Monday, March 10, 2008

Part III: Why I no longer use the word 'incarnational.'

Index:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV (not yet published)

I've been angling slowly towards making this point: the current use of the word "incarnational" to describe ministry or presence falls short of the Incarnation itself.

One can use the word to describe ministry if we just start with the word itself, "incarnation," as enfleshment or embodiment. Again, in this connection there are (usually) three things involved: a bearer/mediator, a receiver, and the thing being borne/mediated. The means of the mediation is generally unspecified, and, when specified, rarely allows (if we're honest with ourselves) for the mediated to be a person of any sort. This path that moves upward from "incarnation" leaves little hope that our incarnational ministries can do much good or connect with anything beyond our humanity.

On the other hand, what happens if we start this discussion by talking about the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ as witnessed in Holy Scripture and taught us by our common inheritance of faith?

I think we would find something completely different than what I used to describe by the word 'incarnational,' and in its complete difference we would find it unable to be generalized to our ministry contexts.

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is a single and utterly unique event that took place roughly 2,000 years ago in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ maintains the three levels of presence, embodied presence, and kenotic embodied presence, but none of these three, and not all three together, go as far in describing this Mystery as they should. Scripture set us down a path that our fathers and mothers in faith followed to discover that in the Incarnation the mediation between God and humanity is no longer generally unspecified. They described this mediation as none other than the union of two natures (human and divine) in the One Person of the Mediator, Jesus Christ. In this, the hypostatic union, the eternal Son of God enters unique and irreplaceable fellowship with the human nature of Jesus Christ. This fellowship is uniquely with this human being (the son of Mary) and in this specific connection (one Person, two Natures). It is a personal union. That which is mediated to the world in Jesus Christ is none other than the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, whom T. F. Torrance calls the 'personalizing Person,' and in this mediation the Trinity itself is irrevocably connected to humanity.

If we start by thinking about what Scripture and our tradition says happened in Jesus Christ, then it becomes very difficult to use the word incarnational of anything other than the Incarnation itself for Incarnation soars high above the ideas of moral and spiritual mediation (as described by 'embodied' and 'kenotic embodied' presence) while still containing them in this unique and special hypostatic union, connection, and mediation. God becoming one of us in Jesus Christ in the hypostatic union is the content of the Incarnation that differentiates it from all other categories and therefore defines it (if we start with Jesus Christ). If we use an adjectival form that does not allow for this specific and definitive content, then we have muddied our language and threaten to undercut our souls' awe at the beauty and grandeur of the Incarnation itself.

Therefore, the reason I no longer use the word 'incarnational,' and the reason that I think you should stop using it too, is that unless we are willing to say that everyday human beings or institutions can become hypostically united with God or the Spirit, using the word 'incarnational' makes little to no sense and shows our lack of care about the language we use to point to one of the central Mysteries of our faith. I feel like much of the original intent behind using 'incarnational' has to do with 1) raising the value of the thing described, such as in incarnational ministry, and 2) connecting the thing described with the Person and Work of Christ. These are both wonderful things, but I contend that instead of doing either of them, using 'incarnational' actually devalues the Incarnation from which the modifier 'incarnational' is formed and subsequently devalues the ministry that we claim derives from it.

That is not to say that we should throw away the word 'incarnational' and find nothing to replace it. The actual work that 'incarnational' has done (as described in part i) needs to be preserved, but we should change metaphors. In the next and final part (iv), I will argue that the word 'embodied' is the word we should employ instead of 'incarnational' and that the former's use opens us to richer and deeper theological/pastoral reflection and practice than the latter.

[concluded in part iv]

1 comment:

MattP said...

Yeah, I would not use the word "incarnational" to describe your ministry either. (hehehehe)
Cheers to you, and take good care of your words.

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