There are many topics being debated these days – self-image, modesty, purity, sexuality, relationships, rights, responsibilities, the circumstances of others, the autonomy of others, and so on. Even if we try not to get drawn into the debates, we are often forced to consider our own views on these matters and, if we are parents, will eventually have to discuss them with our children. Our views on these topics are usually a result of the framework we use to evaluate and process life. Increasingly I feel that if this framework is too narrow, too focused on one aspect of morality, it is easily distorted and leaves us ill-equipped to make determinations of how to respond when life doesn't fall neatly into our pre-defined criteria.
Over the past few years I’ve been in the process of dismantling much of what I was taught while growing up in Evangelical Homeschooling culture. I’ve had to discard a lot of baggage associated with the popular “Godly” methods that were promoted by various groups over that time. The framework for most “Godly child training” I encountered involved a focus on obedience – obedience for the sake of raising children who are obedient to their parents (and thus, to God) – in the ways defined by the specific methods of each group.
It is clear to me now that whether or not I am living my faith well or raising my children successfully is not determined by how we measure up to a trendy method established by some other person’s interpretation of “God’s Way.” I understand that I need to replace that old, discarded thinking with something new, for my own faith and in raising my kids. But rather than embracing a new “method,” what I’m attempting to define are the basic beliefs that provide a general framework for thoughts and behavior.
I’m increasingly drawn to the study of Incarnation and the way it so beautifully incorporates how I want to live and what I want to teach my children about everything from making wise choices for ourselves to how we treat others. I don’t want to be ashamed of my body and I don’t want my kids to be ashamed of theirs, but I also want us to understand that the body is sacred. I don’t want us to behave as though other people’s bodies exist for our judgment or pleasure. I want us to care about the physical needs of others and make choices that are good for our bodies and our spirits.
I completely identify with Barbara Brown Taylor when she writes, "I do not recall ever being told that my flesh is good in church, or that God takes pleasure in it. Yet this is the central claim of the incarnation—that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth."
Incarnation is not something that was specifically discussed in my home or in my church growing up. Of course I was taught that Jesus was God in human form, but I can think of no deep discussion of what that truly meant for humanity, other than Jesus coming to die for our sins. I was never instilled with a sense of awe for what it means for “the Word,” present with God and one with God from the beginning of time, to be “made flesh.” (I’m not even sure if anyone would have been okay with using the word “flesh,” because it has such scandalous connotations in those circles.)
Yet as I've studied the writing of Barbara Brown Taylor, along with Richard Beck, Thomas Keating, Brian Zahnd, and others who write of Incarnation, I'm struck by how their understanding of it is woven through their work, even when they are addressing other topics. The way they view humanity and their belief that God cares for our physical bodies has transformed the way I understand my faith. I have no delusions that I have new insight to offer the world on Incarnation and I realize I do not fully comprehend it, but I can feel it continuing to transform my thinking and the way I view humanity. I’m still trying to grasp the full significance of passages like this:
The lost beauty of God’s good creation is what is recovered in the Incarnation. The beauty of the image of God marred in man through the Fall is what the Incarnation redeems. By a deep appreciation of the human vocation to bear the image of God, we realize that the value of a human being is in no way determined by what he can do—this is the sin of objectification (treating humans as objects). Human value is derived from the image all humans bear—the Imago Dei. It is the image of God deformed in humanity that Christ recovers through his Incarnation. - Brian Zahnd
In Christian teaching, followers of Jesus are called to honor the bodies of our neighbors as we honor our own. In his expanded teaching by example, this includes leper bodies, possessed bodies, widow and orphan bodies, as well as foreign bodies and hostile bodies—none of which he shied away from. Read from the perspective of the body, his ministry was about encountering those whose flesh was discounted by the world in which they lived. - Barbara Brown Taylor
When I read and meditate on these words, I cannot help but be convinced that I was getting it wrong by attempting to adhere to a faith framework based strictly on morality or obedience. Not that morality and obedience are wrong in themselves, but by using those things as the lens to view myself and others, I was focusing on how well we measured up to those standards, rather than beginning with an understanding that we are all human beings created in the image of God.
When I think of my own self-worth and teach my children about theirs, the belief that Jesus loves and redeemed our humanness must influence that. When I consider my interactions with other people and how I teach my children to treat others, my belief that God loves and values not only the inner life, but also the physical existence of both ourselves and others will necessarily be part of that. Drawing again from Taylor, "One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours."
Internalizing a sense of reverence for the human body allows me to see the human form of everyone else as a gift God gave to that person. I can never view their body as an object, as something that exists to please me or meet my personal expectations or preferences. They may be any shape or size. They may be considered attractive or not. They may use their bodies to practice the rituals of a religion different from mine. They may have different anatomy than I have or experience their sexuality differently than I experience mine. They may love their own body or they may feel they were born in the wrong body. But each person I encounter has a body and I cannot love that person in some abstract way as though his or her body were an afterthought or is somehow subject to my approval.
And when I teach this sense of reverence to my kids, when I tell them the stories of Jesus in close fellowship with the marginalized of society, when I tell them of the woman washing his feet with her hair, I can remind them that Jesus was just as human as they are and that he was the example of how we should value and respect the humanness of others. Jesus didn't see our flesh as dirty or wrong, but as something beautiful and in the process of being redeemed. As Brian Zahnd has written, "In the Incarnation Jesus makes beautiful all that it means to be human."
What I am now attempting to discern is how to continue to apply the insight and wisdom others have shared about Incarnation. One of my favorite passages from Thomas Keating reads, "Once God takes upon himself the human condition, everyone is potentially divine. Through the Incarnation of his Son, God floods the whole human family -- past, present, and to come -- with his majesty, dignity, and grace.” Our bodies are the basic component of the human condition, and therefore we must learn to respect and honor our own bodies as well as the bodies of other people. Truly grasping this undermines the temptation to dismiss others, to objectify others, or to turn a blind eye to their physical needs.
I have only scratched the surface of all there is to learn about Incarnation, but I keep coming back to how it reminds me that I’m connected to God as well as to others and how that connectedness should influence every aspect of my life. As Zahnd points out, Incarnation shows us “what God is like and how to be human,” and Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “wearing skin… is what we have most in common with one another.” My hope is that rather than focusing too narrowly on current trends or hot topics, I can live my faith in a way that exhibits a deepening understanding of the way my human flesh connects me to God and to other people. And I hope living this out will help my kids understand and see the beauty there as well.
Note: Thomas Keating quotes are from The Mystery of Christ, Barbara Brown Taylor quotes are from An Altar in the World, and Brian Zahnd quotes are from Beauty Will Save the World