Incarnational Humanism by Jens Zimmermann–My Thoughts.

Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2012), pp. 357.

I must say, the book’s beautiful cover caught my attention, and then the title made me take it home. My recent reevaluation of Christian theology has me reading more philosophy and theology than usual these days, and I’m glad that this book was pretty enough for me to read (that’s why everyone reads philosophy books, isn’t it?).

All kidding aside, the book is well-written. Zimmermann teaches English and German at Trinity Western University, his main interests being literary theory, theology, and philosophy; so he knows what he’s doing. He argues that a great deal of Christianity has lost touch with its roots. The two thousand years of theological and philosophical thought from the first century until now has taken it’s toll. The western church seems confused about it’s main purpose. Is it exalting Christ? His birth? His life? His death? Is it saving lost souls? Is it feeding the poor? Is it retaining a traditional liturgy? Is it social action? There are many more possibilities, but Zimmermann recommends that the church re-embraces the incarnational humanism promoted by the church fathers.

Even uttering the word humanism concerns many of the laity, since they usually relate humanism directly to secular humanism. Though he doesn’t say it outright, I think that is part of Zimmermann’s point. The fact that this misconception is widespread indicates that the church has forgotten its most important mission: the restoration of humanity. The incarnation event heavily influenced the early church and promoted humanism. So Zimmermann spends most of his time tracing the main ideas about humanism from the early church to the present.

While the idea of a deity becoming flesh was certainly not new in the first century, the Christian story of the incarnation represented a tremendous paradigm shift: we are not like the gods, but the holy God–the one who is completely other and separate from humanity–has become like us. We are not like the gods, but rather God infinitely condescended to become like us. Not born to royalty, but to poverty. Not born to prestige, but to the lowly. Humanity had now achieved a special level of dignity because God had ensconced himself in a human form and triumphed over sin and death for the sake of the rest of the world. God had achieved the victory that man could never win. He did that while he was a human being made of flesh. Thus, Christianity promoted the dignity of humans. Christ had proved that the world can be redeemed, so Christians ought to redeem the world. They should seek the betterment of humanity through education and social action. Furthermore, the church fathers made a sharp distinction between Neo-Platonism and Christian humanism. The truth of Christianity was more relational than cerebral (though truth and facts were very important).

Later, the Enlightenment and Reformation championed personal knowledge and independence. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel equated knowledge and logical thought with humanity. Dignity had more to do with the cerebral instead of being itself. The reformers had legitimate and serious concerns with Rome, but also championed ideas and ideals over some of the more mysterious elements of Christianity. The Eucharist had to be modified in Protestant circles to accommodate to new ways of thinking. Even Luther modified his view of the bread and wine based on enlightenment thought. The center of Christian worship–the moment acknowledges the mysterious union between spirit and flesh–the Eucharist became segmented. To many, they became symbolic. The bread was just bread and wine was just wine. A Neo-Platonic separation between flesh and spirit thus became standard doctrine for many churches. So human beings were similarly segmented into flesh and spirit beings.

Later, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Heidegger negated the “spiritual” side of humans. Beforehand, people assumed that there was a common and even divine expectation for all human beings to fulfill, but these philosophers identified such expectations as elements of control that impeded the freedom of human beings. Thus, the cerebral element to humanity is really irrelevant; being is the only issue relevant to humans. So, expression becomes important for humans with no prescription for normality. Humans are not obliged to be anything or to act in any specific way. They simply are what they are. Later postmodern philosophers developed these concepts even more. As a result, the uniqueness and dignity of humanity became a misnomer. Humans no longer had innate value or dignity.

Zimmermann argues for a return to an incarnational humanism promoted in the Christian Church. Such an approach emphasizes the Eucharist as the embodiment of human dignity. It is the center of Christian worship which reminds the congregation of the incarnation event when God became human. This event brought ultimate victory for all humanity. It also represented divine struggle with human travail. It is God’s goodwill toward humanity. It teaches us that all human beings are valuable because all are in God’s image and God became flesh to save us all. God’s efforts should be our own. We should take on a similar mission when we partake in the Eucharist.

Zimmermann is quite fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s approach to humanity and the Church’s mission. The Church must participate in the current state of the world (the penultimate) with a view to bring about the world’s ultimate redemption (the ultimate). Thus, the church seeks to bring about common good and divine good in the world, unabashedly involved in social action. We ought not be¬†legalists who consistently separate ourselves from the world and huddle triumphantly in our local congregations; neither should we be antinomians who have no stance on morality.

What a great aspiration! Zimmermann points us in a nice direction, but what kind of that church would that be? How does that look practically? Zimmermann doesn’t offer much practical guidance with these questions (except for some broad comments here and there). He remains philosophical overall.¬† I also wish that Zimmermann interacted with the theologians who had similar concerns in the twentieth century. There are no references to Barth or Tillich, for example. That was very surprising for such a well-documented book! There are also very few biblical references. To make his case among those who hold the scriptures in high regard, Zimmermann would need more biblical support to make his case.

On the other hand, Incarnational Humanism, represents a fantastic history of humanism from the first century until now. The writing becomes rather heady at times, particularly when he discusses the postmodern period, but the discussions are rich and enlightening. It is a strong philosophical argument that modern church academics should consider in an era where church identity can be hard to define.

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One thought on “Incarnational Humanism by Jens Zimmermann–My Thoughts.

  1. Herb Hand

    Brilliant! Amazing insights.

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