A Theology of the Other in an Ecumenical Reality Part 3

The Danger of the Incarnation

There is an ever-present danger when living an incarnational life. The vulnerability of this space posses the ability to instill humility through the rigors of life. The closeness that is fashioned in such intimate containers unmasked all pretentiousness and facilitates true authenticity. The pressure of incarnation produces fresh ministry that addresses problems, but will definitely redirect those locked in the process to reshape their preconceived narratives.

The realness of incarnation centers on the fact that you are “actively” present in life.[1] This becomes an ecumenical reality for many as they journey through the process of incarnation. Incarnation invites others to either join or destroy. The easy work of incarnation is mythical at best, but painfully articulated within the body like the ink of tattoos –simply works of art without any purpose for change. It takes a tremendous level of humility to navigate through streams of unfamiliarity sometimes just to encounter a dislike.

One who embodies the methodology of incarnation intuitively or mystically unearths evil aspects of racism (really prejudice) as they work through ecumenical issues. This unveiling of this Christological schism, as Eboni Marshall Turman denotes in her work Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, becomes counter-intuitive to “the negative and positive poles of a dichotomous racial hierarchy.”[2] Alternatively, the more one is authentically locked in the imago dei (image of God) to a particular culture or denomination, the greater the potential for others to become uncomfortable around that person/individual –especially those who make it their reality to dislike that person/individual based upon cultural or denominational aesthetics. Their adjustment is to use identification as the power play –so no longer is the imago dei the primary identifier but racial and denominational hierarchy now guides the perspective.[3]

Ecumenism places those in the minority at a disadvantage and must be clearly addressed if an ecumenical reality is possible. It is Cornel West, who presses the issues that Europe’s need to be the prototype in its “retrieval of classical aesthetics and culture” set forth a “normative gaze” that produced the “myth of white supremacy.”[4] The invisible construct with visible wounds shackles the very metaphorical hands and feet of those in the margins –black and brown people. The call for ecumenism places them at a crossroads that asks, “How is the question of unity a viable alternative?” The importance of the incarnation becomes and is more about what then where…The importance of a Christ that is willing to come and dwell is important but when identified as the “Other,” actual presence is of most significant. James Cone denotes the need for an actual presence as it affirms the struggle of grappling with a maintenance of humanity to a future realization of humanity.[5]  Cone also shares the response of John Knox who states, “The phrase ‘Jesus is our Lord’ designates, not primarily an historical individual but a present reality actually experienced within a common life.”[6] The need for an eschatological reality is a cultural perspective that ecumenism has to take seriously.[7] The fact that Jesus is a very “present” help in the time of trouble is paramount. Whether he is a physical presence in the Eucharist or symbolic is irrelevant, as long as he can provide bread for the impoverished family. The volume of the everyday experience of those trapped on the underside of poverty becomes an intermingled perspective within the narratives of the gospels. Incarnation becomes an existential struggle to prove humanity rather than the salvific experience of deliverance.

The danger of an incarnation that is not properly articulated leads to further issues and problems –a complex issue of “identity [that] emerges from the paradox of enfleshment.”[8]Simply stated the need to understand that some people will have to endure more than others when it comes to ecumenism –“assertion of enfleshment as a paradoxical phenomenon where the reality of multiple ways of being within the flesh that sometimes complement but more often contradict each other.”[9] This problem is addressed by Zora Neale Hurston in her novel Every Tongue Got to Confess.[10] She tells the story of an African-American who wanted to join a white church because it was the only church in town but was rejected. Her relative further more tells her that they would not have allowed Jesus to join that church either.[11]The role of race enters into this equation and asserts itself as the prime decisional component overshadowing everything else. This paradox of enfleshment again renders the “Other” powerless as an ecumenical reality is introduced.

The WCC is trying to reintroduce, rethink and reinterpret the very essence of what has been called community. They are trying to soften the traditional perspective that will inevitably make living incarnationally more of a viable outlet.[12]  They understood that they had not heard the voices of those who represented the “Other.” [13] The need to approach everyone and every culture with the mindset of a global habitat transformed their platform. The places where incarnation could be dangerous they made attempts to address. James Cone states that the Third World theologians began to insist that a definition of ecumenism move beyond interconfessional issues and address issues of poverty, struggle and social justice –in other words deal with issues that those in poverty deal with in everyday incarnational life.[14]  The goal being to readjust the concept to where all are considered the “Other” rendering all the opportunity to be treated fair.[15]

[1] To be actively present means that there is a tangible presence and not something identified symbolically or spiritually encamped –the realness of the incarnation.

[2] Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, The Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon, New York: Palgrave Mcmillan,59.

[3] James Cone, Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids,1986.,143 highlights the world of H. Richard Niebuhr in the Social Sources of Denominationalism (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1929): “The causes of the racial schism are not difficult to determine. Neither theology nor polity furnished the occasion for it. The sole source of this denominationalism is social.”

[4] Ibid.,Turman,60.

[5] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, HarperCollins:San Francisco:1975, 126.

[6] Ibid., 126.

