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On the Implications of Ecology for Incarnation:
Triangle Theology
by the Rev Dr Eugene Wahl
(© Eugene R. Wahl, 1997,1999 and 2002)

Introduction.  This essay starts by considering who Jesus is in some of the core affirmations of Christian theology.  It then asks, "What are the implications for how we view Jesus?" when we look at the world through some of the standard perspectives of ecosystem science--in terms of the complex web of interactions among living and non-living beings.  Finally, it ponders, "What does this then demand of us?" because of the way we view the relationship between Jesus and all Creation.

copyrighted picture of Trinity Stores, Eden Prairie, MN

Who do we as Christians believe Jesus to be?  We say in one of our central proclamations that Jesus is the logos sarx egeneto, the "WORD BECOME FLESH" (John 1:14).  And we say this emphatically.  Centuries-long debate and struggle in the ancient Church led to the formal understandings of the Nicene and Chalcedonian Councils, in which we say that Jesus is at once fully God and fully human.  Predating the formal theological definitions, we have St. Paul's conception of humans as the Body of Christ (e.g., 1 Corinthians, 12).  Because we maintain that humans are meant to be the Body of Christ, when we say Incarnation (the Word become flesh) we not only proclaim that Jesus is God, but we also must say that all humans are intended to be brought into the fullness of God in Christ.  We are called to be co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), to be his brothers and sisters, to be members of God's Body, "growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:15).  We have come to believe that we cannot say God has become flesh without saying that we are called to be included in this Flesh.  As the inscription below a handless statue of Jesus in a small Mexican village says, we are God's hands.

This is a crucial understanding.  If Jesus is the only one in whom God becomes flesh, then Incarnation is a radical event of two thousand years ago--and central to us as an impulse to religion for that reason.  But this religion would be constrained in history in a way that would make it a different Christianity.  Here we see part of St. Paul's genius.  He saw and proclaimed that Incarnation lives also in us; going so far as to say about himself:  "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20); and, "In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body" (Colossians 1:24).  Christianity has come to see that the fundamental calling of being human is to be the Incarnation now. The Christ-event happened once, and continues happening.  Every moment is full of the continual Christ-event in this way.  This is a fundamental underpinning of Christianity as living religion.

But what exactly does it mean to be incarnate?  Focusing again on the person of Jesus: he ate food, he breathed air and drank water, he eliminated material wastes and gave off energy in the form of heat.  This is where modern ecosystem science comes into play.  There is no way for any living creature to be isolated from other creatures and from the inanimate world.  Life as we know it means that we are in a flow of energy and materials--into us as creatures and out from us as creatures--and that the inanimate world is very much a part of this flow.  On the earth as a whole, the energy that drives virtually the entire life system comes from the sun.  Within this system there are smaller-order exchanges of energy and materials; for example, carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged as animals and plants respire and photosynthesize, minerals from decaying organic matter become nutrients that are brought back into living form through plants and the animals that consume the plants.  There is no way for Jesus to become incarnate, to become flesh, without being fully engaged in this web of flows.  To be fully flesh, he had to have lived as all living creatures live.  This ecological understanding does not exhaust the theological implications of Incarnation; in particular, its focus on God's radical presence in Creation has no claim on the equally radical "otherness" of God to Creation – God's transcendence.  But modern scientific knowledge of ecosystem dynamics insists that this understanding must be part of what it means to be truly flesh.  So, while Christianity has long understood that humans must be brought into what it means to be Incarnate, there is a similar "bringing in" that must happen with the entire rest of Creation.  In this way, the fish that Jesus ate, the grain that he consumed, the water he drank, the air that he breathed and exhaled, all of these interactions mean that the entire environment in which he lived is necessarily brought into the Incarnation.  Going further, the scientific understandings of cosmogenesis and stellar formation of heavier elements require that the entire Cosmos be brought in as well, since these are the physical bases of Earth's ecosystems.  We are the Body of Christ, and the rest of Creation, we now must say, is the Rest of the Body of Christ.

