“A mistake about Creation results in a mistake about God.” Thomas Aquinas.
So I’d like to complain: We have been short-changed! We have been served a false dichotomy, and feel forced to accept one of only two items on the Evolution menu: Darwin or Genesis.
What I hope to show here is how this dichotomy persists by and large due to post-enlightenment thought. And emerging from this hackneyed framework, how it is possible to re-engage the issues of our origins in a fresh way, enabling us to attain a far more robust worldview and a more mature faith as we do so.
But first, we need to take another word from the bin as well, and that word is “Eternity”.
To most contemporary believers, it appears self-evident that God’s Truth is perfect, absolute, and “Eternal”. This implies that it is everlasting, changeless and complete. This view underpins current orthodoxy, and forms the basis for most western or monotheist ideas of Divinity.
For the literalist, fundamentalist Creationist, anything even hinting at “relativism”, is a challenge to Absolutes, and taken to be a frontal attack on God and Truth. For them it is inconceivable that the Genesis account be replaced by the Darwinian one, because their reading of the Genesis myth leads to a cosmic origin which was sudden, fully formed, and recent.
Christian Creationism goes hand in hand with a few other ideas. The work of Creation is “Finished”; the dominant narrative is the redemption of a fallen world, and after the return of Christ, there will be a new Heavens and a new Earth.
The important subtext is that Creation is a fait accompli, and man’s role is now one of obedience to the Word of God. Significant participation in the divine process, “divinisation”, is viewed as an arrogant attempt to be “like God”. But upon a closer examination, the Creationist ideology may not necessarily be the best or most faithful to the underlying biblical tradition.
The problem with our post-enlightenment understanding of what constitutes Eternity, Eternal Life and Creation, is that it is largely built on a Greek model of thought, more than its original Hebraic one. The Greeks, and specifically Plato, created a dualism between an Ideal and a Real world. This dualism was Christianised by the likes of St Augustine, and forms the basis of our understandings of the dualities of Nature/Grace, Time/Eternity, Heaven/Earth, God/Satan, Flesh/Spirit and Sacred/Profane.
In Hebrew, the dominant word translated or understood as “eternal” is olam (translated ever, everlasting, or ancient). In Greek, it is aionios, eon – essentially meaning an age or period of time, albeit long. With this in mind, one comes to understand that the idea of timelessness (implying unchanging), is not what is meant, either in the Old Testament Hebrew or even the New Testament Greek texts.
In fact, most scholarship seems to clearly refute the Greek sense of the word:
- The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible states: “The bible hardly speaks of eternity in a philosophical sense of infinite duration without beginning or end… Olam means … no more than an indefinitely long period.”
- The Interpreters dictionary of the Bible claims that “The N.T. and the O.T. are not acquainted with the conception of eternity as timelessness.”
- Hastings Dictionary of the New Testament adds, “There is no word in either O.T. Hebrew or N.T. Greek to express the abstract idea of eternity.”
This same confusion between time and timelessness is evident in comparing the Greek doctrines of Immortality of the soul with Hebrew belief in Resurrection of the body. Many Christians simply accept that these are synonymous. Nowhere is the confusion greater than in understandings of “Eternal Punishment” (but that is a matter for another discussion).
A word of caution: what this thesis must NOT do is introduce a false Greek-Hebraic dichotomy. We must see that the Greeks had a well developed sense of journey – note the epic Homeric tale, The Odyssey, for example, and that the Hebrews had a strong sense of YHWH as the Unchanging. But what must be emphasised is how the static Greek notion holds sway for us Westerners, such that we cling to biased ideas of the absolute and immutability, at the expense of those involving journey, discovery, and adventure.
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake argues that a more appropriate paradigm by which to read the Creation as well the Redemption Narratives – The Story of God – might in fact be in terms of evolution, rather than of eternity.
“When Newton combined [the] Platonic notion of eternal laws with the atomist notion of eternal bits of matter, he created a cosmic dualism upon which deterministic science has been based and is still based to this day … By contrast, the evolutionary paradigm comes not from the Greek part of our heritage but from the Jewish part. It is based on the metaphor of the journey, the prototype being the journey of the chosen people out of Egypt through the wilderness and to the Promised Land.”
Rupert Sheldrake (With Matthew Fox) “Natural Grace” pg. 163
Instead of Evolution being the mortal enemy of biblical truth, it may in fact hold a key to our being able to move forward from the impasse of modernism (truth as infallible, all-or-nothing, absolute proposition) in which the Church finds itself today.