[7] In James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, New York: Seabury Press, 1969, 121. Cone rejects the entire thought of eschatology. He states, “If eschatology means that one believes that God is totally uninvolved in the suffering of man because he is preparing them for another world, then black theology is not eschatological. Black theology has hope for this life.”

[8] Ibid.,Turman.,1.

[9] Ibid.,1.

[10] Zora Neale Hurston, Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folks Talk From the Gulf, New York: Harper Collins, 2001

[11] Ibid., George and Smith.,56

[12] Ibid., The Church.,23.

[13] Ibid., Speaking, 142.

[14] Ibid., 142.

[15] In most of his work James Cone has made extreme efforts to redirect the conversation to show how black and brown people are being marginalized profoundly by the church. His deliberate naming of the “Other” as black  was more of a construct than color designator. He intentionally sees God on the side of the oppressed and thus God is intentional about coming to see about their well being.  See James Cone, God of the Oppressed, San Francisco:1975



A Theology of the Other in an Ecumenical Reality (Part 2)

“The Beauty of” and “in the Eucharist”

Is there a greater example of ecumenism that is readily available like that of the Lord’s Table? It is within this sacred ritual that we experience the clarion call to connect with the Lord in service. It is this call that invites all who will, to come and sit at the table regardless…and God will do the changing, reshaping, redeveloping and the saving. Timothy George tells the story of William Carey going to India:

William Carey went to India as missionary to share the gospel of Christ with those people. He served seven years and did not win a single convert to Christ. But once he began to win people from Hinduism to the Christian faith, and they desired to be baptized, he refused to baptize them until they would renounce caste because caste was one of the artificial forms of distinction. He saw that you could not really be a truly baptized Christian as long as you kept caste. The one dramatic symbol of breaking caste was being willing to share a common meal with an untouchable. When you can breach that barrier and come to the table with me, then we are in some ways involved in katallagē (reconciliation) and then you are ready to be baptized. To say you are a Christian and still separate yourself and remain at table with your own kind is a pretty good sign you have not really accepted Jesus as Lord. Well, that was a very prophetic thing for Carey to do in India, but it was based on this same principle that we are talking about.[1]

Carey’s story exhibits how the Lord’s Table breaks down the variables of difference and designates them as gifts. At the Lord’s Table the Eucharist becomes the feast of the “chosen.”[2] This is not exactly exclusive or inclusive language but an ontological analogy to the believer.[3]  The inclusive language is actually an exclusive behavior hidden within progressive rhetoric. While the exclusive language is discriminatory with disregard for social progression and awareness. Within these two frames of thought, two polarized conclusions, sit at the table while the grace of God mediates reconciliation. Thomas White describes his use of analogy as having an” ontological foundation” in a “propositional mode of signifying realities” that is characterized by “analogical terms.”[4] A further explanation of this thought centers around the concept that an “analogy is sometimes meant to denote one of two senses more precisely than another, neither sense of the word is meant to exclude the other, nor are they meant to be identical, but rather interrelated, as the analogical mode of signifying realities as “being” is meant to signify in fact the real distinctions and likenesses between the analogical modes of being in the things themselves.[5] The conclusion justifies the reconciliatory presence of the Lord’s Table that provides seats for all while mending the broken.

The Eucharist breaks down barriers translating them into familiar avenues for those who have been disenfranchised by life. The Eucharist is the incarnation in pragmatic form at its best. The incarnational aspects of the Eucharist represent a robust engagement and invitation to connect. Matthias Scheeban articulates,

“The Eucharist is meant to be the continuation of the Incarnation . . . As the elevating and transforming power of the Incarnation is continued and perfected in the spiritual mode of that body’s existence, so the union of the invisible with the visible, of the divine with the human, which we observed in the Incarnation, is distinctly brought out in its sacramental existence.”[6]

The Eucharist is the residual, eternal effects of Christ coming and dwelling among us. [7]It is the Eucharist that allows authenticity where pretenses become fragmented by acts of love. This is the moment when we identify that the Eucharist is a reconciliatory agent. Racism, sexism and classism are trumped by invitation- the invitation to come and partake. If you are invited to engage in the Eucharist, then all of our “isms” are subpar. Christ through his work on the cross, recalibrated our realities to make them whole in order that our “isms” would take a backseat to his presence.  St. John of Damascus writes, “He in his fullness took upon himself me in my fullness and was united whole to whole that he might in his grace bestow salvation of the whole man. For what has not been taken cannot be healed.”[8] So within this healing and restoring of the whole, we find that our” isms” have been recalibrated to resemble Christ. In this Eucharistic recalibration, we continually come to the table re-dressed because of the deeds of Christ. Thus, all perception is centered on Him and not us, which calls for “high functioning reconciliation.” The admittance of all at the table ignites the flame of ecumenism that places Christ at the center. Regardless of the denominational differences, Christ recalibrates individuals through his redemptive work done through the Eucharistic experience.

