Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Why I no longer use the word "incarnational" (and why I don't think you should use it either); Part I

I've heard a lot since college about this adjective, "incarnational." Well, actually, I haven't heard a lot about it. I've heard it used, repeatedly, to describe things like "ministry" or "presence." You might hear something like, "We strive to practice incarnational ministry here," or, "The Church needs to be more incarnational." As you can see from the title, I don't use this word any longer, and I want to share my reasons with you but that can wait for later (I'm not quite sure how many posts this will have!). Here, I want to describe three layers of meaning-in-practice I see in this concept's use along a theological sliding-scale. Next time I'll tell you why I no longer use that adjective (and, by extension, why I don't think you should either).

At its least theological, when people use the word "incarnational," they mean "presence." In the Incarnation, God became one of us and dwelt with us. He was present with us in Christ. Therefore, we should be present with others in the same way. There are two things in this understanding: the person coming to be present (x) and the person with whom the first is being present (y).

At a slightly more theological level, people might mean "embodied" by "incarnational." Embodied connotes more than just "being there;" it also evokes a type of doing. Incarnational anything, understood as embodiment, conceives of three things, or, rather, keeps the two people (x and y) from above but introduces an abstract ideal that is mediated (by generally unspecified means) through one of the persons involved. You can see this second theological level of the understanding of "incarnational" in this standard phrase: "The Church should incarnate God's love to the world." In this instance, person or persons x [the Church] incarnates idea/ideal z [God's love] so that y [the world] can see it.

At its most theological, when people talk about incarnational ministry, they speak by analogy about the kenosis, or self-emptying, of Christ (cf. Phil 2). This sense is the trickiest to describe because it can move along at least two tracks.

The first track might take kenosis as something for us to do for the sake of the message we bear. This retains elements of "incarnational" as "embodied" except that in order to bear the idea/ideal to the world, we have to humble ourselves, empty ourselves, in order to let the message/Word/Gospel/Spirit shine through. It adds a definitely moral tone to the rhetoric.

The second track might see self-emptying itself as the message. This returns to "incarnational" as presence but, again, adds a moral element to it. It's not enough just to be with people, one must empty oneself of oneself, and that self-emptying is the content of the Christian faith.

As I lay this groundwork, I need to add some caveats:
1) I'm not thinking of anyone specifically as I describe the above. As I think about the shape of the way I and others have used the adjective "incarnational" over the past decade, this is what comes to mind.
2) Ergo, from none of these above statements should it be taken that I am trying to develop a typology by which we might categorize people's "incarnational" thinking. Any one person using the word probably slides around and through these 'categories' very freely. If not already, the reason for the categories will become apparent in my next post.

Next up: Why I no longer use the word "incarnational," and why you shouldn't either.

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

1 comment:

W. Travis McMaken said...

Just for your thinking and future parts of this series, I once wrote a Christology paper critiquing this language because it is implicitly colonial in method: one who is in a better position (Jesus is God after all) becomes one who is in a poorer position for their benefit. A bit pretentious, don't you think?

Keep up the good work!

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