More Deeply Into the Life of the World: God’s Humility and Human Glory
I live and work among Lutherans. Over time, in fact, I would say that I have become somewhat “bi-lingual,” able to speak both “Anglican” and “Lutheran” theologically, historically, liturgically. A certain vocabulary and directionality characterizes this Lutheran distinctiveness. And it is a gift to the wider Church universal.
This ecumenical conversation has not left my own thinking unchanged. On the contrary, this conversation has led me to appreciate more deeply my own tradition, which shares much with Lutherans, and to examine afresh our own conceptions, theologies, doxologies, teachings--our distinctiveness as Anglicans.
Lutherans often speak and write of the theologia crucis or theology of the cross. I will go so far as to say that this theologia crucis is not so very far from the Anglican emphasis on the Incarnation. After all, if I may speak so boldly, what characterizes Anglican theology is a theologia incarnationis.
The Lutheran focus on Christ on the Cross as the paramount self-revelation of God rubs wrong all of our desires for a glory rooted in success and self-centeredness, excess and exaltation. As an Anglican, I would chime in, so does a God in diapers living under threat of empire and vassals.
This Lutheran focus on the Cross is an Incarnational bent not unrelated to the Anglican emphasis of the crib, heightened this time of year. But just as the Cross is more than the Crucifixion, so is the Incarnation more than the Nativity. Both in my experience indeed take us through the full sweep of the event of the Person of Christ happening among us, not just back then, but here and now among us explicitly in Word and Sacrament. Both in turn take us into the life of our social worlds and all of creation--good, bad, ugly, and shit. This is what Anglicans have tended to call "incarnational," that notion, that because God has become a creature, nothing creaturely is outside the purview of God's concern. This incarnationalism is not unrelated to Anglican emphasis on the Church as Christ's Body, something we take rather seriously, sometimes to the point that Christ who makes us "by the power of the Holy Spirit" is eclipsed by our being made, ecclesiology, and related polity and governance.
Yet, our theologia incarnationis is not first and foremost a mystical emphasis on birthing "Christ in us," though it may be that for some few given particular gifts, but first and foremost a communion or fellowship or commons of "Christ for us and we for others." Irrespective of gifts, explicit means are what remain commonly shared and required. The emphasis is on relationships to God and one another centrally in Baptism and Communion, and in turn, to our social worlds and the whole of creation. And not that we bring Christ to an otherwise Christless world, but that we go forth to name where the Word is at work in our social worlds and creation, though hidden, unknown, and even despised. What we might characterize as Brs. Paul and Cranmer's "we in Christ." That is why leaves can burst forth divine fire and surprise us, why it is that movements and changes in our social worlds too can say something of truth, and so, precisely why Anglican poetry has tended not to ignore God's working in our social worlds and creation.
But before we get to the good and the ugly, something perhaps most obvious in Anglican poetry, being bold enough to look at the bad and the shit begins at Nativity. The close of Auden's For the Time Being is a prime example. This is where Cross and Crib kiss.
The Lutheran emphasis on the Incarnational direction of God’s self-gift, that is a direction toward us as ground for our response, questions any spirituality that would put our own quest for God as the starting point. We are, to quote so many, receptive responders in relationship to the God of the universe. We do not go up to God. God comes down to us. In modern parlance, we do not find God. God searches us out and meets us. In Christ, God has found us, embraced us, once for all times. The spiritual quest under such conditions is not finding God, but loving our neighbor as ourselves in our daily society. At the same time, this Incarnational bent is not unrelated to the Anglican emphasis on participation in God’s own life in the Spirit by Christ to the Father precisely by living lives of good with others in society—that is, a Trinitarian emphasis. Our participation, as Hooker reminds us, is always gift, that is, a receiving.
So it’s a matter of seeing things from different angles.
As an Anglican and Benedictine, I want to appreciate this critical Reformation insight into grace, into God’s unearned Love in Christ—one we have bequeathed to us by Cranmer and our Prayer Book; I also want to appreciate self-examination and contemplation, again, bequeathed to us by Cranmer and our Prayer Book. Self-examination, waiting on God, contemplation, inwardness are not necessarily opposed to love of neighbor as ourselves.
However, much of contemplative and monastic thinking and spirituality is focused on our ascent, our gain in spiritual gifts, our growth in grace, me, me, me. Inwardness can become an excuse for not being in life with and for others. Many books offer us stages of progress. Even the wisdom of our Elders sometimes suggests a division of the personal and communal in the struggle that cannot stand the test of a Trinitarian theology where the personal and communal coarise in the Three Who Are One. Our own personhood is itself formed by others and by Another prior to budding self-awareness. We are never alone when we are with the Alone. All of humanity, each human being, every creature, all of creation is present with us in this One In Three. But stages tend to suggest how we are apart or better or further along. Stage-thinking separates (the definition of Sin I most often use) rather than serves sisters and brothers.
