Some thoughtful reflections on the incarnation and its role in Christian theology. A little late for Christmas, but not too late.
Posted on Wed, Dec. 28, 2005
Incarnation theory makes real-world appearance after disaster
BY BILL TAMMEUS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
On Thanksgiving morning in Kenner, La., Southern Baptists prepared 12,000 meals of fresh turkey, gravy and sweet potatoes. Then Red Cross volunteers distributed them to Hurricane Katrina victims still living in temporary shelters.
One of those meals - in fact, the 1 millionth produced by that kitchen since August - went to a homeless woman named Dorothy, who was celebrating her 80th birthday.
What was happening in the planning, cooking and serving of those meals to the homeless was what theologians call incarnational theology in action.
The Christmas story, they say, is about incarnation - God becoming human as the baby Jesus to rescue people in need. So incarnational theology today means, in part, being present with needy people.
In fact, said the Rev. Thomas D. Ford, "incarnational theology that is truly that is being done in the trenches, not in scholarly books."
Ford, now pastor of a Lutheran church in Ashtabula, Ohio, says people who live out such theology today show up where people are in trouble "because Jesus would have done so."
"All of Christian theology, to the extent that it's orthodox, would be incarnational," says Stephen T. Davis, who teaches the philosophy of religion at Claremont McKenna College and has co-edited a book on incarnation. "The vast majority of Christians are just not going to move away from that."
In fact, says Fenton Johnson, author of "Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey," the incarnation "is the central metaphor of Christianity, though with gratefulness I recall Flannery O'Connor's passionate argument for whole-hog faith: `If the incarnation is a metaphor, then to hell with it.'"
Whether the incarnation is metaphor or something O'Connor could affirm, people who study and write about incarnational theology nowadays are not limiting it just to the Christmas story.
Christianity has had 2,000 years to think, write and talk about the incarnation. And because it is so vital to the faith, it's not surprising that there have been many arguments about what it means and even about the very nature of Jesus. Scholars, theologians, preachers and others continue today to try to unpack the meaning of the incarnation for new generations.
One question they are trying to answer is "Why Jesus?" Why, in Christian terms, did the Creator of the universe allow himself to be born as a helpless infant who was at the mercy of humanity?
But while that question still occupies Christians, incarnational theology has moved in recent decades beyond a tight focus on Jesus. It has expanded to "bring the whole universe into the incarnational mystery," says John F. Haught, who teaches theology at Georgetown University.
One reason, says Charlene P.E. Burns, a religious studies teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is that people engaged in interfaith dialogue today are looking for common ground that different religions share, and "incarnational themes appear almost across the board in the world's religions."
Other religions, she says, obviously don't adopt the Christian belief that Jesus was God's only incarnate son. In Hinduism, for example, one of the manifestations of Krishna, worshipped as the eighth incarnation (or avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu, was human, says Burns, author of "Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation."
Haught says that "one obvious area (of the expansion of incarnational theology) is in the region of ecological spirituality. One of the scandals that environmentalists see in traditional Christianity is that it was so other-worldly in its hopes and preoccupations that it lost its sense of nature as its home. The way incarnational theology refers to that is that God loves matter and takes it into the divine self. That should be a model for our own approach to the natural world."
When the Rev. Tex Sample, former professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, thinks about how to use incarnational theology, he has visions of tents: "I take seriously the word in John that the word became flesh and lived with us. Literally it means, `pitched tent.' So the word became flesh and pitched tent with us."
Sample, who now lives in Arizona and is coordinator of the Network for the Study of U.S. Lifestyles, says that such a "claim is central to the incarnation, and I read this to mean that Jesus as the Word of God joined the indigenous practices of his time.
"I contend that there has never been an authentic expression of Christian faith that was not also indigenous. In fact, serious tragedy attends the missionary work of the church when it refuses to be indigenous."
That means, Sample says, that Christians are called "to respond to God's Word and to pitch tent with the practices that are indigenous to a people."
But, he says, "I don't mean that as any accommodation (to everything in the culture), because the church must oppose some practices as well."
Sample's kind of incarnational theology can "push us to engage folk where they are," says James M. Brandt, professor of historical theology at St. Paul School of Theology. And, he says, it can make use of what is "earthly" to "express what is divine."
Sample worries, however, that "there are a whole bunch of Christians out there who focus an awful lot on the business of getting saved. What that can do is individualize the faith, so the church becomes a means for assisting one in salvation. What gets missed is that Christian existence is `we' existence and not `me' existence, and the church is called to be the body of Christ in the world. In that way the church is incarnational."
Incarnational theology that focuses primarily on the birth of Jesus can continue to be found in such works as British theology professor Alister McGrath's new book, "Incarnation."
He writes: "... the birth of Christ is shown to continue and extend the story of God's dealings with Israel. The God of Israel has indeed visited and redeemed his people."
Another way of putting that traditional understanding is found in Michael Casey's 1995 book, "Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina:" "The divine word trimmed itself to our capacities. It did not appear in overwhelming power and splendor but in accessible human form." Some Christians say that belief also calls Christians to see Christ in one another.
But Haught says the "new cosmology that we've acquired in the last century and a half is being used to widen the incarnational theology of Christianity to include more than just the historical Christ," he says. "It includes the history of the universe. The story of nature is inseparable from the story of each one of us.
"Theology is incarnational today in a much more cosmic sense than God entering into matter in one man and then returning to another world and waiting for us there."
Haught points to the work of Karl Rahner, one of the best-known Catholic theologians of the 20th century: "He (Rahner) says Christianity really has two major truths to it. First, there's a great mystery we call God. We share that with other faiths.
"But the second great truth is that the infinite God seeks to give itself away unreservedly to the finite world. That's really the theological horizon of incarnational theology. So Christ, or the Christ event, would be the point in this process of God's self-giving in which the infinite self-gift is given in a decisive and irreversible way."
Burns says scholars are trying to explain how God is present in the world in many ways: "Incarnation isn't just in that one human being. There are ways the divine is present throughout existence. There are ways of speaking about that that don't make you a pantheist."
Pantheism holds that the material world and God are one, so God is everything. Against that, scholars such as Haught and Burns use the term "panentheism," which suggests that God is the force behind the material universe but nonetheless maintains a transcendent character.
Burns says many conservative Christian scholars are resistant to some of these ideas, wanting to make sure the Christian idea of Jesus' uniqueness isn't diluted. But, she says, scholars of various Christian traditions are finding some common ground as they discuss the nature of grace and find grace throughout the material world as well as in the birth of the baby of Bethlehem.
That grace was evident to Dorothy, the woman in Kenner, La., who was served the 1 millionth meal from the Southern Baptists' kitchen.
Here's how Christine Benero, chief executive officer of the Denver chapter of the Red Cross, described the scene: "As she was leaving, Dorothy turned to us and told us she had been afraid of this day because she thought she would be alone on Thanksgiving and on her birthday. Instead, she said, it was the happiest she had felt since Hurricane Katrina took away the life she knew."