Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Does the Church Have a Messianic Complex?

In his article entitled "Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex," Michael Horton argues that an overemphasis on Christ's incarnation, coupled with an underemphasis on his ascension, causes the church much confusion with respect to her mission in this world. Because the ascension resulted in what Horton calls "the real absence of Christ," many in our day have attempted to fill that void by an "incarnational" approach to ministry that forgets, apparently, that the incarnation already happened.

In fact, "incarnational" is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness. Christ’s person and work easily becomes a "model" or "vision" for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness. We increasingly hear about "incarn-ational ministry," as if Christ's unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church, whether conceived in "high church" or "low church" terms, rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord.
Perhaps it's because we're fidgety or antsy, but it certainly seems to be the case that the American church is way more confortable when it is busy doing stuff. In the same way that the attention span of a high-schooler is such that she cannot sit still for three minutes without whipping out her cell to text a friend, so the church cringes when made to "stay put" (to use Horton's phrase) and think upon Christ's present ansence and future return.
It is this recurring temptation to look away from Christ’s absence—toward a false presence, often substituting itself as an extension of Christ’s incarnation and reconciling work—that distracts it from directing the world’s attention to Christ’s parousia in the future. Yet a church that does not acknowledge Christ’s absence is no longer focused on Christ; instead, it’s tempted to idolatrous substitutions in the attempt to seize Canaan prematurely.
As Horton points out, this is all just deja vu all over again:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him" (Ex 32:1).
Could it be that ignoring the ascension results in our also ignoring that which the ascension made possible, namely Pentecost? Does our clinging to the flesh of Christ betray a kind of Magdalenean discomfort with Jesus' presence through his Spirit in Word and sacrament?

In short, is our preference of the second Person of the Godhead over the third a bizarre kind of eschatology that is over- and under-realized at the same time?