Skip to main content

This piece was written at a time when there was a marked trend in popular evangelical writing about cultural difference to talk about the desirability of being “incarnational”. Since then there has been some retreat from that language (including in a later edition of the Lingenfelter book discussed in the essay), though it still pops up from time to time. This essay reflected on some reasons why we ought to be careful before calling something “incarnational” when we mean something like ‘fully invested on a human scale’. This piece was published as the editorial in the Journal of Christianity and Foreign Languages, 10, 2009, p.3-9. The journal has since been relaunched as the Journal of Christianity and World Languages.

There has been a widespread embrace in various theologically tinged contexts of the adjective “incarnational” as a positive identifier of engaged, contextualized, human-scale service. This use of the Incarnation as a metaphor for a certain quality of engagement has proved popular among writers offering Christian accounts of intercultural learning. Duane Elmer provides a succinct example when he asserts:

Incarnation is the theological word for the truth that the Son of God took human flesh, entered human culture and lived as we live (but without sin). Similarly missionaries are called to incarnate Christ in a new culture by understanding and adjusting to local realities and living out God’s kingdom values.1

As in the wider discussions, talk of incarnation is here intended to signal a focus on concrete context and learning that goes beyond the cognitive, and at the same time to provide an organizing concept for Christian theological reflection on intercultural encounter.

The language of incarnation has at least two things going for it. First, it evokes the heart of the Christian faith, the Son of God become flesh, a matter not only central but thoroughly ecumenical. For those personally invested in and attuned to a Christian account of the world, talk of incarnation suggests profound importance, spiritual significance, and exclusively positive connotations. The idea of incarnation is at once conceptually rich and heart-warming, and it can effectively enlist Christian affect in the service of cross-cultural encounter. Second, as in the example just cited from Elmer, it does not appear too difficult to find schematic similarities between the narrative of Christ’s incarnation and the processes of intercultural learning, especially when the latter is viewed in a missions context.

Given these advantages, it may seem churlish to express skepticism – and indeed my experience is that when difficulties are intimated, some respond as if the importance of the Incarnation itself and the Christian responsibility to imitate Christ are being placed in question. This is, of course, too hasty – an appreciation of the significance of the Incarnation need not in any way preclude doubts as to whether it functions well as a metaphor for learning other cultures. In fact, it seems to do little honor to the Incarnation of Christ if we end up putting it to sloppy use to underwrite our own intellectual or educational projects. I ask readers who are personally invested in talk of incarnational approaches to cross-cultural learning to note that I am here questioning some ways incarnational language is commonly used as a metaphor for intercultural learning, and not the cluster of truths and values that the language is intended to express.

Duane Elmer’s use of the language of incarnation in his helpful book on Cross-Cultural Servanthood, already quoted above, offers a good starting point for considering some of the difficulties with incarnation used as a metaphor. A little later in the book, Elmer offers an illustrative anecdote designed to show the kind of identification with another culture required of those who seek to minister within it. He tells of a 26-year-old who wanted to know what life was really like for the elderly. This person went out into the community once a week disguised as an elderly person, and gained significant insight into how the elderly are looked upon and treated in various settings, even experiencing sympathetic aches and pains as time went on. Elmer summarizes:

Pat entered the culture of the elderly and experienced exactly what it was like to be old. This is what Jesus did in the incarnation. He lived among humans for over thirty years. And he knew what he had to do to serve the human race: he had to die.2

The story is vivid and noble, but upon closer analysis Elmer’s incarnational frame for it breaks down. Pat did not experience “exactly what it was like” to be old” – a richer appreciation was gained, to be sure, but it remained an empathetic approximation. Pat did not, for instance, carry a lifetime of memories, suffer from declining senses or mental acuity, experience actual arthritis or other ailments, struggle to cope with recent cultural and technological changes, experience an increasing number of deaths of peers and siblings, or compare present experiences with those several decades ago. The list could be extended, the central issue being that although some of the experiential differences between young and old were successfully bridged, Pat remained a young person in disguise. At the end of each day of investigation, Pat laid aside the appearance of age and returned to youthful living. This is rather an important distinction in this context, for it is precisely the point at which the analogy to the Incarnation fails. If we map the story back onto the Incarnation, we end up with God pretending temporarily to be human, spending time in disguise in order to get a partial feel for some aspects of being human, but without being fully subjected to all of human frailty or permanently changed. And precisely this has been consistently rejected by the Christian church as heresy. Jesus was fully human, not just appearing in disguise. Appealing as the comparison with Pat’s experiment might be superficially, this is precisely not what happened in the Incarnation.

