Incarnational Christianity

Christians made a huge wrong turn because of Plato, who thought of what we see and touch and feel as inferior to the purified realm of the forms.

Trying to make the religion of Jesus (a new faith in a Roman Empire that valued the ancient) acceptable to the masses, early Christian apologists started talking in terms of the spiritual being good and the material being bad.

Fortunately, the extremists in this trend of thought—the Gnostics—were finally condemned. They said Jesus’ role was to be an emissary from the “spirit” realm whose salvivic role was simply to impart the knowledge or gnosis that we are strangers here and need to blast off, leave our awful material bodies behind, and return to the purity of that other dimension.

Yet, the church has been pathetically plagued by this mass forgetfulness of the Incarnation. We elevated to sainthood all sorts of people like Anthony and Julian of Norwich and Simone Weil, who eschewed community, clothing, food and other comforts of this life in order to be more spiritual. All of this, of course, exemplifies a longing for a reverse of the Incarnation in which our Lord sought to inhabit, redeem and elevate the human and material condition.

We think to be more faithful we should be more spiritual and less human. We think heaven will be a paradise because it is far away from where we are.

But the true biblical vision is of heaven in which where we are is purified from ways we have deformed it in our fear-born violence to each other and the earth. The Kingdom talk of the Bible has the look, feel and sound of the material world because that is precisely where we belong.

We are called to stop trying to escape our responsibility–to become more, not less engaged in where we are and whom we are with.

We are not called on to flee the humanity Christ was born to embrace. We are called to inhabit our humanity with more attention, devotion, respect, appreciation and responsibility.

Yea for Dietrich Bonhoeffer who declared the need for a “worldly” or “secular” Chrisitianity.  

Here at Heatherhope we are also deeply appreciative of the poetic vision of Wendell Berry. Here is a piece from him from his 2010 book, Leavings that says much of what we would like to say about Incarnational faith and being.

O saints, if I am even eligible for this prayer,

though less than worthy of this dear desire,

and if your prayers have influence in Heaven,

let my place there be lower than your own.

I know how you longed, here where you lived

as exiles, for the presence of the essential

Being and Maker and Knower of all things.

But because of my unruliness, or some erring

virtue in me never rightly schooled,

some error clear and dear, my life

has not taught me your desire for flight:

dismattered, pure, and free. I long

instead for the Heaven of creatures, of seasons,

of day and night. Heaven enough for me

would be this world as I know it, but redeemed

of our abuse of it and one another. It would be

the Heaven of knowing again. There is no marrying

in Heaven, and I submit; even so, I would like

to know my wife again, both of us young again,

and I remembering always how I loved her

when she was old. I would like to know

my children again, all my family, all my dear ones,

to see, to hear, to hold, more carefully

than before, to study them lingeringly as one

studies old verses, committing them to heart

forever. I would like again to know my friends,

my old companions, men and women, horses

and dogs, in all the ages of our lives, here

in this place that I have watched over all my life

in all its moods and seasons, never enough.

I will be leaving how many beauties overlooked?

A painful Heaven this would be, for I would know

by it how far I have fallen short. I have not

paid enough attention, I have not been grateful

enough. And yet this pain would be the measure

of my love. In eternity’s once and now, pain would

place me surely in the Heaven of my earthly love.

Wendell Berry, Leavings, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010, pp. 72-73.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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