Chapter 2: The Cosmos and Revelation
Who among us has not been affected, and perhaps somewhat troubled, by the dramatic new discoveries about the stars, atoms and life on earth that have taken place in this century? Because of developments in modern science our sense of the cosmos has changed rapidly and drastically, and it will continue to do so in the years ahead. We now know that we are living in a world-in-process. Our universe is "unfinished." Most scientists are convinced that the cosmos has slowly and arduously "evolved" to its present state. Over a fifteen to twenty billion year period of time, matter has struggled to become alive, and life to become conscious. What the future holds in store for this evolutionary world is impossible to say very clearly. But we can hardly help asking where it is going and whether it has any purpose to it.
The best scientific conjectures today maintain that our present universe began with a mysterious event called the "Big Bang." Then there followed an expansion of the earliest forms of matter outward into "space." This expansion took place at such a precise rate that it eventually allowed for the congealing of gases, drawn by the force of gravity, into bodies that became stars. In the intense heat at the core of these stars the lighter hydrogen atoms that had evolved much earlier were transformed into the heavier elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. This "cooking" process was of utmost importance because it produced the chemicals necessary for the evolution of planetary bodies such as our earth, and thus it made possible also the eventual appearance of life and human beings. About five billion years ago our own planet attained its orbital status around the sun. Its molten surface began to cool, and several billion years ago it acquired a solid crust upon which very primitive forms of life began to appear. These early forms of life gradually became more and more complex. Plants and animals appeared, and then, perhaps one to two million years ago, our own human species finally came Onto the terrestrial scene.
Evolution does not seem to have stopped with our appearance. The universe’s perpetual striving for more and more organized complexity, for increasingly intense forms of ordered novelty, continues. Our own existence here and now in the twentieth century of the Christian era is possibly still very early in the unfolding of the universe. Who can say what lies up ahead or how much further the evolution of the universe will continue? The mysterious origin from which our cosmos came and the even more mysterious future into which it is moving must render us very tentative in our attempts to say what this universe is all about. Is there anywhere a "word" that can give us some orientation? Or are we destined to remain always completely "lost in the cosmos?"
This evolutionary universe is, as far as scientific reasoning can tell, the basic context or horizon of our human existence. It is the broad "situation" out of which any educated person today addresses some of his or her most important questions about human existence. It is no longer possible for us to ignore modern cosmology and the many new and seemingly unanswerable questions it has raised. The most obvious of these questions is whether there is any final meaning to the cosmic process of which our lives seem to be such a transient and insignificant moment. Is there any purpose to the universe? This question is inseparable from our own individual concern for significance (which we shall look at in Chapter 6). For if the universe as a whole is a senseless and unintelligible movement of matter on a mindless journey toward nowhere or nothing, it would seem that our own individual claims of significance are rather tenuous also.
Of course there have always been thinkers who adopt a "tragic" interpretation of existence and who instruct us to resign ourselves to the apparent absurdity of this universe, to the cosmic indifference made even more "obvious" by the discoveries of modern science. The tragic interpretation of existence goes back to antiquity, and it has always been a powerful alternative to any "religious" vision. Its appeal lies in its ability to give the individual a sense of heroic significance in spite of the precariousness of life and the felt indifference of the universe. It insists that the universe does not care for us and that our existence does not really fit into the cosmos. But instead of collapsing in the face of this conviction the tragic vision proclaims that the final absurdity of the universe gives each of us an opportunity to exercise a courage that would not be possible if the universe were benign. By feeling in ourselves the courage of an Atlas, a Sisyphus or a Prometheus we will become convinced of our inner strength and well-being, and that will be sufficient to satisfy our private craving for significance. We do not need any "backing of the universe" to assist us in our project of achieving our self-importance.
