Christianity is an ethical faith so given our sinful inclinations, our lives as Christians are characterized by repentance and renewal.
In “A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age,” Glen Stassen, Louis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that Christian churches in the West today are in desperate need of this repentance and renewal. But they need a guiding ethical method.
He offers this method in what he calls incarnational discipleship – following Jesus in our secular age as explained by Charles Taylor in his book by that name.
This is a Trinitarian method of (1) the holistic sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ, (2) God revealed thickly, historically in Jesus Christ and (3) the Holy Spirit, independent of all powers and authorities, reminding us of Jesus and calling us to repentance from ideological entanglements.
A “thicker Jesus” means that Jesus Christ was a historically situated, flesh-and-blood person who walked the dusty roads of Palestine, a Jew immersed in the Hebraic tradition, especially that of the prophet Isaiah.
A “thicker Jesus” means we should pay close attention to this historical Jesus – his life, actions, teachings, what he actually did in the physical, social, spiritual and political particularities of his time and place.
In this, Jesus revealed God’s character and provided norms for moral guidance today.
Like Jesus, our ethics must be historical, social, spiritual and political – embedded in the “thick” realities and struggles of earthly life, not in the “thin” conceptualities of platonic idealism or sectarian perfectionism.
In order to find a Christian ethic that works in the real world, Stassen seeks to test our ethics in the “laboratory of history” to see who passes the test.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, AndrÃ© TrocmÃ©, Martin Luther King and others are those who passed this test, and we find that they all embodied a Trinitarian incarnational discipleship.
Drawing further on Bonhoeffer, for whom he is a leading scholar, Stassen reiterates his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.
For Stassen, the Sermon is not idealistic perfectionism but concrete realism. He presents his 14 interpretive triads and summarizes his 10 “transforming initiatives” for just peacemaking, which is one of Stassen’s central Christian concerns in today’s conflicted world.
He is on a mission to see Christians live out their faith in a morally credible way in the real world and pass the test of history.
Stassen’s just peacemaking is, I suggest, desperately needed. Christian or not, peace does not come naturally to us; we must actively work at it – build it, develop it.
Just peacemaking is exactly that – building peace through developing attitudes, approaches, relationships, communities, methods and institutions that move toward peace and thus prevent war.
This is precisely what God did in Jesus Christ. He entered into our world, atoned for our sin, brought justice and offered a way to build peace with us.
In this, Stassen has grasped a core truth of the gospel. In our conflicted world, all Christians ought to embrace this.
Stassen is a man of remarkable character and vision, extremely knowledgeable, widely read, a brilliant scholar and thinker.
Yet he remains a profoundly personable and humble man, and he lives his ethics.
He is not content to stay in his office writing books or hobnobbing with fellow scholars. At age 76, he is an activist involved in the rough-and-tumble problems of the world, such as peacemaking in the Middle East.
The only question I have for Stassen is: how would incarnational discipleship look in the broader context of our physical-ecological world? We all live in and depend on ecosystems, which we are busily destroying. How can we be more holistic?
Bonhoeffer, King and the others were great examples of incarnational discipleship in social and political contexts. Are there examples in the ecological context – John Muir, Calvin DeWitt?
Stassen certainly knows about this issue, but how would he integrate, for example, just peacemaking with ecological care and healing? Perhaps he will give us another book to address this.
All Christians (and a lot of non-Christians) ought to read this book. Stassen wants only one thing – that all of us who name Jesus as Lord follow him realistically, incarnationally and in so doing bring glory to God.
As his final sentence asks: “Will you join me in the apostolic witness to a thicker Jesus – in the tradition of incarnational discipleship?”
John Mustol is a retired physician and a doctoral student at Fuller Seminary.