As an introvert, I have always been quite aware of an inward concern and yet skeptical of stages. One because I do not see the life of discipleship as rooted primarily in an inward focus on levels of attainment, but on resting in God’s graciousness and self-examination, where is it that God and Sin are moving the heart? And two because I think we humans are prone to put ourselves higher up the ladder than is truthful or honest. How many of us know someone who announces often and floats about “spiritual,” who yet is narcissistic, self-serving, miserable to be around, all about me, and clueless of this (lacking insight)? For myself, just about the time I start feeling all “spiritual” is about the time comes a moment of crabbiness, snarkiness, or grumpiness to bring me back down to earth. Just ask my partner.
Ascent language, though common in Christian tradition through interpretation of Jacob’s ladder, can be trouble. Too often, it has interpreted gain in spiritual gifts and growth in grace as escape from ordinariness and daily life, and without intending, bequeathed to us portions of a Manichaean inheritance—a distrust or even hatred of flesh or world understood not as vice—the power of Sin (hubris, domination, selfishness, etc.), but as our createdness, our social worlds, and all that goes with this:
Under such conditions, self-control has tended to become hypervigilance, eliminating, or extinguishing passions rather than manifest as moderation, gardening, or tilling our desires: the "mutual joy" of our marriage office. The message underlying such a hypervigilant understanding of ascesis or discipline is that our createdness is evil rather than fallen, has tended to suggest that we have to escape our createdness in order to become more Christlike, rather than to embrace our createdness through direction, that is, discipline, patterns of life, as disciples in the midst of everyday life.
So many of the Churches great ethical errors arise from a theological error to properly appreciate bodies, social worlds, and creation in light of the Incarnation. Our christology, frankly, is not robust enough to deal with a God who ate, slept, wept, and shat. And so we cannot in turn, deal with our own messy createdness and that of one another.
Fear of createdness has tended to rigor.
Every era has its rigorists. And too often those rigorists are dismissive of human finitude. Ethics and ascesis are ever cast in either/or terms and sometimes with little thought about what supports and nurtures fruits of the Spirit for particular human beings. Rare is the rigorist who connects how and what we eat with other’s lack of food or our farming practices. Or if so, the spirit is one of guilt-inducement and shaming. I think of the nobleman in the film, Chocolat.
Rare is the rigorist who connects human lovemaking or refraining there from (as expression of our capacity for connectivity, our sexuality) with Christ’s faithfulness to us as interpretive key in determining styles and manners of life suited to Christian discipleship. Of if so, connects it so as to puff up oneself and tear down another, to paint an aura of light about oneself while denouncing the other.
And alongside the rigorists, we have the moralists and traditionalists, who more often than not simply mouth the past formulae without apprehension of God’s Word at work in the present, often for the sake of institution-protection rather than concern for what serves to support the Spirit patterning Christ in our lives here and now. Formulae under such circumstances become dead letters rather than life-giving expressions. The danger is that left naked by this failure to present the Incarnation in our time and culture and place, formulae are rejected altogether rather than reinvigorated—antinomy. These folks do more to undermine any credibility for Scripture and Tradition than all of the liberals and even libertines combined because the conflations are so strong that one of the traditions of both Scripture and Tradition is completely ignored, namely criticism in light of God’s self-revelation. And hence, the possibility of handing over Christ in our time--traditioning.
On the other hand, love of createdness has tended to extremity.
Quite in contrast to these rigorists, though they may appear the same, we find those who just as extreme, embrace the most messy realities of created existence. Sr Catherine and Br Francis licking lepers sores like dogs to give relief.
But this extremity, while having the same outward appearance as that of the rigorist in discipline, carries a different Spirit. This Spirit loves the flesh even in its vulnerability, passions, and death.
For most of us, however, between rigor and extremity, lies moderation. Moderation is intricately wrapped up in an embrace of finitude, in a recognition of humility. Few are they who can show forth God in the extremes and not become rigorists. Many are the rest of us. And our hope lies together in a community of humility of common humanity at prayer.
In the Rule, Br Benedict gives us a curious ascent. A ladder of humility. To ascend a ladder of this sort is precisely to climb down from the ethereal plane. Ascending the ladder of humility requires climbing down from the ladder of exaltation. To climb the ladder of humility is to step into the things of dirt. Only by stepping into the things of earth will we find ourselves surrounded by God’s ever-Presence.