To many intelligent people this tragic view seems to have the advantage of being "realistic" when compared to any belief in cosmic purpose. It does not need to go beyond what empirical reason can verify about the universe. The tragic, absurdist vision remains, as Albert Camus puts it, entirely "within the limits of the possible." It does not require that we imaginatively conjure up a future for our universe in which all the currently unanswered questions are finally resolved. Such "illusory" thinking is for the timid of spirit and the weak of heart. Instead the tragic view proposes that the self-esteem without which we cannot live contentedly can be gained in the face of absurdity much more readily than in the context of religious belief in universal intelligibility.
It would be rash to deny the appeal this tragic view has for us humans, all of whom are beset at times (sometimes for long periods of time) with the apparent absurdity of events and experiences. It is often much more tempting to settle for such an absurdist view than to remain steadfast in hope and trust when circumstances make the universe seem to be against us. Even within the Bible there is a strong momentary flirtation with tragic thinking, as for example, in Ecclesiastes and Job. Would it not simplify things if we would just accept the unintelligibility of the universe and not look for any "word" that might illuminate for us what it is all about?
There is another way of putting the question raised by our new cosmological sense of the vastness of the universe: is the universe alone? Have the galaxies struggled in absolutely solitary silence throughout the ages of their evolution? Has evolution been completely unaccompanied by any principle of care and concern? Has life on earth labored along for two or three billion years in lonesome struggle eventually to eke out by accident the human species which has to gather itself together in various fragile social arrangements in order to protect itself from the intolerable muteness of the universe?
Modern scientific stoicism will answer "yes" to these questions. The absolute loneliness of the universe is the basis from which all living and reflection must start. Followers of the biblical tradition, however, believe that they have heard a "word" speaking out to us in our lostness, a light shining in the darkness, a word telling us we are not alone and that through it the cosmos has been delivered from its apparent aloneness. The breaking through of this word into the apparent silence of the universe is what is called "revelation."
This word is communicated essentially in the form of a "promise." Centuries ago, according to the biblical narrative, a man who came to be known as Abraham felt the promise of a deeply fulfilling future summoning him to leave his ancestral home and launch forth into the unknown. His sons and daughters, having the same seed of hope planted in their hearts, continued the search for what had been promised to their father. The sense of a great future was passed on from generation to generation. The names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua and the great judges and prophets of Israel all call to mind for believers to this day that a word of promise has broken the silence of the universe. For the Christian the person of Jesus of Nazareth constitutes the decisive breaking in of the promise of fulfillment originating with Abraham. The event of Jesus the Christ, and especially the accounts of his resurrection appearances are fundamentally promissory realities revealing what lies in store for the universe as a whole.(See Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, trans. by James W. Leitch (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). pp. 139-229.)
Christians believe that in Jesus who is called the Christ God’s gift of self to the universe is bestowed definitively and irreversibly. The substance of the promise made long ago is the very being of the God who planted a restlessness in the universe and a hope in the hearts of our ancestors. Revelation is the self-gift of the promising God to the universe.
But what exactly is this revelation, cosmologically speaking? In a sense we may say that it is a word of promise that relieves the universe of its aloneness. In another sense, however, the universe has never been alone. Rather it has been merely unfinished. From the moment of its creation it has "felt" the outpouring of God’s own being into itself. And this divine self-donation is already a "universal" or "general" revelation. Revelation is fundamentally the self-outpouring of God into the world, arousing it to reach for further and more intense modes of fulfillment. The call of Abraham may be seen as a special instance of the breaking in of God’s promise to the universe within the texture of a particular people’s existence. From the point of view of cosmology the particularity of Abraham’s summoning need be seen as no more scandalous than the fact that at an earlier time in cosmic evolution life itself came about at a particular place and as a unique event. By its very nature the introduction of unprecedented novelty into the cosmic process has to be a unique event. Locating the special call of Abraham in terms of cosmic evolution, and its whole series of unique moments of novel development, may help soften the scandal of particularity involved in the special call of God to a particular people to bear witness to the divine promise to the cosmos.