This is of course just one illustration, infelicitous as it may be, in a larger argument. Seeing its problems, however, invites a reconsideration of the more general claim already cited that “Similarly missionaries are called to incarnate Christ in a new culture by understanding and adjusting to local realities and living out God’s kingdom values.” This formulation has the merit of restricting itself to three particular points of comparison: understanding, adjusting to and living in a principled way within a particular local context. Restating the argument slightly more explicitly, the implied claim is that as Christ had to learn Jewish culture, adjust to life as a first century Jew, and demonstrate kingdom values in the shape of a first century Jewish life, so Christians, when they seek to love and serve those of other cultures, must learn to understand, adjust to, and live kingdom values in a way appropriate to those cultures.

Sherwood Lingenfelter (in another helpful book [NOTE: A more recent edition of the book, published since this essay was written, has changed its approach.]) mounts essentially the same argument at somewhat greater length. He calls incarnation “God’s metaphor for ministry,” focusing on the call in Philippians 2 to imitate Christ’s self-humbling. We tend, Lingenfelter notes, to become blind to others and suspicious of their ways through our formation within our own cultural community. “The practice of incarnation (i.e., a willingness to learn as if we were helpless infants) is the first essential step toward breaking this pattern of excluding others.”3 Jesus “studied the language, the culture, and the lifestyles of his people for thirty years before he began his ministry.”4 Relating his experiences as a missionary on the island of Yap, Lingenfelter argues that “if Jesus did indeed set the example, then it was my responsibility to work as hard to become Yapese as he did to become a Jew.”5 This is an arduous task, but “an individual who is not ready to give up being an American for a time and to begin learning as a child is not ready for the challenge of cross-cultural ministry.”6 Becoming “genuinely incarnate”7 in another culture means, then, giving up the security of one’s primary cultural identity so as to adjust to others, embracing humility, and learning as a child.

Like the story about Pat and the elderly, this is appealing. Like that story it becomes more complicated upon closer examination. The problem is not with the attitudes urged. I am not at all seeking to undermine Lingenfelter’s concerns here – yes, we do need humility, a childlike willingness to learn anew, and a willingness to accept some measure of vulnerability if we are to learn another culture with any depth. The call to imitate Christ’s servanthood in Philippians 2 does seem to resonate with these concerns, as others have noted.8 There are, however, some points at which the metaphorical fit seems rather strained once the language of incarnation is used. Let me highlight three difficulties that need closer attention.

First, there is strain in the effort to identify the kind of learning engaged in by Jesus from birth with that required of older intercultural learners. Part of the challenge of intercultural learning, as Lingenfelter notes, is that I already have a primary culture – I have become familiar with and secure within a particular pattern of human assumptions, behaviors, artifacts and interactions. I thus come to a new culture not as a blank slate, but as one already shaped and biased, with settled perceptions and ways that have to be unlearned and relearned. I am already incarnate, and must struggle to change my learned patterns. I find it hard to imagine a construal of the Incarnation according to which this would be true of Jesus simply by virtue of his becoming flesh. He was not laboring to overcome a prior socialization into another human culture that had given him patterns to overcome. He was growing up Jewish, as other Jewish children did (and so the idea that he “studied” Jewish culture for 30 years has a faintly odd ring, as it would if we said that a newborn child in France was “studying” French). This was primary socialization, which does, to be sure, involve cultural learning, but not cross-cultural learning. Equating the two by mapping cross-cultural learning directly onto the incarnation seems to force two somewhat different things together, and to imply an odd view of Jesus’ childhood.

