Excarnate and the Illusion of Oneness
– Andy Wade –
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23)
As the world becomes ever smaller through technological advances, Jesus’ prayer that we all be one seems to take on more urgency. We are no longer geographically isolated. At any given time I can log on to Facebook and chat with friends from the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, China, Holland, and Honduras. It’s a wonderful way to keep in touch.
Because of this connectivity, I can also be aware of the consequences of my actions and how they reverberate far beyond my neighborhood. This is a good thing, helping me to make more loving and ethical decisions in life. Yet all this connectivity and awareness can also give us a false sense of unity. Connectedness should not be confused with the kind of oneness Jesus’ calls us to.
As individuals it is possible to exploit another, or whole populations, for our own benefit. It is also possible to view creation not as a gift from God but as something to be harnessed for our own immediate gain. In the United States, even as late as the 1960’s and 1970’s, we were largely isolated from the negative impacts our economic success had on the peoples and nations which propped up our accumulation.
But no longer. It’s easy to be informed, oftentimes even overwhelmed! We’re acutely aware of blood diamonds and the slavery that extracts precious metals for use in our phones and other electronics. We hear the stories of child slavery to satisfy our cravings for chocolate and the dire effects of our overconsumption on the environment. Our present-day connectedness helps to inform us of many issues like these and makes possible a much broader impact through the choices we make and the lives we live.
Oneness: A Deeper Form of Connectedness
Michael Frost, in his excellent new book Incarnate: the Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, makes an important distinction between the incarnate and excarnate (de-fleshed) life. The excarnate life is one that objectifies others and relates to God’s creation as simply something to be exploited.
The incarnate life, by contrast, lives fully into the whole of God’s creation, understanding our part in it and how our lives are inextricably tied up with the lives of all people and all creation. To live incarnationally is to deny the dualistic (though all too common) idea that we are spiritual souls trapped in earthly bodies just waiting for our escape to heaven (or some other form of Utopia).
I mention all this because it is impossible to live excarnationally and live into Jesus’ prayer for oneness. The excarnate life is one of fierce independence and private faith. While appearing compassionate or even communal at times, an excarnate life is one of personal salvation – personal salvation for me and personal salvation for you – bound tightly to the idea of the individual spiritual self, a concept foreign to the designs of God.
It’s possible, in fact common, to make decisions based on a spiritual but excarnate worldview which appear to reflect the heart of God’s shalom desires for all creation yet actually push us deeper into a fractured life.
Spiritual Yet Excarnate
Spiritual yet excarnate perspectives begin at the wrong place for dealing with the problems of the world because they build “solutions” based on faulty assumptions about God and God’s creation. Excarnate spirituality discounts the most important element of imago dei – we are created to be one.
If we’re paying attention, we see the impact of our choices as they reverberate across neighborhoods, communities, nations, and ultimately, the whole creation. We’re right to want to act, to bring positive and healthy change to our world. HOW we bring that change is crucial. To effect God’s shalom in a particular situation, we must understand that no given situation exists in isolation. We are all, in fact, bound up with every crisis around the globe.
That may seem an overstatement to some. Here’s why I don’t believe it is. Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel. It is not limited to human flesh, but encompasses all creation. In “the Fall” we see how our sin deeply wounds our relationship with God, with one another, and with all creation. In The Great Commission found in Mark 16 we read, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” [Greek “created thing” or “material universe”]. This is the same word used in the letter to the church in Rome when the Apostle Paul writes:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)
This call to the whole creation and to a profound oneness in Christ is expressed in the Apostle Paul’s reminder that our ultimate call is as “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16-21). We are to reflect the imago dei through lives of grace and love-filled actions which lead to the healing of all relationships. We cannot stand off, excarnationally, and effectively address the problems in the world, let alone in our own neighborhoods. Those kinds of “solutions” often end up fixing one problem, only to create seven more. Even though we cannot fully grasp the mystery of our oneness with Christ and connectedness with all creation, to live incarnationally means we must try.
Excarnationally, it becomes easier to justify war, the death penalty, laws against the homeless, and systems that oppress and exploit the poor. When Jesus says, “When you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me” (Mt. 25), he’s expressing just how radical this incarnation is. There is no illusion of oneness here. All things are reconciled in Christ; Jesus’ prayer for oneness is God’s design for us.
Perhaps wrapping our heads around excarnation and incarnation is too much. But it’s not too much to walk into our world knowing that God is calling us to be agents of reconciliation – not as a program or an agenda, but as a central part of finding ourselves in Christ. When I walk into my neighborhood I can begin to see family. When I see brokenness in the world I see my own brokenness and recognize that my healing only comes when I wade into the mess of life and seek the healing of others. When I see the un-housed man on the street, I not only see him, really see him, but I also see Jesus sitting next to him looking at me, inviting me home. I no longer can say, “But by the grace of God, there go I” but rather, “By the grace of God there I go, let’s walk together.”