The Incarnation and the Material World

Christmas is behind us, which means the torrent of articles and sermons regarding the birth of Christ has come to an abrupt halt, waiting eleven months to be unleashed again. 

That is all well and good. However, even though the wonder of the incarnation "pulls" us toward Christmas Day during the Advent season—providing many individuals with a season of light, cheer, and warm nostalgia—it's breadth is far more sweeping and powerful than that. 

The fact of the incarnation is also meant to "push" us forward throughout the rest of the year, equipping us with an array of operational principles for facing, enjoying, and living life. If we don't utilize these principles, it's tantamount to having access to a billion dollars in the bank, yet never withdrawing any money, choosing to live destitute instead. 

These principles are too many to recount in a single article or even a series of articles, but here is the beginning of a mini-series in which I'll address three of them. These three are perhaps lesser-known—or at least infrequently discussed—when compared to others. 

1. The Material World Matters

While the great religions of the world and the belief system of secularism contain numerous positive features, I've yet to find a view of life that so ennobles and affirms the material world as much as Christianity does. 

Some religions say this material world will end, and those who live according to God's laws, or those who are enlightened, will be rewarded by entrance into a kind of etherial paradise. In these views, the present world is nothing more than a temporal inconvenience on the way to spiritual bliss, or an arena within which we're to "prove ourselves" to the God who put us on earth to test us. Other religions say that the physical world is an illusion, and the path to happiness is to "detach" from the things of the world.  

Secularism says this world was brought about through a chance intersection of time and space, with no design nor regard to human beings whatsoever. With no transcendent reality, all the things we call "personhood"—our individual personality, our love relationships, our sense of aesthetic value and humor—are nothing more than biochemistry, nothing more than a physical adaptation for propagating the species. And eventually, everything will disintegrate with the death of the sun and no one will be around to remember anything that happened.

Bertrand Russell, the great 20th century atheist philosopher, speaks to what we're faced with if the natural world is all there is, in his essay A Free Man's Worship:

Man is the product of causes which had no [foresight] of the end they were achieving...his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms...all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system...Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.

This is very troubling, but it's difficult to argue with him.

What he's saying, in other words, is that nothing you do now will make any difference in the end. Why? Because the universe doesn't care about you. It's blind, impersonal, and eventually everything will be swallowed up and all will be as if nothing ever happened. So at the end of all things, whether you've lived as a mass murderer, or if you've solved world hunger, it won't make an iota of difference. 

Some may say Russell is being morose, but in fact he's being intellectually honest and thinking out the inevitable conclusion of secular thought. Within this view, it's exceedingly difficult to be motivated to care for the physical world, to act as if things like human rights are real, and to live life on anything but the "foundation of unyielding despair." According to Russell, to do otherwise would be dishonest. 

Now, am I saying those with a secular view cannot care for the physical world, nor fight for things like human rights? Absolutely not. In fact, I know many non-religious folks who do more to care for those things than many religious people do. And thank goodness for that! But what Russell is doing is challenging the notion that it's coherent to disbelieve in the transcendent, and then continue to act as if anything ultimately matters—living with optimism, fighting for things you care about, etc.—because the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. 

While one can certainly grasp the full implications of a natural-only universe on an intellectual level, I wonder if it's actually possible to live out in practice. 

The Dilemma

We have a predicament in front of us. Do you see what it is? 

If the natural world is all there is, it presents an extremely difficult framework from which to live with intellectual integrity. 

However, if we swing the pendulum the other way, toward the transcendent, that isn't necessarily comforting, either. Why? 

Because if there is a God, or some kind of supernatural, how do we know this massive, powerful being even cares about us? How do we know we have significance, or that the material world actually matters? 

Ah. That's where the incarnation comes in.  

Christianity says this world was created, not as the result of a violent struggle between gods (as other creation myths say), but by a God of love, in order to give love to human beings. The material world deeply matters, and personhood matters. Human beings have inherent dignity and worth, because, just as the value of a painting or piece of music is directly related to the dignity and skill of the artist who created it, so humans have immense dignity because they are created in the image of God. [Putting his "image" on us means he gave us rationality, self-consciousness, a soul, made us moral creatures, etc.]

But everything fell to pieces due to our self-centeredness (think about it: there's no more destructive force in the world than self-centeredness writ large), creating both internal and external conflict. Internal: we're never at rest, nor as happy as we know we should be. External: there's endless greed, strife, poverty, oppression. And if God remained distant and removed like a "clockmaker God," then we'd have every reason to believe he doesn't care. 

But in the incarnation—God becoming a human in Jesus Christ—we see just how far he was willing to go to care for the material world and the people he made. 

He made himself vulnerable, killable, in order to initiate the process of healing the world and reconciling people back to himself. And everything he did during his time on earth reflected his concern not only for our spiritual health, but our emotional and physical health, as well. Even his miracles —feeding the hungry, giving sight to the blind, among other things—were not performed to show off, but in order to care for people's physical well-being. These miracles also pointed to the final restoration of things, when he returns to put a final end to suffering, fear, and death. The restored world will not be a realm of disembodied souls floating around playing harps, but a very physical world, including a city (Revelation 21:1-5) filled with people, and even where work is performed.

The Application

Maybe you're reading this and disagree with everything I've just said. If so, please contact me, I love learning where other people are coming from. 

If you're a Christian, here are a couple application points: 

1. What you do now matters. This may seem like a pointless thing to say, but think about it: your work, your interactions with others, the things you do, have real value and eternal significance. God made you to create, whether it be art, music, writing, technology, business solutions, advancing the field of medicine, raising a child, practicing law....all these are part of being made in his image as creator. He made you to steward his creation, and to serve others sacrificially. This material world matters immensely. 

2. We have no place to view anyone else with disdain or superiority. 

Knowing all people are made in God's image means that regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, all are of equal worth and dignity because of who made them. There is an immense resource here for treating other people with love and respect that you won't find anywhere else.* 

The incarnation demonstrations this as well. Jesus himself was not attractive (Isaiah 53:2), was extremely poor and destitute (Luke 9:58), and continually spent time with prostitutes, outcasts, and people who held different beliefs than he did. I think this speaks volumes to the people he identifies with and commands us to love and serve. 

In conclusion, here is a line from Ian McFarland's book From Nothing, as he comments on 2 Corinthians 5:1-4:

If glorification [the restoration of things] is a matter of shedding the earthly in order to rise up to a heavenly realm, then there is little reason to regard the matrix of relationships among creatures that governs our present life as anything more than a series of obstacles to be negotiated on the way to a future when we will be freed equally from the tyranny of inanimate objects and the hell of other people. But as Paul makes clear, any such vision of the glorified state is deeply mistaken. The point of glory is not to negate the present form of creation but to perfect it.

[Continue to Part 2, Part 3]


*At the bottom of it, full-on naturalist science puts people on a bell curve, based on ability, strength, skill, etc., whereas "religion" says it's those who live with moral rectitude who are worthy. But the gospel says that humans are all equal as image-bearers of God, and it's not the upright who are saved, but those who admit they can't do it all on their own, and who place their trust in Christ's finished work on their behalf.