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A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Incarnation, воплощение, Menschwerdung

The English word "incarnation" has two meanings. The first is "a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality. Its most common synonyms are "embodiment", "personification", "epitome", or "manifestation". The second is related to each of a series of earthly lifetimes, and it is purely related to reincarnation. In Christian theology, it refers to the doctrine that Jesus, the preexisting divine Logos and the second hypostasis of the Trinity, took on a human body and human nature in the womb of Mary the Theotokos.

The word originates from the Latin word incarnatio ("enfleshment"), which in Old French became incarnacion, and was incorporated into Middle English sometime in the 12th or 13th century. The Late Latin version incarnari ("be made flesh") is made up of the prefix in- "in" and the word caro (gen. carnis) "flesh." It originally meant "a piece of flesh." The word comes from the Proto Indo-European root *sker- which means "to cut." It is also the source of Spanish encarnacion, Italian incarnazione.

The word "enfleshment" is used rarely in this sense, but the word "embodiment," on the other hand, is used quite often, with a wider spectrum of secular meanings. It is defined as a "tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling," illustrated in the use of its synonyms "personification", "incorporation", "realisation", or "expression". The second meaning is tightly related to the first, and it means "the representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form". Its synonyms are almost the same, such as "manifestation" and "representation."

The Russian language has a word that is almost the same in meaning, воплощение (voplosh'enie), which comes from во ("vo" from "v" - "in"), and плоть (plot') "flesh." Since it literary means "enfleshment," this term also carries another semantic dimension, the one acquired from Christ's warning to his apostles that if they do not eat the flesh of the Son of man (and drink his blood), they won't have life in them (John 6:53). By using solely the word "incarnation," English has lost this Eucharistic dimension of this word, and kept only the reference to Christ's conception.

Beside the word инкарнация (inkarnatsiya), which is a translation from Latin, Russian also uses the word вочеловечение (vochelovechenie), which comes from the same prefix, and the word человек (chelovek) "human." This profound meaning stresses the fact that the result of the incarnation is a human being.

Russian religious thinkers and poets have used variants of this word with a purposeful evangelical connotation, especially in the early Soviet period, when using Christian terminology could cost one his/her freedom, even life. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), for example, often uses both "incarnation" and "embodiment" to denote the manifestation of an idea in language. For this philosopher, theory has no value without embodiment in life through the word (or discourse), just as there is no Logos without his Incarnation. 

It is interesting that the German language uses a word with the same meaning. Beside Inkarnation, the term Germans use most often is Menschwerdung (ger. Mensch = human, Werdung  - becoming, coming into being). This term also emphasises the process of coming into existence of a human being. There is also the word Fleischwerdung (Fleisch = flesh, meat) in German, but it is used less commonly.

German philosophers have also used different terms to denote a similar meaning. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), for instance, introduced the word Geworfenheit, a noun derived from the participle gerworfen ("thrown"), which likewise denotes the "embodiment" of a theory in the concrete living act. Awareness of the arbitrariness of his concept Dasein is characterised as a state of "thrown-ness" in the present with all its attendant frustrations, sufferings, and demands that one does not choose, such as social conventions or ties of kinship and duty. The fact that Heidegger renders existence the essence of one's being, as opposed to theory and ideas, the way German idealism did, makes his philosophy existential.

Svetozar Postic

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