The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 1: The Triumph of the Many over the One?

Here is the first of three guest blogs from Dr Jonny Woodrow. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House. His blog posts reflect on the lessons for missional and incarnational church from Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. They question whether incarnational mission provides an adequate model for an engagement with cultural pluralism.

To recalibrate its activities around mission, the church has had to come to terms with cultural pluralism; the idea that here are many varied local cultures for the gospel to engage with. In the missional church literature there has been helpful analysis and enthusiasm for understanding the local and the particular in mission. Writers like Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost have helped us to find ways to enter cultures, listen for local stories, affirm local cultural difference, and avoid imposing models of church. They have challenged us to look for organic models of church that give the gospel expression through local culture.  The incarnation has been the mediating principle for much of this helpful insight. In the incarnation we see God affirming locality and difference by entering a culture. The gospel emerges in the world through a local culture and spreads as God’s people enter other cultures.

In his book, The One, The Three and the Many, Colin Gunton brings a robust Trinitarian theology to bear on the culture of modernity. Modernity has tried to take the local and particular seriously. It has opted for radical embodiment as its organising principle. This is the idea that meaning in the universe comes from the stuff of everyday life; bodies, language and culture, rather than transcendent universal principles. To some degree, modernity has its own ‘incarnational’ approach to local culture.

Gunton argues, however,  that modernity is built on paradox. Far from celebrating cultural diversity or providing a foundation for difference and particularity, modernity has in fact created new forms of homogeneous culture, often more oppressive than the ideologies it tried to throw off.

In this series of three blogs I want to suggest that Gunton’s critique of modernity’s approach to local culture might reveal some correctives for our incarnational approach.

Gunton argues that the worldview of antiquity was seen by modernists and postmodernists as privileging the ‘one’ above the ‘many.’ From Plato’s universal forms to Augustine’s God as a divine rational will, antiquity squashed cultural diversity under the weight of single unifying principles. Particularity, difference and materiality were not seen as fundamental to the nature of creation. Instead they were seen as departures from the purity of the unity of the divine one or universal forms. In such a worldview difference is bad. Modernity attempted to distinguish itself from antiquity by attempting to privilege the ‘many’, the local and diverse, above a transcendent ‘one’.

Modernity achieved this by emphasising the particular through displacing the divine ‘one’. Embodiment is essential to this displacement. This happened through William of Ockham and modernity’s obsession with materiality. William of Ockham, the champion of the particular, rejected the idea of a unifying will of God or transcendent universal principles as the foundation for meaning and coherence. Instead he made the rational will of humans the starting point of coherence and meaning-making. This paved the way for modernity’s move to embodiment because it made human experience the organising principle of the universe. Modernity’s emphasis on materiality supplied a number of theories for the mechanisms of human experience. Marxism, socio-biology and early psychology made economics, evolution, biology and neurology the basis of human experience. The concepts of mind and will, which were once considered transcendent and non-bodily entities, were now cemented to economics, biology and neurology.

So the transcendent one or divine will was replaced by many embodied wills as the organising principle of creation. This move to locate the organising principles of the universe in human embodied experience could be described as a modernist, secular incarnational move. It promised to make cultural diversity and the particular the starting place for accounts of being. Along with this shift, the idea that the cosmos held meaning was replaced by a view that time, space and materiality are meaningless. Truth and meaning are locally generated by the activities and sense-making of people as embodied wills. In order to enter truth one has to enter a local culture or worldview.

On a surface reading, modernity looks like the triumph of the many over the one in which the local and particular are celebrated. Gunton stresses that of all cultures modernity has achieved the most for the cause of cultural diversity. But modernity has also created the herding culture of consumerism, communism and fascism along with the attendant bloodshed, addiction and misery. Paradoxically, in each case, the many have been forced into forms of identity that are shaped by a new, all powerful one. Consumerism transforms us into the image of the market. Identity is worked out through the consumption of mass-produced products and logos, creating as much homogeneity as individuality. Communism erected the state as the transcendent one in the name of giving ownership of life and work back to the masses. Fascism similarly attempts to serve the many, but does so by making the many conform to the will and image of the head of state. Gunton’s point is that modernity has not escaped antiquity. It has repeated the same mistake; erecting a new one over the many. The only difference is that modernity has replaced transcendent oneness with more immanent and earthly forms: market, self, state, race.