But what does revelation mean in terms of the evolutionary nature of the cosmos? If we look at it in the context of an evolutionary universe, revelation is the full unfolding and blossoming forth of the universe itself. It is the coming to a head of the struggles of all the cosmic ages for a significance that might validate their labored journeying. This intuition is expressed in the Letter of Paul to the Romans: ". . . the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now . . ." (Romans 8:19,22) From one point of view revelation is the surprising and interruptive utterance of a word of promise into what otherwise is interpretable as a cosmic void. But viewed from the side of the cosmos-in-evolution it is legitimate to see revelation as the flowering fulfillment of the universe itself. Revelation is, in one sense at least, the very purpose of the evolving universe.
This theological vision might be developed as follows. In creation God gives away the fullness of divinity to the cosmos. But the cosmos in its finitude is unable to receive the boundlessness of God’s self gift in one instant. Hence its response to the overflowing love is one of an ongoing expanding and enhancing the intensity of its own being in order that it might receive increasingly more of the divine life into itself. The cosmos moves and grows as a result of the implantation of the self-giving mystery that forever lies beyond it. Because of this cosmic self-transcendence "time" is born. The meaning of time (which has always been a problem for philosophers) when seen in terms of God’s self-revelation is that it is the mode of becoming that a world has to assume while it is receiving God into itself. The time-struck cosmos is, in other words, a world filled with promise. It cannot contain the infinite in a single moment. Therefore, it must move incrementally and indefinitely forward, receiving the fullness of the divine self-promise. This not yet completely appropriated fullness of God is called "future." And it is out of this "futurity" of the divine that the revelatory promise is issued and the cosmos lured toward its fulfillment. Evolution is the story of the world’s movement into this future. As seen from the perspective of science, evolution is simply a process involving the gradual emergence of more and more complex entities and societies. But from the perspective of revelation cosmic evolution is the story of the God-of-the-future entering ever more intimately into the fabric of the universe. After an almost unimaginable number of epochs this process has reached its present status in which human beings are prominent at least in our own corner of the universe. Still the promise beckons us forward. The universe remains unfinished. And believers in revelation feel a trusting responsibility to the universe itself to allow the promise of fulfillment to lure them forward into the future. Through their trust in the future the universe continues its journey into the self-bestowing mystery of God.
The record of humankind’s and the universe’s response to and flight from the divine self-gift is what we call the "past." And those moments in which the world, by way of human hearers of the promissory word, has opened itself in an exceptional way to the future of God are called "revelatory." From our perspective in the "present" we look back to such moments as the basis for showing us how in the present we might face our own future. Christians find such moments narrated especially in the Bible, and they find there innumerable stories directing them to trust, now in the present, the promise of a future given ages ago but still not fully attained.
Among these stories and events the one that stands out most dramatically and normatively for Christians is the Jesus story, and within that story the narrative of his crucifixion and resurrection is all-important. We shall see later what this story might mean in terms of other contexts such as history and society. For now, though, our setting is cosmology. What is the cosmological significance of the image of the crucified and risen Jesus? in what way is it revelatory of the meaning of an evolving universe? How does it speak to the apparent silence of the epochs of evolution? Revelation, H. Richard Niebuhr has said, is the gift of an image that brings intelligibility to our world. To Christians the image of the crucified man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the central (though not the only) one through which significance and meaning is given to the world. But how would this image illuminate the meaning of the cosmic evolutionary context we are speaking of in this chapter?
Putting together some recent theological attempts to answer this question, let me offer the following interpretation. In the image of the crucified man, Jesus of Nazareth, Christians have discerned the revelation of a totally self-emptying God. The complete out-pouring (in Greek kenosis) of the divine life, however, is not limited to the story of this one man. The divine kenosis, or self-emptying, is eternally characteristic of God. It is of the divine essence to give itself completely away to the world. It does so not only in the redemptive moment of Christ’s death and resurrection but also continuously in the very act of creating the world and allowing it to exist. Creation itself is the first and fundamental manifestation of the divine self-emptying.