If we start to view Gods dealings with the creation as an unfolding story rather than a text book or a closed, finalised and pre-determined canon of truth, it would give us a far greater sense of shared life in a continuing adventure. But we would also have to accept the responsibility of “divinisation”; becoming “co-creators”, and it is perhaps the terror of this exalted status that holds us back in servile religious frameworks.
Cosmologist Brian Swimme has pioneered this approach by combining western scientific knowledge with a new mysticism. He points out,
“We are the first generation to live with an empirical view of the origin of the universe. We are the first humans to look into the night sky and see the birth of stars, the birth of galaxies, the birth of the cosmos as a whole. Our future as a species will be forged within this new story of the world.” “The Universe is a Green Dragon”, p 29.
Swimme acknowledges Thomas Berry to be a primary influence. Berry articulates this new approach to scientific investigation when he says that the Universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. Subjects tell stories, and objects are described by facts. Story is a worthy vessel for mystery, because it can contain ambiguity, and unlike objective truth, is not obliged to dissect, map, or reveal.
Rupert Sheldrake informs us that the Universe is now thought to be 90-99% “Dark Matter”. He also points out how visible light forms a small sliver on the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Most of what is out there or even in here, goes unperceived. Quantum mechanics has shown us how at a subatomic level (outside of the Newtonian horizon), sheer unpredictability reigns.
And building on Rene Descartes dictum “I think therefore I am”, Enlightenment knowledge was limited to consciousness. Who can quantify how small or large human consciousness is on the full scale of existence? Today, most at least accept the notion of the Unconscious, pioneered by Freud and Jung. But when it comes to modernist-tainted theology, we still struggle with the great unknowns of God, instead insisting on “clarity”, a static, systematic, absolute and objective “Eternal” view.
The Enlightenment optimism that “full” knowledge was within our grasp, has been shown to be misguided. Modernity occurs at the height of the Enlightenment project, and probably also marks its demise. In this time, we are being forced back to a far more humble, integrated appraisal of the World and its processes, but one in which we play an integral part.
What I enjoy about Emergent thinking is the fact that it has stepped beyond Modernity’s prescribed, clockwork universe into the unknown of God’s ongoing creation. It acknowledges the unfinished nature of life, as well as the ultimate unknowability of the Divine.
Emergent writer Phyllis Tickle has just written “The Great Emergence” which contains (together with Brian McLarens “A Generous Orthodoxy”) perhaps the grandest vision yet of the Emergent movement. Whereas most Emergents have been provisional, tentative, limiting their description to “conversation”, Tickle is suggesting that this age of Emergence is a once-in-five-centuries event, following The Great Reformation of 1517, the Great Schism of 1051, and the Council of Chalcedon and Gregory the Great in 451, and of course the Great Transformation – the life of Jesus and the birth of Christianity out of Judaism in the first century.
She suggests that 4 quadrants of the Church, Liturgicals, Social Justice (Liberal), Renewalists, and Conservatives, are interacting on a new scale to provide a broad, ecumenical backdrop for what is to come. Old categories are breaking apart, and newness is appearing in many forms.
Other postmodern prophetic voices, such as that of Matthew Fox and Creation Spirituality, have held a similarly grand (and arguably broader and more ecumenical) view for some years now. In his Book “A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the transformation of Christianity” (2006) he draws unabashed parallels with Luther, particularly in his (Fox’s) somewhat controversial 95 theses. Fox believes that “we can start anew … a new reformation for a new millennium is upon us.”
Much of the momentum required by Emergents will be found in the past. One such impetus will be the re-imagining of contemporary spirituality by appropriately reinterpreting many of our big themes, such as that of a transcendent yet imminent Lord, who though everlasting, is deeply involved with their people in the process of Creation.
The tasks ahead for Emergent Christianity include:
- Wresting questions of eternity away from its Greek “timeless” bias.
- Wresting evolution – the story of life – away from both Literal Creationism and Materialistic Darwinism.
- Wresting Orthodoxy back from Enlightenment modernity.
- Wresting Imminence (God in Creation) away from Pantheism (God is creation), as well as Deism (God is separate from creation) in a Panentheistic approach (God is in All and All is in God).
- Developing a new cosmology, a new universe story, based in what the “new” science is making known, and a postmodern view of creation, and discovering the Cosmic Christ within this story.
This means new opportunities to re-imagine faith, to steward the bounty of the created order, and to share in the privileged process of cosmogenesis, the ongoing, “eighth day” of creation. And, tantalisingly, the potential for the rediscovery of an integrated, creation centred, and truly awe-filled worship of a Worthy Creator, is becoming increasingly apparent.