From the Renovaré Newsletter Archive

The selection below is from a July 1996 Renovaré newsletter. Download a PDF of the original newsletter.

In this issue we are giving attention to incarnational living.” This is a matter we will return to in an even more intensive way in a future issue of Perspectives—likely next spring or summer. We are talking about how our life with God penetrates all we are and all we do. In this regard you will want to give special attention to the two books we are featuring in this issue, The Reflective Executive: A Spirituality of Business and Enterprise and Messengers of God: The Sensuous Side of Spirituality. But first things first. To rightly understand incarnational living, we first need a proper understanding of the material world and our place in it.

A Good Earth

Christianity is the most materialistic of the world’s religions; that is, it takes material things seriously as created goods God has given us to enjoy. The Christian faith does not, as is so often the case in Eastern religions, dismiss material things as inconsequential, or worse yet, as genuinely evil. The stuff of the material world — what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called holy matter” — was created by God and he declares it to be good, very good (Gen. 1:25, 31). Material goods are meant to enhance human life.

Deuteronomy 16:15 is typical of dozens of similar statements, The Lord your God will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.” Note that the rejoicing is because of the abundant provision from the hand of God. The New Testament picks up this same theme of God’s loving provision for his children. Jesus reminds us that as we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, we are more adequately cared for than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matt. 6:25 – 34).

Strange Distortions

Having said this, I must warn of the way by which people have taken the gracious teaching of Scripture on the goodness of creation and twisted it into a thing of their own. Animistic religions, for example, will invariably gravitate toward a deification of the material world and end up worshiping it. Today, Western culture is witnessing something of a revival of the ancient animistic religions.

But distortions occur in the Christian faith as well. Some, having never understood the biblical stress upon the goodness of the material world, take on a consuming asceticism that rejects the world, seeing it in opposition to true spirituality. Still others have turned Scripture’s teaching on God’s gracious provision for us into a religion of personal peace and prosperity, crudely stated, Love Jesus and get rich.”

A Limited Good

What we need to see is that the material world is a limited good — limited in the sense that we cannot make a life out of it. But, you see, we were never intended to make a life out of material things, because material things were never intended to function independently of God and his other created realities. No, we are created so as to receive life from God, who is Spirit, and to express that life through our bodies and in the material world in which we live. The spiritual and the physical are not in opposition to one another, but are complementary. Far from being evil, the physical is meant to be inhabited by the spiritual.

Redeemed by God through Christ, we are indwelt by the Spirit and experience a growing transformation of character as we use our bodies to come into a working harmony with the Spirit. Hence our embodied self becomes a portable sanctuary, and we learn throughout our daily activities and interactions how to function in cooperation with and in dependence upon the Spirit. Through time and experience we discover that everywhere we go is holy ground,” everything we do is consecrated activity,” and everything we think and say is sanctified communication.” The jagged line dividing the sacred and the secular must be erased for there simply is nothing that is outside the realm of God’s purview and care. This is incarnational living.”

Peace and joy,

Richard J. Foster

One of the best ways we can grasp the idea of an incarnational lifestyle” is to look at people in the past who have blazed the trail ahead of us and have shared their journey with us. I list for your growth and reading selected individuals, along with some of their writings, that are shining examples. 

John Woolman

John Woolman is, for me, perhaps the most stellar example of how this way of living actually works. Others have felt the same. Charles Lamb intones, The only American book I ever read twice was the Journal of Woolman.… Get the writings of John Woolman by heart.” Emerson agreed — I find more wisdom in these pages than in any other book written since the days of the apostles.” 

Why would an eighteenth-century Quaker tailor, businessman, and minister of Christ engender such comments? Find out for yourself by reading The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. I recommend the Phillips P. Moulton edition.

Russian Authors

Those who wove their Christianity throughout a literary life are many and varied. For novelists we can do no better than turn to the Russians, in particular, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and in our day Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are philosophical detective stories in which both the murderer and the meaning of life are simultaneously pursued. His novel The Idiot gives us an engaging Christ-figure in Prince Mishkin (you see, the Forrest Gump character is nothing new) and asks the penetrating question of all who blithely conform to contemporary societal norms, Who is the real idiot?” 

Tolstoy is known for War and Peace and Anna Karenina in which he engages us in the great struggles of human souls from war to peace and love — love between men and women, love of country, and supremely Christian love. But I must admit I am not as intrigued with Tolstoy as a writer as I am with him as a tortured, struggling soul himself. And I am touched by his support of a small Russian sect, the Dukhobors, whom I had brief contact with as a college student. 

Solzhenitsyn ranks with the other two both as a literary figure and for the way he integrates his Christian witness into the very warp and woof of who he is and what he writes. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and The Gulag Archipelago will startle you, disturb you, and deepen you.

