Incarnational

How will that impact the way I interact with the stuff of this world, if I believe that God is somehow incarnated it all of it?
Glass Orb
 (Eric Didier)

I’m a moderator over at Arts & Faith and so spend quite a bit of time there. Despite being one of the folks who are “in charge,” I feel like I spend most of my time there as a lurker, soaking in the writings and observations of folks much wiser, more learned, and more articulate than I am on a variety of topics.

As such, I’m exposed to a lot of great writing that constantly proves to be both a challenge and affirmation. However, this post on a sacramental and incarnational worldview by Steven Greydanus remains one of my favorites.

In a way, I would argue that “materialism” in the usual sense (the view that the material world is all that exists) does NOT allow material things — or anything else for that matter — to be “important” in the usual sense, to have real value, significance, or meaning, since “value” or “significance” are non-material qualities and thus unreal, phantom categories in an imaginary scale of meaning.

Materialism (I would argue) flattens the universe, from quasars to embryos, static electricity to nuclear war, into so much mass and energy dancing randomly toward entropy, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Consciousness, personhood, and moral affections are the illusory experiences of non-entities; only atoms and molecules, chemical and electrical and radiological processes, are real, not that it “matters,” or that “mattering” itself ultimately “means” anything.

In a curious way, this stark materialist vision of the meaningless universe converges with a very different perspective, a religious outlook that has been variously called angelicism, spiritualism, dualism, gnosticism, and Manicheanism. The type of view I have in mind certainly diverges sharply from materialism in affirming the reality of the unseen realm of spiritual realities, moral truths, and objective value. But it also confines the order of value and meaning to the unseen world of the spiritual. Only that which is spiritual has true value or meaning; the physical world of atoms and energy is devalued as of no true significance.

In its most characteristic forms, this type of outlook values the soul but scorns the body as a mere shell or even a prison to be escaped. In subtler forms, it emphasizes inward faith, piety, prayer and virtue, while devaluing or minimizing outward actions and physical objects. To the extent that the outward or the physical is allowed any importance at all, it is ideally restricted to the role of the purely symbolic, the audiovisual aid to faith.

In contrast to this, the sensibility of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths in this regard is often called incarnational and sacramental. In fact, though, its roots precede the Incarnation and the sacraments, going back first of all to the order of creation.

Even if you’re a good Protestant, and your eyebrows raise at those words “Catholic” and “Orthodox,” I still highly recommend reading through the entire post, as Greydanus offers up much food for thought.

I know that within my own life, there is a temptation to move all manner of spiritual thought into this sort of pseudo-philosophical realm, an “upper story” of thought that is firmly removed from real life. Part of me enjoys relegating God, Christ, and all of the Bible stuff to the status of a purely mental exercise, a philosophical abstraction that lends itself to really intriguing moral and intellectual debates… and not much more.

The downside of this approach is that anything physical, anything “of the world” becomes viewed as intrinsically evil. “This world is not my home” becomes the Christian mantra, forgetting about the fact that we as a race have been placed in this earth to help it grow, flourish, and improve. Which inevitably means that we have to step out of the realms of philosophical abstraction and actually get our hands dirty with the stuff of life — just like Jesus did so many years ago.

What difference does it make if I see this body and this world, not merely as a prison or shell that I hope will be burned away at some indeterminate point in the future to reveal some new glorious form, but as a glorious creation of God that, while bent and broken, still contains echoes of God’s glory? How will that impact the way I interact with the stuff of this world, if I believe that God is somehow incarnated it all of it?

(I’m not referring to some sort of bland animism, but rather to the notion that God, though spirit, created matter and what’s more, rejoices in that matter. He rejoices in the physical world and sustains all of it — the galaxies, the stars, the planets, the plants and animals, etc.)

What difference does this make in how I take care of this world? In how I treat my fellow men? In how I look at and critique the creations of those who have been created in God’s image? And more importantly, how does it impact my worship? My view of the songs that I sing, the creeds that I recite, the bread and wine (or grape juice) that I consume every Sunday morning?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers, or even a fraction of them, but it’s stimulating stuff. Certainly more stimulating than any old abstract philosophical debate.

The notion that the creator of all things is not merely some blind watchmaker, but rather intimately involved with every facet of creation; that He sustains it, not as some Zeus-like figure with thunderbolts a‑ready, but more like a deep aquifer into which creation sinks its roots; that God doesn’t just settle on spiritual enlightenment, abstract visions, and whatnot to bring about redemption but also the messy, crass, blunt physicality of life’s stuff — all of these things lead to an understanding of existence that is far deeper, more challenging, and more captivating than anything else I know.


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