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The Church, the Incarnation, & the “Catholic Synthesis”
by Folke T. Olofsson
Christian belief is not a conceptual religious machine, conceived, projected, and constructed in order to meet certain human needs or fulfill various human aspirations. Nor is it an intellectual structure erected in accordance with a set of criteria endorsed by a certain age or a particular group of people. Christian belief is not a construction that may be deconstructed and reconstructed, but rather a discovery of something already given. As life is something given, which precedes any human action and exists as the prerequisite condition for any human activity, Christian belief is a discovery of the works and words of the Holy Trinity. And as life is known by being lived, so Christian belief is known by living in this discovery. Christian belief is based on facts of Life. The Christian Church is one of these facts.
The Church always finds herself in the danger area between a barren traditionalism and a flimsy trendiness. The Church has a tradition, something that has been handed over to her once and for all, and that has to be handed over uncorrupted to each new generation. Tradition literally means that which has been handed over. But tradition is not a deep-frozen merchandise to be handled in an unbroken chain of freezers. Tradition is something living to be given afresh to each new generation, and once taken over, it is formed and colored by the people of that time, their concepts, questions, problems, and needs.
Traditionalism stands for permanence and unchangeability. The traditional is semper idem, always the same. In an ever-changing world there is at least one archimedic point: tradition. Of old it has been like this, and so it shall be forever. Gimme that ole time religion—it’s good enough for me. Here is security, but it may be bought at the cost of irrelevance: an incomprehensible religious idiom, a liturgy that no one any longer understands, symbols that do not speak to anyone anymore. So much is invested in the past that the present never gets a chance. The Christian faith becomes a fossil and a relic. There is traditionalism in a bad sense, one that is near to death, characterized by rigidity and petrifaction.
Trendiness arises when sensitivity to all the contemporary whispers and calls is cultivated to the extent that the signals from “the faith which has been once and for all entrusted to the saints” is no longer heard or is consistently misinterpreted. The ambition to be relevant and in tune with the times is purchased at the price of becoming deaf to tradition: the substance dissolves and identity fades away. What remains is surfing on the waves of contemporary fads and trends, all the bad copies and the ever-prevailing opportunism. What the world outside the Church has long since left behind for new waves and winds, the straggling Church takes up with drums beating and trumpets sounding. So the Church becomes the sum and substance of self-conceited officiousness. Everyone who has seen the cartoon showing a knock-kneed cleric as an ice hockey goalkeeper with the balloon: “Dear lads, who is serving?”, is once and for all cured from all ingratiating trend surfing. He who marries the Zeitgeist will before long become a widower.
The Human Tradition
The history of the Church is a continuum, a flow through history. In every instant there is confrontation between the past and the future in the present. The tension between tradition and renewal, rigid perseverance resulting in irrelevance, indiscriminate listening ending in loss of identity, has followed the Church through the centuries. And, yet, the Church still lives. Why?
Tradition has no doubt always been questioned. Objections have always been abundant: tradition is obsolete, outworn, useless. Who needs a quill pen when there is the computer? Why should we take over an antiquated understanding of the world or an outmoded view of life? We know more about human existence than any generation before us. Look at technology! Look at transistors and transplants! Look at videos and virtual reality! We now live in a new world with new values and new views. Old answers simply do not apply. Convincing as this may seem, it is not true because human life remains essentially the same throughout history. Therefore it is not appropriate to compare quill pens to a computer and apply this comparison to the warp of life. There is a humanum that for all and forever remains the same: a birth-giving womb and an open grave define the room in which all theological statements take place. There is a common human experience of birth and death, joy and suffering, meetings and farewells, toothache and orgasm: all this which has been the same within and between people through the ages; all that can be told, transmitted, communicated in talks, speeches, novels, poetry, drama, tales, sagas, myths, pictures, music, and dance.
There is something given that can be handed over both when it pertains to the existential, common experience of the humanum, and to Christian belief. There is a substance that does not change. There is an identity that remains the same. But at the same time, there is a growth in mankind: new experiences, new questions, new answers color and form the traditum, that which is transmitted. Here lies the difficulty: the meeting between that which is old, given, and that which is new, reflecting its age. The ideal is and remains a continuity that preserves the tradition uncorrupted, but makes it flow on enriched— non nova, sed nove—not new things but in a new way. In this sense, good traditionalism certainly exists.
