Action, Intention, and the Incarnation

Does what I do matter? We are now celebrating the Feast of the Incarnation.  It is the mystery of God become Man – Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man.

This mystery is so immense that it took several centuries for the Church to lay out the technical definitions necessary to describe the Incarnation accurately.  We knew all along that Word became Flesh, but it took time and thought to respond to each of the easy errors that kept plaguing well-intended Christians, and that can still baffle men of good will today.

There is a small-i incarnation that can shed some light on the divine one: Men, made of flesh but created in the very image of the invisible God, are an intimate union of body and soul.  We are not souls inhabiting a temporary body, to be shaken off at the end of our life on earth.  Nor are we an assemblage of mechanical and chemical processes that merely give the appearance of reason, will, and emotion.  We are both.  I can be short-tempered because I freely choose to vent to my anger; I can also be short-tempered because I’m behind on my sleep.

In puzzling out the mystery of human existence, very few of us are inclined to think at one extreme or the other.  Most of us instinctively know that body and soul are somehow wed, even if we can’t put our finger on how it all works.  In the same way, most of us have the general idea that our intentions – the meaning behind our actions – can sometimes be at odds with the actions themselves.

We understand accidents: Mrs. Smith didn’t mean to run over the neighbor’s cat.  We understand human weakness: The children knew they shouldn’t get into the cookies before the party, but they were out on the counter, and who would notice just one was missing?

Likewise, we understand that the same action can have different meanings depending on the intention of the person doing it.  We can tell the difference between a bad guy with a knife and a physician wielding a scalpel.  The child knocked to the ground during the game knows whether the hit came from the bully or from the well-meaning klutz.

Still, there is a temptation to divide the body from the soul.

On the one side, there is the temptation to reduce man to his actions.  This leads to scrupulosity or pride, condemnation or exaltation.  But there also exists a temptation in the other direction: To reduce man to his intentions alone.

Actions Have Meaning

Mrs. Smith did not mean to run over the cat.  She didn’t know the cat was sleeping under her rear tire.  Still, we expect the utterly innocent Mrs. Smith to make some outward show of her sorrow at the cat’s death.  She’ll come over and ring the bell, and let us know what happened.  She’ll apologize for the accident.  She might even let the children pick a few flowers from her garden for Fifi’s grave, or bring the family a plate of homemade cookies.

It isn’t that the economy of salvation requires that an innocent woman produce cookies to make up for her non-sin.  It’s that we know that what we do with our bodies matters.

The Mystery of Subjectivity

We can imagine Mrs. Smith at the door with a plate of cookies, ready to apologize to the new neighbors just arrived from the foreign country of Felinia with their hapless cat.  And the new neighbors see the cookies, and take Mrs. Smith all the wrong way: In their country, ginger snaps are the mark of exultation over the death of an enemy.  They slam the door.

We would again say Mrs. Smith is innocent of any wrongdoing.  But again, she has done harm.  Not knowingly, not intentionally, but she’s just managed to alienate the new neighbors. She should have baked the traditional Felinian token of sympathy and sorrow, snickerdoodles.

Our actions have meaning and consequence, even when those actions are absolutely subjective.  Mrs. Smith will go home and hop on Wikipedia, discover the snicker doodle custom, and all will end well. The people of Felinia forgive easily, so long as they’ve got the right cookies in hand.

From the Silly to the Serious

My made-up example elicits knowing nods from those of us who tend to bumble through life, unintentionally injuring others with our weaknesses and oversights.  It can also elicit a reaction in the other extreme: “The people of Felinia are wrong!  Mrs. Smith shouldn’t have to bake the snickerdoodles!” Some have made whole careers out of arbitrating disputes over what counts as good manners.

The temptation when we run into these wholly subjective situations is to flee our small-i incarnation.  We are tempted announce that our actions don’t matter after all.  If we can’t agree on the meaning of the physical action, then perhaps only intentions matter.

This is an error. Our actions do matter, always.  Whether it’s a question of courtesy, modesty, chastity, or charity, our actions change the world.  The decision to say, “To hell with the customs of Felinia!” is the decision to say, “To hell with my neighbors!”  Literally: To hell with them.

The Response to Subjectivity: Christian Unity

What do we do when we find ourselves at odds with our neighbor over the meaning of our actions?  If we pretend that what we do outwardly has no meaning, that only intentions matter, we won’t be neighbors for long.  But we also know that we can err.  We can err in giving an action too much importance, we can err in giving it too little importance, and we can err in giving it the wrong importance.

The answer to the mystery of the big-I Incarnation wasn’t to announce that we’ll agree to disagree.  Nor was it to flee from the union of divine and human, thus deciding God only looked like man, or that this man Jesus only looked like God.  The answer to small-i incarnation troubles is the same: We don’t flee from the union of body and soul.  With our neighbors, charitably, patiently, and unceasingly, we work it out.

Copyright © 2013, Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications. She writes about the Catholic faith at her Patheos blog, Sticking the Corners.

One response to “Action, Intention, and the Incarnation”

  1. […] You probably already saw what I came up for NE for December.  It’s here.  Short version: When you tell me, “It’s the thought that counts,” I certainly […]

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