Thursday, January 31, 2013

Incarnational Ministry

       Even  though the New Testament is written in Greek, it is a thoroughly Jewish collection of writings.  It was written by Jews, to a largely Jewish Christian audience, and, of course, the central character was a Jew.  That means that the Bible, from start to finish, reflects Jewish thinking, Jewish theology, a Jewish mindset.  I mention this because a lot of present-day Christian thinking reflects not a Jewish mindset but a Greek one, and that colors—and sometimes distorts—the biblical message.
     Western culture is shaped by Greek philosophy, beginning in the Renaissance and carrying through the great Enlightenment thinkers who created our country and embodied Enlightenment philosophy in our founding documents.  Arguably the two greatest Greek philosophers were Plato and his student Aristotle, and though Enlightenment thinking incorporates both in its philosophy, the two had fundamentally different  worldviews.  Plato taught that the physical world was a mere shadow of the perfect spiritual world, and we should learn to transcend or even overcome the physical in order to attain the higher spiritual plane where all things were ideal and flawless.  Aristotle reversed the priority, saying that the spiritual world was merely a world of ideas, and that the only real world was the physical world.  You can see how both of these are manifested in modern thinking.  Aristotle’s philosophy is embodied in science, which elevates the physical—what can be measured, weighed, observed or otherwise subjected to the scientific method.  Much of our religious sense is influenced by Plato.  The earth is obviously flawed and getting worse.  Our bodies, beginning somewhere in our twenties, begins the slow and inexorable deterioration toward death (albeit hastened by our love of burgers and fries), after which we leave them behind and enter into a purely spiritual state of perfection.  At some point in the future the earth and everything in it will be no more and there will just be the spiritual.
Neither reflects either Jewish or Christian thinking.
Both modes of thinking go against the theology of the incarnation, in which God became Human in order to redeem humanity.  Jesus is not spirit with a physical veneer in which the spirit trumps the body, but he is One: 100% God, 100% Human.  Both.  He was raised both spirit and body, and he ascended back to the Father both spirit and body.  And the church, as the ongoing incarnation of Christ, exists in the world as body filled with the Spirit.  Both.  And both the Jewish and the Christian teaching about our resurrection is that it is both physical as well as spiritual.  Our bodies will be transformed, not replaced or obliterated.
True, Paul spoke of the battle between the Spirit and the flesh, but by “flesh” Paul wasn’t referring to our bodies but rather to those natural urges and inclinations, good in and of themselves when used in the proper context and in the proper way, that must be harnessed in other contexts and other uses.  And Paul’s point isn’t just that in not harnessing “the flesh” isn't just that it hurts us spiritually but that it hurts us both physically and spiritually, as well as relationally.  (Not for nothing, but relationships involve both a physicality as well as a spirituality.)
Incarnational theology is rooted in a proper theology of Creation.  In Genesis 1 God concludes each day of creating activity with the judgment that it was good, and when it was all completed, he said it was very good.  Platonic thinking says that creation is, if not bad, at the very least it is less than, but that’s not what the Bible says.  And if now the creation is fallen, the biblical answer is not to destroy it for all time, but to restore it for all time.  Paul talks about the redemption of God’s creation, and this redemption is both spiritual as well as physical.  So also are we to understand that our redemption is not just spiritual, but there is a physical element to it as well—hence the transformation of the body at the resurrection.
So while it may be handy to talk about ministering to people’s physical needs as opposed to their spiritual needs, incarnational theology says there is no opposition.  Feed the body, you touch the soul.  Feed the soul, the body grows in health.  Even science backs this up, but so does observation.  A good hug is healing to the soul, and non-physical things like faith, hope and love strengthen the body.  (If you doubt this, remove a person from the experience of faith, hope, and/or love and watch what happens to them physically.
God tells us to minister to people, and a person is both a body and a spirit.

No comments:

Post a Comment