These ‘false transcendentals’ are demonic, says Gunton. They are idols or God replacements. Like all idols they undermine our humanity and identity by drafting us into the service of their image, crushing God’s design for community and individuality. Modernity thought that the enemy of diversity was a transcendent one. But, by bringing the transcendent down to earth and making it immanent and human, modernity has not served the many. It has created new forms of homogeneity that undermine identity and that compete with each other (e.g. consumerism verses socialism). The move to embodiment and the down-playing of transcendence has failed to create both diversity and unity. Embodiment is not a mediating category that can successfully manage the relationship between the one and the many. If this is true, then maybe also ‘embodiment’ in a Christian guise as ‘incarnation’ cannot on its own be the basis for a theology of cultural diversity and engagement. In the next two blog reflections on Gunton I want to unpack this argument.
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7 thoughts on “The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 1: The Triumph of the Many over the One?

  1. Here is a good practical question that opens up the discussion that you are beginning here: how can an incarnational approach enable church planting in a multi-cultural urban estate?

    e.g if a black, middle class leader incarnates the culture of his church or even his own approach into that of an asian culture, how does that enable more access to the gospel by a local white woman? We can only ever reflect the diversity/oneness of the trinity in a creaturely, finite way this side of the new creation in terms of our cultural and political embodiment (check out Volf: The Trinity as a social programme). We cannot incarnate fully as Christ did, and even then we must recognise that Christ himself, simply by incarnating, became culturally distinct while he was on earth. Did it stop him connecting with Greeks, romans, samaritans, rich, poor, women, children though?

    We can’t climb into our mothers womb to be born again in a new culture, and even if we could it would just make particular to the new culture and distance ourselves from others.

    The solution to the conundrum must be that we balance an incarnational approach with a robust pneumatology, which understands Christ’s presence in the many as the unifying factor of our multiple incarnations. We see this as the “solution” is Christ’s ministry too – the Holy Spirit enabled him to connect with many others from all ethnic, gender and economic backgrounds by flowing from him and back to him and binding him to others in community.

    Having said this, an incarnational approach is still valid because it implies a willingness to die to our sense of superiority of our own cultural embodiment over those of others, and suggests the humilty required to “make space” for reconciliation and intimacy even with others who are different from us. An incarnational approach requires an open pneumatology that allows for teh Holy Spirit to flow between cultures and so make us one even in our diversity.

  2. In other words, ony the Holy Spirit can fill the “incarnation gap” as I call it. Otherwise some other totalising spirit or idolatry will (consumerism, fascism etc).

  3. So we can only really talk of an incarnational approach if we understand it in terms of a wider pneumatology.

  4. Have you read, “Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity”, edited by Craig Ott and Harold Netland? It explores questions of locality and universality in incarnational theology. From your typecasting of incarnational theology as a western “missional church” thing, without any acknowledgement of its continued development and refinement way beyond that limited sphere, it sounds to me that you’re heading down the straw man track. Seriously recommend you check out this book Tim if you want to avoid that. Incarnational theology is bigger than western missional church. A far most modest by accurate approach would be to speak of critiquing incarnational theology as it has been applied in western cultures. Then I’d have no complaint.

  5. Thanks for the book recommendation. The piont of the blog, if it isn’t clear, is to reflect on how incarnation is pressed into service in the missional church for a specific set of issues. It’s not a comment on incarnational theology wherever it may be found or developed.

  6. Paul- I love where you are going with the inclusion of the Holy Spirit’s work and cultural identity. This reflects exactly where Acts starts. The themes of language, culture and the Spirit are all there in the opening chapters.

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