Second, mapping the Incarnation onto the difficulties of cross-cultural learning seems to suggest an unsatisfactory picture of God. Recall that Lingenfelter notes that our primary socialization leads us to exclude others, and that we are not ready to practice loving ministry if we are not ready to give up our primary cultural identity. So far, so good (though I doubt whether we can in the end “give up” our cultural identities). However, the prior state, before incarnation, has a negative cast – a shadow of limitation, pride, insensitivity, and prejudice that Lingenfelter describes as being in a cultural prison. The “practice of incarnation” leads to breaking out of this. This hardly works as a Christian theological account of what it was like to be God before the incarnation, and so again the parallel appears strained. In fact this shares with some other uses of incarnational metaphors outside of cross-cultural learning a tendency to imply a slope in the wrong direction. What I mean is that when the metaphor is applied, the pre-incarnate state ends up presented as the more limited and problematic one, and the incarnate state as more liberated, authentic, true, and fulfilled. Theologically, however, the landscape slopes in the opposite direction. God astonishingly humbled himself to take on frail flesh, constricted his freedom, risked his joy; it was not a promotion to a more satisfactory way of life. Using incarnation as a metaphor for truly invested learning oddly evokes an inverted theological echo in which Christ’s incarnation was a move from parochial constriction to greater authenticity, and again we end up with bad theology.9

A third concern arises if we do in fact manage to keep clearly in mind the direction of the incarnation as a humbling in order to identify with and save the lost. When this metaphor for cross-cultural ministry is aimed at members of a dominant culture who speak a dominant language and therefore need to be urged to be willing to “give up being an American,” there seem, at least potentially, to be some worrying resonances in terms of these learners’ relationship to the target culture. Are they to be thought of as in the position of God, giving up some rightful privilege so that they can descend humbly to the poor, lost folk who make up the target culture? Might this not imply a hierarchy between the two cultures (we are like God, they are the lost) even as it enjoins humility and compassion?10 This is, of course, far from Lingenfelter’s intent, but I think we should at the very least be wary of the possible seductions of imagining intercultural learning in a way that positions ourselves as God and the fellow creatures with whom we are learning to interact as ones to whom we have to humbly descend.

Where does this leave Philippians 2? That’s an interesting question, worth more extended discussion.11 For now, I suggest that we consider the possibility that Paul’s instruction to “have the same attitude as Christ Jesus” is not equivalent to a call to repeat Christ’s Incarnation. Perhaps “love as Jesus loved” and “be humble as Jesus was humble” work better than the more debatable “become incarnate as Jesus became incarnate”. This need not diminish the significance of imitating Christ; I am simply questioning whether incarnation talk stretches thin parallels too far, with unsatisfactory theological results.

Could incarnation language be used more precisely to describe intercultural learning? Perhaps. Any such use would, however, need to show that the above difficulties have been met (not just set aside). I suggest that a more fruitful approach to developing a theological approach to intercultural learning might be to begin (as, for instance, Miroslav Volf does) with the cross,12 or to unpack the implications of Jesus ethic of neighborly love.13 Either avenue would give us plenty of traction on the need for humility, dying to self, relinquishing of privilege, and other-orientation, without evoking the strain created by imperfect analogies with the incarnation.


(1) Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 131.

(2) Elmer, 145.

(3) Sherwood G Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (2nd ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 22.

(4) Lingenfelter and Mayers, 16.

(5) Lingenfelter and Mayers, 24.

(6) Lingenfelter and Mayers, 25.

(7) Lingenfelter and Mayers, 120.

(8) E.g. Thomas R. Thompson, “Ungrasping Ourselves: A Kenotic Model of Multicultural Encounter,” The One in the Many: Christian Identity in a Multicultural World, ed. Thomas R. Thompson (Lanham: University Press of America, 1998), 9-24.

(9) See further David I. Smith. “Incarnation, Education and the Boundaries of Metaphor.” Journal of Christian Education 45:1 (2002), 7-18.

(10) Compare Leanne Van Dyk, “Widening the Emptying: A Response to Thomas R. Thompson,” The One in the Many: Christian Identity in a Multicultural World, ed. Thomas R. Thompson (Lanham: University Press of America, 1998), 25-27.

(11) Again, see Thompson.

(12) Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996).

(13) David I. Smith. Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Difference. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

Leave a Reply