Chapel

Incarnation and the Form of Human Meaning

As a part of Arts Week 2013, Ken Myers, president and executive producer of Mars Hill Audio Journal, discusses the importance of Christ being fully human and how forgiveness only comes through the work He did on the cross.

Transcript

Many times I’ve been introduced by someone who said I need no introduction, I’m not getting one this morning so I guess. Thank you all for being here. These three talks have been difficult to prepare mainly because it had been an exercise and what I don’t have time to say because there’s so much — I actually had a sheet of notes as I’m preparing about this day, I can twiddle it all down. It’s been tricky and as an result yesterday, I didn’t quite cover everything that I wanted to cover under the theme of creation, so I’m going to finish that up and move on to incarnation and then tomorrow, incarnation and resurrection together as theological themes that guide our thinking about art and imagination.

And yesterday I closed with some reflections about the giftness, the givenness of creation. I’ve been using that word givenness a lot in my work, in fact someone once confronted me and said it’s the word I use almost — every lecture, every script that I write. And I had intended to use givenness in reflecting on the order that God has placed in creation, it has a given order to it. But it also has a gift quality about it, it’s an order and it’s very existence, doesn’t need to be.

When I was in Sunday school as a kid, the first theological definition I can remember receiving was grace as unmerited favor. And we usually think of grace that comes after our sin and yet the existence of all creation is an unmerited favor. We didn’t have to wait to sin to receive God’s unmerited favor. Now, that opens all questions about the relationship between nature and grace which we don’t get into, I’ll let your professors settle all those things.

Now when we receive a great gift, we’re delighted in the gift but we’re also delighted in the generosity of the giver. And so it is with the reception of a powerful work of art. When I hear a thoughtful and attentive performance of a carefully crafted piece of music or when I watch a masterfully constructed film, I often have a sense of gratitude not just to the performer or composer or the director, but a gratitude to God as well, gratitude to live in a world where such joys are possible. The gratitude that is felt by recipients of a gift typically resonates with the delight that’s known by the giver of the gift. And that’s a pattern built into creation.

Creation is a work of a dynamic three person to God and the members of the trinity enjoy an eternal giving and receiving among one another. The doctrine and the trinity informs us of both the personality and the dynamism of God. Qualities that are suggested in the ancient term applied to the trinity, Perichoresis. Do we have Greek scholars here who can tell me what Perichoresis means? Anyone? Rough? Dancing around, literally, right. Chor as in choreography, and peri we know that… preposition. And it refers to the mutual in dwelling of the person of the trinity. By extension, Perichoresis can be used to refer to God’s relationship to the world whereby all things exist in Him and through Him as our Colossians pass had said, or in Him we live and move and have our being. Why move? Are we dancing? We have our being.

All creation is somehow engaged in the life of the trinity as well. In John 17 in particular comes to mind where we read that in our growth in Christ that God indwells us and we indwell Him. So father, son and Holy Spirit are dancing around each other and the Christian life is our entry to that dance.

Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart notes that while God was under no necessity to create the active creation flows out of the infinite love that’s experienced by the members of the trinity. Hart writes, God’s gracious action and creation belongs from the first to that delight pleasure and regard that the trinity enjoys from eternity as an outward and unnecessary expression of that love. And thus creation must be received before all else as gift and beauty.

When we think about a doctrine in creation, Orthodox Christians are eager to point out God didn’t need to create anything and so we said, well why did he? And sometimes we answer it was an active sure will. Well, it wasn’t active will but it wasn’t sure will. I think we need to remind ourselves regularly, it was an active love as much as active will. And if we think of creation just as an active will, we’re on the wrong path toward thinking of will as the ultimate attribute of God and will is the ultimate attribute of men. I think the argument could be made that that’s a huge mistake in modern thought to treat will as primary than love both in God and in our own identity.

And Hart’s pointing out to the fact that the giftness and the beauty of creation are the expression of the generous love enjoyed by God, a God in three persons, an interpersonal love exists in the trinity before creation. Hart goes on and this is from his book The Beauty of Infinite to say that the relationship among the members of the trinity are not only beautiful, they’re beautiful in a way that has analogies with our experience of music, particularly as God is trinity he says, in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity.