Dorothy Sayers

I like Dorothy Sayers for the way she could with equal ease write masterful detective fiction and powerful Christian apologetics in her plays and essays. Her detective stories with their amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey are rated by those who know about these things (I’m not qualified) as among the classics of the genre, being outstanding for their well-researched backgrounds, distinguished style, observant characterizations, and ingenious plotting. Her play The Man Born To Be King and essays — Towards a Christian Aesthetic” and The Mind of the Maker” — are all worth careful attention.

Johann Sebastian Bach

When we turn to music, there simply is no better example of incarnational living than Johann Sebastian Bach. Arguably the greatest composer ever, Bach wrote over three hundred cantatas which include five complete cycles in the Lutheran Church year. He wrote music of all kinds, and in each case he discretely indicated his dependence upon God. At the beginning of each work he would jot the letters J. J. (Jesu Juva, Jesus Help) or I. N. J. (In Nomine Jesu, In the Name of Jesus). At the end of each piece he often wrote S. D. G. (Solo Deo Gloria, To the Glory of God Alone). At the bottom of his Little Organ Book he wrote For the glory of the most high God alone. And for my neighbor to learn from.” 

For listening pleasure the Mass in B Minor, St. Matthew’s Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, and a variety of the Cantatas are good places to begin. (John Rutter’s renditions are excellent.) For reading enjoyment you might consider Albert Schweitzer’s J. S. Bach and his Bach’s Complete Organ Works. Or you might want to look at Bach Among the Theologians by Jaroslav Pelikan.

Susanna Wesley

One more example of incarnational living will have to suffice — Susanna Wesley. Here was a brilliant woman (she learned Greek, Latin, and French in her teens) who devoted herself to home and family — she had nineteen children. The whole household life moved as if to a timetable under Susanna’s leadership. She provided weekly one-on-one time with each child; Thursday afternoon was the appointed hour for time with her son John who was destined to found and lead the great Methodist movement that has so profoundly influenced the whole of Christian history. 

Another son, Charles, was to become the celebrated hymn writer that gave Methodists — indeed the whole Christian world — a wealth of hymns and songs. And it was Susannah that provided them with the intellectual development and spiritual discipline necessary for their great work. 

To learn more about Susanna, I suggest W. L. Doughty’s The Prayers of Susanna Wesley, Susanna Wesley by Arnold A. Dallimore, and Susanna Wesley: God’s Catalyst for Revival by Donald L. Kline.

And Many Others…

Space hinders my continuing. I could just as quickly written about Michelangelo and Chaucer and Rembrandt and T. S. Eliot and Sir Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson and William Wilburforce and so many others. These sterling examples of how to incarnate Christian witness into all walks of life are powerfully instructive as we seek to be faithful to Christ where we live day by day

Going Deeper

We feature in this issue two hard-to-find books that we believe need to be brought to the attention of the reading public — both dealing with aspects of incarnational living.”

The first—The Reflective Executive: A Spirituality of Business and Enterprise—is written by one of our Renovaré team members, Emilie Griffin. Moving beyond religious dressing over the marketplace, she delves into the soul of business and enterprise: To restructure the marketplace according to God’s design for us is more than a matter of Bibles on desktops and times set aside for prayer during the business day. Although these signs of spirituality are worthwhile, they are still no more than random leaves of grass cropping up through the cracks of Wall Street.”

It is a joy to hear Griffin’s own stories developing advertising campaigns for companies like ALCOA Aluminum and Ivory Soap; equally enjoyable are the stories she tells of J. C. Penney, S. W. Graham, and others. Most of all I am encouraged by her call for a kind of entrepreneurial, even a corporate, poetics” which can envision how commerce might make the world better instead of worse, might lift the yoke of oppression and break the bonds, if not of political, then at least of economic enslavement.”

Arthur O. Roberts is a former philosophy professor of mine, and he kindly invited me to write the Foreword to his new book, Messengers of God: The Sensuous Side of Spirituality. Dr. Roberts sees the senses as the of messengers of God” especially when reason interrogates the senses.” By senses” he is referring literally to our hearing and seeing and smelling and tasting and touching. Perhaps few of us have thought of these everyday experiences as having much to do with spiritual life. But Arthur Roberts seems them as crucial. A practical spirituality,” he writes, acknowledges that God is in the communications loop made possible by our senses.”

With the skill of one at home in the contrasting worlds of science and poetry, he has taken masses of technical data about the senses and makes them understandable to us, even significant. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Arthur Roberts invites us into a way of living that is world affirming and life giving. It is a way that involves the intelligent interrogation of the senses acknowledged as the messengers of God, with appropriate disciplines to follow. A spiritual life can be a sensory life, but it need not be a vain and extravagant one.” This is a way of living worth our best efforts. Messengers of God will help chart our course.

Text First Published July 1996