This Advent and Christmas season we celebrate the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Incarnation literally denotes enfleshment. The eternal Son of God assumed humanity as a babe in Bethlehem in order to grow to adulthood and die for the sins of the world. This death and subsequent resurrection, the source of our salvation, presuppose incarnation. Without incarnation, there can be no salvation.
The opposite of incarnation is excarnation, a word coined by Charles Taylor to describe the modern inclination to limit all the significant issues of reality to the mind. The body and material world are simply vehicles for reason and imagination. Excarnation is indebted to ancient Gnosticism, the first and most dangerous Christian heresy that afflicts the church and culture down to this very day.
While the Bible located the world’s ills in human sin, Gnosticism blamed them on creation itself. An ignorant, malign deity (the Demiurge) broke from the true God and created matter, including the human body, contrary to God’s desire. The true God tried to foil the Demiurge by covertly inserting sparks of divinity into the human bodies. To the Gnostics, the Fall is not from righteousness into sin, but from spirit into matter; and salvation is escape from the body and reversion to pure spirit. This means the human body and the material world are a prison from which the enlightened must escape. Jesus came not to save from sin, but to deliver from ignorance and impart knowledge (gnosis), by which the illuminated learn of their true, excarnated destiny. For Christians, man is rescued by God’s Son becoming man in assuming (and dying and rising in) a human body. For Gnostics, man is rescued by escaping from his body, after which the divine spark is released to return to the heavenlies. Man becomes God.
Excarnation is the process of man’s salvation. This heresy the antithesis of biblical orthodoxy.
Excarnation in Culture
Excarnation is increasingly a guiding tenet of Western elites. There’s nothing Christian about it. The Bible teaches that God’s norms are interwoven in the cosmos. These include gravity and thermodynamics. They include economic laws of scarce resources. Moreover, they include his norms for human sexuality. Today’s elites don’t simply wish the rebel against these laws. They want to circumvent and then abolish them. They have figured out the only way to do this is to bypass reality itself. Their vision of the Good Society is one in which all people are equal in condition, and the “marginalized” are resituated as the apex of culture. If this means redefining reality, so be it. If the human body as biologically male or female is an impediment to human imagination, sex-“reassignment” surgery is an option. If some humans are smarter, better looking, stronger, or cleverer than others, laws must be imposed that penalize their giftedness and reduce them to the level of their inferiors. Eventually, this means that their gifts must be eliminated to create true equality. If women are naturally superior nurturers and men naturally superior soldiers, men must nurture babies and women must serve in combat. TV and movies must depict lithe 120-pound women as martial arts devotees vanquishing muscular 200-pound male warriors. The ridiculousness of the idea is irrelevant; it’s the reality-bending social vision that matters. The body forbids the exercise of the rebellious imagination, so the body must be circumvented and, if necessary, abandoned. Reality doesn’t conform to the elite vision of society, so reality is irrelevant. The excarnation paradigm sees the body simply as a vehicle for the person, the “authentic self.” The person, the real you and I, is inside the body, the “ghost in the machine.” The body is like an automobile that carts us around. There’s a radical disjunction between the authentic, self-aware person, and his body. The body is simply a tool, like a screwdriver or a fork, though a highly complex one.
This anthropology (view of man) has momentous implications. For one thing, it means that if the self is not fully developed, the body is unimportant. This means that there should be no barrier to abortion and euthanasia and mercy killing. After all, it’s the self that’s important, not the body. If there is no authentic self (or person on the inside), the body is disposable. Remember: the body is only there as a vehicle for the person.  This is the grim price we pay as a society for implementing the excarnation vision.
Excarnation in the Church
The Bible does not exalt spirit over matter; Jesus is Lord of the invisible and visible world (Col. 1:15–17). Yet ever since pagan Greek ideas of the inferiority of the material world infected Christianity, the church has battled with excarnation. Even as the church prays, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10), many Christians view the world outside the church — economics, politics, entertainment, education, and architecture — as inescapably “carnal” (fleshly) and unfit for Christian influence. So the church retreats to an excarnated spirituality. Prayer, interior dialogue, and contemplation of heaven are considered spiritual, while working to re-criminalize abortion, de-legitimize same-sex “marriage,” combat pornography, and reduce government theft programs in the form of confiscatory taxation are relatively unimportant and, in fact, a diversion from the church’s real, excarnated tasks. Escape from evil within the created order rather than confrontation with and victory over it is the excarnational agenda. Christianity is reduced to a “personal devotional hobby.”
But Advent stares us unflinchingly in the face with the truth that the present world, immaterial and material, is cursed by sin and is to be redeemed by the death and resurrection of our Lord. The most evil being in the universe is pure spirit, but Jesus was born and lived and died and rose from the dead and lives forever in a body. He is profoundly interested in the world, including the material world. He came healing the sick and exorcising demons from tortured bodies. To trust in the Messiah for salvation is to surrender oneself mind, soul, body — our entire self — to him (Rom. 12:1–2).
TV and movies depict lithe 120-pound women as martial arts devotees vanquishing muscular 200-pound male warriors. The ridiculousness of the idea is irrelevant; it’s the reality-bending social vision that matters.
He is as interested in purging sin from gansta rap and abortion clinics and fraudulent bond-rating agencies and Bauhaus architecture as he is from Christian hearts and families and churches. The cleansing power of the Gospel does not simply take souls to heaven; it transforms everything it touches.
This Advent season, relish the incarnational life and dismiss the excarnational vision. The body and the material world are not designed for our escape but for joy and victory. Jesus is Lord of all, and a God unashamed to be born into a barn amid farm animals is unashamed to care for and redeem every area of creation and culture presently under the dominion of sin. Christmas is a celebration of incarnation that made possible atoning bodily death and victorious bodily resurrection. Our future hope is not excarnation in a false medieval vision of angel babes and halos and harps in heaven but of the new heaven descended to a new earth purged from sin, where God will dwell eternally with us his people — on a profoundly material, but sinless, earth (Rev. 21:1–4).