And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
Incarnation. God became incarnate. God took on flesh. Divinity embodied. Why would God do such a thing? Incarnate. It has the same root word as Carnivore, Carnal. Isn’t this “fleshiness” thing akin to violence, animal instincts, tooth and claw and all that comes with it. Why would God do that?
If we listen to the words throughout the Gospel according to John, we get a clue that it may have something to do with seeing. Jesus in John’s gospel was all about perspective. Those who are blind tend to be the ones who are capable of seeing the truth. I wonder if, through the incarnation, God’s perspective changed too?
I know in theology circles there are different camps on the whole idea of whether God is immutable. Can a divine being, one that is eternal and perfect, change. I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to show all my cards. I believe that God changes. In Jesus, God was born, God lived, God saw, God loved, God wept, God died. God experienced what it is to be human. To experience a human life is to change.
In the popular song From a Distance, we hear the lovely sweet melody intoned…”God is watching us; God is watching us; God is watching us…from a distance.” But that all changed with the incarnation. God’s perspective was no longer simply from a distance. God’s perspective was no longer from the burning bush or the pillar of fire. God’s perspective wasn’t even walking side-by-side in the garden. Through the incarnation, the human perspective pervaded God’s perspective.
In the AP Psychology class I am teaching this year, the students recently read about a cognitive trap that we humans tend to fall into. Psychologists call it belief perseverance. The concept of belief perseverance means that we have a tendency to cling to our beliefs even in the face of incontrovertible, contrary evidence. And, we also tend to seek out more evidence and observations to pile on to our deeply held belief.
You can see the danger here. We believe something. That something turns out to be wrong. But, by golly, there is no way we are letting go of that puppy! Psychologists have found that the only way out of the trap is to consider the opposite belief. What is really interesting about the studies on belief perseverance is that it is not enough for the researchers to appeal to the participants to be unbiased or objective as they consider the evidence. Asking people to be unbiased or objective in their responses produced no appreciable change. Change only happened when people were asked to imagine and ponder the truth of the findings opposite to their beliefs. To counteract belief perseverance, what has to take place is a change in perspective. We have to imagine that the opposite belief is true. We have to embody that belief, try it on, live in it.
This is what God has done for us. God became human. God loudly announced that it was not enough to be unbiased or objective. God went all in for humanity. This is grace.
Grace is not just being unbiased or objective. Grace means not persisting in our own beliefs about the way this world works. Grace means changing our perspective. God became incarnate so that, by seeing through our eyes, we could see through God’s eyes, through the eyes of grace.
And when we put on our Grace Goggles, the whole world shines with God’s glory. Thomas Merton tells a story about standing on a street corner and, all at once, becoming overwhelmed by the fact that God was present in all of the other people standing at that same street corner. When we wear our Grace Goggles, we look at other people and see God dwelling in them, we see that they have been created in God’s image, and we realize that to dwell in grace means to change our perspective. We don’t see a cleaned up image of who they are either. The mud and the muck, the earthiness, the carnage as it were, it is all still there. The parts we love, and the parts we think we could (in our wisdom?) carve away, the beauty and the brokenness, all transfigured and perfected in God’s grace right before our very eyes.
When I serve at the Eucharist meal and I come upon a child, I always bend so that I can see the child eye to eye because I believe that God meets us in the meal where we are so that we are then filled up to go and meet others where they are, to have the strength to imagine the world from their perspective. This is the hard work of faith.
Derek Webb sings in his song, Take to the World, “…like the three in one, know you must become what you want to save, ‘cause that’s still the way, he takes to the world…” It has taken me a long time to understand just what those lines mean. God becomes incarnate so that we can have the opportunity to understand what it is like to be someone else. It may be someone else that we love. It may be someone else that we despise. It may be someone else who has hurt us. It may be the person who migrated to find a better, safer life. It may be someone half-way round the world whose religion or politics don’t seem to mesh with what we believe. It may be a neighbor, a teacher, a parent, a partner, a child.
Some scholars say that the definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding.” I had always thought of this “understanding” in terms of a cognitive, logical thought process. When doing theology, we seek to understand all the nooks and crannies that make up faith. The “understanding” part to me meant that we dove into the deep study of the thing, like we would understand geometry or physics. (At heart, I am truly an academic nerd and I like it when things make logical sense!)
I had always thought that the “faith” part of that definition held the mystery of the thing, the touchy-feely-ethereal part of what it meant to do theology. But I have come to see that in truly doing theology, the understanding is part mystery, too. To understand is to see the truth through the eyes of grace, not from a distance but up close and personal. When faith seeks understanding, it does so in the way of incarnation. To understand, we have to become. And then we see.
God I pray that you will dwell in us that we may have the strength to truly understand. Give us eyes of grace to see others as you see them.