or Embodied dualism. To be more specific, the Incarnation of Christ redefines how we are to understand our bodies. In the light of Christ, we can neither reject our bodies in favor of the spiritual world nor can we out right elevate our bodies to the levels of the gods.

There is a popular understanding of Christianity today that often defines the religion in terms of repression. This is, in part, due to the Incarnational critique of worldly embodiment. Once we can see the fallen and redeemed anthropologies side by side, we understand why the world might say we are prudes and puritans. Yet, as in the days of the Gnostic debates, we are trying to describe and live into a right ordering of the spiritual and the material.

It doesn’t take too long to realize that American culture loves bodies; hard bodies, lingerie covered bodies, or naked bodies. However we take our bodies, whether through sexual or ocular conquest, the root of our obsession is pleasure. Our eyes feast on the delicacies of curves and abs for our own gratification. All the while we spend hours and fortunes trying to discipline our own bodies into a shape admired by others. Through it all, it is my pleasure that matters. In the end, it’s a new kind of solipsism. It is my pleasure and satisfaction that matters.

When “incarnation” is used in this context, it is simply a theological justification of solipsistic hedonism. Two things could not be further from the heart of the Christian doctrine. This is often because we want to ignore the two corollary elements of the tradition: The Fall and the redeemed quest for virtue. When we set incarnation within the matrix of Christology we are reminded immediately that the Incarnation was for one purpose- the transformation of a fallen world. For it is in Christ that we see the intent for humanity. It is in Christ we learn that our proper mode of being is in right relationship with God. In other words, our spiritual self defines and guides our embodied self, not the other way around.

Two things emerge from this Christological critique. First, the coming of God into the world is a necessarily social action. In other words the redemption of humanity comes at the initiative of another. Right away, the solipsistic view of the self is dismissed. It is not I who am saved, but We. My happiness, my full life is inextricably linked to that of other persons. Secondly, just as Christ is in relationship with God, so are our souls and our bodies. What is more, just as Christ is sent by God, so are our bodies activated by our souls. There is, then a particular relationship which is revealed in the relationship of Christ to God. (NB: I am working with a more Eastern Christian trinitarian theology. Through the ages, the Latin speaking Church has some to see both God and the Son in similar roles of sending. This is made evident in the use of filoque in the Nicene creed. There it states that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. Here, rather, I am assuming that the Son and the Spirit are the divinity sent.) This analogy helps reveal that in the human person the soul is the animating element of the human person.

If we do not balance this anthropology of the soul guiding the body with the rejection of Gnostic dualism, the danger is clear. The soul can punish or diminish the body. But, as I noted in the first section, the affirmation and fundamentally the redemption of material existence quarantines such a theological anthropology. As many of the Christian Neo-platonists of the early Church noted, it is the soul which can elevate the flesh to resurrection and it is the body which informs and teaches the soul.  We learn to know God through signs, the signs of scripture, world and Christ.  Even more so, the body can guide or distract the soul’s natural affinity for God. Take for example the emphasis on the posture of the body within prayer, whether kneeling, laying down, or standing.. John Cassian chides his monks not to lay prostrate too long at times of prayer for fear of falling asleep. For him, the preferred posture is to stand or kneel, thus keeping the soul attentive to God.

When we draw the Christological parallels to anthropology we see that today’s embodied Gnosticism is as equally problematic as the Gnostics of the past.  Here we see that the Incarnation reveals the proper ordering of the soul within the human body, namely that the soul guides the flesh towards virtue while the flesh can reveal God at work in the world.  There is thus no individual, or solipsistic element to the human person.  It must relate to both God and the world through the elements of the body: The soul towards God and the body towards the world.  In the Incarnation we understand the proper ordering of these elements so as not to mistake the material for the spiritual.  Indeed then, we arrive at the importance of PanENtheism, the notion that God is active in the world but still beyond creation.

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Today’s Embodied Gnosticism

Again, another two part series.  In this case we look at Incarnation and distinguish it from embodiment.  This first post looks at the reciprocal nature of today’s interest in the body and the Gnostics of the first century.  The second post will discuss the Incarnational critique of this embodied Gnosticism.

Few can deny that the theological foundation of Christianity is the Incarnation; that is that God came in the flesh. The conflict with the so-called Gnostics, one of the earliest theological controversies around the Mediterranean rim, made this abundantly clear. Differences of opinion soon emerged in the Christian community as early Jesus followers tried to make sense of what had happened during the third decade in Jerusalem, To oversimplify, one wing began to describe the Christ event as an escape from the world. These Gnostics, as they have come to be known, so rigidly divided the cosmos into things physical and things spiritual that there was no link between the two. Those in the know, the ones enlightened by the coming of Christ, guarded the truth about the world, namely that the most real and thus the most holy was the spiritual. In other words, once one encountered Christ the materiality, including the human body, took a back seat. The spiritual was holy, and the material evil. Today we call this an ontological dualism.

What came to be known as orthodox Christian belief rejected this dualism flat out for at least two reasons. First, the very scriptures of the tradition contradicted such a dualistic worldview. The narrative of Genesis make abundantly clear both God’s interaction with the material world as well as God’s blessing of matter. The Gnostic praise of the spiritual and parallel rejection of the material was contradicted by the scriptural testimony to the goodness of creation. Yet, the heresy of the Gnostics was not just revealed by the Hebrew scriptures, it was made clear by the events of Jesus himself. From all the stories about Jesus the clear thread was not that God had come to earth in some spiritual form, but in flesh and blood.

What emerged is often called the doctrine of the Incarnation. In various forms, all equally as debated as the confrontation with Gnostics, this doctrine basically states that God interacted with humanity in material ways. In that interaction through Jesus the Christ, all of humanity and all of creation was redeemed. In a way, the Incarnation revealed the truth of the Genesis narrative; Matter matters.

Today, Incarnation is all the rage.  Even the least sacramental traditions of Christianity celebrate the doctrine of the Incarnation. More liberal minded communities value the reminder that God continues to act in the world, but often through the hands and feet of Christians. The charismatic wing trumpets the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit in material ways. Even the most contextual methods of theology, such as Liberation, Feminist and Womanist thought, strive to recover the incarnational implications of Christianity for the socially dismissed or physically abused. For all of these, the Incarnation is clearly Good News.

Unfortunately, the Incarnation also speaks to today’s culture in negative ways. Some hear the word incarnation and attach the connotation of today’s sensual and even sexual emphasis on the body. In these circles, incarnation is simply synonymous with embodiment. In other words, incarnation has little to do with the interaction of the the spiritual and the material, but is a celebration of the flesh. In a way this narcissistic incarnation is the reciprocal of the early Gnostics. Rather than overvaluing the spiritual, this new Embodied Gnosticism so integrates the spiritual in the material that there is no separation. What is good for the body, in this way of thinking, must be good for the spirit. In a way, the tradition of Incarnation has been co-opted to anoint a kind of Christian hedonism.

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