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Christianity as stumbling block: The great scandal of an Incarnational life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 07, 2016

When I wrote on Wednesday about the scandalous concreteness of Christianity, I didn’t tell the half of it. My argument was that because its essence is found in the Word made flesh, Christianity possesses a particularity or concreteness that resists our all too human temptation to invent “higher spiritualties” which suit our own interests and passions.

But I did not emphasize this nearly as much as I could have done. The tangible realities—the observable particulars—of Christianity are all-pervasive. They lie at the heart of both the Church’s mission and every Catholic’s life. They are even more important than all of the theological arguments and doctrinal perspectives which we commonly associate with Catholicism (and in which I also thoroughly delight). The reason is that all Christian theology is inescapably grounded not in lofty conceptions of the Divine but in the tangible experience of the Word made flesh, the Son Who, in his own human nature, reveals the Father.

This is what we call the Incarnational principle, and it is perfectly represented only in Catholicism. Many understand, I think, that the astonishing fact of the Incarnation is the root of the Church’s sacramental system—an amazing use of outward, visible, tangible signs which effect what they signify so we can grow in the life of God. But there is far more to it than that.

This Incarnational cohesiveness also explains why church buildings, the summit of human architectural design, are consecrated as sacred spaces in which Catholic worship most fittingly takes place. It is also the secret that underlies the development of liturgy, with its human gestures, postures and words which connect us with God. The Incarnation is the origin of the quintessentially Catholic focus on sacramentals, relics, the cult of the saints, rosaries, scapulars, medals, sacred art and sacred music. In fact, the Incarnation lies at the heart of all Catholic culture, with its recognition of the goodness of nature—of its capacity to both reflect and connect us with God.

Classic Christian errors…

When we look at the Christian bodies which have broken away from Rome, we will nearly always find at the root of the dispute a rejection of some aspect of the scandalous particularity of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Some aspect of the Incarnational mystery—perhaps the humanly incomprehensible union of God and man in Christ, or the equally mysterious coexistence of grace and sin in the Church—is always pushed aside to make way for some “superior” human idea which relieves this Incarnational tension.

I don’t mean to oversimplify—there can obviously be other factors at work—but we can follow this Incarnational factor with telling ease. For example, in the early Church, the largest waves of heresy smashed and broke against this mystery of the Word made flesh. Early errors either made Christ a human person who was somehow adopted by God, or regarded His human nature as a mere phantasm. The same underlying problem afflicts us even today. Our pervasive Modernism, for example, teaches us to dismiss the Christian particulars as mere cultural projections, leaving us free to affirm the spirit of the age.

But to return to the major historical divisions of the Church: The Protestants looked at the miserable, messy concreteness of entrusting Revelation to sinful popes, and of dispensing grace through sinful priests. They reasoned that it was far more sensible to hold in its purity the original Christian “idea” and to assume that grace and faith come exclusively through our spiritual acceptance of the God we cannot see, rather than through our collaboration with, and nourishment by, the ecclesiastical body of Christ, whose leaders and members are all too annoyingly visible. In Protestant theology, Christ saves by throwing a cloak over our corrupt human nature so that He can simply ignore it. Here we find the root of sola fide and the strong antipathy toward sacraments and other “works”.

What Protestant theology misses, of course, is the scandalous consequences of the enormous fact of the Incarnation. This fact (which is often perceived as inconvenient) animates the whole Church which, as the Mystical Body of Christ, actually feeds her children with grace through the hierarchy, the ordained priesthood, and the seven sacraments which we can see, taste and touch—including eating and drinking Christ’s very real body and blood. In the Protestant case, rejection or ignorance of the Incarnational principle and the full sacramental character of the Faith resulted very quickly in the removal of the corpus from the cross, making the cross an emblem of the triumph of an unseen God. It no longer represents that Incarnational suffering which gave birth to all the messiness of the Church, as blood and water poured from the pierced side of the Redeemer.

All the sects and denominations drift along on more or less human theories precisely because they have distanced themselves, in one way or another, from the concrete facts of the case. Predictably, we find the same failure among the Orthodox, though in a far less sweeping manner. At a certain point in the history of the Eastern Churches, a preoccupation with the majesty of the Roman Emperor led to a rejection of the universal authority of the lowly fisherman whom Our Lord had singled out to receive the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Emperor appeared to represent a more appropriate combination of political and spiritual power.

In Caesaropapism, the East found a theory which helped Churchmen and theologians to ignore, for far too long, the scandalous fact of the political powerlessness of the successors of Peter the Fisherman in a rapidly-declining Rome. The Orthodox fell prey to an attractive secularizing theory which, because of their characteristically intense traditionalism, has locked their religion into the shape it acquired at the time of its unfortunate rupture with the living Tradition of the universal Church. They have largely lost the ability to separate human tradition from Divine Tradition, mostly because they lost sight of the concrete worldly helplessness of their Incarnate God. The powerful Emperor was no part of Revelation, but the worldly-weak papacy was—a reflection and historical extension of the Incarnate Christ.