The Gift from Outside
The Church has no other access to the ordinary human experience of the humanum. This is one side of the Church, her earthly, created, human side. But the remarkable thing about the Church is that she is, at the same time, the bearer of an experience, which has been given as a gift from the outside, and thus transcends herself as the receiver of this gift. This gift is the divine revelation. The Church exists because the God who created heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible, also created the Church as a sign of God’s intervention and presence in the world, the Church being not only a sign but also at the same time the mediatrix of this divine action and presence here and now.
What we call humanum has a divine sanction because it is created. Through his Word, God has created man and woman in his image in order to attain to his likeness. God also blessed man and woman, and even if human existence is marred by the consequences of the Fall, God has never retracted his original blessing. God the Creator has also manifested a total commitment to, and solidarity with, his creation by becoming man in Jesus Christ: The Word was made flesh and lived among us. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became man. Therefore, the humanum has a double attestation: through creation and incarnation.
In the Church the encounter between the human and the divine takes place in a visible and tangible manner. In Christ the Church has an experience of what it means to be human, which cannot be found elsewhere. In the Church the meeting between the past and the future takes place harmoniously in Christ. As the divine Word he is the One in Whom all things were created, he is the Logos structure of all creation, he is the Last by whom all will be judged and the Ultimate towards whom all things tend. In Jesus Christ the Church is already perfected. This is one side of the Church: her essential side. In one sense the Church is already One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
However, there is also another side of the Church: the one in time and space. Placed in time and space the Church is always only one generation away from possible extinction, balancing over the abyss between traditionalism and trendiness, petrified irrelevance and total loss of substance and identity. The religious, intellectual, moral, and social environment in which the Church finds herself today is characterized by secularization, which means that everything is measured and judged against the values and views of this saeculum. This presents a tremendous challenge to the Church, but this challenge is not greater than those that once confronted the Church in the past. The Church has always had to encounter the voices and whisperings of the times, the lures and threats of the age, but her prime obligation and call have remained unaltered to this day, that is to withstand the temptations and fence off the dangers of compromising her integrity through various forms of servility to contemporary projects. It would be disastrous for the mission of the Church to mankind if she lost her catholic identity by compromising it for some contemporary syncretism. In every time and age, the Church has in a sense to struggle in order to become what she essentially is: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
The Longing for “Thou”
The mountain, the sea, the desert are settings that divest man of all his outer props and decorations and make him encounter himself in his existential nakedness. Not the mountain that can be reached by a cable car, not the sea seen from the deck of a cruising ship, not the desert peeped at from some comfortable resort, but the mountain peak reached after hours of laborious lonely climbing, the vastness of the sea experienced from a tiny sailing boat, the desert extending as far as the eye can see—they all leave man standing before the ultimate limits of his existence and reveal his existential situation: in the center and yet reduced almost to nothing.
Man is exposed to forces over which he has no control and which at every instant may threaten to destroy him. Death is as near as life. Man is a little speck, hardly visible, and, yet, he is there, experiencing being in all its complexity. He is alive. He lives. In these extreme situations man has the ecstatic experience of the nearness and intensity of being and of nothingness, of living and of death. “I am! I am alive! The world is there! And I know it is!” But this intense feeling of life and vitality is instantly threatened by the harrowing insight, “The world is going to be there, but not seen by me, as I know I shall not be there.” Man is seeing himself and his existence no longer from his own perspective but from the outside, from the horizon that surrounds him. He has seen himself in a new way as if he had been seen by another. Man has experienced something infinitely greater than his own life and existence.
To be surrounded by the horizon and to experience that one has been seen—even as if it were only by oneself—this remarkable experience of total nearness and ultimate distance is the beginning of a transcendental experience. Man finds himself standing before something numinous, which evokes in him a primordial shudder, and out of his depths breaks forth the ecstasy of being. Out of his depths also rises the horror of nothingness. And in the contrast between the experience of being and of nothingness grows an intuition: there is something unutterable, unspeakable, which is, something that confers being and stands against nothingness.