The divine light might be described as infinite music and creation too might be described as a music whose intervolves transitions and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal triune polyphony and polyphony, multi voice. Hart’s book by the way… one of the task of this very difficult book is to address the idea in a lot of post modern thought that violence is at the heart of experience and one of the things Hart is trying to do is to point out how peace and love in the trinity, in the life of the trinity are actually reflected in creation.

So difference is not an occasion for violence and competition but difference is an opportunity for harmony. It’s a very different way of understanding difference. It’s important — all of this theology I’m piling on here is partly to remind us that artistic and imaginative and creative activity is not simply a pleasant and rewarding ornament that we might use to decorate our lives or to make them less boring. Artistic activity is evidence to us of the kinds of creatures we are and kind of God — the kind of creator that God is as well as the kind of world which he place us to love and serve and know Him as we exercise our stewardship in this world.

So works of art are rooted in the reality of creation and in the dynamism that is present in the creator. Works of art are occasions for the affirmation of that reality and then hence there are also opportunities of celebration. There’s a wonderful little book called, In Tune with the World by Josef Pieper. You may know Pieper from his book, Leisure the Basis of Culture which is a very well-known book. But Peter also wrote which is a companion to that called In Tune with the World and I love the subtitle of this book, a theory of festivity and I often remark only a German would need a theory for festivity but Pieper argues that all festive joy is, as he writes, kindled by a specific circumstance — excuse me, underlining office of joy, kindled by a specific circumstance. There has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the word world as a whole. The reality of things and the existence of man himself.

In other words, in essence of festivity is the affirmation that it is a good thing that something exists rather than nothing. Now when I first read this, having gone to Westminster seminary, a good Calvin trained guy. I wasn’t sure it was a good thing that there was something rather than nothing. I think there’s a tendency for those of us who take sin really seriously, to sometimes think it might have been better if God haven’t created anything. And that’s a big mistake but it’s an intuitive mistake that some of us might make.

The essence of festivity is an affirmation that it is good and something exists rather than nothing. I think that great Calvin as Jonathan Edwards actually use the phrase a scent to being yes to existence. Art makes that affirmation. It says an enthusiastic amen to the fact of creation. Specific works of art amplify the specific goodness of various materials and subjects and forms. You can see a work that uses wood and sculpture and be grateful for wood, be grateful for the grain in wood and the particular kind of beauty it displays.

I grew up in suburbs and lived in suburbs and cities until I was in my what? Almost 40 years old moved to the country. And spending several years detoxing myself and walking around in the woods a lot and suddenly realized how neat it was — there was so many kinds of bark. Why does God need all these different kinds of bark? I mean these trees have different kinds of bark and each of them have a different peculiar kind of beauty about it.

Now again, we can let the evolutionary butness explain to us why these bark has to be different. I’m not convinced that that’s the final cause of these particular forms of beauty, that there’s a delight again in the infinite beauty of God that is displayed in amazing variety in our world.

Pieper warns in his book, In Tune with the World about the acidic effects of nihilistic philosophies or rejections of the goodness of being a scent to the world is expressly rejected, expressly inconsistently though this last is not easy. That’s an interesting point. It’s really hard to be a consistent nihilist especially if you have grandchildren, right?

God is constantly throwing things at your path to make it difficult, to believe that it’s not good that something exist rather than nothing. But he says whenever a scent to the world is expressly rejected and consistently rejected, the root of festivity in the arts are destroyed. If a scent to the world can no longer be celebrated festively at all, then everyone of the fine arts becomes homeless, useless, idle, unbelievable and at bottom impossible.

And I think that explains a part of what happened in the late 20th centuries in the world of the arts in which arts being practiced in a culture that was no longer confident that there was any kind of meaning in the nature creation and so true festive creativity became really impossible.

Art provides us — we think of this morning… one of the things I want to underline, I don’t have it in this text but to think of imagination as a way of knowledge, think of art as a way of knowledge and not just of expression because art I think provides us of ways of perceiving reality aright. Not all art does that and not all art does it equally well and not all of us have a lot of imaginations to be disciplined to encourage the perception that art points us to. Just as our thinking can be captive to worldly assumptions or conclusions, so our imaginations can become preoccupied with novelty or with artistic expression that’s merely interesting or flattering or trivializing.