The point of Benedict’s approach is not a focus on personal inward attainment, but on lived expression of love of God in the things of everyday life together with fellow humans and all creatures.
Old hat to some by now, humility is related to the Latin humus or earth. Other translations of humility might include “down to earth” or “close to earth.”
To be humble is not to be a doormat for Jesus, a popular misconception too readily reinforced by too many Church authorities, who have misunderstood power as control rather than as compassion. Whereever control rather than compassion dominates an understanding of power, we have misuse and abuse in light of the Cross, in light of preferring Christ.
To be humble is to shamelessly embrace ourselves as dust, clay, earth beings without flinching from our vulnerability, without fleeing from our capacity for passion (joy, pain, enthusiasm, despair), without turning away from facing death.
To be humble is to be an earth creature, endowed from our shared creation with all creatures with much intelligence and consciousness, called to lives of service by prayer, work, and play in community on Earth, our garden home.
To be humble is to have a capacity for humor, to laugh at ourselves and with others. Not directly related to humus, humor derives from the Latin for body fluid. But I don’t think being of earth and being fluid filled are unrelated. To be able to smile gently at ourselves and our bodiliness, and we are quite comical, is sign of health. To be able to laugh when we are less than perfect is sign of being close to earth. Sr Hildegaard of Bingen would speak of our being wet, filled with fluid, as the Holy Spirit’s viriditas or greening power. The wet, living fluids of life are sign of God’s creating and sustaining us.
This humility, this earthiness places us in relationship with our fellow creatures with our two arms and two legs and brain capacity oversized for trouble. Rather than leading us to flee from our shared flesh with rocks, plants, humility leads us to a delight in our shared creation, perhaps no more obvious than as voiced in several of the Psalms.
We are of the same flesh, spoken into being by the same Wisdom, Jesus Christ; drawn into new life by the same Spirit, Holy and Life-giving; and beloved of the same Source of All Being, a merciful Father.
Abba Irenaeus once wrote, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Abba Athanasius later penned, “God became a human being that human beings might become divine.” Many Lutheran theologians I have read balk at these sayings because they suggest a quest for our self-glorification, for holiness, for theosis or sanctification.
But I think they misunderstand. And I think, so do some of our spirituality enthusiasts. After all, given Brs Irenaeus’ and Athanasius’ incarnational bent, the divinity revealed and given in Jesus Christ is one of embrace of the earthly, the dust, the clay—even the shit. Becoming divine is not about becoming airy-fairy, ethereal, far from earthly concerns. Becoming divine in our case is precisely about facing up to our createdness, our fleshiness, our dishonesties with ourselves. Becoming divine is about our becoming more human. And becoming more human is not to fly away on wings of Love. Becoming human is to walk into the tough stuff held by Love. That is the point on our end of the communicatio idiomatum.
Br Cyril of Alexandria’s notion of the communication of attributes is useful in this regard. The attributes of God, such as glory or mightiness, are communicated to us through Christ, that is, on the level of human beings as humility or earthiness. Which vice versa reveals to us a God whose own glory is unlike our fallen notions and scripts, that is, unlike the hubris of Sin. Being embraced by God makes us more salty, not less. Some would call this a reversal. I would call it what happens when the God Who Is Love reveals and gives Godself through, with, in, as flesh, the Human One.
As an Anglican and Benedictine, I, of course, have to ask the theosis or sanctification question. What might better be called the ascetical theology question. How is it that my life is to be a response to Christ that shows forth the pattern of Christ’s faithfulness? A question that I tend to reframe from Br Paul as, “How is Salvation working Himself out in us and among us?” Or from spiritual direction, simply put, “How is God at work in my life? How is Sin at work in my life?”
Both of these sayings of Brs Irenaeus and Athanasius are intricately tied to the Incarnation, to Jesus Christ, who reveals Godself, gives Godsself in a manger, as a peasant teacher, on a curse tree, as the ordinary things of life—drink and food. God’s divinity embraces earthly beings. And makes us not less, but more earthly, accepting of our limitations, our fragility, our need for God so poignant in “keeping death ever before us.” That is what it means to be “divine” on the level of human beings.
This is not a ladder of our glorious movement toward God, but a ladder of God’s glorious movement toward us, a movement that draws us deeper into the life of the world. For in this movement toward us, we are embraced (“caught up”) into the Life of the Triune God, ever at work in the life of the world. We are touched by God not for escape or denigration of this body, this world, this creation, these creatures, but for entering more deeply into skin, going into all of creation to proclaim the Good News of God’s embrace and to serve all flesh in need.
May we do relatedness,
+ love blessing,
and walk close to earth.