Someone who has this experience—and people have had it in all ages—can learn how this intuition of something “greater,” “higher,” “deeper” manifests itself in a “thou.” This experience, however, is ambiguous and even contradictory. Man feels as if there were a possibility of contact, even communion, with this “thou.” At the same time man also becomes acutely aware of the fact that there exists an unbridgeable gap, an infinite distance between himself, the world in which he lives, and this “thou.” The world for man seems to be both transparent and opaque, open and closed. Man cannot escape from the ambiguity of his own existence: nothingness, despair, distance on the one hand and intuition, longing, and hope on the other.
Has not the prophet Isaiah put into words the longing of mankind when he prophesies:
Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens, that thou wouldst come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the water to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence! When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence. For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness (Is. 64:1–5a).
That which in Isaiah’s prophecy is a passionate longing and an ardent prayer has been fulfilled in the Christian belief. The Incarnation, God becoming man in Christ, God in the flesh, is the answer to our yearning. The divine address, the divine action, takes shape in a Visitation, in a young woman’s yes, in a pregnancy, in a male baby. This is the great miracle of the Christian belief. The gulf between the human and the divine has been bridged. No longer does there exist an unbridgeable chasm between time and eternity, finite and infinite, material and spiritual. The yearning and the intuition of man transcending his limited existence is met by one Person of the eternal Godhead entering into time and space. God is meeting man by being born into the world he himself has created, thereby subjecting himself to its boundaries and limitations. In Jesus Christ heaven and earth, uncreated and created, God and man, meet and unite.
Reflecting on the significance of the Incarnation, the Church sees a pattern for the Christian understanding of life as a whole. All that is created, all that is human, is in one sense already sanctified through the assumption of humanity by Christ, by his life, his passion and death, his resurrection and by his returning to the Father as the glorified One. All that is created is already perfected in the presence of God. If Christ could come to a particular people at a particular time, and this particularity was an integral part of the Incarnation as contrasted with some abstract idea, a kind of gnosis that never becomes incarnated in a particular person at a particular time in history, then the Christian belief can encounter people just where they are in the very circumstances in which they live. The contingency of the human, the cultural, and the historical conditions is the raw material in and through which the Christian belief is incarnated and takes shape. Traditions, customs, concepts, and ideas can become integrated parts of the whole. The Christian belief has been inculturized: that is, it has entered into the cultures it has met, christened them and incorporated them into the Church.
Inculturization is a consequence of the Incarnation and the basic sacramental view of life that flows from it. Some of the most beautiful flowers of Christianity have grown out of this flowerbed. But something that in itself is good and wonderful can be misused. This has also happened to inculturization. It has been used as an alibi for a never-accomplished conversion or change of heart and mind. Things have been “christened” that cannot in any sense be compatible with the Christian belief. There is a limit that cannot be passed when it comes to what can be taken over and incorporated.
The Fall: A Reversal of Perspective
The mountain peak, the vastness of the sea, the desolate desert are settings that reveal man’s nature and position in this world. There, man can learn a lot about himself, about the world, and even about God, but certainly not all. In order for man to attain to a true self-knowledge and an adequate understanding of his existence, he needs the divine revelation that puts him in God’s perspective. This perspective meets man in the icon. Here, the spiritual world looks at man and not the other way around. Man’s perspective is once and for all reversed. God’s perspective of man also encounters him in God’s Word as the Bible reveals how God looks upon man. The divine revelation in the Bible portrays man as created in the image of God in order to attain to his likeness. Therefore, there is always a longing for God in man. Man forever bears the hallmark of his Maker.
But the biblical revelation also tells a story about man who wants to become like God without God, and who because of this rebellion against God is driven away from him. In his attempt to be like God, man forfeits his place in Paradise. In the crucifixion at Golgotha man accomplishes what he began in the Fall—by killing God, man finally becomes what he originally intended to be: an atheist. Man is the contradictory creature who is both yearning for God and killing him. Thus, man’s existential situation cannot only be determined by his own experiences of transcendence. The Word of God has to reveal to him that he is not only a seeker of God but also a sinner against God. Through his rebellion against God, the source of being and life, and the transgressions of his will, the way to perfection, man has become a slave under sin walking on a path leading away from the final goal that God has set for him. As a transgressor of God’s will, man does not live in a new freedom but is heading for destruction on his way towards nothingness, which he dreads, while he is at the same time being corrupted by developing crookedly, being incurvatus in se instead of being open to God and his fellow man.
