|"...all wrapped in swaddling..."|
That's where the theology lesson ends with the scene, though there is some hilariously uncomfortable cultural commentary on individualism and consumerism in the scene which I'll leave to you. (By the way, thanks to my friend and former fellow seminarian, pastor Josh K., for mentioning this scene today.)
What I want to try and wrestle with in this post (*sigh*, it's a long one) is the interrelation between beauty, sexuality, and the incarnation of Jesus, the son of God. (Hence the title of this post.) It's coming out of a seminary class I had this morning at EMS, "Human Sexuality," team taught by dynamic husband and wife duo, Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation. The book we're reading for class is the very recent Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith by Matthew Lee Anderson, a young (younger than me!) evangelical who is a prolific blogger at Mere Orthodoxy. So whatever wisdom creeps into this post is a gift from God through them and my classmates, just past our second week in this wonderful and terribly important class.
(The World Together blog at the Mennonite Weekly Review later re-posted this in edited form: Why do we hunger for beauty?)
Why do we hunger for beauty?
This train of thought started for me when Mary played a song in class, James Croegaert's "Why do we hunger for beauty?" (Couldn't find a video but here are the lyrics.) Mary asked us to go around and venture answers to this probing question from the artist. To answer such a question you have to implicitly or explicitly unpack your own understandings of what constitutes "beauty" and then come to grips with why humans seem to have a hunger (desire) for it. My own answer gave me pause: It was the pat Genesis 1 answer. God created human beings to worship and glorify God and enjoy presence with God forever. But because of sin, that desire/hunger to worship doesn't get erased but is rather disordered. Humans are then easily distracted and often end up serving/worshiping things that are not God (idolatry). So our innate longing for beauty is a right, God-given impulse. What gave me pause, though, is that both "God" and "beauty" in my own answer seemed too abstract.
The danger of abstractions
The trouble with abstractions is that they don't exist. (To turn a phrase from Stanley Fish.) God does not exist in the abstract and neither does beauty exist in the abstract. These big words needing content. These troubles become dangers in a number of ways. In the US context, which I've recently ranted is very consumeristic, what swoops in to provide content for big words like "God" and "beauty" are the manifestations of that very consumerism, picking and choosing from the marketplace of ideas, goods, and services. Or we get the individualism (a baser impulse in comsumerism) of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. You get to choose what "God" and "beauty" mean, all by your lonesome, illustrated in the statement, "I don't need to go to church, I can encounter God in nature." Part of this is true but it hides important aspects of the Christian faith, holistically understood and practiced.
So what keeps Christians from falling prey to the dangers of abstractions? The incarnation of Jesus, the Christ, that offensive fact that God became flesh and dwelt among us for a time and thus changed everything.
Is Christ beautiful?
Inspired by reading some Leslie Newbigin last spring, I came up with the following distillation which might almost be a quote but I can't find my notes right at the moment, but here goes: It's not that Jesus is like God, but rather that God is like Jesus. There's a subtle difference there and it matters a whole lot about how we know God. John Howard Yoder put it like this in The Original Revolution: "We do not, ultimately, love our neighbor because Jesus told us to. We love our neighbor because God is like that." You could (and should) also put "enemies" in with "neighbor." Putting these two thoughts together goes a long way toward protecting us from speaking of matters in the abstract and therefore crafting something in our own image or that of the surrounding culture(s).
As it relates to beauty and its specificity we also look to Jesus. Hungering for beauty can be seen as a desire for a sense of satisfaction, completion, or unification into something greater than yourself. In a theologically pure form it's the desire to return to God, completely. But what does that look like? Biblically it probably looks like Jesus' prayer to his heavenly father in John 17:
"I pray...for those who will believe in me through (the disciple's) message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (Emphasis mine.)In this prayer for unity, there is a call to embodied faithfulness and missional witness to the world, toward the true beauty: God's reconciling work in all of creation, seen to completion. New heavens, new earth.
So as I walk from my home down the hill to the seminary every morning, as I've done for over three years, and when I - a flatlander who's impressed by such things - see the Massanutten mountain range just east of Harrisonburg, I often say "Thank you, God, for this beautiful valley and the mountains." In this small utterance of gratitude at such obvious beauty, I'm expressing the deep longing for God's kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. (Another important prayer from Jesus, cf. Matthew 6.) I know how to pray and work for that, what to orient my desire toward, because of Jesus.
"Let's talk about sex, baby..."
What on earth does any of this have to do with sexuality? A great deal! Just as beauty doesn't exist in the abstract, neither does sex. The human experience of sex, theologically articulated by Matt Anderson, is an experience of "mutual self-giving in freedom," an act of unification - two becoming one - and an experience that should be practiced with a deep sense of attentiveness and care (a broad summariziation of ch. 7). Sex is also inherently relational, which may seem obvious at first glance.
American culture does try to make sex non-relational, however. In popular media, which is a constant barrage of sexual images and messages, sex is mostly about consumption. Since consumerism is structured economic individualism, sex in this context is commodotized and becomes a sleight-of-hand to sell more product or sex itself is sold (such as pornography). In our technological society, particularly with porn on the internet, the relationality of sex is stripped out. But even that's not entirely true. The person consuming porn is affected by the habitual practice, just as the person being watched in the porn is being affected by the vocation and the industry which makes it possible. So the non-relationality of sex in the consumerist, technological society is itself a lie.
Christian sex, though, should be beautiful and Christ-like, along the lines drawn above from Anderson. It should be a sign of God's in-breaking kingdom.
Christians in America need significant reframing when it comes to sex, young and old alike. A good place to start might be to see our bodily goodness and hunger for beauty in the particular light of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It would shift the assumptions away from consumeristic, technological understandings and practices of both embodied life in general and sex in particular. Part of the flap over sexuality in the Church in America, I think, is that we're allowing other traditions/cultures to set the terms of debate and action. We're left with ideological battles, church splits, confusion, or worse, apathy. Such understandings need not persist in thought and practice, and I think Matthew Anderson has delivered a wonderful reflection on "Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith."