When I get a moment (which isn’t often) it’s interesting to pull out an article from several years ago and see how whether its themes and arguments still feel relevant and needful in the 21st century. In this case I pulled out an article by one of my favourite Anglican theologians, Kenneth Leech (also a Christian socialist, author, and someone at home in the Anglo-Catholic stream of British Anglicanism).
The article dates back to 1976 and can be found in the March 1976 issue of the journal Theology (published by SPCK). It is titled: Believing in the Incarnation.
It still resonates and feels relevant. Here are some excerpts.
“…The Incarnation presupposes a high and optimistic (though not naïve) view of the [human person], for it was human nature which Christ assumed. But the West has suffered for many years from a low and pessimistic view of [human persons], to such an extent that this has been taken as Christian orthodoxy…”
“…The Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes (1965) [is more optimistic]. [Human person’s], it says, is ‘the centre and crown of all things’. ‘He [or she] who follows after Christ the perfect [human being] becomes more human. There is no denial of sinfulness, but a strong emphasis on [human persons’] glory, made as [they are] in the image of God…”
“… In the New Testament the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ is the basis of Christian mysticism. ‘It is almost impossible to exaggerate the materialism and crudity of Paul’s doctrine of the Church as literally now the resurrection body of Christ’ [J.A.T. Robinson].
“…So in the Orthodox tradition the Incarnation is the basis of the mystical life” only if the human Christ is divine can there be, through him, a true communion with God. But it is the Incarnation too [from which] the Christian social tradition derives…”
“…The recognition of the divine image in man and of the extension of the Incarnation into the world is crucial to a sound social and political theology. To put it another way, the roots of spirituality and of socio-political action are identical: the decay of one is coincident with the decay of the other, for both depend on a communion with God and with [human persons] through the Incarnation…”
“… Today [remember this is 1976 – Paul], part of the pathology of western Christian life is the destruction of the essential unity of the mystical and the socio-political, the contemplative and the prophetic. Mysticism and politics are at best seen as alternative modes of discipleship, at worst as incompatible and ideologically opposite. So we have forms of escapist, pietistical, anti-Incarnational spirituality on the one hand and forms of fanatical inhuman, anti-Incarnation political movements on the other. In both one sees a failure to treat the human seriously [italics - Leech]…”
“…But today it is precisely this kind of non-social, non-prophetic, non-Incarnational mysticism which we see so frequently with its self-centred concern for the attainment of inner peace, its violent polarisation between the spiritual and material worlds, and its inevitable trend towards elitism and away from common humanity. It is not only, or mainly, outside the Christian tradition that we see it…”
“…If the solidarity of humanity is forgotten, mysticism becomes a form of self-delusion. But if the sacred value of each person is forgotten, if contemplation is despised as a non-productive luxury, if spiritual progress is a seen as manifested in the world but not in me, the result must be a disregard for people…”
Leech then goes on to describe the anti-incarnational heresies of Eutyches, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Arianism; before he concludes by arguing for a recovery of “theological materialism” and its three principles:
- All theology is mystical.
- All theology is materialistic.
- All theology is social.
And if you haven’t come across Leech before, here’s some thoughts from The Revd Peter McGeary is [or was] Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in East London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey (found here - accessed 7th June 2011).
“…What are the main streams of his thought? This is impossible adequately to summarise, but here is a personal selection:
- Catholicism rightly understood is the enterprise of finding the holy in the apparently ordinary, and vice versa.
- The Church, while affirming the world as God's creation, is also called to a prophetic witness, and so is bound critically to evaluate the world constantly, especially those in positions of power and wealth.
- This critical posture is always compromised by the "established" nature of the Church of England. Comfort in Babylon is not compatible with the struggle for Zion.
- Constant recourse to prayer, contemplation, the scriptures, and the sacraments is utterly essential. Being radical involves getting back to the roots of things, not abandoning them. The more the activity in which one is engaged, the greater the need for contemplative prayer: this is not "either/or".
- We must start with people as they are-- not where we think we might want them be, so that we can change them into something a bit closer to our comfort zone…”