In an exchange with the U.S. bishops during his apostolic visit to the United States last April, Pope Benedict offered the following challenge: “It is becoming more and more difficult in our Western societies to speak in a meaningful way of salvation. Yet salvation—deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ—is at the heart of the gospel. We need to discover new and engaging ways of proclaiming this message and awakening a thirst for the fulfillment which only Christ can bring.” The “we” to whom the pope poses this challenge is not just the bishops or professional theologians. It is a charge laid upon all believers in the gospel. Peter exhorted the whole believing community in similar terms: “Always be ready to give an account of the hope that is yours” (1 Peter 3:15).
In reflecting upon salvation, we tend to move too quickly to what we are saved for. A good part of the challenge is to come to grips with what we are saved from. The answer seems obvious from one point of view: We are saved from sin. We confess: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” But we sometimes confess this too easily, almost by rote. In order to discover the full meaning of salvation, we have to explore more deeply the predicament from which we are saved. In a recent Commonweal article (“The Redeemed Life,” February 27), Kevin Madigan presented several ways in which the fathers of the church described the unredeemed condition of humanity. They spoke compellingly of the forces of sin and death, of idolatry, of the power of the Evil One, of the slavery and bondage of the old Adam. It is from these that Christ has liberated us so that we can share the new life of resurrection and freedom. These ancient descriptions of our situation are still helpful, but the pope’s challenge to find new ways to formulate our predicament remains a pressing one.
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age offers some intriguing hints about what such a new formulation might look like. Although Taylor acknowledges and even celebrates the real gains achieved by modernity and secularity, he is also forthright about what he calls “the unquiet frontiers of modernity.” He uses the term “excarnation” to describe secularity’s stunted engagement with the human. “Excarnation” means a desire to escape the flesh and its limitations, including death. Taylor examines this trend in the work of philosophers and poets from Descartes to Mallarmé, but also in the modern development of a popular consumer culture. He concludes that Christians today “live in a world where objectification and excarnation reign, where death undermines meaning.” In such a world we must “struggle to recover a sense of what the Incarnation can mean.”
When Christians think of the Incarnation, we usually think of the Nativity, celebrated liturgically at Christmas. Indeed, the Gospel of Christmas Day proclaims our incarnational faith: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). But the Incarnation of the Word is about much more than Christ’s birth. After all, John’s Gospel, which is the Gospel of Incarnation par excellence, contains no infancy narrative. God’s full entry into human embodiment-into human community, temporality, and mortality, all conditions suggested by the biblical term “flesh”—culminates in his death and entry into new life. The Incarnation, then, is celebrated no less during Holy Week than it is at Christmas.
This leads to another theme that pervades A Secular Age. Taylor refers often to “transformation.” One way to contrast the “immanentist” vision of secularity with the transcendent vision of Christian belief, Taylor argues, is by exploring their different understandings of “what real fullness consists in.” The desire for salvation, understood as a serious aspiration to wholeness, arises even within a secular context. What does the good life entail and how may it be lived with conviction and authenticity?
An exclusively secularist perspective need not deny the imperative of transformation. Learning to submit instincts to the governance of reason, for example, requires a kind of transformation. But the gospel celebrates an unparalleled height and depth of human transformation, and proclaims its source and fulfillment in the gracious goodness of God. “The full transformation that Christians are called to” shows itself to be “a more far-reaching transformation”—one situated in “a larger, more encompassing” order, says Taylor.
One catches a glimpse of the scope of Christian transformation in Taylor’s appeal to the notion of theiosis, so central to the tradition of Eastern Christianity. In a striking summary passage he writes:
God’s intervention in history, and in particular the Incarnation, was intended to transform us, through making us partakers of the communion which God already is and lives. It was meant to effect our “deification” (theiosis). In this crucial sense, salvation is thwarted to the extent that we treat God as an impersonal being, or as merely the creator of an impersonal order to which we have to adjust. Salvation is only effected by, one might say is, our being in communion with God through the community of humans in communion, namely, the church.
As Taylor argues, God’s transformative action is mediated through “the community of humans in communion” with God. The life of that community, the church, is the very paschal life of Christ, communicated sacramentally, especially in the Eucharist. Indeed, the Eucharist may be said to extend the Incarnation in the power of the Holy Spirit. If excarnation is a spiritual pathology, the Eucharist is Christ’s remedy: “The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Those who partake of the Eucharist do not flee temporality and death, for they “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again.” They do not withdraw from community into self-preoccupied isolation, for their “amen” is to the whole body of Christ—head and members inseparably one. Of course, the transformative logic of Eucharist has not yet achieved its full effect in the community; only Jesus himself has achieved final transfiguration. The earthly members of his body are still on pilgrimage, our bodies an admixture of light and darkness, our words often lacking integrity, our efforts at communion often halfhearted. But as we celebrate the Eucharist, we taste even now the hope that is ours.
From its very beginning, the church considered the martyrs to be the paradigmatic witnesses of a fully incarnate existence, living and dying in eucharistic union with Christ. Paul’s own witness was remembered and celebrated: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, the church” (Col 1:24). Through twenty centuries the martyrs of every age and every culture—from Paul and Perpetua to Edith Stein and Oscar Romero—summon humanity from resentment of the body’s betrayals, and fear of death, to the paschal freedom of the children of God. In their life-giving witness, even unto death, they are nourished and sustained by their crucified and risen Lord, whose incarnation continues—and continues to sustain us—in the Eucharist.
Related: Peter Steinfels reviews Charles Taylor's A Secular Age