…And classic secular errors

The Word came into the world, and the world received Him not. This too is a very particular, and so a very scandalous, truth: the rejection of the Incarnate Word. It is not surprising, then, that the failure to recognize the power of God in the concrete and particular helplessness of man leads us to question the very nature of the human person as a unity of body and soul. Yet this is the very thing that the Incarnation and the sacraments so vividly reinforce! Early on this tendency took the name of Gnosticism; a little later it emerged in Manichaeanism; in the Medieval world it resurfaced as Albigensianism; it has wended its way into a great deal of modern philosophy (which despairs of the realism of St. Thomas); it has bobbed up repeatedly as Materialism; and it has taken the world by storm now under the name of Transhumanism.

Whatever the name, this is the tendency to view the essence of what it means to be human as a kind of spiritual spark (the soul, or at least consciousness) imprisoned within a rather foreign substance (the body). The results are completely predictable. Those infected with this attitude toward their own embodied personhood, since they regard the body as a prison, invariably choose one of two paths. The first is to try to break the body’s bonds by starving it into submission through an asceticism which, in and of itself, is supposed to release and reveal the soul’s (or true self’s) enlightenment. The second is to indulge all the pleasures of the body on the premise that these are utterly irrelevant to the true man within—the spark, the soul, the self.

Since Christianity is intrinsically (Incarnationally) resistant to these errors, their resurgence within the fold always takes the form of heresy. But the critical mistake rampages far more destructively whereever there is no Christianity to restrain it. Thus we can find the same Manichaean impulse in movements as diverse as Buddhism (which counsels utter indifference to every human desire in the hope of eventual union with the great world soul) and the modern Western preoccupation with technocratic instrumentalism (which seeks to manipulate the body in whatever ways are necessary to serve the unfortunately hampered “self” within).

Note that similar errors are at work in all the collectivist ideologies which seek to create a paradise for mankind by expunging the particular—by annihilating all individuals who persist in being so frustratingly idiosyncratic. However we describe it, the very root of the problem is our failure to grasp the central point of both the natural law and Divine Revelation: That we have been individually created as particular embodied spirits. Human nature is a composite nature, that is, composed of body and soul. And each of us is a distinctive and unrepeatable instance of human nature personified: Each of us is a Providentially particular unity of body and soul.

Grace perfects nature

This is not only obvious in nature but it is one of the greatest lessons in self-knowledge offered by the Incarnation and the Sacraments. It is precisely through this creative human structure that we are real persons. This is our “givenness”—the great gift we have received from God. Moreover, we are fully ourselves only in the acceptance and perfection of our givenness. Finally, we can be fulfilled only through a proper response to that givenness, a response which is ideally conditioned and informed by the concrete, particular, Incarnational Christ and the concrete, particular, sacramental Church which is His body on earth.

Now we come to the point. This startling and even disruptive reality, so concretely embodied in Christ and the Church, communicates two decisive lessons without saying a word. First, just as human nature and God together make the one Divine Person Jesus Christ, so too is each of us composed of a material and a spiritual element, the body and the soul, which combine to make one unique human person.

Second, just as the Son of God did not reject a human nature, the Divine life of grace never rejects or replaces nature. Nor does nature improve on grace, as so many secularized Catholics seem to believe—as if the one Christ could have been elevated by His condescension into a human person. No, nature is always designed to receive grace and be brought to fruition by it. Grace perfects nature. This is the immense dignity and promise of a successful human life: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2).

It is each man and woman individually who, as one human person, is redeemed body and soul in Christ. It is the whole man and the whole woman, body and soul united, who, perfected by grace, enjoy an eternity of love with God. And it is Jesus Christ—body, blood, soul and divinity now gloriously transformed—who gives us the eternal joy of seeing fully who we are in Him. This is the great lesson of the Incarnation, that immense and indisputable fact which penetrates all that is good.

It is not our self-made theories which challenge us, as we ought to know by now. It is the utter scandal of the particular, concrete, and distressingly Incarnate Jesus Christ, as He also manifests Himself in His particular, concrete, and disturbingly Sacramental Church. I mean the scandalous challenge of looking at the Church and seeing God, of looking at nature and seeing grace.

Let us face the inconceivable reality preached by the apostles. We are called to rejoice in a God who so completely assumed our humanity that we find it too personal, too particular, too absurd, too scandalous, too difficult to mold into another self-serving theory of religion. It is no wonder that Saint Paul says “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-31). But our job is to realize that the “foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” We are called to stop trying to invent something “more suitable”. We are called to live in the crucified Christ, through His crucified Church.

We are called to live Incarnationally.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 10, 2016 8:17 AM ET USA

    "We are called to stop trying to invent something 'more suitable'. We are called to live in the crucified Christ, through His crucified Church." This essay refers to the rejection of Christ- "and the world received him not." Further, St. John adds that to those who do receive him he has given power to become the sons of God." If we "live Incarnationally." Thank you Dr. Mirus for this enlightening reflection.

  • Posted by: paulstickles8777 - Oct. 09, 2016 7:12 PM ET USA

    This is one of the most powerful commentaries on the nature of the true church, the Catholic Church. I'm a little slow and would appreciate it if you would take the time and energy to expand on some of the profound statements you made in this article. I'm sure you could turn it into at least five or six very enlightening articles. I thank you in advance.