Suffering, Joy, and Incarnate Presence

“I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” With this, John closed the third New Testament epistle that bears his name. The letter is nearly 1,900 years old, yet the sentiment is entirely recognizable. In fact, many of us have likely expressed similar sentiments; only for us it was more likely an electronic medium that we preferred to forego in favor of face to face communication. There are things better said in person; and, clearly, this is not an insight stumbled upon by digital-weary interlocutors of the 21st century.

Yet, John did pen his letter. There were things the medium would not convey well, but he said all that could be said with pen and ink. He recognized the limits of the medium and used it accordingly, but he did not disparage the medium for its limits. Pen and ink were no less authentic, no less real, nor were they deemed unnatural. They were simply inadequate given whatever it was that John wanted to communicate. For that, the fullness of embodied presence was deemed necessary. It was, I think, a practical application of a theological conviction which John had elsewhere memorably articulated.

In the first chapter of his Gospel, John wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” It is a succinct statement of the doctrine of the incarnation, what Christians around the world celebrate at Christmas time. The work of God required the embodiment of divine presence. Words were not enough, and so the Word became flesh. He wept with those who mourned, he took the hand of those no others would touch, he broke bread and ate with outcasts, and he suffered. All of this required the fullness of embodied presence. John understood this, and it became a salient feature of his theology.

For my part, these thoughts have been passing in and out of mind inchoately and inarticulately since the Newtown shooting, and specifically as I thought about the responses to the shooting throughout our media environment. I was troubled by the urge to post some reaction to the shooting, but, initially, I don’t think I fully understood what troubled me. At first, it was the sense that I should say something, but I’ve come to believe that it was rather that I should say something.

Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something struck me as an unjustifiably self-indulgent. I still believe this to be part of the larger picture, but there was more. Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something pointed to the limitations of the media through which we have been accustomed to interacting with the world. As large as images loom on digital media, the word is still prominent. For the most part, if we are to interact with the world through digital media, we must use our words.

We know, however, that our words often fail us and prove inadequate in the face of the most profound human experiences, whether tragic, ecstatic, or sublime. And yet it is in those moments, perhaps especially in those moments, that we feel the need to exist (for lack of a better word), either to comfort or to share or to participate. But the medium best suited for doing so is the body, and it is the body that is, of necessity, abstracted from so much of our digital interaction with the world. With our bodies we may communicate without speaking. It is a communication by being and perhaps also doing, rather than by speaking.

Of course, embodied presence may seem, by comparison to its more disembodied counterparts, both less effectual and more fraught with risk. Embodied presence enjoys none of the amplification that technologies of communication afford. It cannot, after all, reach beyond the immediate place and time.  And it is vulnerable presence. Embodied presence involves us with others, often in unmanageable, messy ways that are uncomfortable and awkward. But that awkwardness is also a measure of the power latent in embodied presence.

Embodied presence also liberates us from the need to prematurely reach for rational explanation and solutions — for an answer. If I can only speak, then the use of words will require me to search for sense. Silence can contemplate the mysterious, the absurd, and the act of grace, but words must search for reasons and fixes. This is, in its proper time, not an entirely futile endeavor; but its time is usually not in the aftermath. In the aftermath of the tragic, when silence and “being with” and touch may be the only appropriate responses, then only embodied presence will do. Its consolations are irreducible. This, I think, is part of the meaning of the Incarnation: the embrace of the fullness of our humanity.

Words and the media that convey them, of course, have their place, and they are necessary and sometimes good and beautiful besides. But words are often incomplete, insufficient. We cannot content ourselves with being the “disincarnate users” of electronic media that McLuhan worried about, nor can we allow the assumptions and priorities of disincarnate media to constrain our understanding of what it means to be human in this world.

At the close of the second epistle that bears his name, John also wrote, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” But in this case, he added one further clause. “Instead,” he continued, “I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Joy completed. Whatever it might mean for our joy to be completed, it is a function of embodied presence with all of its attendant risks and limitations.

May your joy be complete.

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5 thoughts on “Suffering, Joy, and Incarnate Presence

  1. I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now and have enjoyed almost every post you’ve crafted, but up until this point haven’t felt much of a reason to leave a reply to any of your offerings – until now. I think this post is fantastic, like many of your posts, and I just wanted to let you know.

    “Silence can contemplate the mysterious, the absurd and the act of grace, but words must search for reasons and fixes.”

    Sometimes silence really is our best disposition.

  2. Beautiful piece, Michael especially apropos to the tragedy of Newtown.

    What we disembody and put into words without our presence to convey more, we “abstract” to at least some degree from the more profound human feeling — visceral and felt in so many more ways than just words — and in so doing lose a critical path to both understanding and healing thoroughly and spiritually. And soon that “abstracted” distance will allow us to move away too easily from actually deconstructing and honestly facing and truly problem-solving what we can in such a tragedy, — to truly learn the message it is trying to convey — and thus at least try to avoid its repetition in the future.

    Motivation is often driven most profoundly by emotion and thus abstracting away from that emotion, discounting those moments when the truth of our state is so painfully revealed to us that we must face it and act, has a deeply dangerous result on a society blithely invalidating this dangerous aspect of printed and technological communication alone or predominantly. It certainly seems to have a chilling effect on the moral “force” these deep feelings alert us to with such emotional clarity and subsequently too often allows us to rationalize away our increasing moral failure to act, despite so many more of us being allowed to “tweet” our deep moral concern. And change nothing.

    Thank you for the words, Michael. As a teacher myself, they conveyed more understanding of what I am most profoundly shaken by in our “responses” to such horror, widely shared but too often ineffectual in preventing the next.

    But I still would have preferred a hug. :-)

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