That music you hear in the distance? It’s St Augustine, St Teresa, Teilhard de Chardin, Pascal, Kierkegaard and Simone Weil all singing together, and what they are singing is that, as Christ commanded, we are supposed to love God with our minds, as well as with our hearts and our souls and our strength. It is an illusion to think that there is any necessary conflict between a Christian commitment and free, adventurous thinking. No-one ever does their thinking on a blank sheet of paper. Every intellectual of every kind is in a conversation with some set of ideas, doctrines, ways of seeing the world, and that’s what makes their own thinking serious. The Christian conversation with Christian ideas, and with every other kind of idea, need not be defensive or imprisoning. Why is there a stereotype that says you have to choose between faith and thought?
A Letter to the Hong Kong Charismatic Church
Dear Hong Kong Charismatic Church,
It has been an eventful few months, has it not? There have been historic worship gatherings in Asia, exciting conferences on the power of the Spirit, and even a justice conference for those who sense that their faith must be expressed more concretely in our world. At the same time, it has been a turbulent season for our city, to say the least. We have witnessed the stabbing of the newspaper editor Kevin Lau, an official “white paper” from China reneging on the promise of universal suffrage, political referendums and demonstrations, corporate leaders “encouraging” their employees to join anti-democratic marches — and, in the midst of all this, a vibrant, resilient movement for democratic reform.1
My hunch, however, is that we are somewhat hesitant to discuss these issues within our communities, much less speak about them in public. In fact, I would not be surprised if many of us feel sheepishly under-equipped to think through them as Christians (an observation which my Facebook feed seems to confirm). How should we respond to the political unrest that has gripped our small island? Is it permissible for a Christian to join a protest, or is this “rebellious” in God’s eyes? Why, in fact, should we even care? Isn’t this all a distraction from our primary task of saving souls?
Let me be upfront: I am deeply convinced that our faith requires us to be engaged with these issues, and that it offers us the theological and spiritual resources to do this well. My hope is that this letter might point us to one such resource — namely, the doctrine of Jesus’ human and divine nature — as a way to begin to think through how we might mount a coherent response. Here, then, is my argument: I believe that a proper understanding of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine compels us to care for God’s world, and to work with him to redeem it. Before we unpack this statement, however, we must first confront an ideology which lurks behind so much of our thinking.
Our Temptation: Gnosticism
As charismatics (of which I am one), one of our greatest temptations is to slide into the worldview known as gnosticism. This is an ancient belief system which was prevalent during the first few centuries of the Church’s existence. Its chief characteristic was the belief that the “spirit” and “soul” are pure, whilst matter and the material world are evil and corrupt. Human beings, it reasoned, were pure souls imprisoned in a corrupt body, and could only be saved by escaping the world and ascending to ever greater heights of spiritual knowledge (“gnostic” is the Greek word for knowledge). It is no surprise, then, that many gnostics believed that Jesus was a “pure soul” who did not possess a true, human body. Wisely, early Christian theologians rejected this worldview on the basis that God, in Genesis, declares his creation to be good.
It does not take a particularly active imagination to spot the influence of gnostic ideas within our own charismatic movement. As a community which is profoundly marked by our experiences of the Spirit, we tend to prioritize the “spiritual realm” over the “natural” one. We admire leaders who seem especially attuned to the third person of the Trinity — those who minister with a powerful anointing, or who regularly ascend to “greater levels” of prayer and mystical experience. In such a culture, it is no surprise that our earthly bodies are tacitly implicated as hindrances to spiritual progress. It is also no surprise that we tend to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature over his fleshly, human existence. Of course we acknowledge his humanity, yet it is much easier to picture him in a state of rapture than, say, hacking away at a plank of wood or stubbing his toe on a rock. It would be wise for us, then, to become reacquainted with one of the earliest and fiercest battles in church history: the battle to preserve Jesus’ humanity in doctrine and belief. Far from being a trivial exercise in theological speculation, this was, for those involved, the very key to understanding the full scope of God’s salvation.
The Humanity of Jesus: Why Does This Matter?
Let us zoom in, then, on the fourth and fifth centuries, when the church was embroiled in a heresy known as Apollinarianism.2 The bishop Apollinaris had taught that Jesus’ divine nature had “commandeered” his body, effectively rendering him less than fully human. His opponents’ response was both telling and surprising: Jesus, they insisted, had to be fully human in order to be the Saviour of the world. Indeed, when Christ took on matter, he dignified it and made it fit for redemption. “What is not assumed cannot be saved!” was their rallying cry. By that, they meant two things:
First, that Christ, by assuming a temporal form, brought our own temporal world — including time, space and history — into union with his own being. As Thomas Torrance puts it, Christ “permitt[ed] time and our historical existence to be the form of his eternal deity.”3 Incredibly, this meant that all of creation could now be redeemed by God.
