(This is a rather long and awkward essay, but I am trying to put in words my sense that beyond my sometimes glib use of the word “God” lies the belief that the reality at the core of the universe is a reality that can be appropriated by self-aware beings (humans for example) as a source of meaning in our several lives. The reader will, I hope, forgive the failings of this effort.)
Why Incarnation is Essential.
‘God’ is a shorthand word
‘God’ is, for me, a shorthand word. It is a marker for that reality that lies at the center of my faith that existence has purpose, meaning or even direction. I use the word all the time, often as if it were a name of a person, one who had feelings much as any human would – feelings of caring, loving, anger and the like. There is a long tradition for ascribing to God those sorts of feelings. But when I do so I am often uneasy, for the shorthand word ‘God’ is about a reality that is far distant from the specifics of the day and the time, much less the person that is me, and distant too from (merely) human feeling. The reality that lies at the center of my faith is not, however, a person, not even a god (as we normally think of gods). This reality is something like ‘the Word,’ as used in the beginning of the Gospel of John.
The Word, the Big Bang, and everything else
I believe that the universe and all that is in it had a beginning and will have an end, and that both those events are entirely abstract for me, being events on the edge of creation. I believe that the movement from one to the other – from beginning to end – is not random. Rather the opportunities in that movement, often described after the fact as ‘chance,’ betray a predilection for complexity. And that complexity exhibits patterns and elements of design. That is, the development of the universe and then in a microcosm the development of this planet, give way to complexity and to greater and greater levels of organization.
Each branching into to new forms of
material reality seems to involve chance or organization by continuous but
always partial adaptation. But the overall movement is startling in its ‘arc,’
an arc that seems to bend towards a universe increasingly aware of its own development,
as signaled by the self awareness that humans have. We humans are self-aware,
and It may well be that the universe is itself self-aware. It may also be that human self-awareness is
but a shadow of some higher sense of unity that the whole of existence shares
in a pre or post cognitive way.
|the separation of the waters. woodblock 2015|
Choosing to believe
Still, it seems the faith choice is there: either I chose to believe that there is intelligence, or better, awareness, attached to the arc of events that are the history of the universe, or I don't. Either I chose to believe there is purpose, meaning and value to that arc, or I do not. So I chose to believe the universe is developing in a way that signals meaning and intelligence. I do not chose to believe that randomness prevails.
‘God’ becomes the shorthand word for that intelligence, location of meaning, and purpose.
That God, the God that lies behind the sense I have of intelligence, meaning and purpose in all that is, I also call ‘the Creator,’ and the unfolding events in the history of the universe is the creation.The source of Awe, recipient of my gratitude
I’ve become more and more aware of just how difficult is it to do more than stand in awe of the Creator and the Creation both. I become aware too that creation is an ongoing activity. Creation is not about “then,” is it about “now.” Everything is held together now by the same Source that gives meaning and purpose from the beginning. There are no adequate ways to talk about any characteristics of that Source of meaning. About all I can do is experience the creation at this moment, and in the moment be filled with gratitude. I realize that in part my ability to be thankful, filled with gratitude, is a result of finding enough about existence that is enjoyable to carry me into a place of joyfulness. For those who experience existence as bleak, where beauty is absent and struggles meaningless, gratitude and thankfulness is hard to come by.
I have a personal relationship with the Creator God in that I believe the experience of joy is itself from the same source that bends what exists to its own journey to completion. But that personal relationship is with God who “so loves the world,” not with God who particularly loves me. My gratitude to the Creator God is for the creation and the enjoyment of that creation. God the Creator is just too distant from the joys and strife of the particular to be much of a companion. The Creator God loves the creation, and so loves me. But I don’t directly experience that love, except to the extent that I am grateful for the wonder of creation. I experience that wonder and revel in the knowledge that the Source loves what is created.
I bend to the arc
I do not think it is of much help to go to this Creator God for help in times of trouble. The arc is just too great, the issues just too big, and I am too small and specific, for the Creator God to be aware of me in my specificity. I bend to the arc, the arc does not bend to me. I do not pray to the Creator for relief, I pray in response to gratitude. And while I can imagine this gratitude as putting me in harmony with the Creator’s larger work, I find it hard to imagine that work including specifics about my troublesome responses to day to day challenges in my life.
I am and feel finite. The span of years of the universe is one thing, my span is quite another. I am very aware that my coming into and going out of the “world,” that is, in an out of existence as a material thing, is a reality central to me, but not, in its particulars, to that source and core intelligence to which I stand in awe and gratitude.
