“Practice the Incarnation”

Practice the Incarnation

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov expresses his simple view of acceptance of God. He says, “And so I accept God and am glad to. And what’s more I accept his wisdom, his purpose which are utterly beyond our kin. I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life. I believe in eternal harmony.” But he continues, “Yet, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s.”[9] His rationale? “I could never understand how one could love one’s neighbors. By my mind one can’t love one’s neighbors, though one might love those at a distance. . . . For anyone to love a man he must be hidden. For as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”[10] He continues to describe several accounts of the horrible torture that people have inflicted on other people, including a story of soldiers who tossed babies in the air only to catch them on their bayonets while their mothers watched. Consequently he says, “And so I hasten to return my entry ticket.”[11]

I sympathize with Ivan. I disagree, but I sympathize. Ivan understands something of the true nature of the world, something that should not be overlooked, its sheer ugliness. Yet in the end, this debase, corrupt, and godless world-a world where babies can be tossed up to be caught on bayonets or scissors can be inserted into their brains before their birth-this world is the same world for which Jesus Christ became man to redeem. So the question hangs, “If Christ became flesh and dwelt among us, in what ways do we reach our world?” The more important question is not, “Is my church relevant?” but “Am I?”

I often wonder as I sit in the car at a stoplight and look at the driver to my right or left,What keeps this person up at night? I wonder if she’s had suicidal thoughts in the last week? Is he addicted to pornography? Has she been abused? Does he feel like anyone in his life loves him? But how will I ever know the answers to these questions? The light will turn green, my foot will press down on the pedal, and more than likely this person will vanish from my life forever. Our lives nudge up against others numerous times a day, and we could never begin to know them all. But my fear goes further. I fear we cannot relate even to those we see almost every day. How many times have we spoken to the coworkers who we work closest with? Do we know even a shred of information about them? How is his marriage? What does she live for? What are his hopes? Why does she vote the way she does?

Why do we not know these things? Who taught us not to care? I want to suggest that relevance is not about putting up stage lights or having a “rockin’ band.” Relevance is incarnating the gospel to people in a way that seeks first to genuinely understand them and hold forth the light of the gospel to transform them through new birth. Relevance happens when we connect their stories and ours with the Biblical story and when we pour gospel refreshment into their parched, dry lips. May God help us to be relevant in that way.

9. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts and an Epilogue,trans. David McDuff, (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 309.

10. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 310.

11. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 320.

From “Relevance and the Incarnation: A Gospel-oriented Approach”–something I wrote some time ago and had forgotten about.

Quotable, The Brothers Karamazov

What’s strange, what would be marvelous is not the God should really exist. The marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise, and so great a credit it does to man. As for me I’ve long resolved not to think whether man created God or God man. I’m trying to explain my essential nature, what I believe in and for what I hope. I accept God simply. But note, if God exists, and if he really did create the world, then he created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space. Since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God. How could I solve problems that are not of this world? Whether God exists or not? All such questions are utterly innappropriate for a mind created with an idea of only three dimensions. And so I accept God and am glad to. And what’s more I accept his wisdom, his purpose which are utterly beyond our kin. I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life. I believe in eternal harmony. I believe in the word to which the universe is striving and which itself was with God, which itself is God and so on, to infinity. Yet, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s. And although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God you must understand. It’s the world created by him I don’t and cannot accept. I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage. That in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of allresentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed, that it will make it not only possible to forgive, but to justify all that has happened with men. But though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it. Alyosha that’s my creed. I’m in earnest.


(Why don’t you accept the world?)

I could never understand how one could love one’s neighbors. By my mind one can’t love one’s neighbors, though one might love those at a distance. I once read somewhere of John the merciful, a saint that when a hungry frozen beggar came to him, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I’m convinced that he did that from self-laceration, from the self-laceration of falsity, for the sake of the charity imposed by duty as a penance laid on him. For anyone to love a man he must be hidden. For as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky

There are two reasons this quote fascinates me.
1. Ivan understands very clearly the tension between Jesus’ command to love God and his command to love our neighbors. In a sense it is quite easy to love God, but on the other hand it is very difficult to love our neighbors. So much so that it inevitably leads Ivan to reject God himself. More practically if one does accept God and ‘loves him,’ there can be a tendency to withdraw from men for their vileness. Ultimately I agree with Dostoevsky that Alyosha is the hero, but I can certainly relate to Ivan.
2. Ivan calls any sort of expression of love to any certain man (rather than mankind in general) ‘self-laceration.’ He says the only motivation one might have to care for another would be a sort of pretentious self-flagellation. Christ himself is the answer to both the first question and this second one. When we gaze into the humility of Christ we can ourselves stoop with humility to help our fellow man, even when we see his face.