That which is created and human is not immediately fit to be united with the divine. All that is, exists under the conditions and consequences of the Fall, being contaminated and marred by sin. Inculturization—the Church meeting the world—cannot be based on the Incarnation alone. It has to pass through Golgotha and the atonement at the Cross. In Christ alone the humanum exists in its pure and sinless form. It does not exist in the world. In Christ, however, creation, human nature, and the human condition can be atoned for, reconciled, purified, sanctified, and consummated. A Church who wants to retain her integrity and identity, therefore, asks how that which is created and human is lived and manifested in Christ. At the same time the Church marvels when she perceives how Jesus Christ is wondrously manifested in and through her, because it is through, with, and in Christ that the Church receives her true and abiding identity.
The Syncretist Project
The word project in a sense reveals its own time. A project is something man pursues from his perspective. Out of himself man projects into time and space his thoughts, and dreams, and hopes: his ideology.
The modern project may be used as a shorthand term for secularization, characterized as it is by its lack of transcendence, its anthropocentricity and its attendant rationalistic reductionism, together with the sole transcendence it can accept, that of time: the future in which perfection is to be found, that is to say, Utopia. The modern project is throughout pervaded by perspectivism. There are no truths and no absolutes. All depends on from which perspective, or in whose perspective, things are seen.
The modern project has been shaken to its foundations. Its positivistic scientism does not any longer reign over the intellectual rostrum. That the modern project is on the retreat can also clearly be seen in the compromise and collapse of utopian socialism, which is one of its most inevitable and spectacular embodiments and manifestations, and of which the fall of the Berlin Wall is the spectacular and definitive emblem.
Secularization alone does not characterize our time. In the postmodern era various and different modes of thought and sentiments of life meet and exist side by side. The world is no longer a closed box. A new awareness of transcendence is clearly to be discerned. Everywhere there seem to be signs of a new spiritual awareness and new attitudes to life that have left rationalism and atheism far behind. There is a new openness to new worlds and values.
Religion and spirituality are on their way back, not in the form of traditional historical religions, however, but rather as an eclectic amalgam of elements taken from different sources: ideologies, religions, esotericism, occultism, etc. The term attached to this multifaceted and in many respects contradictory contemporary phenomenon is New Age. Whereas secularization confined its perspective to this saeculum and to what can be measured in time and space solely by man’s senses, this perspective literally opens up a new age: a novel understanding of reality, of knowledge, of man. Yet, in both perspectives the individual stands at the center. In the religious and ideological supermarket of the New Age man strolls, the consumer who fills his trolley with merchandise according to his preferences and taste: religion on private, individual terms.
The crucial question facing the Church today and which she eventually has to answer, is whether the modern project to which the Church for so long has addressed herself at the risk of losing her identity, is about to be superseded by the syncretistic project.
If this is the case, and everything speaks for its being so, the Church is confronted with a tremendous challenge. The Church may, of course, go on surfing on the trendy waves of modernity, and in the end become a mausoleum of recent fads and fashions. The Church may let herself be influenced and even dominated by this syncretism, which is in one sense the heir of theological modernism: religion as the creation of the human spirit or as man’s reaction to the eternal mystery of life, the evolutionary, dynamic, inclusive religion. With the mystic experience or the gnostic pattern serving as the ultimate criterion for Christian belief, or for that which is understood to be the genuine Christian faith as it is defined by American and Continental university theologians, this religion will easily mix with all the prevailing contemporary elements. A religion of the new age in cyberspace and virtual reality.
The program of this syncretistic project can be described in this way: the unknowable and unfathomable mystery of life may be expressed and manifested in various ways, and this has also happened in the great traditional religions. But now we have reached the stage in the evolution of man at which we can disregard external dividing dogmas and doctrinal opinions and unite in a knowledge, a gnosis, that is the common denominator behind, beyond, beneath all words and concepts in the historical religions with their rites and beliefs, a knowledge that is embedded deep inside every human being, only waiting to be awakened.
The syncretistic project involves an attempt to combine elements or fragments of Christian faith with non-Christian ideas, beliefs, or manifestations. The gnostic pattern of a knowledge behind, beyond, beneath, that is common to all religions, in some cases already functions as a unifying and uniting factor. Characteristic of the syncretistic project is the search for and the creation of a universal religion.