When I find myself in times of trouble
When I find myself in times of trouble I need love in a much more personal way than can be offered (at least as far as I know) by the source and maker of all things. I need love in my troubles, care in my pain, understanding for my fears, a comforting and sometimes challenging response from someone as real and as present as I am. I do not need explanation as to how we all fit into the great chain of being, in the natural patterns, in the unfolding of God’s great creative energy. That is a general comfort to me as I bend my arc to meet the arc of the universe. But it is no comfort on a cold night, or in times of pain or fear, or even the calm observation of declining abilities and powers that comes with age. The Source of Creation is no consolation when my love is unrequited, or my friendships thwarted, or when my loneliness is not about being alone, but being unloved. In those troubles I need local and specific love, represented in body present with my body, soul with my soul. I need a sister, brother, lover, friend.
I need, in other words, a local outcropping of the spiritual presence of meaning and value in tangible form. I need an incarnation of that source of purpose and meaning as a source of comfort and challenge now.
Incarnation: the Word in a body like mine
There are people who know the reality of that great arc, the creative movement by which the universe has a beginning and end, purpose and intelligence, and which is a source of awe and beauty. Some of them bring that reality with them into the effort to stand with others, including me, in times of joy and sorrow both. They whisper, “do not be afraid.” They know fear themselves. They sit with me in my sufferings, physical and spiritual, and without excuse or avoidance they weave my local reality into the greater story, the higher arc. They do this because for greater or lesser time they are the incarnation of the Word in a body like mine. They are the incarnation of Creator taking the consequences for creation.
All created beings last for a while only, and the more aware they are of that fact the more important it is for that awareness to be borne with others. When someone bears the burdens of existence with me, for me, on account of me, it become an outward and visible sign that there is some echo of the great arc of Creation in the small arc of my life.
In the great story, the source of meaning, purpose and intelligence is increasingly known as the universe completes its unfolding, and we gaze on it in awe and wonder. In my small arc birth and death are the markers for a creative span, an arc, that is distinctly my own. Just as I stand in awe and wonder and thanksgiving in the face of the whole creation, so it is possible similarly to stand before my own life. What the incarnate ones do is affirm me, in my short arc, as having meaning, purpose, and wonder somewhat like that held by the whole. The incarnate ones apply the Word to me. They are the Word for me. And they do so with a body like mine. They do so with an arc that is small, and often lived out alone.
The Incarnation of the Word in Jesus.
The incarnate ones are persons who in this moment or that mirror, reflect, embody, what I understand and believe is present in the Source of all that is, namely a sense of purpose and design regarding the ongoing creative enterprise. There is an arc in time bending towards greater complexity and then to self awareness and ultimately to completion. Some people incarnate that in their own sense of meaning, and reflect that outward to those around them. These are the ones we seek when we are troubled. They stand with us and by us and for us.
Most incarnate ones are only that for brief times, sometimes brief moments. When they are incarnate they are the presence of the Holy, and their comfort is a holy comfort. They are, for their brief moments, the Word made flesh.
I believe that Jesus is such an incarnate one, but that in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” He is the incarnation of the Word not for this moment or that but in the whole of his being. His vital signs are immensely important. That he laughed and cried, danced and died, felt pain and pleasure, looked in awe at the stars and in horror at the way people could treat one another, are all vitally important, for they affirm that he was “as we are.” And he bent the arc towards God the Creator’s ends.
How the fullness of the Word is incarnate after Jesus
His incarnation now is in the greater complexity of his risen self, which self is given flesh – incarnated – in a community of the Spirit. This community consists of all of us who understand ourselves to be part of the body of Christ and who stand with and for those who find themselves in times of trouble. That community is not the church, it does not necessarily consist of Christians, but it is filled with people who love as Jesus did, aware of God’s reach and purpose in all things.
And we share in the incarnation, in our little moments, and can collectively stand for every moment, as a sign that the awe and wonder we have in the whole created universe is an awe that is present in each of us, and that purpose and meaning and delight are to be found in every atom of creation, in every thing that exists, and most particularly in every being that has found self-awareness. The wonder that is in creation is in us as well.
Jesus is the Word made flesh, and we now, indeed we, all of humanity, are the carriers of that Word. Jesus loves us, affirming us as God’s own creation, part of the larger arc bending towards fulfillment, and calls us to affirm one another by that same love.
Incarnation then is the essential affirmation that the Creator and the Word are not distant from our short and often difficult lives, but rather as close as our love for one another, a love we know fully and well in Jesus.
Incarnation is essential to faith. It is the details that will derange us at times. To experience the awe in contemplating the universe, its beginning growing complexitgy and end and to experience the awe in birth, life and death, are related. Words are hard to come by to express that relation, but the closest sorts of words are love and joy and awe. They are probably enough.