I gave a talk earlier this year on the new, the cool and the sensational as the new trends that have replaced the good and the beautiful and if I had more time this week, maybe if I come back, I can talk about the new, the cool and the sensational and how it’s tempting to allow our imaginations to be preoccupied with things that are merely sensational, things that are merely appeal to bodily sensation or things that are merely cool, that is things that participated in the edginess and were attracted to them for their edginess which is an odd things for Christians it seems to me.

Since the essence of cool and edginess is about rebellion and self assertion, it’s an odd position for disciples. Just as we could surrender our bodies in the various consequences and configurations of life in the body to pattern of disobedience so we have an opportunity to present our bodies as living sacrifices and all that we do embodied life in worthy and thoughtful sacrifice to God. Logica says the word that Paul uses in Romans 12 to talk about the rational worship that we present to our bodies to God.

The orienting of all aspects of embodied life to God is the worship that we owe him and so the use of eyes, hands and ears and voices and creative activities that resonate with God’s own music and creation is a very suitable offering to bring.

Ten years ago at an arts conference at Seattle Pacific University, poet Dana Gioia who later became the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts insisted that art is distinct and irreplaceable way of knowing the world because art alone, unlike Science or Philosophy, uses and engages the fullness of our humanity. Arts simultaneously addresses our emotions, our imagination, our intuition, our memory and our physical body separately but together simultaneously, holistically.

This capacity of art to engage us with the world is lost in many modern people, Christian or non Christian. For many people, art is largely therapeutic. It’s something that enables a sense of happiness or well-being but it doesn’t engage us with the reality of the world. People pay more attention for what art does for them, how it affects them than to the integrity or the form of the work themselves and how the form of the world can connect us with creation.

Not long ago, I was getting a haircut       and the disc jockey on the light rock station that was tuned in when I was getting my haircut characterized the artistic sensibility of his station as Z103 music that makes you feel good. And when cultural critics say we live in a therapeutic culture, that’s the kind of thing that have in mind, it makes us feel good, doesn’t do more than anything on that.

We sometimes use the word authenticity when we refer to a work of art. We say it’s authentic. That’s an interesting word to take a part if we have more time, I’d like to take a part what would it mean to be authentic. Sometimes     it means raw, untrained, unrefined which is an odd thing to say about human beings because that’s… in other words it’s authentic when we behave instinctually. My dog might be authentic well he behave instinctually. But I’m not sure that’s a good way to describe human authenticity. We sometimes tend to think that works, that don’t exhibit a kind of… I don’t know, secretion of honesty and personality are somehow inauthentic. I think that again is a faulty idea, a faulty way of judging art or assuming the faulty assumption that we might apply to it.

The form of work of art is very important not just the emotion of the person who’s presented it or created it. In contemporary culture, what matters is that I relate to it immediately. I want to have an immediate response to it. It needs to give the impression that it was created without any kind of refinement and I need to be able to respond to it without any kind of thoughtfulness or training.

The idea that you might have to learn how to appreciate particular forms of creative expression is rejected by many modern people, it seems un-American thing. You would have to be trained in some way to perceive things. It seems rather on democratic.

 I hope I made it clear that beliefs about art are just beliefs about art because what we believe about art and beauty isn’t peripheral to basic Christian belief. The prejudice is about art and beauty that are typical in our day or simply specific expression of border cultural assumptions about human life and how to live it well, to have ramifications and social political, ethical and theological realms as well.

If we affirm or deny certain things about art and beauty either explicitly or implicitly, it’s likely that we likewise affirm or deny certain things about God, about creation, about human nature, about the shape of Christian spirituality and obedience. I think one of the greatest theoretical obstacles to appreciating what art is and does that both Christians and non Christians struggle with or they may not struggle with because they may have just given into it is our tendency toward dualism, actually more than one kind of dualism.

We separate our experience into compartments and typically we separate our experience into two big compartments and you can characterize them in various ways. We can talk about material and the spiritual, the outer life or the inner life of the concrete and the abstract, the life of the senses and the life of reason, the temporal and the eternal, the earthly and the heavenly, the imminent and the transcendent, the body and the soul, there are lots of characterizing this dualism. And however we label them, it’s widely assumed and in many cases it’s explicitly argued, that there is no real connections between these two realms especially since maybe since they. We have this idea that these things are separate, entirely separate.

