One of the vocabulary words that came up in my English class today was “embody” or “embodiment.” Embodiment, as my fellow native English speakers know, involves making tangible and visible something that is invisible, something which perhaps exists only in the realm of ideas. When something is embodied, it is given a “body”—something which can be touched and seen.
I put a couple students on the spot. I suggested that (student) was a very sweet girl, and gathered support on this point from other students. I told them that if one wanted a concrete picture of what “sweetness” meant, they should simply look at (student). “She is the embodiment of sweetness,” I suggested.
I also suggested that (other student) was a person filled with love—admitting to his classmates in jest that I could be wrong but to just go with it and give him the benefit of the doubt. J “Let’s say (other student) is kind, compassionate, thoughtful, generous, self-sacrificing; if we really wanted to praise him, we might say he is the embodiment of love.” I told them that to understand what love looks like, we should look no further than (other student) for a glimpse of such love.
Now I was being a little overdramatic to make a point. But the concept I was driving at while glorifying two of my students is actually a key concept and reality of my religious faith and thus a very natural thing for me to talk about.
First, I understand Christ to be an embodiment. Jesus is for me the clearest picture of Love that human history has known. I know many of my non-Christian but spiritual and/or religious brothers and sisters would probably not agree with me. But essential to my choice to be a Christian—other than that it’s all I’ve ever known, thanks to my mother raising me in the church and to a religious experience that just sort of “stuck” and has always made sense as the most meaningful way to orient my life—is the fact that when I look at Jesus I see the embodiment of Love.
Love takes on human form, and is made relatable, clear, tangible, and even to an extent imitable in the person of Jesus. If you want to know what real love looks like, from a Christian perspective, you look at the Jesus narrative—birth, life, death, and resurrection, as well as all of his words, inclinations, actions, and promises.
I also think of Jesus as the embodiment of God. Jesus made and makes clearer than any other source what God is really like. I read the Old Testament and can’t help but think that there were some major misconceptions about God. I know many don’t resolve the tension of Old and New Testaments in this manner, preferring to let the Old Testament God be a sort of "God of Wrath" as a way of keeping a sort of "ying and yang" feel to the holistic, Biblical view of God (we’re more Taoist than we realized!).
But I tend to assume, without intending to take anything way from the sacredness of the Old Testament witness to God's relationship with the people of Israel, a bit of human error in their understanding of God, especially considering how violent God seems to be portrayed at times. I’m intrigued with the God of “process theology” (based on Whitehead’s philosophy), a God who changes over time; but I’m not sure God dramatically changed from violent to peace-loving in the span of a few hundred years.
I think perhaps Jesus was a way of God shouting more clearly than ever: “I am first and foremost love, a love that is peaceful and gracious! This is the real me!” Jesus embodies God.
I also think of Jesus as an embodiment of the Kingdom of God. Jesus shared through teaching and demonstration a vision of a world marked by peace, harmony, love, unity, and inclusion, among other things…which has been called "heaven" by some, the "new, coming, future creation" by others, and the “Kingdom” or “reign” of God by still others. It’s something invisible—at least at this point in the human story—that God, through Jesus, made visible.
There are two final, less Jesus-centric ways I think of embodiment in connection with religion—both connected to the ways people embody the person of God, Love, and the Kingdom of God. It seems like “embodiment” is more often used with the most ultimate, supreme, most accurate demonstrations of ideas. McDonald’s is the embodiment of fast-food culture, we might say, more than “Ned’s Burgers” down the street from our house. Ned’s just doesn’t capture the fullness of the concept like McDonald’s does.
Nonetheless, I tend to find embodiment of “the way of God” everywhere around me, even if it's not embodied to the extent it is in Jesus. The more I discover the richness of the spiritual practices and the devoutness of the saints of other religious faiths, the more evident to me that the Christ I’ve come to follow is somehow present in these faiths, even if he is not named as such.
When I think of a devout Hindu’s deep sense of tolerance for all living things or sense of selfless service to all, I see the embodiment of the way of God. When I think of a godly Muslim’s sense of submission to God’s will or sense of humility, I see the way of God. When I think of a serious Buddhist’s mindfulness and attentiveness or desire for right speech, right action, right effort, and so on, I see the way of God. When I see an atheist spill herself for the hungry, poor, or dejected because she instinctively knows this is right and good, I see the way of God.
I also—and here’s the hardest for me to express and not feel a bit sheepish and misguided—look at myself and fellow Christians and see, in theory at least, the embodiment of the way of God. At least that’s how I understand our call, our purpose.
I believe Christ, in recruiting men and women to follow him, was setting up a community that would embody the way of God, would make tangible and visible to people the character of God. Ideally, one should be able to look at the Church and say “wow—what a spectacular glimpse of Love, of God (or however they might name it).”
I feel a bit uncomfortable putting it that way. I worry those who aren't Christians will accuse such claims as self-aggrandizing, insane, or maybe just insensitive. On the other hand, I worry some Christians will accuse such claims as an overestimation of our capabilities and a dismissal of God’s grace to our wretched selves, no matter how much we credit the Spirit of God for helping us more fully embody this “way of God.”
But, despite the inherent challenges in such a view of our Christian identity, I believe it to be true. I want the way of God to be made visible, tangible—embodied—through the way we live, the way we love. Any lesser goal feels a bit like what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace."
I also believe that I’m ready for dessert. I’m going to go grab some of my wife’s chocolate chip cookies, and then go hug her. Both—the sweets and the sweetheart—are the embodiment of wonderfulness. J