The TCTCV appropriately engages the process of ecumenism when addressing the subject of communion. Their understanding of cultural aesthetics without surrendering overall unity is handled with precision and care. There are clearer outlets for cultural expressions, but, at the same time, unity has to stay at the forefront of the mission.[9] The understanding of this legitimate diversity embarks in new areas, highlighting the intentionality of ecumenical dialogue.[10] The Eucharist provides an opportunity to display an image of Christ that needs to be revealed to those that have become disenfranchised to the gospel. It serves as an invitation to the “Other” that they are welcomed despite visible differences –the freedom to participate without being locked in, or provincial.[11] The TCTCV declares that Christians are called to be in solidarity with the “Other” as a sign of love because Christ sacrificed himself for all and now gives in the Eucharist.[12]


[1] Timothy George and Robert Smith Jr., “A Conversation on Race and Reconciliation”,  The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Vol. 8 No.2, (Summer2004), 54-55

[2] The TCTCV emphasize that there are sacramental elements and ordinances that have been followed by the church for years. The WCC wrestles with the notion that these can be interchanged to meet the desired need of the body of Christ. When it comes to communion some denominations’ view it as sacramental which opens the door for more opportunistic responses to participate. But, other view communion more from an ordinance perspective which allows for more institutional control. The combining of the two by the WCC bridges the two together to get to a more convenient and common solution, that will inevitably become a win-win situation for the church. Ibid. The Church, 25.

[3] Through him all things were made (John 1:3): The Analogy of the Word Incarnate according to St. Thomas Aquinas and Its Ontological Presuppositions., Thomas Joseph White, ed., The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or the Wisdom of God?, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011,248.

[4] Ibid.,White

[5] Ibid.,White.,248-249.

[6] Matthias Scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity, translated by Cyril Vollert, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1951 (from 2nd ed., 1887), 522.

[7] See John 1:14.

[8] Translated by E.W. Watson and L. Pullan. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 9.,Chapter 6 Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1899.), Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/33043.htm

[9] Ibid., The Church,16.

[10] The TCTCV coined this term legitimate diversity to find ways where God gifts could be used to enrich the lives of all while allowing all to have their own cultural connectors. As stated in TCTCV, “There are limits to legitimate diversity; when it goes beyond acceptable limits it can be destructive of the [very] gift of unity. Ibid.,17

[11] Marianne Afanassieff, “The Genesis of “The Church of the Holy Spirit” ‘, in L’Eglise du Saint-Esprit, Nicholas Afanassieff, translated, Marianne Drobot, Cogitato Fidei 83, Paris: Cerf, 1975,17.

[12] Ibid., The Church,25.

A Theology of the Other in an Ecumenical Reality (Part 1)

The World Council of Churches (WCC) takes the call for unity to task with its historic document, The Church Towards a Common Vision (TCTCV). Their objective, highlighted in their 2012 bylaw, suggests that they exist

to serve the churches as they call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ , through witness and service to the world, and advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe. [1]

This “mutual calling” is an urgent push to embrace perichoretic moments that seek to stabilize the church.[2] These perichoretic moments represent episodes when “we are ‘habitable’, for one another, giving one another open life-space for mutual indwelling. Each person is indwelling and room-giving at the same time.”[3] The WCC’s desire to append itself to the needs of the “Other” is an essential element to bring forth systemic change. Paul Collins asserts that “the ‘Other’ may relate to intra-Christian and extra-Christian relations and dialogue. The ‘Other’ may be seen in terms of the difference as in stranger/foreigner, whom ‘we’ might welcome or reject. Another might be in the terms of the opposition of friend/foe. This in turn leads to the drawing of borders or boundaries and begs questions of how the ‘Other’ is to be assimilated…The question of the relationship of the church to the ‘Other’ also impinges upon the theology of the church itself…”[4]

Mitzi Smith denotes in her defining of other(ness) as a “description of interaction.”[5] She further states that “Other(ness) is about proximity not alterity; the other who is most like us is most threatening and most problematic…Difference is constructed in order to distinguish ourselves from proximate others. Our constructions of the other generally function to subordinate the other to us.”[6] The intention of this paper is to give a perspective of  TCTCV on how attending the relational needs of the “Other” make ecumenism paramount in a postmodern and racial society –an ecumenical reality that is shaped more around culture rather than God.


[1] World Council of Churches.  The Church:  Towards a Common Vision.  Faith and Order Paper No. 214. Geneva:  WCC Publications, 2014 (Note:  Download from the World Council of Churches web site), vii.

[2] Ibid. The Church.

[3] Jurgen Moltmann,”Perichoresis: An Old Magic Word for a New Trinitarian Theology” in M. Douglas Meeks ,ed., Trinity, Community and Power: Mapping Trajectories in Wesleyan Theology. Nashville: Kinswood Books,2000.,114.

[4] Paul M. Collins, “The Church and the ‘Other’: Questions of Ecclesial and Divine Communion” in Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed., Ecumenical Ecclesiology: Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World. New York: T&T Clark,2009.,101

[5] Mitzi Smith. The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011.,3.

[6] Ibid.,Smith.,3.