Now I think that what art does is to convey a real coherence and essential connectedness between these two aspects of existence. In fact I would argue that these two parts of our experience cannot really be understood apart from one another. We were created to enjoy our bodily experience and our spiritual experience in a unified way.

I think I first started thinking about this when I started reflecting on that fact that Jesus fasted. You’d think that if anybody has his spiritual life under control it would be our Lord, right? Why did he fast? Why did he go apart to pray? In other words why did he do things that required an embodied discipline to sustain his own spiritual life? That’s when I begin to realize that this neat compartmentalization that we often pre suppose is just not true to who we are. It wasn’t true to Jesus Christ as a man and it’s not true to us as men and women.

So these two aspects of our lives can’t be understood apart from one another and imagination, imagination when properly trained and exercised is best understood as capacity that’s essential to apprehend the coherence between the two. Imagination is essential to the apprehension of meaning. C.S Lewis says imagination is the organ of meaning. Reason is the organ of truth but imagination is the organ of meaning. It’s by imagination that we recognize that sentence is meaningful whether or not it’s true.

So the Psalm that Tim read this morning calls on our imagination to think — well, not even to think about. Intuitively, no what honey and the experience of honey is like. There’s not analytic description by the Psalmist of what the properties of honey and the attributes of honey are and therefore would reflect on the attributes of God’s commands and the attributes of honey and recognize the likenesses. We are called to an intuitive, imaginative response having tasted honey, to realize and to recognize some metaphoric likeness between the delight that we can know in God’s commands and the delight that we experience in the sweetness of honey, even the honeycomb.

Nowhere in scripture are we instructed as to what to think about honey. I was leading a discussion group recently and we were talking about how scripture assumes certain metaphoric meaning in sense experience that it never bothers to explain. I don’t know that there’s anywhere in scripture where the value or meaning of light is explained analytically. But God is described as light in John’s gospel. Light is used throughout the scriptures to describe certain attribute or quality of God and God’s presence among us and God’s word. And yet it’s through the experience of light and our intuitive knowledge are — I’ll say imaginative knowledge of the kind of good that light is that we recognize immediately it seems, the propriety, the fittingness of grouping light with knowledge and goodness and darkness with disobedience or ignorance and that’s something that’s trans cultural. It’s something immediate in human experience and many people, most notably for my experience George McDonald have explained how it’s through what we call imagination, that we perceive the meaningfulness of light or the meaningfulness of honey.

Imagination does connect our experience through senses, are experiences within our bodies and abstract realities like goodness. Imagination is essential to the apprehension of meaning and meaning is not a pure abstraction but meaning is tied up with the stuff of the world. We know the world as embodied creatures, we know the world as fully embodied creatures. We do not know the world as brains. It’s important to remind seminary students of this. It’s tempting while in seminary to behave as if you were a brain and and the wives will tell us this. We don’t know the world as brains, we know the world as creatures that taste honey. And hence we can know God’s word and God’s commands and the significance of God’s commands because of the fact that we’ve tasted honey and that’s an essential part of our knowledge.

Now, art offers a kind of understanding of ourselves and of the world that requires attention. This is why I think imagination and wisdom, if we have more time this week, that’s one of the other things I’d like to explore. Wisdom, if you think about how wisdom literature is constructed, so much wisdom literature is in poetic form and it’s in poetic form because of the fact that the key tool of poetry is metaphor, the likeness of one thing to another.

Poetry in different languages relies on different rhythmic and rhyme and assonates and other things but at the core of poetic expression is the use of metaphor, the likening of one thing to another and wisdom literature is always, whether it’s the Proverbs or in Psalms or in Jesus’ parables or even in the letter of James, the likening of one thing to another is central and wisdom literature.

And so wisdom and the pursuit of wisdom is essentially I think an imaginative exercise. It’s an exercise in recognizing likenesses of one thing to another. I don’t think wisdom is just having all the algorithms for applying law and we could take more time if again, we      have to look into that. But that requires time to attend. Figure of Solomon is a very interesting figure because Solomon is clearly paying attention to the world around him. If you look at 1 Kings Chapter 4, it talks about Solomon’s wisdom exceeding the wisdom of everyone else and then when it says what kinds of things did he talk about, he says he spoke of trees and flowers and birds. He’s not talking about abstractions, he’s talking about concrete realities and he is therefore imaginatively recognizing how the ways of creation in the material world reflect the ways of God and the ways of human beings in their spiritual existence.

