Christian faith is based upon the event of the Incarnation – the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, writes Mark Johnson.
Christianity is based upon an event, not a text, and yet so many of us have been persuaded that our faith is to conform to dead letters – the joyful memory of new wine exploding old wineskins forgotten or deliberately obscured.
Now, what is meant by an event, especially in regards to Christianity? God manifesting as human in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is event. It was and is beyond our grasp no matter how often we throw our understanding towards it, and try to bring it down to our own comprehension. We can do that, but yet it always stands outside our capturing of it.
This is generally the case with all of our experiences of the world. We live and move within fields of our own sense-making. We make the world meaningful insofar as we conform it to our ways of seeing and interpreting.
But does faith require new ways of being healed of our blindness, of again letting our eyes be opened? Should we approach the event that lies at the heart of faith with the very same tools with which we attend upon every other aspect of our lives, making us the measure of faith?
I want to propose something that in fact lies at the very heart of Christian faith: that the event of God’s becoming manifest in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is an event which by its very nature not only confounds any mundane effort to understand it, but frees us from the tyranny of our usual tendency to make an event into a mere narrative.
Sure, let’s always continue to make such an event meaningful, because we are meaning-making creatures, but let’s not make the mistake of refashioning the foundation of Christian faith according to our own image. After all, who is it who is actually made in whose image?
The risks of merely relating to Incarnation as we would to any other piece of data are obvious; the Church is experiencing the results at this time: the loss of the prophetic character of the Church which only the event can inspire, and which narration deadens. The Church risks becoming nothing more than yet another institution serving itself as its own end if event becomes solely mediated by someone’s telling of it.
If all the Church has become is but a system of privileged narration then it risks being toppled by the most convincing and most predominant telling of it – from within or without its narratively constructed boundaries.
To put it clearly: The Christian narrative is dead if it is no longer able to be open to its foundational event. Sexual abuse, perversion, self-interest, privilege, structural violence, and sociopathic tendencies are the new chapters currently being written upon the old and closed institutional text.
And if all that we have become are adherents to a particular narration, rather than to an open and lived response to event, then the Church has no future because in this age of super-narratives there are many who tell their stories in more compelling ways.
If we are only narrators, then we had better face the fact that our story is no longer being listened to as attentively as it once was.
But this is not a defeat. This is the mistake that narrators of privilege have made. This is a harsh lesson and reminder of what we have forgotten – the result of an overt and covert forgetfulness of the basis of Christian faith.
Christian faith is based upon the event of the Incarnation – the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. To bear living witness that such a Kingdom manifests uniquely in the event of an individual life – one seen, heard, felt, experienced, loved – is to take faith far and away from adherence to mere narratives.
The lesson which teaches most succinctly about the role of narratives and texts in the life of faith is that of the lesson of Sinai. The narrative arrives when people become restless for false idols. A living relationship with the living God was turned away from at Sinai, so too a living relationship with the God that breaks into the dictates of history has also been relinquished in favour of narratives.
Just as the new wine exploded the old wineskins, so too does the event of Incarnation explode history.
The event of the Incarnation is non-historical, not historical if we understand history as a series of narratives, usually constructed by victors.
The voices of the many are silenced. The Incarnation shatters these narratives so that the silenced can again be heard, the weavers of the narratives of self-interest cast down from their thrones.
We should not in any way grieve for the death of narratives and the demise of those that weave them, but instead begin again to be open to that which once and always has lifted the yoke from shoulders and opened eyes so to see.
Faith seeks life; why should we loiter around the tomb of dead letters when Life has already gone on ahead of us?
- Johnson is completing his PhD in the Studies of Religion Department at the University of Sydney, and blogs from the Blue Mountains.
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