The Catholic Synthesis
The Christian Church, however, has a deeper calling than that of pursuing either the modern project or of carrying out the syncretistic project. Its deepest calling is to realize the catholic synthesis.
The Christian faith is trinitarian. God is one God, but when the Church speaks of her experience of the One in whom she believes, the Church finds herself talking about the Father and Creator, the Son and the Savior, the Spirit and the Sanctifier, because of the way this One God has revealed himself. The God who revealed his name to Moses at the burning bush as I am the One I am has made himself known as the God who is one God and, yet, a communion of “persons.” In the modern project, trinitarian belief was discarded as impossible and illogical. In the syncretistic project, the traditional belief in the Trinity is reinterpreted in a way that will match contemporary demands and expectations. For the catholic synthesis, it is of crucial importance that the traditional trinitarian belief of the Church remains intact, is deepened and is not distorted, as the Trinity is its ground and ultimate reference.
The Church is the sacramental means God is using to achieve the ultimate goal of his creation. The catholicity of the Church certainly has many dimensions, but the essence of her catholicity lies in her relation to the Trinity: the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. The Church is the work and creation of the triune God and as such she is God’s people, the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Spirit. It is the call of the Church to be catholic, encompassing the totality of God’s creation.
The Church may be understood as a symbol, an instrument, an icon, a sacrament, but more than anything else as a communion. In and through the Church all that is created is restored to its full integrity and revealed in this entire potentiality: to be united with the divine in a sacramental way, of which the Incarnation is the ground and pattern, on its way towards the final goal, which is the transfiguration and consummation of all creation. The catholic synthesis has as its ground and goal the Holy Trinity: the Creator, the Redeemer, the Lifegiver; the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
All that exists is not there by chance. For the Christian all that is, is created, because God through his Word let there be has called it into being. All that is, is, because God has willed it to be there. Therefore the Christian has a basic trust in creation. A Christian dares to believe that there is a correspondence between God and man, between the divine and the human. Man’s thirst for God is caused by God himself in order that he may quench it. Also, there is a correspondence between man’s intellect and the Intellect that once created all there is and in this very moment sustains it. Delving into the depths of creation through reason in order to learn to know its secrets, and in this way attaining to an intuition of a Supreme Reason and seeing a Creator behind it, is entirely in line with the Christian belief: a boundless optimism together with a realistic insight into the grandeur of creation and the limitations of human power.
A Christian has a basic trust in creation and its order. God does not cheat. The fundamental attitude towards life is: trust the basic design. The fact that there is an enemy that Jesus calls evil, that threatens and destroys this order, cannot upset this basic trust. When a Christian encounters evil both in the form of moral evil, that is, evil that people do, and nonmoral evil, that is, evil that happens to people, which is not their fault, e.g., illness and natural disasters, he reacts with sorrow and wrath. That is Jesus’ own reaction against evil. A Christian passionately in love with creation, finding joy in it and feeling an awe for life, has the right to rage against the evil that people do, and the evil manifested in Horton’s headache, Huntingdon’s chorea, VACTERL-syndrome and other afflictions that man has to live with. Originally, it was not meant to be so. There is a usurper and destroyer of God’s good creation. God does not want it to be this way. A Christian may hope and believe this, not as a gullible daydream escaping from a grim reality, but rather as a prophecy and a real hope that all things in the end will be well, when God’s will finally has prevailed.
The Eucharistic Synthesis
Everybody knows from his experience that creation in its beauty and frailty is broken and fractured. Yet there is so much beauty and wonder in life that even a severely handicapped man, who is only able to communicate through his word machine by blowing into a mouthpiece, writes: “I don’t want help today; I want help to live!” The call and task of the Christian is that of offering all creation to God in order to let Christ encompass it in his sacrifice and perfect it through his resurrection, saved, healed, cleansed. The Eucharist displays what it is all about. A High Mass on a Harvest Thanksgiving Day provides a glorious illustration.
