The Flesh Was Made Word

Michael Metzger

The Word was made flesh (Jn.1:14). It happened at Christmas. But over the course of 500 years, we reversed this cardinal tenet. Now it’s The flesh was made Word.

In the church calendar, we’re three weeks into Advent. These three weeks are about penitence, sorrow over how we so often screw things up. Many cultural analysts say our biggest screw-up was embracing the Enlightenment. It “disenchanted” the universe.

Say what? For 1,500 years, it was assumed we live in an enchanted world filled with spirits (good and bad) that were “almost indistinguishable” from the physical objects they inhabit. The boundary between the spirit and bodily flesh was “porous.”[1]

We see this permeable world in how scripture depicts Jesus’ body. Take Christmas. God the Father gave Jesus a flesh-and-blood body (Heb.10:5). Jesus was fully God, fully man. There was no boundary between the two. 100 percent spirit, 100 percent flesh.

Or take the Eucharist. Jesus said “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no place with me” (Jn.6:53). These words are entirely plausible in the enchanted world where flesh and spirit mystically intermingle. Jesus is bodily present in bread and wine.

Or take the church, the bride of Christ, Jesus’ body. Jesus is bodily present in her. Saul didn’t recognize this. He was off killing Christians when Jesus appears (Acts 9). “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The church is Jesus’ flesh-and-blood body.

This is old news in the enchanted world where “disbelief was hard,” writes Charles Taylor. Not so much because spirits are part of “the undeniable furniture of things,” but because God is the dominant spirit. He alone guarantees that good will triumph, explaining why, “in general, going against God was not an option.”[2]

We see this in the Eucharist. In the enchanted world, the boundary between mind and world, flesh and spirit, self and others, is fuzzy, porous. Charged objects – like Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist – can impact our faith and our physical bodies.

Look at the church in Corinth. Members were taking communion unworthily. “That’s why so many of you even now are listless and sick,” writes Paul, “and others have gone to an early grave” (I Cor.11:30). This is entirely plausible in the enchanted world where illness and sin – flesh and spirit – were seen as inextricably linked. This link was seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory,” “belief,” or some sort of “concept.”

Few believe that this sort of stuff happens today. We live in a world where life is often depicted as a pie chart. We have a “spiritual” slice. And a “physical” slice (exercise and all that). And a “work” slice. And a “marriage” slice, and so on. It’s a 500-year-old pie that we began to bake in the Enlightenment.

Nows it’s baked in. The western world has become dis-enchanted. The German word for “disenchantment” is “Entzauberung,” which contains the word “Zauber,” or magic. As American Christianity embraced the Enlightenment, the enchanted world of magic (good and bad) evaporated. So did the porous world where charged objects seamlessly impact our faith and our bodies.

I often observe this in churches celebrating communion. Years ago, I watched a server, a well-intentioned but sadly mistaken young man, elevate the bread and juice while assuring us “there is nothing magical going on here.”

Small wonder Iain McGilchrist writes, “American Christianity is active in undermining itself.”[3] By embracing the Enlightenment, we slid into the territory of the left hemisphere of “abstraction, coupled with a downgrading of the realm of the physical.” The result is a disenchanted world where “the cardinal tenet of Christianity – the Word is made Flesh – becomes reversed, and the Flesh is made Word.”

This might explain the rise of religious “nones” (spiritual but not religious) and exiles (Christians exiting the church). They instinctively long for something mystical, enchanted. American Christianity could be attractive, but she’d have to first return to the enchanted world where the boundary between the spirit and flesh is porous.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, Our Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 287-290.

[2] Taylor, Our Secular Age, 41.

[3] c.f. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010)

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8 thoughts on “The Flesh Was Made Word”

  1. Mike I was reading Rodney Stark who remarked that the period before Christ was marked by Eastern cults like that or those of Isis, contrasting with the non-moral Greek and Roman gods, and that Roman citizens were drawn to personal moral strategies and commitments thanks to Eastern influences and not to Greco-Roman influences. It’s a double-edged sword – the Greek and Roman gods were personable – but not moral. Isis was a manifestation of mono-theism but I have a lot to learn about the mysteries of the “religion” in depth. I get how you’re concerned that “Flesh becoming Word” is sterile and nearly non-relational. But I wonder if your feeling of urgency for the personal – the flesh – is being put upon intermediary species (fairies, spirits) and not upon God Himself. God Himself isn’t presidential locked in an oval office needing emissaries to do His relating – He does it Himself. Do you feel like I am making The Lord too familiar when I type this? Maybe He can’t be familiar enough…

  2. It is helpful to me to consider the porous or permeable nature of the spiritual and physical world. The early church fathers and mothers recognized this when they practiced the spiritual rhythms (disciplines) such as silence, solitude, examine, etc. to heighten their awareness of the porous nature of these worlds and the constant presence of God throughout the day. We do indeed live in a world that embraces a cognitive membrane that keeps these two worlds separate and “watertight.” It makes me wonder how we can further expose our world to the reality of the spiritual world in a compelling way. So often we are written off as mystical when we practice the spiritual practices that are geared to break down the impermeable structures we have created to deaden the reality of God’s presence.

  3. Michael Metzger

    Tim: I think the spiritual (i.e. bodily, fleshy) disciplines you mention are a step in the right direction. They break down what is called “the buffered self” that results from imagining the Word and flesh, the spiritual and physical, are different and separate realms. It’s the myth of the Enlightenment, that we are essentially rational beings that can “buffer” our flesh from any outside influences.

  4. I see our society as separating into two camps here. One camp is “everything is spiritual” (Pantheism, New Age, etc) and the other is “nothing is spiritual” (Evolution, Athiesm). Christianity should emphasize that we are eternal spiritual beings, locked inside temporal, physical bodies. It is a hard balance.

  5. In parallel with this, in the secular corporate world there’s an increased push toward “mindfulness,” meditation, and other subtle forms of Buddhism stripped of it’s overt religious trappings.

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