We may understand why the creation of the cosmos already involves an act of self-humbling on God’s part if we reflect briefly upon the theological notion of divine omnipotence. In order to let the world come into existence, and then to continue to be itself and not just an emanation of God’s own being, an omnipotent Creator would somehow have to restrain or "rein in" the divine presence and power. Divine creativity would have to "contract itself" away from any compulsive "control" over things in order that the world might come forth in genuine otherness in relation to God. Creation then would not be so much an act of divine self-expansion as it would be the result of God’s self-withdrawal. It would be the result of a divine "self-contraction." Divine power would be manifest in "weakness" as St. Paul says. In the image of the crucified man, Jesus the Christ, the Christian may see the historical revelation of this self-sacrificing God out of whose absolute generosity the world is allowed to be.
Viewed in the light of this kenotic image, a view available only to faith of course, the evolution of the cosmos is given an intelligibility that it would not otherwise have. The apparent randomness as well as the struggling and unpredictable meanderings that science sees in evolution, and which have caused so much theological controversy, are just what we should expect if the world is in some way left to be itself by the non-interfering goodness of a self-emptying God. The indeterminacy that science has found at the levels of matter (uncertainty), life (chance mutations), and human existence (freedom) are essential cosmological ingredients if the autonomy of the world is not to collapse into the being of the Creator-God (in which case it would no longer be a world distinct unto itself). The possibility of its wandering away from what God intends for it is an inevitable risk in any universe where the cosmos is given its own genuine, autonomous existence. In order for the world to have its own existence, its Creator would in some way have to be "absent" to that world. And precisely by restraining its "omnipotence" (a notion suggested by Simone Weil, Geddes MacGregor, Jürgen Moltmann, Nicholai Berdyaev and many others) the creative principle would be simultaneously giving itself away to that created world. In speaking of the creation of the world we have to abandon our crude notions of mechanical causation, and in doing so we can remove a number of unnecessary theological problems that have resulted from the misleading identification of creation with efficient causation. The image of the crucified, therefore, allows faith to understand the evolving universe as the effect of God’s kenotic self-revelation.
The image of the "crucified God" also makes it clear to faith that the sufferings of the world and its evolutionary struggle are not solitary and ultimately unredeemable. For they are forever being taken into the very life of God where, according to the many biblical images of "resurrection," they are transformed into a new creation. This, at any rate, is how the cosmic process might be seen when it is regarded through the central images of Christian revelation.
But can this revelation be proven? Is it reasonable? Can it stand up to the critical questions that will inevitably come from the "enlightened" modern mind? I shall address these questions focally in Chapter 7, but let me state now why it is that revelation seems to elude the grasp of what we ordinarily call reason. I think we can explain why this is so especially in the context of our picture of an evolving world.
As the world has evolved, new and richer forms of existence have gradually appeared. We may, somewhat simplistically, speak of four successively higher or "emergent" levels that have evolved: matter, plant life, animal life, human life. As we move up this ladder of emergence each higher level includes considerably more of what may be called "mentality" or "feeling." Matter seems to possess only a negligible amount of "mentality" or "feeling" (though some philosophers insist that sub-atomic events are also actually constituted by their "feeling" the fields of force surrounding them). Plant life obviously possesses a deeper and wider sentience than does mere matter. Animals are characterized by an even deeper form of "awareness." And, finally, human life goes a qualitative leap further in its capacity not only for deep feeling and awareness, but also for self-awareness. Therefore, if we use as our axis of measurement the emergence and expansion of "mentality," we can maintain that there has indeed been a certain "directionality" in evolution.
Notice that each higher "level" in this emergent process includes the levels that lie beneath it, but it cannot be fully explained in terms of the lower levels. For example, life includes matter, but the sciences such as chemistry and physics that deal with matter are incapable on their own of explaining all that is involved in life. And the human mind includes life and matter, but it cannot be fully understood in terms of chemistry and biology. Something qualitatively new and irreducible has been added at each emergent level.(For a more extensive discussion of these points see my book on science and religion, The Cosmic Adventure (New York: Paulist Press. 1984), pp. 48-74).