The sanctuary abounds with all that fields and gardens have yielded: golden corn sheaves, well-scrubbed root crops and vegetables, dazzling flowers, and mellow fruits and berries, mingled with products from local industries and factories. There are files documenting well-handled commissions, business contracts of transactions benefiting both seller and buyer, stands for plastic bags with intravenous drips from the hospitals, journals of surgery, rolls of cash register receipts, diskettes containing manuscripts of novels, scientific articles, calculations of the strength of bridges, blueprints for houses, children’s paintings and drawings from schools and nurseries—all that man has made and been the steward of can be brought to the altar and represented by bread and wine in the offertory.
In every Eucharist the Christian congregation carries bread and wine to the altar, fruits of the earth and work of human hands representing the whole creation. This offering is embedded in prayer, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. The bread and wine offered at the altar are united with the word of Christ according to his institution and become a sacrament. The Word comes to the elements and a sacrament is called into existence. Christ takes up into himself all that which the Church has brought to the altar and he bears it in his sacrifice before his Father. The whole creation in its brokenness and sinfulness Christ brings in his sacrifice that has taken place once and for all and, yet, is forever present in every celebration. When the priest elevates the paten, the transfigured bread anticipates the transformation of all creation in Christ, for which the Church longs and prays. When the chalice is triumphantly lifted up, the wine is anticipatedly transfigured into the new creation without evil, sin, suffering, which all creation in birthpangs groans for. Already in this saeculum, marked as it is by death and decay, the life forces of the world to come break in. The calling of the Church is that of being a bearer carrying the creation in an offertory to God in Christ in the hope of a final transfiguration. The calling of the Church is that of giving the dying world a living hope and making it visible, tangible, and edible.
In this process of praise and hope every individual and the Church as a whole is engaged. The process of dying and rising with Christ, which has been initiated in baptism for every Christian, is intensified and accelerated in the Eucharist. Every communicant who approaches the altar in order to receive Christ under the forms of bread and wine has repented of his or her sin, confessed, and received forgiveness. Evil has lost ground in the world in this person, and God has reclaimed another part of his creation. The Eucharist is a meal that gives the forgiveness of sins, because Christ is truly present and bestows the fruits of his death at Golgotha: forgiveness and annihilation of sins. The Eucharist is the anticipation of what will happen in the end when the will of God reigns.
The Eucharist is concrete. When bread and wine have been united with the Word of God they are not put on display in a gilded showcase beyond the reach of the congregation. The sacrament does not remain on the altar only to be looked at. The priest as an icon and representative of Christ gives it back to the people to be eaten and drunk. Trust the basic design! Man has to eat in order to live. Which fundamental function of life does God choose in order to come as close to us as our own hearts? God meets us in eating and in drinking, the very acts that keep us alive. God comes as spiritual food for the new man he has created in Christ. In order to become like God, man in Paradise ate what God had forbidden. Now, in his love God in the Eucharist gives himself as food and drink in order to make man what God intended him to be: like God, in total communion with him.
What a sacramentum, what a mystery! Ordinary unleavened bread baked from ordinary wheat flour, ground in ordinary mills, sown and harvested by ordinary people— fruits from the earth and work of human hands. The world is sanctified through this bread and wine, as is all creation. Walking on this earth is walking on holy ground. This is the Christian understanding. The world in itself is not divine and shall not be revered or worshipped as the Mother Earth mystics propose. There is, however, a deep element of truth in this New Age mysticism. Creation is sanctified, because bread and wine can become bearers of Christ’s full and total presence in the Eucharist, as he was totally and fully present as both God and man in the one person of Christ. A Christian who receives the Lord Jesus in the form of blessed bread and wine longs with every cell in his body, with his whole being, for the final defeat of God’s enemy and for the liberation and ultimate transfiguration of all creation.
Christ the True Image
Christian faith is sacramental because it is incarnational: the assumption of humanity, the uniting of divine nature and human nature without confusion, without change, without division, without separation in Christ is the ground and the pattern. Christian belief cannot but take the creation seriously because of the Incarnation. Therefore, humanity given in creation and assumed in the Incarnation, in all its various and variegated forms and manifestations, is what is fundamentally common to all human beings. This is the common ground for all human fellowship, humanism, and humanity. There is a common humanum that applies irrespective of the conditions of time, place, and culture: the instant when the pain loosens its grip, the joy of cutting the umbilical cord of the firstborn, the grief when the hand of the dead cools in the hand of one still living. All that is a common experience of the human condition, which one life is far too short to exhaust, and yet fills every life to the brim. There is a humanum because all men are created in the image of God in order to attain to his likeness, and because of the fact that all that there is, is God’s creation. And even to those who do not believe in God or understand life, the world, and humanity as something created, still the humanum remains for all people in all times a fundamental, recognizable, and intersubjectively verifiable experience, common to all mankind.
