The ideal and the real

Daily Reading for November 6 • William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1944

For Temple, the incarnation of Christ brings about the realization of the ideal and the real together in history. In the incarnation, the power that creates the world and sustains it enters the world in its own forms of matter and Mind. Because the incarnate one is also the creator, the incarnation is the natural culmination of the very processes of the world itself. So Christianity “is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions; its own most central saying is: ‘The Word was made flesh,’ where the last term was, no doubt, chosen because of its specially materialistic associations. By the very nature of its central doctrine Christianity is committed to a belief in the ultimate significance of the historical process, and in the reality of matter and its place in the divine scheme.”

The incarnate Christ embodies God’s determination to fulfill the divine purposes at the same time that the incarnation is an earnest of God’s presence and activity in history, showing how God will fulfill or perfect creation. Because of the Word made flesh, hope in even the direst of social conditions is possible and richly warranted. In Christ, human persons and groups find their way from selfishness to fellowship. That, at least, is the ideal.

Humanity develops in community, where personality—what today we call full human dignity—is formed and supported and nurtured. To develop as intended, personality requires liberty, social fellowship, and the opportunity for service (through which persons recognize that they need and are needed by others). Theologically, society is properly structured only insofar as it serves the purpose of fulfilling personality. Sin disrupts the divine purposes as persons misunderstand their true good and establish groups or societies based on selfishness and the privileging of some groups over others. That is, sin is manifest as social injustice as well as in individual behavior.

The mission of the church, then, is not only to proclaim God’s purposes and the place of human persons within them. The church is also called to continue the incarnation by manifesting, however partially and imperfectly, the fellowship for which humanity is created.

From “William Temple” by Ellen K. Wondra, in Empire and the Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians, edited by Kwok Pui-lan, Don H. Compier, and Joerg Rieger (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

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