We are grateful to Julian Reese for sharing this series of articles on incarnational presence, particularly in the context of our academic departments. This is Part four of the series. To read previous articles, here are links for: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.
Last week, as we reflected on earning an incarnational voice, we articulated a posture toward the academic conversation.
We envisioned entering the thought world of an academic community as a learner, humbly asking questions, coming in weakness, humility, and with deep curiosity. Our curiosity shows we care.
In this post we want to consider what makes a voice incarnational. What is distinctive about a voice that brings a faith-informed perspective to the academic conversation constructively?
What are some of the qualities that make an ordinary, perhaps unremarkable voice, an incarnational voice?
AN INCARNATIONAL VOICE TRANSLATES
The very nature of the Incarnation is translation. Jesus is the eikon (image) of the invisible God. He takes the fullness of grace and truth and makes it intelligible, through his body, to those who were unable otherwise to see God clearly.
The incarnational voice is one that translates an invisible reality into the language of its audience to make itself understood.
In preparation for a joint venture where our Fellowship cosponsored Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump in a dialogue on suffering, the Philosophy Department hosted a reading group where they read and discussed Dr. Stump’s WANDERING IN DARKNESS. Graduate students and faculty gathered to engage with her ideas and her unfamiliar faith-informed perspective before the dialogue. A few of the students were people of faith.
One of the faculty expressed frustration repeatedly with some of her distinctively Christian terms like “sanctification”. One of the Christian graduate students patiently and articulately explained the biblical idea in language that a philosopher could understand, while respecting his decision to continue in his unbelief.
The believing graduate student was translating. He was displaying the Translation Principle of incarnational voice, communicating with people who may not believe in supernatural reality in language that was intelligible to them.
Dr. Stump’s conversation partner for that event, an atheist and a Marxist, later wrote:
“I think you could make some mileage out of the notion of a need for translation. . . . to be accessible to non-believing academics, you’ll need to translate the Gospel into our language. And that’s a problem and a big task: How do you express/embody the Gospel to a group of folks who might not believe in any supernatural reality at all? Granted, it may be that every translation is a partial distortion, every translation captures only some of the original. Still, how close can y’all come to translating the Gospel into my (Marxist?) language?. . . You’re trying to enter into my world (and invite me into yours, of course), not vice versa.“
An incarnational voice has something positive, productive to contribute to this conversation as we translate faith-informed thinking, making it intelligible in the academic world. If we remain silent, the academic project is impoverished.
AN INCARNATIONAL VOICE ENGAGES
An incarnational voice acknowledges the liminality between the conversation in the Church and the conversation in the life of the Academy, and seeks to bridge the divide between the two. The incarnational voice is one that offers positive, creative possibilities to the present conversation. As the Son of God was incarnate between two worlds, the invisible and the visible, the incarnational voice gives expression between the religious community and the University world, inviting people to consider a new way of seeing life.
The Greek word for repent, metanoeo, means “to change your thought paradigm.” It is an invitation to consider a new plausibility structure, a new way of looking at reality and the world. It is a dynamic, leavening influence, which is why the Apostle Paul could say that in all the world, the Gospel “is constantly bearing fruit and increasing” (Colossians 1: 6). Or why Jesus can compare his Gospel to yeast which leavens a lump of dough (Matthew 13:33).
The experiences that the early Christians had with Jesus of Nazareth caused them to reconsider how they lived and thought and imagined reality in the culture in which they found themselves. When they engaged their culture with these new perspectives on what was true, something dynamic and creative was the result.
An incarnational voice offers an alternative way of thinking to what is found in the present conversation. It offers another way of imagining reality to what their culture is presenting as “the way things are.” When Christian thinking engages with a new community, it is possible that something entirely new will emerge.
A critical race theorist tells her classes that “white Christianity is the scourge of the earth.” An incarnational voice probes deeper to understand that statement, and appreciates the concerns for justice that are found there. But an Incarnational Voice then engages in dialogue, bringing to the conversation perspectives emerging from the Gospel of Jesus.
An historian claims that “anti-semitism is intrinsic to the Christian faith.” An incarnational voice offers a public forum and civil dialogue to consider the merits and validity of such a claim, then continues in relationship maintaining ongoing dialogue with that scholar about the perspective of the Gospel over history, human experience, and personal life choices.
An incarnational voice doesn’t seek shut down conversations. An incarnational voice seeks to enter the conversation and participate from a gospel-informed perspective, bringing a faith-informed perspective into a place where it would not otherwise exist.
An incarnational voice exists to engage.
AN INCARNATIONAL VOICE ENRICHES
An incarnational voice is one that seeks the common good as it enhances the flourishing of the community.
The incarnational ministry of Jesus is characterized by words that announce Good News, and works that make that good news a visible reality. Jesus announces the presence of the Kingdom of God, but he also heals a mother’s sick child, or restores the sight of a blind man. He touches the untouchable and treats the outcast with dignity and respect.
An incarnational voice is one that seeks the flourishing of the community of which it is a part and makes the Good News a visible reality.
The fruit of an incarnational voice is reflected in Dr. D telling the Christian campus ministers “I am mostly healed from my PTSD of growing up in a toxic spiritual community.”
Or when Court began a correspondence with visiting speaker Nicholas Wolterstorff about his dissertation, later resulting in a published a book and an academic conference on Forgiveness.
Or when we observe that most of the departmental conversation partners have put events with our guest Christian scholars on their CV’s as they consider it an enhancement to their reputation in their professional life.
One academic wrote about incarnational presence:
“The respectful dialogue or conversation is, so far as I can understand it, part of an incarnational presence. You’re here to help us have better conversations or to have conversations about related, but slightly better topics. We will not reject good talk. We feel renewed by honest, probing conversation, by genuine inquiry. We’re academics; we live for that.”
The Apostle Paul says that the gospel is that God is going to bless all the nations of the earth in his promise to Abraham. The incarnation of the son of God in Jesus, is the fulfillment of that promise. God blesses the world in Christ, as he heals, restores, and defeats the negative powers in the world and all their manifestations. We see this in the stories of Jesus as he heals, forgives, delivers from oppressive powers and, finally, subdues and triumphs over the forces of evil by his contest and death on the Cross.
The Poets and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly indicated the “nations would be glad” when God came to rescue his people. “The trees of the field will clap their hands and the mountains and hills will break further into shouts of joy.”
When an incarnational voice makes its presence known, there is enrichment and flourishing. And the departments of the university will be glad for its presence in their midst. And the trees of the field clap for joy.
Julian Reese serves Faculty and Graduate students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxvillle, Tn with InterVarsity’s GFM ministry. He is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) with a B.A. in Bibilical Studies, and Gordon-Conwell Seminary (M.Div.). He is married to Melanie, who serves with him on GFM staff. The Reeses have three grown children on two continents.
The GFM ministry in Knoxville has coordinated the Veritas Forum at the University of Tennessee since 2005, partnering with academic departments in the University. They also sponsor an Apprentice Cohort in Incarnational Presence ministry.