Today’s post is inspired by the Theology Nerd Throwdown podcast.
“The” Vs. “-al”
At the end of a recent episode, Tripp and Bo got into one of their recurring fights. It’s the versus -al.
What’s more important? Is it the things that we believe–the incarnation, the resurrection, the Pentecost? Or is it the ways we embody our faith–incarnational, resurrectional, Pentecostal?
I have it deeply engrained in my being that the “the”s matter. In all honesty, if they found the body of Jesus in a grave that would be the one thing that, to my mind, would demonstrate that Christianity is simply false. The resurrection matters.
On the other hand, the things that are true about Jesus are often instances of what scripture says about others (past, present, or future).
There is something unique about God coming down to earth and taking on human form. Yes. This is unique in scripture.
Does this mean we should only speak of “incarnation” and not about being an “incarnational” people? I tend toward this direction, but then…
As I was doing research on idealized human figures for my forthcoming Jesus book, I was confronted with just how Godlike humans are in the Priestly traditions of the Old Testament.
In Gen 1, people are made in God’s image and likeness. Turn to Ezekiel, and it is God who appears in human likeness. The coherence of identity is such that one scholar concluded that humanity in this thread of scripture is “(like a) theophany.”
Humans are supposed to be apparitions of God upon the earth.
Male and female together are to enact God’s power-sharing, life-giving, death conquering rule. Israel is to keep a Torah that puts on display the greatness of its God. God’s glory light is supposed to shine–from Moses’s face, from Mt Zion, in the resurrected Christ, from all God’s glorified children.
The incarnation shows us that we cannot escape this vocation. We are to be the incarnational people.
Maybe this is what it comes down to: each of us probably has one aspect of this that we lean more toward, toward the confession of the things that are true once for all about Christ, or toward the notion that we are to embody those things in our day-to-day life of following Jesus.
But our faith is only as healthy as our ability to live into a both/and.
Despite my natural proclivities, I have been growing toward the importance of the “-al” in recent years. Here’s why.
Focus on “the” can function as part of a misguided way of defining our Christian identity, in which we circumscribe faithfulness with a wall of belief. We create a version of Christianity in which thinking the right things is what makes us the faithful people of God.
There are markers of distinctive Christian belief, but the markers of true Christianity are not thinking those things but entrusting ourselves to them; better, entrusting ourselves to the God who has enacted them.
If we say we believe in incarnation and then proceed to create alternative communities whose strangeness keeps us from being able to communicate with those beyond our walls, and keeps us from living with them and serving them and loving them, then we have denied our beliefs with our actions.
If we say we believe in the crucifixion but work to attain to seats of power for the purpose of making change and create systems of success in ecclesial contexts so that we can embody the lives of CEOs and CFOs in the name of Jesus, if we take away the lives or livelihoods of others in order to secure a better life for ourselves, then we have denied our beliefs through our failure to embody the cruciformity to which we are called.
If we say that we believe in the resurrection but are never willing to make a decision that looks foolish in the eyes of the world because it will cost us everything, then we show how little willing we are to rest our hope in the God who gives life to the dead.
Hold onto the “the”s. Hold onto your theology. But that memory must enable the past to intrude upon the present.
Hold onto the right teaching, but it must compel you to entrust yourself to the God who lays aside glory, to the God who enters into the brokenness and sin of the world with loving embrace, to the God who lays down His own life so that others might live, to the God who gives life to the dead.
Featured image courtesy of Supertrooper at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.