Whenever her mother switched off the light and said goodnight, the little girl broke into sobs of terror. “Don’t leave me, Mommy!” she cried. So, the mother, being a religious woman, tried to reassure her daughter. “There’s nothing to be afraid of in the darkness,” she said. “God is with you!” “I know,” said the little girl. “But, I need someone with skin on!”
It is a strange feature of much of contemporary spirituality that we simultaneously act as if God is nothing more than a cosmic buddy, while denying that God could ever have “skin on”. We tend to think of God as distant, separate, non-material, and unaffected by the physical universe, even as we believe that God can affect our world in response to our
Perhaps one word, drawn from the Christian tradition, can offer an alternative view of the divine: incarnation. This word speaks of embodiment, of the divine being manifest in (human) flesh. But, incarnation does not mean what we have come to think it means.
This is how incarnation is usually presented: The one true God, endeavouring to save humanity, chose to become human in a single, unrepeatable event in history, living in first century Palestine as the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth.
This view of incarnation may be helpful in a limited way, but to recognise incarnation as a universal phenomenon built into the fabric of the cosmos offers so much more. This expanded perspective reveals that there have been, and continue to be, billions of incarnations which can be understood in three ways:
- The Cosmos as Incarnation: The physical universe didn’t come into existence as a separate reality from the divine life. Rather, the cosmos is an expression of the divine life. God (however we may understand that word) is incarnated in the entire cosmos and lives within it all.
- The Jesus Event as Incarnation: Rather than seeing Jesus as an exclusive, once-off historical event, we can recognise the human Jesus as an archetype (to borrow from Richard Rohr’s thinking). The incarnation of the Christ in Jesus is a sign that reveals what is true of the universe, and for every human being.
- Every Creature as Incarnation: Every creature is in its own unique way a manifestation of divine life and an embodiment of Spirit.
Over the years this expanded incarnational understanding has given birth to a new word in the theological vocabulary: panentheism. Panentheism is the idea that God is in all things, and all things are in God. There is an inseparable connection between God and the physical universe. It is not that everything is God. But, that God is the whole, the entire universe, all consciousness, Spirit, energy, matter, and light. But, each part of this whole is also a little incarnation, a manifestation of the whole in the part.
LIVING AN INCARNATIONAL SPIRITUALITY
It can be deeply liberating and transforming to shift from thinking about God as disembodied, separate, and unaffected by the cosmos to an incarnational experience of God as described here. To make this shift is to encounter a God with skin on—the skin of the trees, birds, and sunlight that surround us; the skin of the people we live and work with, of the ones who love us and reveal goodness, truth, and beauty to us. And it is even the skin that covers our own bodies and souls. Take a moment and let that sink in.
- What is your response to the idea of God with skin on?
- How can you make incarnational thinking and experience more a part of your lived spirituality?
- What does it mean to you to think of yourself as a little incarnation?
Why not share your thoughts in the comments?
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