The triangle of Incarnation.  As Christians, when we say Incarnation we start and end with Jesus.  However, for two millennia we have viewed the Incarnate One as reaching out to an inclusion of all humans, and now we must complete the picture by seeing this reaching out extending to the rest of Creation.  Picturing this visually, we have had a line, connecting Jesus with us as humans.  We now have another line that connects Jesus and the non-human part of Creation, which also must be part of his Body if we are going to be honest to what we know in the science of these days.  And since we as humans participate in the economy of nature, just as Jesus did, then there is also a line between humans and the rest of Creation.  So we have a triangle:  at one pole we have Jesus, at a second pole we have humans, and at a third, co-equal pole we have the rest of Creation--the second and third poles "leaning into" the first, as Christ and the Holy Spirit lean toward the Father in traditional icons of the Holy Trinity. This triangle is now the "picture" we have in mind when we say Incarnation.

Such a model of Incarnation, of course, has ancient resonances, but it is fair to say that it has not been at the center of "applied Christianity".  Nevertheless, "extended" views of the Incarnate One have constituted a crucial branch of Christian vision, a branch which in our times needs to be allowed to grow, perhaps to become the main stem.  In Scripture we see a related wideness in places such as the great hymn in the first chapter of Colossians; "He (Christ) is before all things, and in him all things are held together [or 'are maintained in their being']" (Col 1:17).  We also see it in the Gospel of John in the very beginning of the first chapter; "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…through him were made all things that were made, and without [or 'outside of'] him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:1-3).  We see it in Ephesians; "[God proposes] to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under [or ‘in’] one head, even Christ" (Eph 1:10).  These, and other visions in Scripture bring before us what has been called in the modern day the Cosmic Christ.  This is a very good term, because it views Christ as both expressing and enfolding the entire Creation in God's fullness.

What Incarnation demands of us – Ethics.  When we take this view of Incarnation, it demands a radical reorientation of our vision, and it demands a radical reorientation of our way of living – our action.  As we have long understood, every time we look at another human being we are looking at a person called to be an embodiment of Christ, and how we treat that person is how we treat Christ (cf. Matthew 25:40, 45).  This is a great opportunity; it is a great calling; it is a great measurement of our success or failure to be people who live in love.  In our own times in the United States, the Civil Rights movement has been based, in part, in a Christian religious standpoint:  in the understanding that all people are Jesus' brothers and sisters, that all people are God's children.  Throughout the world we now know that racism is a sin; we also know that any taking of the Earth's resources by one group such that it impoverishes another group is not only an offense against humans, it is also an offense against the Body of Christ, an offense against the Incarnation.  The same is true for the rest of Creation in this "Triangle Theology".  When we make it so that the rest of Creation cannot live its life of God, its being as part of Incarnation, then we are killing the Incarnate One.  In the most direct sense possible, what we do to the rest of Creation is what we do to God.  Christ cannot be human unless the entire Creation is taken into what it means to say God becomes Flesh.  How we treat this Flesh is, by its very nature, how we treat Him, or Her.

To end, I offer a confession and a petition for the grace to live lives that honor the Flesh of God in Creation: 

Loving God, we have sinned; we miss the mark; we do not treat your entire Creation as Your Body, as Your coming into Flesh.  We do not treat each other this way, we do not treat the rest of Creation this way. 

Yet we also have visions of Glory.  We fall in love with each other.  We fall in love with the sky, we love greenness, we have awe of cold harsh days and hot humid days.  We sense the grandeur of your Presence, and we see You and come to know You. 

We know that we find You in Your Creation.  We know that You go beyond these boundaries of abstraction that we create.  Help us come out of sin into this Glory once again. 

The whole Earth needs it.  We need it.  May we have your Grace to live anew.

