Excarnation

Here are some words from James Smith in his book, How (Not) To Be Secular, that reflect a concern I have had as a Reformational Protestant. Andrew Wilson refers to this at his blog posting today.

By refusing a kind of two-tiered view of the Christian life, these late medieval Reform movements emphasized what he calls “the sanctification of ordinary life”: that those engaged in the nitty-gritty of domestic life—having families and raising children and making horseshoes and tilling the earth—live their lives just as much coram Deo (“before the face of God”) as those who renounced domestic, “earthly” life (monks, priests, nuns). There is no all-star team in the Christian life; we are all called to holiness and we can pursue holiness in any and all of our earthly vocations. In a sense, then, the Reformation recovered a more affirmative theology of creation, creaturehood, and so-called “earthly” work.

However, one of the other results of the Reformation was a kind of disenchantment of Christian worship, not so much in Luther and Calvin, or at least not to the extent that later Reformers like Zwingli or the Puritans. This disenchantment involved a rejection of sacramentality—the conviction that the Spirit meets us in matter, that material stuff is a channel of grace. As a result, Christianity becomes a kind of intellectualized set of ideas rather than a liturgical way of life.

[Charles] Taylor calls this a process of excarnation, and in many ways I think it is a lamentable byproduct of the Reformation—and not one that necessarily has to follow from other convictions of the Reformers. Indeed, I would say some of us (like Todd Billings, John Witvliet, Hans Boersma, me, and others) are trying to recover a ”Reformed catholicity” that tries to undo this part of the story.

Note the phrase, “a rejection of sacramentality-the conviction that the Spirit meets us in matter.” The kind of Reformational thought which has nurtured me posts at times too heavy a line between the sacred and the secular, between common grace and special grace. With a too heavy line Christians lose the ability to draw near to God in all of life. God is shut up in the thought world of the Christian, in his inner movements, rather than coming to the Christian through all of creation, so that at all times and in all ways God is speaking and inviting and loving.

This is a truth that Roman Catholicism has kept alive, at least to some degree. The very richness of their sanctuaries, which I was taught were merely bastions of idolatry, are a recovery of the idea that matter manifests spirit, that the smallest detail can lead to the greatest truth. Surely, of course, there is a danger here. One can begin to identify matter with the Creator in ways that compromise the unique revelation that comes to us through Christ. However, the use of the senses in worship is a Christian legacy and not to be given up without a fight and without the intellectual heavy lifting that will validate the reality.

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