Abuse’s Perversion of the Incarnation
Despite a plethora of theological differences, the church of the 21st century is united by the common scandal of abuse. Moving forward involves (even) more than taking steps of prevention and accountability. Followers of Christ must also address the spiritual turmoil generated within the souls of victims and their families. This wound cries out for a healing process—one which includes a reconstruction of an incarnate understanding of Scripture.
The testimonies of victims often point toward this need. For example, before describing the abuse, one survivor writes, “There were two young Irish priests who came to our house frequently for dinner… my mother thought they were God incarnate.”
Another says of his abuser, “He told me he was God, and that God had special relationships with little children.”
Incarnation is at the center of Christianity. This doctrine points us towards Christ that we might “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Rightly understood, such a calling fills Christians with great responsibility that builds and strengthens the body of Christ.
But as victim testimonies show, a corruption of incarnate doctrine in the wrong hands is doubly disastrous. Many victims have subsequently spoken about their struggle to reconcile their experience with basic Christian beliefs.
Sin is a constant of history, but incarnate theology is often lost in modern day Christian thought. We as a church have a responsibility to wrestle with these questions, lest our failure to engage with the subject encourages an abandonment of faith.
Thankfully, we are not lacking material. The early church fathers centered much of their writing around the incarnation—St. Athanasius, perhaps, more so than others. He famously wrote, “God became man so that men might become gods.”
Such a comment may sound foreign to modern Christian thought, and possibly horrifying for those who have experienced abuse within the church. Yet here is the starting point of Christ’s redemptive work. St. Athanasius’ point was not that the incarnation imparts divine nature on humanity. Rather, he argued that the incarnation is the first step necessary for sanctification and adoption as a child of God.
The Catechism of the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Church summarizes this well: “Every human being that comes into the world is called to grow in likeness to God… This partaking in God’s nature constitutes human happiness. Likeness to God can be attained by us only by free choice and assent, and by cooperation with God’s grace.” (CUGCC 124)
Abuse takes away human happiness, free choice, and assent. Contrary to the narrative used by abusers, the incarnation actually provides hope for the restoration of these qualities by showing Christ’s participation in our sorrows. As St. Augustine explains, “His participation in our inferior condition, in order to our participation in His higher state, held a kind of medium.”
Or, as St. Ambrose writes, “In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of paradise, in Adam I died. How shall God call me back, except He find me in Adam?”
Both theologians remind us how the mystery of the incarnation is calling us back to a beautiful reality that mankind has fallen out of. And this homecoming involves Christ joining in our suffering; he also is a victim of abuse—never the cause of it.
There is no easy way to address the pain of evil done in the name of Christianity. But the incarnation gives us the tools to begin. Christ invites us to participate in his own nativity, bearing witness that the Word became flesh for us. He transforms the pain of sin and redeems suffering, sowing in us the seeds of healing.
St. Anslem summarizes it best. “Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.”
God became human for us and adopted us as His children. The inversion of this belief is a foundational theological problem underscoring today’s current crisis of abuse within the church. May an increase of incarnate understanding point us towards Him who is the cure, and start us as a church on the path towards holistic recovery.
Raised near the Navajo Reservation, Ayla Shalane moved to the East Coast where she attended Patrick Henry College and received a liberal arts education. Following graduation, she was confirmed within an Anglo-Catholic parish and currently remains active in ministry.