Posts Tagged With: Church

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.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

More Thoughts on Emergence Christianity

My last post gave a cursory description of the Emergence Christianity conference I attended which featured Phyllis Tickle.  Here are some more concepts I learned there, with my responses:

“Emergence Christianity” or the “Great Emergence” is a recent phenomenon among many Christian denominations (and perhaps other religions), so it is not confined to a few denominations only.  It is a new attitude about religion and spirituality that represents, as she described, a probable and major shift in history.  It is one that is more sensitive to the spirit of God who reveals truth to local congregations.  It values one’s experience in life and with the spirit of God alongside a reverence for the Bible and tradition.   Tickle suggested the beginning of this movement sparked at the Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival, referencing the efforts of Charles Fox Parham and Bill Seymour.  Tickle showed no skepticism to the miraculous gifts supposedly manifested there.  The implication is that some congregations might receive specific direction from God–theological, social, or practical–communicated through these gifts.  Thus, prophecy is an important spiritual gift.

Response: I’ve left my old circles which tended to have cessationist views regarding the charisma (charismatic spiritual gifts–tongues, healing, etc.), but I still have reservations about it.  I think most people do.  This is because many a charlatan has mimicked them to take advantage of people.  Those gifts given for building others up twisted to manipulate the congregation is more than a little detestable.  So I have some hope that people genuinely practice these gifts in humble ways.  So you can imagine, I am very suspicious of new social and theological direction coming from these kinds of divine utterances.

Furthermore, I’m concerned about how one can validate the legitimacy of a prophecy these days.   The Torah called for some pretty severe consequences on those bearing empty prophecies (Deut. 13:5); but the New Testament doesn’t seem to call for such harshness.  Paul instructed the Corinthians to evaluate prophecies but didn’t even hint at what to do if they were illegitimate  (1 Cor. 14:29).  What standard might one use?   Obviously, the Lordship of Christ was a standard that prophecy could never violate (1 Cor. 12:3).

_____

Tickle argued that history works in cycles (see my earlier post) but also suggested a view of all religious history that references the Trinity.  The Old Testament time period was the time of the Father who focused more on judgment.  The New Testament time period (I suppose CE 33 to present?) is a time that emphasized experiences with God the Son.  The present is a transition into the time of the Spirit which will see much more spiritual activity.

Response: I’ve heard this kind of thinking before.  It sells well, but it suggests Modalism (Sabellianism), that God has presented himself in three different modes throughout history, and that each mode is a different personality.  It suggests that each member of the Trinity behaves differently in each time period.  On the other hand, it may not be that they each act differently, but rather that they each interact  differently with humanity.  That would have some clout, but there should be a distinction here to ensure that all three members of the Trinity were simultaneously involved with human history.

On the other hand, I agree completely that something big seems to be happening in Christianity.  Regular church attendance is way down, but people desire spirituality.  Many believe in Christ but have been burned by the church.  They prefer sincerity over strict dogma because, like the Pharisees of the first century, religious leaders often sacrifice goodness and common decency for the sake of religious ideas.  So in this “post-postmodern” environment, I’m sure that the face of Christianity will change.  How it will ultimately look is something that none of us can really predict.

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Categories: Emergence Christianity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Isaiah 9: the Warrior-King and Christmas

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For a child has been born to us,
a son has been given to us.
He shoulders responsibility
and is called:
Extraordinary Strategist,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
9:7 His dominion will be vast
and he will bring immeasurable prosperity.
He will rule on David’s throne
and over David’s kingdom,
establishing it and strengthening it
by promoting justice and fairness,
from this time forward and forevermore.
The Lord’s intense devotion to his people will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7, NET)

Isaiah 9:6 is a favorite passage quoted by Christians just before Christmas, predicting the coming of Messiah. It’s one of my favorites, too. It is difficult for us to look at the passage in its original context, but let’s give it a try.
In the 8th century BCE, Judah was in trouble. Ephraim and Syria were a new threat just to the north and the Assyrian Empire was a terrible juggernaut gobbling up all the surrounding territories. These days, commentators say that Judah was under the “Assyrian Crisis.” The Assyrians were a pretty ruthless people who demonstrated their cruelty in some terrifying ways. Impalement and dismemberment were just a few ways they proved their power to their enemies.
In this cultural and historical setting, Isaiah gave a prophecy of great hope to a people under enormous pressure. A child would be born who would set all things straight. Isaiah’s audience were under Ahaz’s rule, but his actions were less than ideal. But this child would be a king who rules on David’s throne and would bring about a definitive order in the middle of the political chaos.
The birth announcement foretold a human event with divine intention. The child is a human conception, though God has determined its happening and purpose.
He will be one that bears a great weight of responsibility as a political leader, but will be renown for his technique and ability, because he will be called “Extraordinary Strategist” by many. I think the NET Bible communicates this well. Oftentimes we see the popular gloss “Wonderful Counselor” and think that he will be someone that will give great advice or direction in a personal matter. Instead, Isaiah’s audience was more interested in a leader who could get them out of their terrible predicament; someone who could save them from forces like Assyria.
As was common to the ancient Near East, kings were representatives of a nation’s deity. The kings embodied the authority of the gods. They were even considered the very presence of a deity on earth. The title “Mighty God” points to this divine embodiment, but it isn’t an outright incarnation that the New Testament teaches. Instead, a king who accomplished the great things destined for him would obviously be driven by the deity. His authority would be synonymous with the authority of the deity, and so he would represent the divine.
The title “Everlasting Father” really doesn’t have anything to do with deity. Instead, it refers to the fatherly provision and protection of this coming king. A Christian appeal to the Trinity would be problematic here, especially since Christian see the king as the Son and not the Father. The metaphor of a kingly father is also found in Isaiah 22:21 (esp. ESV or NIV). Of course, the duration of his protection will be “everlasting,” which fits the theme of this pericope nicely. This kind of forever language is almost always hyperbolic, not referring to a literal eternity, but is instead a magnanimous description of the coming king. It also fits the language of the promise made in 2 Samuel 7 where God promised David that one from his lineage would establish a kingdom of peace that would endure forever.
He’ll be a “Prince of Peace.” How can a king in that environment establish peace? He’ll be a supreme and unbeatable warrior-king who will force the bad guys into submission and so take care of his people. His concern for his people is clear in verse 7. He’s David’s son, he brings peace and justice to his kingdom, and that kingdom is one of great prosperity. It’s YHWH’s passion that motivates and drives him. He’s the perfect king, truly the Messiah.

Is it any wonder that the first century Jews expected a warrior king that would utterly demolish Rome? It makes a lot of sense when you hear Peter’s revolutionary language and see him charge the crowd who came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane.

But what do we do with this Isaiah 9 passage this Christmastime? The people who walked with Christ experienced a paradigm shift and interpreted these passages like this one differently and we do it too.

A child was born by human effort and divine intention. This child would set things straight and we would save us from a war going on between all humanity and God himself: this king would save us from our own sins (Matt. 1:21). The king will be not simply be a representative of God, but will be the actual incarnation of God Himself. He will not just be a symbol of God’s presence among us (Isaiah 7), but will actually be God in human flesh. He will be Immanuel in substance, and not just in spirit. His kingdom will expand as the Gospel message moves across the globe. Our reasons for fear–death, sickness, and divine retribution–will fade. In him, we got more than was originally expected. With him we gain victory over the grave and death. Political aggressors are really secondary when it comes to the issues of sin and death; and the latter are the most important things in our lives that the Messiah came to correct. The culmination of all God wants to accomplish on earth are found in the Christ child.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Christian Calendar, Christmas, Practical, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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