Incarnational?

I don’t usually read Doug Wilson’s blog, but one of his recent posts — ‘Incarnational Is As Incarnational Does’ — has been quoted in a number of places within the blogosphere, so I took the time to read the full thing. Within it he writes:

But I want to be careful here because in our postmodern times some of our chief offenders in this area are those among the intelligensia who spend a lot of time braying about problematic abstractions. They are intent on overcoming the incipient dualism of the mind/body problem, but little beads of sweat always appear on their foreheads when they try it, and they are not very successful. And then there is this other guy, who has never heard of the mind/body problem; he works down at the feed store, and rides bulls at the rodeo on the weekends. He lives incarnationally, effortlessly, and could not explain any of that egghead stuff to you.

For the academicians, incarnational means being able to talk about incarnational, preferably with words like incarnational. But for the genuinely incarnational, it means being able to laugh at the people who always write big fat books full of words. Faith without works is dead, and this includes the faith of intellectuals. Intellectual faith without incarnational works is dead. But such works would not include poring over one another’s books, handing them back and forth with compliments or critiques, circulating them in a small band of irrelevant smart people. That reminds of the time someone threw a bunch of Scotsmen down into a pit and they all got rich selling rocks to each other.

Contemporary intellectuals tell us all to overcome abstractions, but whenever Joe Somebody in a red state says “Okay!” and heads off to a NASCAR race to eat corn dogs, the intellectual goes white in the face. “When we told you to walk away from the realm of abstractions, we didn’t mean . . . to just walk away.”

I am not sure that this is a very helpful way of expressing things. There is nothing necessarily incarnational about working down at the feed store and riding bulls at the rodeo on the weekends. In fact, the incarnational person is just as likely to be found poring over people’s books and engaging in scholarly dialogue. Wilson’s post might even suggest its own form of the mind/body dualism: ‘incarnational’ is doing things with your body, as opposed to doing things with your mind. Whilst I presume that Wilson does not intend this, I do not find his way of putting the issue very helpful.

For one, I find the thinking/acting (or speaking/acting) split that many people work in terms of (and Wilson’s post suggests) misleading, whilst recognizing the usefulness of the distinction on occasions. There are many people who shrink back from thinking because it takes far more effort than simply acting. If you really want to work to change the world you are probably best advised to spend a lot less time eating corn dogs and watching NASCAR. The people who will change history are more likely to be found poring over books. If you want to be someone who sees the Truth incarnated in your own and other people’s lives you would be well advised to join them.

To be incarnational is to embody the Truth as a whole person. Done properly, thinking is a form of incarnational living. It is a strong testimony to the Truth to be able to keep our heads cool enough to resist the false urgency of our society, its thirst for instant gratification and immediate action and devote time to reflection. Much of the church today is not very incarnational. One of the reasons why is because it has not developed the self-control and patience necessary to stand still long enough to think about what it is doing. The body is controlled by impulses and fleeting fads, rather than by the Truth. It has bought into the false urgency of modern society and flays about seeking to be relevant when it should remain calm and seek to be faithful.

Once we appreciate what it really means to be incarnational we will recognize that it involves having the Truth (the Person of Jesus Christ) permeating every aspect of our lives — heart, soul, mind and strength. Being incarnational involves partaking in a shared life, the life of Christ that we share as His body. For the incarnational Christian the sense of the term ‘Christian life’ is much the same as the sense of the terms ‘married’ or ‘family life’: we are many persons but share one life.

To the extent that our conception of the church has been reduced to one of a group of people who share the same ideas, rather than being regarded as a group of people who share a single life, we have ceased to be incarnational. To the extent that we talk about the Christian faith but fail to allow the Christian faith to permeate all of our actions we are not incarnational. Incarnational people do not regard their thinking as an activity abstracted from their living. When we warn about the danger of abstractions we are warning about thinking that the Object of theology is detached from the common life that we participate in, when in fact the life of the Triune God is the life that we participate in. Theology divorced from the life of the Church deals in abstractions; true Christian theology need not.

There is an important warning to those doing theology here. It is easy to see theology merely as a toying with ideas, rather than as a reflection upon a life that we share in. One of the problems of modern theology is that it has become abstracted. The discipline is not integrated into the life of the Church as it ought to be. It is believed that we can understand the Word of God in abstraction from the interpretative community of the Church. I would love to see a form of theology that is undertaken in service of the people of God, rather than as a merely academic discipline, in isolation from the body. We need theologians who do their theology as churchmen, like the early Church Fathers.

Those who have never heard of the mind/body problem are no less likely to have their thinking and acting governed by it, probably a lot more so. I have encountered plenty of people who have argued that I should stop studying theology and just live the Christian life. This attitude is extremely naïve. Studying theology is a means by which we ensure that it is indeed the Christian life that we are living. Whilst our participation in the Truth is not primarily arrived at through theological reflection, but through the worship of the Church that involves the whole person, theological reflection has the task of informing and correcting the worship of the Church and our lives as Christians. Where people have rejected theology in favour of worship (or in favour of NASCAR and corn dogs), their worship and their lives will very likely embody many things that are quite alien to the Truth.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in The Blogosphere, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Incarnational?

  1. Pingback: Movement and Repose » The Value of the Forms

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    This is a valuable contribution, Alastair. I appreciate much of what Wilson writes, but sometimes I wonder at some of his rhetoric about intellectuals and academia. You’ve put your finger on a good way to balance what Wilson has said. Thanks!

  3. Daniel Nairn says:

    You put into words that inkling I felt when reading Wilson’s post. Something was off there. Well done.

    I might make one little adjustment to what you said …

    “The people who will change history are more likely to be found poring over books”

    Could we say that the church that changes history is more likely to include people who pore over books? Sometimes the language of spiritual gifts gets lost in these discussions. Wilson problematically devalues the life of the mind, in favor of NASCAR (or whatever he was associating with this). But we don’t want to swing the pendulum to the other side either. The church is better served, in my opinion, if some weigh in on the side of contemplation, and others on the side of action.

  4. Al says:

    Yes Daniel, you are right. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Good points, I guess. But really, Doug’s point was pretty straight forward, and it certainly rings true. Abstraction is a problem which plagues the chattering class. Meanwhile, all the gross cultural buffoons down at the NASCAR races live deep in the nitty gritty concrete realities of world.

    We all know that those who bemoan abstraction will be the first to flee to its comforts rather than socialize with the cultural buffoons. They are a little too concrete for comfort.

  6. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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