Is the focus of the Christian faith OUT of this world or INTO the world?
Does it matter for the way we live in the world?
Before we jump into our answering those questions...
let’s think about the WAY we think about those things.
(My reflections are informed by Lutheran professor & theologian Terra Schwerin Rowe, who was a student a Wartburg Seminary when I was there).
Augustine (354-430), an early Christian theologian and bishop, dramatically altered the way people think about personhood. One might think the most identifying things about us are: our family, our friends, our relationships, the parts of the world we interact with, the work that we do, and even the air we breathe. But Augustine said the interior world of the self is the truest self. This inner self is where we find our closest connection to God.
René Descartes (1596-1650), a key source of the modern philosophical view, taught that the only thing that can truly be “known” is the self. Only self-knowledge and self-awareness can be trusted with certainty. He prioritized the mind so much that it seemed virtually disconnected from the body. This led to an understanding where mind and body (or spiritual and physical) are separated and distinct.
The ideas from these two men continue to be profoundly influential on Western (European and North American) thought. The result has been a sharp divide between the “internal” and “external” worlds. Terra Rowe observes, “this private inner self has become a basic assumption of Western religion.” We’ve ended up with an overly “spiritualized” Christianity, focused primarily on “saving the soul” and exiting out of this world. The result has been that knowing ourselves as fundamentally inter-connected with the earth was dismissed as mere folklore of "primitive" peoples.
What if Augustine and Descartes were wrong (or at least off-base)? What if the Bible tells a different truth? Maybe our truest self is much more than just our inner being.
In the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, Cain kills his brother Abel. God asks Cain where his brother is. And Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). The implied answer is clearly, “Yes! You are! And, by the way, you failed at it.” God did not come and say to Cain, “Tell me about your inner thoughts.” What matters, what shapes Cain’s truest identity is his relationship and responsibility to his brother and to God.
In the book of Leviticus, God speaks to the Hebrew people before they enter the land of promise; “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God” (19:9-10). God did not say, “When you come into the land, think deep thoughts about me.” The people’s lives, their future, and their identity is intimately tied up in their inter-connectedness to this particular land, to what the land produces, to other people, and to God.
And when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples, He says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). These were not mere inner thoughts about Jesus. Jesus showed up, physically and in person. It was indeed him when it was physically him.
Consider this from personal experience. Are we our truest self when sitting alone with our thoughts? Or are we most fully ourselves when we live into our most precious relationships with children and grandchildren, parents and grandparents, and those we love? We are, in fact, most truly known when we are known relationally.
Descartes made the further claim that only self-knowledge and self-awareness can be trusted with certainty. But do we really know ourselves with certainty? On the one hand, we lie to ourselves, denying our faults and sins, and forgetting that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). On the other hand, we can be so critical of ourselves that we fail to see that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Because we fail to see the truth about ourselves, we don’t know the truth about ourselves with certainty. Drawing into our inner self is not the way to truth.
Truth comes in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God is revealed and WE are also revealed in Him. God comes down and God the infinite steps into this fragile, finite human form. Terra Rowe writes that in Jesus, “God is born, God nurses at a mother’s breast, God sleeps in a cradle, God walks and stumbles, God wanders, God finds nourishment in food through the lives of other creatures, God is rendered vulnerable to suffering and loss, God dies. Luther insisted on this divine humility because only then could he be confident that his own experiences of suffering, vulnerability, loss, and struggle were not signs of the absence of divinity, but of God’s full presence with him.” God is truly present in the physicality of our existence.
In Jesus Christ God does not call us OUT of this world. Jesus Christ is God coming to live in communion with God’s creation. The presence of God in Jesus Christ fills the whole creation with the presence of God. And this did not end 2000 years ago but continues in the Holy Meal. Luther said that Jesus is present IN the bread and wine; WITH the bread and wine; and found UNDER the forms of bread and wine.
Seeing Jesus Christ in communion (or in relationship) with the whole creation means our faith is not an escape OUT of this world, but rather a calling to live IN this world with greater care and attention. Christ’s birth among us, his earthly ministry, his teachings, his dying and rising, and his presence in bread and wine testify to us that we are called to live IN the world, WITH the world, and UNDER the forms of this world as Christ himself has done. This shapes our relationship with, responsibility for, and our stewardship of God’s good creation.
Pastor Erick Swanson