Lesson 16: Incarnation

They will know we are Christians by our loveI always thought of myself as a member of the “theology of the cross” school. Paul and Kerry, through brief exchanges on this site, have helped me see the limitations of this tradition, how it has led too many people to put themselves down as contemptible sinners unworthy of God’s grace. At least in our time, speaking as if Christ’s dying on the cross is the one act by which God saves humankind, sounds like salvation is a legal contract or transaction rather than an ongoing loving covenant.

A modern love narrative gives more weight to a theology of the Spirit that focuses on the Incarnation. It places the covenant between God and humanity into an ongoing historical context. That leads me to think that a modern love narrative needs to incorporate perspectives from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and especially to consider what it means when we claim that humans are created in the image of God. In order to do this, we shall find ourselves paying more attention to the Gospel according to John.

From the get-go, John makes clear that he wants to identify Jesus as an incarnation of the divine. He sets out to do this by understanding Jesus as a personification of the logos, seemingly using Heraclitus’ description of the logos as the link between rational discourse and world’s rational structure. It is often described as the animating principle pervading the creation or the fundamental characteristic underlying everything. I hear it as a rhetorical term that lends itself to narrative. As such, it enables us to speak to one another and to God with understanding. It also provides the connection allowing us to understand the creation.

Jesus, then, is the appearance of this rational structure in a human person, an incarnation of the logos. The “I am” statements found throughout John’s Gospel are not simply professions that Jesus is God, but also descriptions of the divine’s characteristics. John’s concern is not so much clarifying doctrine as laying out a way, truth, and life that offers harmony with the will of God and the conditions of the creation.

This gospel places everything in the context of love. There is only one command in John’s book: love one another as I have loved you. The logos is love all the way down. God is love. Love makes the world go round. Jesus’ life epitomizes this kind of love. The crucifixion is defined as Jesus laying down his life in love for his friends. We become more human by becoming more loving, for true humanity is found in love.

John focuses on God coming in Jesus to show us how to live and he does this by presenting love embodied in real life not rules or doctrines. Love always retains the ambiguity of life and words. The evangelist picks representative episodes in Jesus’ life and reports them as mysteries. His commentaries on them are hardly explanations as every one has layered meanings. Jesus’ love frees his followers to feed his sheep but does not offer specific directions about how to do this, relying instead primarily on living examples.

I seemed to have heard the Gospel told in this narrative as long as I can remember, even though it sometimes got tangled up in my desire to be theologically correct. Nonetheless, reading The Brothers Karamazov was a clarifying experience. I think of passages such as the elder Zosimov quoting St. Isaac the Syrian: “What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them, the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.”

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  1. Rita says:

    I was happy to read your reflection today. I grew up on the cross theology as well, and it was feminist theory and theology that transformed me into the incarnational theology orientation. John Spons is big on this orientation. I can’t remember which of his books it occurs in, but it discusses the liturgy of the Catholic Mass and its incredible emphasis on sin. I agreed completely. He goes through the prayers of the liturgy and shows how over and over we are reminded of our sins (from the Kyrie through the preface, etc.). When my Church revised the liturgy under JPII (don’t get me started on the Credo changes), I was appalled that they revised the Confiteor (“I Confess to Almighty God”) which now is more negative than it was before. It is the “old” theology that suffering is almost to be embraced because we deserve it for our sins. God is the Great Authority with a club in His hand just waiting for us to sin here and be punished in an afterlife–unless we beg for forgiveness multiple times a day. At any rate, again it was Rustum who also emphasized Incarnational theology for me. It’s the basis of many of the “outlier” theologians of Roman Catholicism, such as Matthew Fox and Michael Morwood…. It’s frightening stuff to the Church because it seems to overlook the fact that we are sinners all… It doesn’t, but that’s not what attaches us to Christ but we hope, love. It’s a rethinking of the Gospel in terms that have always been there, and an overemphasis on the punishments of the Jews in the OT that are symbols of what will happen to us if we do not shape up.

  2. Lupe Andrade says:

    I didn’t mind the rambling at all (and there wasn’t much). I think this subject can be approached through many angles and points of view. In fact, it may be so large as to need many diverse approaches and insights. With regard to the Parkland School horror, perhaps we can see it as a result of a lack of love. If the shooter had loved himself, if his family had loved him adequately, if he had been taught to love others in the manifestations of love that entail respect, understanding, tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, he would never have dreamed of killing innocents. Perhaps our modern emphasis on love as romance, sex or relationship has dulled us, as a society, to the forms of love that include acknowledgement of differences and separateness as valuable. Perhaps the essence of “love thy neighbor” is not to harm the neighbor, or the neighbor’s somewhat different neighbor. Perhaps that one tenet: “do no harm”, contains the seed of love in its implications. Thank you for your thoughts. With love, Lupe

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