Culturally incarnate Christianity

This ‘article’ was a response I wrote, but did not deliver, to a person who regularly criticises church life for it’s ‘worldliness.’  Writing this response helped me to think about why it was that we seemed to arrive at such different conclusions from the same set of facts.  Many hours of discussion have taught me that to reply directly would only lead to many more hours of fruitless disagreement, so I’ve not gone back to the debating table, but the insights I’ve gained from the discussions we have had have been helpful to me in understanding my own motivations and perspectives; here they are…

You say that I am infected by humanism.  I both agree and disagree.  I have certainly studied in humanist disciplines and a large part of my discipleship has been in subjecting those disciplines to the word of God.  That I should be familiar with humanist (or materialist, or feminist, or any other ‘ist’) language and ideas is not surprising.  That I should use them in my teaching of the gospel, however, is where we have some disagreement. 

To use the concepts of our culture is not compromise, but obedience. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus said “as the Father sent me, so I send you.”  The immediate context of that word is the infilling of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sin.  The broader context is John’s dual insistence on the Spiritual or Heavenly source of Jesus’ life and power, and his coming “in the flesh” to Israel.  Jesus is utterly ‘in’ the world, and completely ‘from’ heaven.  This is (in part) our doctrine of the incarnation.

And our doctrine of the church is built on our doctrine of Jesus.  We are the body of Christ.  He is our head.  We are ‘in’ Christ, baptised into his death and resurrection.  

We, too, only have Life because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit.  We are who we are ‘from’ heaven. 

But, like our master, we do what we do here on earth.

I don’t need to list all the many instances of Paul, the evangelists, or the prophets, speaking in the language of the people to whom they were sent; explicitly using the images, the ideas, the concepts of widely divergent cultures and turning them towards the Word of God.  All the scriptures, every word therein, testifies to this fact.  The scriptures themselves are a type of the incarnation of the living Word of God.  Preaching is another type.  The life of the church is absolutely inevitably incarnational.  We may not escape either dimension of our existence – our heavenly origin, or our bodily being.  Any attempt to do so would be disobedience.

In your critique of the church’s use of contemporary cultural elements, you imply that your own perspective is free from such cultural elements.  That you yourself have a ‘pure’ Christianity without ‘worldly infection’.  I deny that any such Christianity exists, and the very concept is an idol, a heresy known as docetism, in which Christ is thought to have only ‘appeared’ to be human, but was really nothing but divinity-in-disguise.  Christianity based on such thinking believes itself to be merely wearing a cloak of culture (eg, language) but in reality to be purely divine.  It is false, and when John calls us to test the spirits, he makes incarnation the litmus test of truth.  And as the master, so the servant. 

Your docetism probably arises purely unconsciously from a core cultural element of modernity; the Cartesian splitting of subjective and objective.  This purely philosophical split on which so much later thinking was based assumed an absolutely objective perspective for the thinker.  In your critique, it seems to me that you automatically adopt this position.  Absolute objectivity.  For your generation it was the only possible position, as dictated by the positivism of the age.  My ‘postmodern’ generation has recognised the ridiculousness of the idea. 

True, it has gone on to deny any possibility of objectivity (including that of God’s word) and that we deplore.  But  the point is that your critique of my ‘captivity to culture’ itself comes from a perspective which is intensely culturally bound.  The difference between us is not that you are free from the world whilst I am ensared by its ideas and trappings, but that I am conscious of my cultural, ‘worldly,’ incarnate nature, and you are unconscious of yours.  You are thus far more bound than I.

We both have blind spots.  We both stumble.  We both serve to the best of our abilities.  That you have bothered to tell me that you think I’m going wrong is a gift I appreciate.  That I disagree with you is my responsibility; my responsibility to do the ‘Berean’ thing and check the scriptures to see if these things are really so; my responsibility to do the apostolic thing, and test the spirits against the criterion of Christ. 

I am convinced that we have no other language than the language of our own culture, and that the Word of God, living and sharp, not only can but must be translated constantly afresh into the living language of the people whom God is calling to himself in Christ incarnate.  Living in the word from heaven and in the human world at the same time is the only possiblity for Christians.

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