Now we live in a time that suffers from huge level of distractedness. One of the interesting books I’ve read in the last few years is the book by a woman named Maggie Jackson called Destructed. It’s a book on why attentiveness is the foundation of all civilization and then if we’re not attentive, there’s a lot of thing that will not happen and the kind of attentiveness that art requires that the exercise, the imagination requires is increasingly difficult to sustain which is why we’re more and more attracted to art or art like substances that are merely interesting for a little while. And then we move into something else that catches our attention for a little while. The idea of living with a creative expression for a lifetime and continuing to draw something out of it because of our continued attentiveness to it is impossible because the shape of lives, that’s why I suggest that people need to — if they want to receive what they can from forms of imagine to expression or another way of putting is if you want to be wise, you’re going to have to take time to do it. You’re going to have to leave the room for attentiveness and time.

And of course I think that our culture, I don’t think it’s an accident that our culture has moved to the unprecedented levels of distractedness. I think again, if in fact western culture was more and more guided by the assumption that God was dead which Marx proclaims in the late 19th century. If in fact there’s no ultimate source of meaning or ultimate meaningfulness in our existence, if we’re just — if human being’s are just   meat and wet wears as someone has described us charmingly or if everything in reality is just the function of accidents then why should we be attentive? So practical obstacle that we have the laws of attentiveness is I think very much related to the deeper cultural of Nihilism that characterizes our life.

This dualistic tendency springs us sadly with only four minutes left to the incarnation because the dualistic tendency, and I will pick up on this more tomorrow. The orthodox articulation of Christology fights strongly against this kind of dualism, the separation of the spiritual and the physical. In the case of Christ obviously, it’s how can a human nature and divine nature co-exist or co-inhere in the person of Jesus Christ. But this dualistic tendency is something that Christianity from its earliest days, from its apostolic moment really struggled to resist. 

Flannery O’Connor, the 20th century Catholic novelist commented on the necessity of rejecting dualism in many of her essays and letters and she talks in one of her essays about how pre modern Christians tend to be more confident about the connections between the physical world and the spiritual world than modern Christians are. She says Saint Agustin wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things.

To the person who believes this as the western world did up to a few centuries ago, this physical sensible world is good because it proceeds to a divine source and not just because of its origin but because of the fact that it’s structure proceeds from God’s mind. And O’Connor argued that the aim of the artist in line with this reality is to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe. To render the highest possible justice to the visible universe with the confidence that as Saint Paul suggests in Romans doesn’t suggest argues insist in Romans 1 that their attributes of God which can be known from the things he has made, confidently says that.

And O’Connor concludes the artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality. The artist can precede because of its confidence that that’s their… Presbyterian theologian Peter Leithart has commented that this view which was historic Christian view was in existence that on a belief in world in which particular things while remaining entirely themselves nonetheless confront human beings with the reality of God. And Leithart observes that O’Connor’s view of the connections between the physical and the spiritual was dependent on the strong doctrine of creation. She frequently complained about the implicit mannequinism of both modern Catholics and Protestants. In its Christianized form, this ancient Persian dualism teaches that the material world is inherently evil to creation rather than the father of Jesus.

The goal of the virtuous life is for the mannequians to escape the material world, releasing the light substance of the soul from the putrid corruptions of matter.         Christianity by contrast insist that the creation is good, a manifestation of God’s glory and that the material reality can be rightly known only if it is seen as such. That is as good and manifestation of God’s glory.

And finally, from Flannery O’Connor again, commenting on the mannequians, the mannequians separated spirited matter. To them all material things were evil, they sought pure spirit and try to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. That’s a very important point. To try to approach God immediately without material things revealing God to us is a radical approach to God.

We were meant to understand God with the mediation of the stuff of creation. They thought they sought pure spirit try to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. This is pretty much she concludes, this pretty much also the modern spirit and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write because fiction is so much an incarnational art.                 

We will talk more about the incarnation tomorrow. Thank you for your attentiveness. 

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