(© Eugene R. Wahl, 1999)

COMMENT 1     One criticism that I have received about Triangle Theology is that it incorrectly sees St. Paul as viewing the Incarnation as being intended to include all people in the Body of Christ.  It is clear that Paul is often talking to, and about, the specific body of believers when he is developing his Corpus Christi theology; for example, when he expands in lengthy discourse on the Church community (the ecclesia) as the body of Christ in First Corinthians 12.  However, it is also clear that Paul sees the mission of the Church to reach out of itself in this relation, to attempt to offer its immeasurable richness (Colossians 1:27) to all people.  This seems to be transparent in the apostle's own words, "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some" (First Corinthians 9:22).  It is also shown by his action, his life mission all over the eastern Mediterranean, to gentiles as well as to Jews, about which so much of his writing is concerned.  Of course, Paul recognized that the riches of grace will be flatly rejected by some, and it is known throughout history that acceptance itself is in constant need of further grace to be continued and fully developed.  Nevertheless, Paul desired to do as much as was within his personal "arm's reach" to bring the Word (both the story and the full Logos) to all people, which to me is a large part of what being a "living member" of the Body of Christ  (1979 American Book of Common Prayer, post-Communion prayer) is all about.  I do not believe it is an invalid interpretation of St. Paul to see part of his genius in developing the Body of Christ theology, and that in his spiritual vision he saw this to be intended as the deepest way of humanity for all people.

COMMENT 2     A second criticism I have received regarding this theology is that it does not adequately consider the ancient doctrine of "once for all" (in Greek ephapax and  hapax).  In its most literal form, this doctrine--outlined in Romans (6:10), Hebrews (7:27, 9:12, 9:26, 10:10), and 1st Peter (3:18)--strictly emphasizes the historic facts of the events of Jesus' life as the occurrence and of God's Incarnation.  This understanding, which has been emphasized by some Protestant theologians, is certainly incompatible with the view of Incarnation I have offered here, and I have a responsibility to offer another valid way to see the meaning of "once for all" in this "Triangle Theology".

Another way to look at the context of "once for all" emphasizes that the claim of faith which calls Jesus the Christ, the Logos, must be based in both his life in Palestine and in the ever-continuous work of God at all times and in all places.  In much the same way that the sacraments can be looked at as "focus events", focusing for us the sacredness of God's presence in all times and places (and thereby calling to us to honor this sacredness in every moment of our lives), the specific historical events of Jesus' life are a focus of the creating, reconciling, and consummating work of God that is always occurring, at once in time, throughout time, and beyond time.  When the "once for all" of the events of Jesus' life is placed in this broader perspective, the objection to the continuing view of Incarnation offered here from the doctrine of ephapax is removed.  In fact, "once and for all" seen in such a broader way is a description of exactly the kind of dynamic in which Incarnation is viewed in Triangle Theology:  the once necessarily "draws in" the all, and the all in its complete fullness is simultaneously "shooting into" the once.

[The views of the meaning of ephapax offered here are indebted to the theology of John Macquarrie, especially in chapter 13 of his Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd ed., (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977), and to the sacramental theology of Robert Taft, S.J., in his Liturgy of the Hours in the East and West (The Liturgical Press).  Macquarrie is perhaps the greatest Anglican systematic theologian of the Twentieth Century, and it is his argument for the acceptance of a more universal view of the meaning of "once and for all" that I take as more normative for Episcopalians than more strictly literal understandings of this doctrine.]

COMMENT 3     In Comment 2, I make a point of emphasizing the theology of John Macquarrie as important in my own thinking--particularly in developing an understanding of the "once for all" of Christ that can be validly reflected when we say the entire creation is drawn into the "Word became Flesh".  Since Macquarrie is perhaps the most important Anglican systematic theologian of the Twentieth Century, it is my responsibility to access him in ways honest to his thinking and not merely "pull out" portions of his work that fit my purpose while not mentioning others that do not.  In this vein, it gives me pause to consider Macquarrie's fuller conception of Christ and Incarnation, which is very much focused on the particular creativity and freedom of humankind as the most adequate locus for God's self-expression in Incarnation.  (cf. chapters 6 & 12, Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd ed.)  Clearly, I am making a claim in Triangle Theology that moves beyond the kind of specificity to humanity that Macquarrie develops.

