The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Christians hijack Hindu theology of Divine Incarnation, Ecological Spirituality

By Bill Tammeus
KNIGHT RIDDER
Sat, Dec. 31, 2005

On Thanksgiving morning in Kenner, La., Southern Baptists prepared 12,000 meals of fresh turkey, gravy and sweet potatoes. Then Red Cross volunteers distributed them to Hurricane Katrina victims still living in temporary shelters.

One of those meals -- in fact, the 1 millionth produced by that kitchen since August -- went to a homeless woman named Dorothy, who was celebrating her 80th birthday.
What was happening in the planning, cooking and serving of those meals to the homeless was what theologians call incarnational theology in action.

The Christmas story, they say, is about incarnation -- God becoming human as the baby Jesus to rescue people in need. So incarnational theology today means, in part, being present with needy people.

In fact, said the Rev. Thomas Ford, "incarnational theology that is truly that is being done in the trenches, not in scholarly books."

Ford, now pastor of a Lutheran church in Ashtabula, Ohio, says people who live out such theology today show up where people are in trouble "because Jesus would have done so."

"All of Christian theology, to the extent that it's orthodox, would be incarnational," says Stephen Davis, who teaches the philosophy of religion at Claremont McKenna College and has co-edited a book on incarnation. "The vast majority of Christians are just not going to move away from that."

In fact, says Fenton Johnson, author of "Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey," the incarnation "is the central metaphor of Christianity, though with gratefulness I recall Flannery O'Connor's passionate argument for whole-hog faith: 'If the incarnation is a metaphor, then to hell with it.'"

Whether the incarnation is metaphor or something O'Connor could affirm, people who study and write about incarnational theology nowadays are not limiting it just to the Christmas story.

Christianity has had 2,000 years to think, write and talk about the incarnation. And because it is so vital to the faith, it's not surprising that there have been many arguments about what it means and even about the very nature of Jesus. Scholars, theologians, preachers and others continue today to try to unpack the meaning of the incarnation for new generations.

One question they are trying to answer is "Why Jesus?" Why, in Christian terms, did the creator of the universe allow himself to be born as a helpless infant who was at the mercy of humanity?

But while that question still occupies Christians, incarnational theology has moved in recent decades beyond a tight focus on Jesus. It has expanded to "bring the whole universe into the incarnational mystery," says John Haught, who teaches theology at Georgetown University.

One reason, says Charlene Burns, a religious studies teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is that people engaged in interfaith dialogue today are looking for common ground that different religions share, and "incarnational themes appear almost across the board in the world's religions."

Other religions, she says, obviously don't adopt the Christian belief that Jesus was God's only incarnate son. In Hinduism, for example, one of the manifestations of Krishna, worshipped as the eighth incarnation (or avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu, was human, says Burns, author of "Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation."

Haught says that "one obvious area (of the expansion of incarnational theology) is in the region of ecological spirituality.

"One of the scandals that environmentalists see in traditional Christianity is that it was so other-worldly in its hopes and preoccupations that it lost its sense of nature as its home. The way incarnational theology refers to that is that God loves matter and takes it into the divine self."

The Rev. Tex Sample, former professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., worries that "there are a whole bunch of Christians out there who focus an awful lot on the business of getting saved. What that can do is individualize the faith, so the church becomes a means for assisting one in salvation.

"What gets missed is that Christian existence is 'we' existence and not 'me' existence, and the church is called to be the body of Christ in the world. In that way the church is incarnational."

Burns says scholars of various Christian traditions are finding some common ground as they discuss the nature of grace and find grace across the material world as well as in the birth of the baby of Bethlehem.

That grace was evident to Dorothy, the woman in Kenner, La., who was served the 1 millionth meal from the Southern Baptists' kitchen.

Here's how Christine Benero, chief executive officer of the Denver chapter of the Red Cross, described the scene: "As she was leaving, Dorothy turned to us and told us she had been afraid of this day because she thought she would be alone on Thanksgiving and on her birthday. Instead, she said, it was the happiest she had felt since Hurricane Katrina took away the life she knew."

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