Now it is entirely possible, as I have said earlier, that the appearance of the human species with its peculiar form of consciousness is by no means the end of evolution. In fact it is more likely that evolution can continue indefinitely (within the parameters established by the laws of thermodynamics), and for all we know, the present moment may still be very early in the full unfolding of the universe. If hydrogen atoms, which were once the dominant "species" of being in the universe, had been conscious they may easily have conjectured that they were the final product of the evolutionary process. However, they left themselves open to being patterned and transformed into "higher" types of entities. And each succeeding level has "left itself open" to being informed and patterned by yet higher entities. An obvious illustration of this recurrent phenomenon is the manner in which invariant chemical processes of nature leave themselves open to being taken up into living cells, or the way in which cells allow themselves to be patterned into more and more complex living and conscious processes.
It is also entirely consistent with the patterns we notice in cosmic emergence for us to maintain that the human sphere of mentality is now being invited by the "forces of evolution" to leave itself open to an informing and patterning by a yet higher and more "conscious" level. Why should we assume that human consciousness is not so invited when every previous level has found its fulfillment only by being taken up into a higher dimension? What I am calling "revelation," therefore, may be cosmologically located as a further development in the universe’s evolution of consciousness. And as we would expect, revelation would be no more reducible to reason or ordinary consciousness than life is to matter. Revelation is no more understandable in the categories of the "enlightened mind" of reason than life is explainable in terms of chemistry. Therefore, the reason why revelation is so elusive to our ordinary human rational processes is precisely because it fits so securely into the emergent evolutionary scheme of things. According to this vision a higher level can include or comprehend a lower, but a lower cannot include or comprehend a higher. If revelation occurs at a higher emergent level than human reason, then we should not be surprised that it remains at least somewhat out of reason’s grasp.
Some contemporary theologians are suggesting that, from the point of view of evolutionary cosmology, reason, like the lower levels that preceded its appearance in the universe, must leave itself open to being taken up into the "higher dimension" of revelation. Revelation, therefore, is the evolutionary fulfillment of reason, in no way reducible to the latter. And just as life does not contradict chemistry, or human reason does not contradict the biotic processes in which it dwells, so revelation cannot contradict reason. It dwells in reason and utilizes our ordinary rational faculties, but at the same time it "transcends" the rational level of cosmic evolution.(These ideas have been developed in different ways by Teilhard de Chardin and process theology. I have summarized these ideas in The Cosmic Adventure.)
I have not yet specified in detail the content of what I am calling revelation. I shall begin to do so in the following chapter where our starting point will be history rather than cosmology. My objective in this chapter has been simply to state how a possible revelation may be situated in terms of the very broad context of cosmic evolution. I would like now to add one final point concerning the cosmic location of "faith" in terms of the emergent, evolutionary universe. The attitude which human consciousness must assume in order to accept the promissory essence of revelation is a simple trust or confidence that we usually refer to as "faith." Faith is not an act of blind credulity or the acceptance of irrational and absurd ideas. Rather it is the commitment of one’s whole existence to a promissory word. It is an act of entrusting oneself to a pattern of existence that is present in promise and which reason cannot get itself around comprehensively. In short, faith, when viewed from the point of view of cosmology, may be defined as the act or state of leaving our human consciousness open to being patterned by a higher emergent dimension whose substance always remains beyond our comprehension. It is the allowing of our human existence to be taken up into a cosmic story whose final meaning is promised but not yet clear.
We can have only a fragmentary and opaque glimpse of the final meaning of the universe. And this partial view is given to faith first of all through "images" that accompany the promise given to us in the medium of history. We turn now to an examination of the historical situation through which God’s revelatory self-gift to the world is mediated.