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Jason Lief
 on June 14, 2017

Blood Red Scars: Incarnation, Evolution, and Self Harm

Can a theological interpretation of evolution help young people embrace their embodied existence in healthier, more positive, ways?


I could tell she was embarrassed. Not because of the scars on her arms, but because they always required an explanation. I didn’t ask, however, and she didn’t tell.

Eventually, her youth pastor told me what was going on and asked if I had any insights to offer. With issues like this I usually defer to counselors and psychologists, many of whom talk about dissociation—the disconnection of feelings and thought processes from embodied experience. This happens when, because of abuse or traumatic experiences, a person no longer sees their body as part of their core identity. The self harm that often results is interpreted as either a disregard for the body they don’t recognize as their own, or, it is viewed as a misguided attempt to reclaim the body through a process of painful marking.

As a practical theologian, it’s my job to ask theological questions about pastoral situations. Questions like this: How does our theological language contribute to a form of dissociation? Sometimes the Christian desire for spirituality or heaven leads to distorted views of embodied life. When this happens, embodied life becomes secondary to what are thought to be higher, more spiritual, things. While this is distortion of Christian belief, the Christian community must always find ways to affirm embodied life at a time when human identity is increasingly virtual. Maybe Darwin can help. Can a theological interpretation of evolution help young people embrace their embodied existence in healthier, more positive, ways?

The incarnation is often understood as a response to sin—God became human to appease some form of divine wrath or to satisfy some higher form of divine justice. This interpretation is found in the work of theologians like Anselm of Canterbury, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, but it’s also biblical. In his letters, Paul frames the work of Christ on the cross in the terms of sacrifice, appeasement, and justification. Just so I’m clear, my purpose isn’t to question substitutionary atonement; I am interested, however, to explore how this view plays out in the life of the church, and how it can be misunderstood.

One pitfall is the tendency to disconnect the incarnation from a doctrine of creation, which in turn can lead to the elevation of the spiritual over the material. In this view, creation is important—we’re not “Gnostics” after all—but only as a backdrop for the more important work of salvation. This can lead to a theological form of dissociation in which embodied existence is, at best, secondary to spirituality, or at worst, conflated with sin. Salvation, in this context, is understood as a hyper spiritual desire for an unattainable form of perfection. Think about the lived experience of young people, and all the ways they are encouraged to break away from the boundaries of embodied life. It’s easy to blame Instagram or iPhones, but an important question for the Christian community is whether our theology make this worse.

In Christ in Evolution, Franciscan theologian Ilia Delio sets the incarnation within a Trinitarian understanding of creation as a loving act of self-disclosure. This means that creation is an expression of divine love, which reaches its climax in the incarnation. Delio re-frames the evolutionary process as an integral part of this revelation through the emergence of life and self-consciousness, which she sees as the fulfillment of God’s presence within creation and as the ultimate mark of the image of God upon the cosmos. In this context, evolution is no longer driven by violence or chance. Instead, it becomes an expression of freedom and diversity that is only possible through the revelation of divine love.

So, what does this have to do with cutting, youth ministry, and pastoral care? Because the incarnation is often viewed as a tool to deal with sin, the gospel message is reduced to being saved from a sinful, corrupt, human (material?) existence. The unintended consequence of this is that embodied existence—sexuality, work, play, etc.—is set over and against the spiritual—prayer, worship, love of God, etc.—which gives embodied life a secondary status. While most Christians affirm a doctrine of creation, the material, embodied life is often seen as less spiritual, or in some cases sinful. This is the message our young people hear, and this has contributed to the alienation of young people from their embodied life.

So how might this incarnational approach to evolution make a difference in the field of youth ministry?

  1. A positive incarnational approach to evolution invites young people to see all of creation as an outworking of God’s love. In The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Delio interprets the evolutionary process as proof that the cosmos is marked by love and relationality. She writes, “Evolution unveils a depth of integrated wholeness that is open to more unity, centricity, and consciousness. Love is not the sheer emotion or simply a dopaminergic surge in the limbic system; it is much more deeply embedded in the fabric of the universe” (p.44). What this means is that far from the stereotypical view of evolution as cold, harsh, and directionless, Delio believes that evolutionary theory reveals a cosmos that is a deeply interconnected web of relationships. Thus, evolution holds the tension between diversity and unity, a mark of trinitarian identity. Delio also insists that evolution is directed toward self expression (human consciousness) which is the foundation for love and relationality. This approach helps young people see their embodied life, not as a body / soul duality, but as a unified expression of God’s love. They need to hear the good news that God loves their quirky differences, and their imperfections (which are not imperfect in a sinful sense). Young people need to hear how they are never more a sign of God’s image than when they are playing, working, or celebrating.
  1. An incarnational approach to evolution can help the Christian community minister to young people by opening them up to the relational nature of human identity. Evolution shows us how we are part of the intricate web of creation, providing scientific support for the theological understanding of the image of God as fundamentally relational. In this context evolution directly intersects with Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor, which has the potential to transform how youth ministry frames mission trips, service projects, and outreach to the broader community. Here we see how both science and theology point to a human identity informed by relationality, as we receive the revelation of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ and what it means to fully live into our embodied existence as a new creation.
  1. An incarnational approach to evolution can help young people make peace with the finite nature of their humanity. An important part of this is the recognition that to be human is to be “on the way”; we are not finished, and we are not perfect in some abstract sense. Our finitude is, as Genesis puts it, “good” as God calls us in Jesus Christ to become who God wants us to be. In the same way, God calls the entire cosmos into a playful dance of love and meaning, which is to say that the cosmos is not fixed, but is “on the way”. Evolution affirms the unique becoming of creatures and processes in relation to each other, as they are called into a new future with new forms of life. This, for Delio, is the core of the gospel, as the crucifixion becomes the ground from which resurrection breaks forth—the old giving birth to the new. As Paul indicates in Galatians 3:28, we are no longer determined by our past—our cultural identity, our gender, or social status—our identity is found in a future opened by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Ilia Delio’s work provides a helpful resource for youth ministry to bring scientific questions to bear on the lived experience of young people in the West. If the cosmos is, as Delio describes, an expression of God’s love, then youth ministry must help young people reconcile their identity with embodied life. Through this type of creative dialogue, it is possible for theology and science to imagine a new way of being in the world shaped by relationality and love. This is good news that young people in the West desperately need to hear.

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