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Incarnation and Embodied Belief

Adoration of the Shepherds
Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 2 of an Advent series on incarnation; read part 1 here

Several years ago, my husband and I were part of a small group that watched The Truth Project, a video series produced by Focus on the Family. I have plenty of varied critiques of the material, but one phrase — often repeated by the main presenter — has stuck with me: he asked what the world would look like if we “really believed” what we claim to believe.

I believe the point of the phrase is that earnest mental commitment to a set of beliefs will, inevitably, change the way we live. But notice the emphasis: we need to work harder to believe the right things, to “really” believe. The orthodoxy (right beliefs) must, in this view, precede the orthopraxy (right doing).

But what does that mean? And why so much emphasis on our mental state?

Protestant theology in particular has a history of emphasizing salvation by grace through faith, rather than through works (although orthodox Christianity in all forms affirms that only Christ can bring about salvation). Additionally, Protestant theology was deeply entwined with Renaissance humanism, the sweeping intellectual movement running alongside the Reformation.

This intellectual grounding, plus a desire to avoid works-based theologies, meshed with the ever-present Platonism of western culture that values the mind (the metaphysical) over the body (the physical). And this results in a strain of Christianity that emphasizes right thinking, right believing, over all else.

In this vision of Christianity, the most crucial thing is to have the right mental furniture arranged in the right mental order. No papers scattered on the coffee table, no comfy but ugly couches, no chairs sitting askew; our intellectual house must be in order.

I confess, I like tidy mental systems and neat intellectual arguments; I want my mental faith furniture to have good feng shui, if I may be permitted a mixed metaphor. Clearly, what we believe shapes how we live in significant ways.

And yet. Can Christianity really be primarily about mental furniture? About the strength of our intellectual beliefs?

I think that the Incarnation gives a resounding NO to that question. God’s great love for us was not only spiritual or metaphysical: love took on human flesh, suffering human flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. Love became incarnate, became tangible, carried by a poor teenage girl and born in the lowliest of places. If the greatest expression of God’s love required a human body, how can we return and reflect that love apart from our bodies?

One of the most sobering passages in the bible is Matthew 25:31-46. Here, Jesus envisions final judgment, saying to the righteous:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

James tells us that faith without works is dead; Paul tells us that all the spiritual accomplishments in the world are nothing without love. We can really believe all we want, but until that belief becomes love and takes on flesh, becoming embodied in the world, all that belief is meaningless. The intellectual furniture matters only inasmuch as it becomes embodied in food for the hungry, clothes for the needy, company for the sick and imprisoned.

If I’m being honest, I don’t really believe in God all the time. Some days, it’s incredibly difficult to look at the wrongs of the world and believe that a good God is somehow present. Some days, the hope of resurrection seems like a beautiful but impossible dream. Some days, my prayers hover in the corner of my ceiling and seem to vanish into nothingness.

But forcing myself into some sort of intellectual certainty doesn’t help on those days. What helps? Drinking coffee with a friend. Cuddling with a blanket, a book, and a child. Taking a meal to new parents. Opening my home to giggling 8-year-olds and their math homework. Volunteering with an organization that helps the hurting. Jesus tells us to love God and love others: how can we do that if we don’t embody love, incarnate love?

God’s love became a man, became a body, became relationships and shared tears and physical touch, broken bread and blood spilled out like wine. Our theology must reflect this, must include the body as well as the mind.

To paraphrase Paul, if I have the most perfectly arranged mental furniture but I never turn those beliefs into action, I have nothing. If the greatest love of all must become flesh, how can I respond except by incarnating my love in physical actions?

Tagged: advent | theology | bodies