For Macquarrie the issue revolves in part around the capacity of humans to more than simply be, but also to let be, in a way that he judges to be much more free than any other life-form we know.  Since "letting be" is the very essence of "Holy Being", which is synonymous with God in Macquarrie's thought (chapter 5), the particular being in which God can most fully self-manifest is necessarily a human person.  I do not disagree with Macquarrie's thinking that leads him to see God as Holy Being; I find this conception beautiful and moving.  I do think that Macquarrie's anthropology of human persons needs to be widened to break down barriers between humans and the rest of nature, based in exactly the same ecosystem perspective outlined above in relation to Jesus as Christ.  Yes we are unique, so in one sense Macquarrie is correct, yet we also are radically enmeshed with the rest of nature, and Macquarrie's particularity about the character of human being seems too tightly drawn.  It is also possible that human freedom may not be as signal a characteristic as it is often made out to be.  Other life forms (such as primates, dolphins and parrots) are now known to exhibit intelligence comparable to human children, and some scientists speculate about possible (very slow) analogs to  neural networks being exhibited by the interconnections of plants through their roots and root fungi and by the exchanging of genetic material by bacteria.  We simply are not so unique, and the special adequacy of humans as the particular "place" in which Incarnation could be most fully manifest is probably better viewed as something we share with nature at large.

I do not mean to "paint" Macquarrie too narrowly here, because I find much in his theology of creation that has steered me towards the view of Incarnation I outline here.  In particular, Macquarrie strongly emphasizes that God's transcendence of creation can never be separated from God's equal immanence in creation.  He explicitly embraces panentheism (all things in God) as a word that expresses this dual emphasis, and some of his language is striking in describing how closely united he sees transcendence and immanence:

When I first linked Macquarrie's insistence on the deep mutuality of God's immanence and transcendence with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's simple words, "One of the first theological statements must remain, that where God is, he is totally there," the foundations for the view of Incarnation I have offered here were laid.  In Triangle Theology, I have developed it in the form of extending St. Paul's image of the Body of Christ by considering what ecosystem science tells us about what it means to be "flesh", and I have mentioned the work of Sallie McFague as an influence, but its genesis came from musing on Macquarrie and Bonhoeffer's thinking.  Since I first read them, their theologies have continually made claims on my life as a Christian believer, and eventually this relation prompted me to ask what the "bottom-up" perspectives that come from ecosystem science might mean for helping to better appropriate the awesome reality of God Incarnate.

[Bonhoeffer's quote comes from Christ the Center, translated by Edwin H. Robertson, Harper and Row (paperback edition), 1978, p. 97.]

References and Acknowledgments

It is not possible in a brief format to list the works of the many authors whose thinking relates to the ideas presented here.  Instead, I will mention a few writers whose work has particularly stimulated my thinking, or who set forth related ideas of “extended Incarnation” (often developed more from a form of theological or philosophical consideration of the intimacy of God and Creation, in contrast to the “bottom up” approach developed here).  I also include one notable writer who takes a more traditional approach to the relationship of God and Nature that would argue against my ideas.
Stimulating Thought:  Matthew Fox, John Macquarrie, Thomas Berry, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Sallie McFague (in particular, I see this essay as a way of extending McFague’s work in The Body of God, where she sets forth an ecological conception of the radicalizing of Incarnation to include the entire cosmos) 
Related Thought: Jay McDaniel, David Ray Griffin, Robert Taft, Lionel Thornton, Grace Jantzen, Arthur Peacocke, Maurice Wiles, Symeon “the new theologian”
[inclusion above does not imply complete consonance with the ideas presented here]
Contrary Thought:   John Polkinghorne

Gratitude for review of the manuscript:  Barbara Dumke, Paul Nancarrow, Christine Douglas


Article © Eugene R. Wahl, 1997, 1999, and 2000.  Please contact Eugene Wahl for permission to reproduce in any form and please list the URL to this article when reproducing it.

The above painting, Christ of the Desert, © 1990 Robert Lentz and used with permission of Trinity Stores, PO Box 44944, Eden Prairie, MN 55344-2644

Additional graphics pending.

To other works on this website by the Rev Dr Eugene Wahl

The Rev Dr Eugene Wahl, the founding Chair of the Environmental Stewardship Commission, works at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO; focusing on the impacts of climate change and paleo-environmental reconstruction.  He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in paleoecology and conservation biology.  Please address your comments or additional reflections to Eugene Wahl or any MEESC member or write to:
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