Religion & Liberty Online

The Incarnation: The basis for a free and virtuous society

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The material and the spiritual were never meant to be opposed to each other, which is why we at Acton work to realize spiritual benefits in the context of the hustle and bustle of the material world.

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In the Genesis account of creation, we read that God “looked at all he had made and found it very good.” Today’s feast, which celebrates the Annunciation to Mary and the Incarnation of the Son of God, reminds us that no matter how fallen and foolish human nature may be, what God has made good remains good. Even after Adam’s sin, creation is good enough that God himself thought fit to bridge the gap and become a creature to restore creation’s lost glory—and not only restore it, but bring it to new heights.

Acton’s mission to connect good intentions with sound economics is important for many reasons, but perhaps none is as fundamental as this. God’s assuming a human nature and becoming part of the world he made has raised created things to a new dignity but also called us to a greater responsibility in our use of them. Man’s role as steward of creation demands that he use his intellect and will to develop the gifts entrusted to him and serve his fellow creatures without losing sight of his ultimate destiny. The Incarnation, understood rightly, guards us from the extremes of both an empty materialism and an overzealous spirituality that sees material things as evil or unrelated to a virtuous life. We are destined for eternity but our life on earth matters—after all, we are both soul and body.

The radical separation of spirit and matter was a result of the Fall, and the Incarnation took place to restore their unity. C.S. Lewis memorably illustrates this in Perelandra, the second book of his space trilogy:

Ransom had been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and of both from fact was purely terrestrial—was part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance.

Ransom, sent to Venus to help forestall the repetition of the Fall of Man in a new Eden, has to ward off the Tempter in a tooth-and-nail physical fight. His initial reluctance, springing from his notion that the fight against temptation should be a spiritual one, gives way to the realization that, in an as-yet-unfallen world, the distinction is not what it seems to us.

Christ himself taught the dignity of creation not only by becoming man but also through his public ministry. For instance, his use of parables, which bring eternal realities to light through the simplicity of the material world, shows the sacredness of human endeavor. As Benedict XVI points out in Jesus of Nazareth, the parables are more than just similes or fanciful illustrations—they witness to God’s action in the world and are a sign of the dignity of creation. Many in our modern age have excluded the spiritual to exalt the material, as Benedict says: “For we have developed a concept of reality that excludes reality’s translucence to God.” The paradox, of course, is that it is precisely the spiritual element of creation that properly exalts the material. God himself willed that our salvation be accomplished through material means. How might he be calling us to use matter for higher ends?

None of this, of course, is to justify undue attachment to material goods or the elevation of anything material to the status of God. The Incarnation was, after all, crowned with the still more wondrous work of the Resurrection, in which Christ’s body was glorified and we receive the pledge of our own future glory. But there is a reason that Christians for centuries had a tradition of genuflecting at the words “and the Word became flesh.” Once God has taken flesh, once he himself has traversed the chasm we could never have hoped to cross, we can never see anything in the world in quite the same way. St. Athanasius’ words in his fourth-century work De Incarnatione have lost none of their boldness or significance: “For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.”

Joshua Gregor

Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.