Second, they meant that through this union, Christ raised the world out of its “downward drag of sin and decay” and sanctified it in anticipation of its final redemption. Thus, Christ’s incarnation means that both human beings and the material world can now exist “in the very life of God.”4
Why is this chapter of our history so important? Because it reminds us that a one-sided emphasis on Christ’s divinity leaves us with an impoverished, gnostic form of salvation, while a full-orbed understanding enables us to grasp the true scope of God’s saving plans. And those plans encompass not only our souls, but our bodies; and not only our bodies, but the world that humans construct, share and inhabit. No wonder, then, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
There are, to my mind, at least three implications which we can draw from this discussion:
- Matter matters. Yes, all of it. God cares deeply about our soil, our society, and the structures that govern our lives, for through his incarnation they have been ennobled and brought into his very being.
- Christians should be engaged in God’s work of “sanctifying,” or redeeming creation. Because Christ has welcomed the life of the world into his very being, we are called to participate in its redemption by cultivating shalom in each of its various spheres. This is an essential part of our human vocation to reflect God‘s image into the world.5
- We must embrace and work within our particularity.6 Just as Jesus chose to be a particular man in a particular nation at a particular time, so we must care for God’s world in specific, concrete ways that correspond to our particular historical moment. Perhaps this means teaching children faithfully in schools, or building just and creative businesses, or marching in certain demonstrations. Or perhaps it means making beautiful art, becoming a marine biologist, or raising inquisitive kids. Whatever your circumstances, one thing remains clear: our everyday, material world matters to God, and our participation in it is a good and hallowed task.
More than Mystics
In his book, In the Name of Jesus, the priest Henri Nouwen makes the remarkable claim that Christians are called to be “mystics and revolutionaries.” What a salient challenge for Hong Kong’s charismatic church! We are hemmed in by some of the darkest days that our city has ever seen: a cold, methodical dismantling of a venerable democratic tradition in our schools, press, judicial system, business sector, government, and cultural ecosystem. Let me say this as starkly as I can: if Christ is both fully human and fully divine, then Hong Kong’s plight matters — yes, even to God. And if Hong Kong matters to God, then we are called to be his agents of shalom, working for the peace, justice and welfare of our city even as we anticipate its final redemption. Perhaps, through this ordeal, the charismatic church will find her voice and discover that she is not only a mystic, but a revolutionary as well.
I don’t have any advice [for younger writers]. You are asking me to live in an era other than the one that formed me. But I will tell you this: An editor in New York told me the other day that, even as the reading audience for serious prose has diminished, the unsolicited manuscripts she receives are better than ever. Even while I think we are leaving the splendid Victorian age of serious popular literature—novels and poetry—we may be entering the Elizabethan Age, when few in London read, but there was an intensity of thought and beauty to the prose, and the poetry, and, of course, the plays.
Religion still reveres the book—just visit a yeshiva if you want to see devotion to the weight of the holy word. But in our secular lives the digital revolution seems to have eroded the great age of the middle-class reader. And without readers what are we? Half-writers whose sentences are never completed by the stranger’s eyes.
I tell young writers not to give a single sentence away. Charge for every noun! Beyond the matter of strategy, the question really is whether our society needs complicated thought or expressions of beauty that reveal themselves only slowly and with difficulty. The question is whether a civilization can forget the pleasure of difficult, beautiful writing so thoroughly as to ignore its loss.
We have certainly no need for a pseudo-contemplative spirituality that claims to ignore the world and its problems entirely, and devotes itself supposedly to the things of God, without concern for human society. All true Christian spirituality, even that of the Christian contemplative, is and must always be deeply concerned with man, since “God became man in order that man might become God” (St. Irenaeus). The Christian spirit is one of compassion, of responsibility and of commitment. It cannot be indifferent to suffering, to injustice, error, and untruth.
Silence is not a virtue, noise not a sin. True. But the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins — its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world of atheism.
Inevitably, I looked around for help; I’ve done enough liturgical work to know that there are always riches from which to borrow. That said, the Humanist material I discovered surprised me – although on reflection the problem was predictable. Like most contemporary ‘humanism’, it all failed rather badly to be nonreligious. I looked at half-a-dozen or more published patterns for a humanist funeral; every one borrowed central Christian texts, deleted the obvious references to God, and then used the filleted remains to shape the service. (Even Scripture was not immune; Eccl. 3 was several times in evidence. John Donne’s Divine Meditation XVII was also referenced more than once.) This of course reflects the reality – and the tedious banality – of too much contemporary Western atheism: take a philosophically-rich account of things; delete surface references to the divine; and assume that what is left will be meaningful or coherent or interesting. Nietzsche, the world hath need of thee…