Some of this appears in the comment tread on yesterday’s post, but I thought it needed to be expanded into a post in its own right as well. As we consider what it means to think in terms of “place” and the church’s life, I want to be clear. My point is not that the church should not seek concretely dwell in and be concerned for its particular context. Rather my point is that we need to look not to “place” as a sort of cultural-theological category but rather need to ask “What place? Which spaces?” Inhabiting the culture of suburban affluence is not the same thing as inhabiting the culture of the urban ghetto, and we cannot include them both under the rubric of “place”, at least not if we are talking about how to avoid ideology.
In some of these discussions, as is often the case the language of “incarnation” has come up. If we relativize “place,” does that amount to a denial of the incarnation, in which God in Christ comes and dwells in a particular place and culture? If we are to be in the world as Christ himself was, does that not also mean that the church ought to enculturate itself, establishing rootedness, identity and longevity by stabilizing its life in a particular place, thus imitating and participating in Christ’s incarnation?
This use of “incarnation” I take to be an extremely widespread problem in a lot of contemporary ecclesiological and missional discourse and practice. It relies on an an unbiblical expansion of “incarnation” into a theological category that neglects the actual meaning of that doctrine in terms of the concrete history of Jesus Christ. That is to say, “incarnation” does not name a broad theological principle or metaphysical-ecclesiological quality. Rather it is a doctrine about Christ’s singular person and work that is derived from the radical event of his crucifixion and resurrection. “Incarnation” must be understood concretely in terms of Christ’s own history, his concrete story.
Taken in that light it becomes clear that the incarnation does not sanctify “place” (rootedness, cultural identity, etc.), though it continues to be taken that way. Rather we learn that the Word became flesh and tabernacled (skenoo) among us (John 1). Indeed when the Word comes to those who were “his own”, those who are his own people, those who concretely dwell in the land and the Holy Place of Jerusalem, it is precisely they who “did not receive him.” The mode of God’s “dwelling” is not that of rootedness, of Temple, but rather of Tabernacle, of sojourning without a secure “place.” And thus Jesus never “roots” his ministry anywhere but rather is found traversing all sorts of places, going to the Samaritans, Galilee of the Gentiles, and even to the houses of the Romans. He does indeed come to “the holy place” — only to be reject, driven out, and crucifed outside the city gate (more on this later). His ministry is not one of “inhabiting place” but rather of traversing place, venturing into abandoned spaces with the unclean and the marginalized. As such it is a profound theological mistake to jump from “incarnation” to a vision of rootedness, stability, a sanctifying of place. That is decidedly what Jesus does not do. Rather his whole ministry consists in the relativizing of “place”, especially the Temple, which of course was a major cause of his crucifixion.
Likewise, in the New Testament the incarnation never functions as a way of describing the scandal of the Gospel, rather it is an afterthought, a doctrine that is a mere consequence of the earth-shattering fact of the resurrection of the Crucified One. The notion that God would come and dwell with his people is not the scandal of the Gospel; that was Israel’s earliest hope as well attested throughout the Old Testament. The Scandal of the Gospel was that God would come among Israel as the Crucified One, the one cursed under Torah (Deut 21:23). It is Christ Crucified, not “Christ incarnated” that is the scandal of the Gospel. And it is always to crucifixion-resurrection, not “incarnation” that the Apostles call the church. That’s why I’m hesitant to allow “the incarnation” a sort of independent status to determine the nature of the church and its ministry. The pattern of the New Testament gospel is not from incarnation to “incarnational ministry”, but is rather from crucifixion-resurrection to cruciform self-abandonment. We need to understand “incarnation” from the cross, not the other way round.
Thus I must say again that the call to discipleship of the crucified leaves us in an unstable relationship with “place” and “rootedness” and “culture.” I’m haunted by statements like those in Hebrews: “Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 12:13-14). Jesus comes among us, not as one who “inhabits place”, but as one who is driven out of the security and peace of “place”, rootedness, culture, etc. He is found outside the city gates, driven into the abandoned spaces along with the lepers, prostitutes, and the godforsaken. If, as Hebrews suggest, our calling is to “go to him outside the camp”, I think that should orient us, not towards the lure of stability, place, and culture, but towards the forgotten and hidden spaces in this world, the spaces that “place” crowds out and paves over, where the despised and the worthless of this world, “the poor of Jesus Christ” are abandoned, having no “place” to lay their head. That, it seems to me is where the church should be found, and towards which it should continually move.