The great task and call of the Church in the world is that of bringing together all that is truly human in its immense richness, manifoldedness, and variety, and to bring it to Christ. As the grains of corn have been harvested from various fields, have been ground and baked into one bread, so people from all times and from all corners of the world will be united under Christ in his kingdom. Unique individuals who share a common humanity will be brought together as the Bride of Christ. Everyone will bring his gifts and riches into this cosmic wedding feast. All forms, all colors, all combinations, all in and under one Christ, who is great enough (Col. 1:15–20) to encompass all that is truly human, being the One after whose image man is created. Jesus Christ is God’s image, and man is the image of the Image.
Jesus Christ is the prototype for creation and the first-perfected example of the new creation. In and through Jesus humanity becomes truly human because his human nature has its ground and being in God himself. Man was meant to be like Christ, and in the end, this is the way it is going to be. The basic Christian attitude towards creation is one of love for all created beings, a joy at all there is, and a profound respect for life. Evil and suffering are not denied, but taken up in Christ’s suffering, in his atoning and healing sacrifice. With Christ as prototype and pattern the Christian is called to lead a life of service, self-giving, and sacrifice: being a bread for others. As Christ’s arms are stretched out on the cross, so the arms of the Christian are open and stretched out to the world. But there is one great difference: the hands of the Christian are not pierced and nailed to the cross. In Christ the pardoned and released sinner can with open arms embrace life in a jubilant thankfulness and joy. As a human being man belongs to God’s creation. Man is at home in God’s world. “I am a Christian and nothing human is alien to me; all belongs to me and I belong to Christ.”
Union with God
Christian life is lived in the world but cannot exist without the Church. The Church is the Risen Christ as he is present in the world after his resurrection and into whose body the Christian is incorporated through baptism. In the Church all barriers of race, sex, social standing, cultural background, and level of education are overcome. There is a basic God-given equality between man and woman, and there is also a God-given variety of roles and functions in the Church and in the family. There is room for all the various instruments in the divine symphony. This is the catholic vision that in every age has to be presented and vindicated anew in its entire width, breadth, and depth. The catholic vision and the catholic synthesis are not alien to the Church; they belong to its essence.
Christian life is a life lived in the time after Easter and Whitsuntide: in Christ and in the Spirit. It is lived in total openness towards God’s creation in a total worldliness. The world as God has created it, redeemed it, and sanctified it through the Son and the Spirit, is not to be left, despised, or denied. It is to be loved, served, and borne back to God, to whom it rightly belongs and in whom it is already perfected.
Yet the world is too small for the Church as it is for man. Time and space cannot hold the Church or man. The perfection of life will not be accomplished in a future Utopia but in a consummation that breaks all barriers of man’s limited being and imagination. The perfection of man’s life lies in a communion and union with God in the eternal life, for which man has no adequate words. The Orthodox Churches call this theosis, deification. New Age religiosity, which even in its name tries to imitate the age to come, may open one’s eyes to possibilities and stir up a longing in man by presenting shadow images. But the reality, the Body, is Christ. In Christ man has his union with God and the consummation of life. The glorified Christ already sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, and thence he shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, establishing his eternal kingdom. Already Christ is now that which man is going to be. In him, in his resurrected and glorified Body, the whole creation is proleptically transfigured and consummated.
The catholic synthesis encompasses all that God has created and transcends all limits of time and space. It commences at the creation and is perfected in the life of the world to come: the new aeon. When at last God is all in all, the catholic synthesis will be finally accomplished.
This article is reprinted with permission from the book Quo Vaditis: The State of the Churches in Northern Europe, ed. John Broadhurst, Leominster, Herefordshire, UK: Fowler Wright Books, 1996 (UK ISBN: 0 85244 382 X).
Folke T. Olofsson is docent of theological and ideological studies at Uppsala University, and is rector of Rasbo parish in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.