Chapter 12: Christianity and the Cosmos
In Christianity the primary symbol through which the ultimate meaning of the universe becomes transparent to the believer is a human personality, the man Jesus of Nazareth. It is appropriate to use the term "symbol" in referring to this man since he functions in his life and words in the manner of symbolic expression portrayed in the previous chapter. Through participation in the stories about Jesus and in the life of the community that perpetuates his memory the believer experiences a sense of being drawn into an "ultimate environment" of sustenance and care. The picture of Jesus as the Christ functions to "hold together" (sym-ballein) our immediate environment of ambiguous cosmic and interpersonal existence with an ultimate environment of unrestricted and unconditional love. For the Christian this picture functions to fortify the trust grounded in our being part of a pattern of cosmic beauty.
From the perspective of the social sciences it may appear that the symbolic power this picture has over the lives of Christians is largely a product of the intensity of the desire that gives rise to the picture as it is sketched in the New Testament and in Christian teaching and life. It may appear to be largely the believer’s own wishful projections onto the gaunt life of an historical personage who in fact bore little likeness to the portrait as it exists in the imaginations of believers. It is part of our heritage in a scientific age that we would at least consider such an option as one possibility. Those of us who have been affected by the modern spirit of criticism cannot refrain from at least momentarily indulging in such suspicion. But in the present chapter I shall attempt to locate Christian symbolism in a cosmological rather than psychological context, keeping in mind our axiom that all human and mental occurrences are embedded in the cosmos. Psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, linguistics, etc., also may shed much light on the meaning and origins of Christianity. However, our perspective in this book is that of cosmology. And so, I shall devote the first part of this chapter to outlining how Christian symbolism may be situated in terms of an aesthetic cosmology and the second part to shedding light on some aspects of Christian faith in terms of the emergent-hierarchical model.
I. Christianity in an Aesthetic Perspective
The ultimate context of our lives is a pattern of ever-widening beauty lured forward, held together and felt in its massiveness and intensity by God. Our being embedded in this unfathomable totality of God and world necessarily influences us though we may have very little vivid awareness of our being so encompassed. Primary perception is the region of our being where our individual existence experiences its continuity with the totality; it is in primary perception that we feel "unconsciously" the causal influence of the aesthetic unity of God and cosmos in the constitution of our being. And so it is in primary perception that we feel the ultimate beauty and value that gives actuality to all that is. This primary organic contact with the cosmos infuses us with a subliminal sense of the world’s value, and we give evidence of this primordial awareness in our tendency to trust.
However, our sense of being connected with an enlivening universe is often attenuated, and so we may also be tempted to distrust. In the state of distrust our existence becomes infected with fear, hostility, hatred, and efforts to secure our existence independently of the whole. This feeling of separation manifests itself in an obsession with what is only a fragment of the whole. It takes the attitude of acquiescence in monotony often followed by an intolerable boredom which in turn arouses within us a rage for chaos. Oscillating back and forth between monotony with its false security and chaos with its absence of limitation we either set ourselves up as omnipotent over a diminished territory or else we shrink the world into ourselves. We repress the sense of being organically encompassed by a trustworthy process infinitely larger and more important than ourselves. We lose touch somehow with reality as we feel it in primary perception.
The ultimate value that we all feel in primary perception, however, does not and cannot vanish from our primordial experience. It continues to influence us as it assimilates our lives into its ever-expanding pattern of beauty. The universal beauty which is never absent from our primary perception seeks to embody itself in symbolic forms that will evoke a response from the full range of our feelings. And so by special condensations within particular segments of reality the beauty which is reality as a whole comes to expression in particular orderings of novelty that fall within the range of our secondary awareness. Thus a flower, a sunset, a poem, a song, a person, an event or a story may become the vehicle through which total beauty makes its way from the region of global, primary perception into an area closer to our senses. As we have seen, this movement from primary to secondary perception is a process of abstraction. Much is left out in the move toward vividness. The massiveness and intensity of beauty as God experiences them cannot be felt fully in our secondary perception. So the symbolic vehicles must always be proportionate to our own concrete sense experience if they are to mediate the value of the whole to us in any way. Their particularity is both the strength and the weakness of symbols.
In Christian experience we are granted a taste of the ultimate meaning of things in the picture of a particular person’s heroic life story. As was noted earlier, both genius and heroism arouse our aesthetic sense inasmuch as they are examples of the ordering of complexity into intensely dynamic patterns. The figure of Jesus as the Christ, as it is portrayed in the Gospels and as it is imitated and re-embodied in contemporary lives, has drawn numerous people into a circle of restored trust and hope. It has done so, I suspect, because it is a representation of universal beauty in a manner proportionate to a people’s experience at this time in the evolution of the universe. At a time when our primordial trust has been weakened due to our experience of suffering, mortality, guilt and the threat of meaninglessness, an encounter with this picture is capable of allowing us to trust once again that we are cared for and that reality is not indifferent to our deepest longings.
In the story of Jesus the Christian is attracted to the expansiveness of the man from Nazareth who reaches out in the broadest possible way in order to integrate into his life the widest variety of people and experiences. The integration and harmonizing of contrasts is what gives his life a beauty that is compelling and healing to the believer, and that leads the Christian to understand him as the embodiment of ultimate beauty, as somehow divine. The story pictures Jesus as embracing tax collectors, prostitutes, rich and poor, the socially respected and the socially rejected, women as well as men, children and adults, heretics along with the orthodox, the sick and the healthy. He is pictured as himself a story-teller in whose stories there is equally vivid harmonizing of contrasts: a father embracing a prodigal son, a tax collector praying for forgiveness; a heretic showing a compassion far surpassing that of the orthodox, an employer rewarding laggards with the same wages as those who have worked a full day. Jesus imagination is full of such jarring juxtapositions. And, the story goes, Jesus own existence synthesizes the apparent contradictions of a healthy love for life with an attitude of openness to execution. It is the harmony of such sharp contrasts that summons forth our appreciation of this man. It is not finally Jesus ethical teachings (which are not for the most part unique to him in any case) that inspire faith in him. Rather it is his relativizing of the ethical by his proclamation of a higher goodness that embraces both good and evil, the moral and the immoral. In short, it is the aesthetic dimension, the beauty portrayed in the mind and story of Jesus that calls forth a distinctively religious rather than merely ethical response from the Christian believer.
Unfortunately, though, much of Christianity has reduced Jesus to an ethical preacher. While he was certainly concerned that our life-style give expression in right behavior to our trust in God, ethics was not Jesus’ primary preoccupation. Rather it was the "Reign of God," a symbol representing the Jewish hope for ultimate fulfillment and peace. This was the symbol for a time when lion would lie down with lamb, when swords would become plowshares, when the poor would possess the earth, when old men would turn to dreaming. In brief, once again, it was a symbol for the deepest possible harmony of contrasts. Jesus’ prophetic vocation was to impress on people how an ultimate beauty was already breaking into their lives. He did not pretend that its appearance would be a gentle one. Instead he fully expected it to release a certain amount of chaos. And yet his hope was for a wider peace beyond the chaos. Christians today still, at times at least, share this hope.
However, to a great extent what passes as Christianity confines us to the ethical instead of opening us to the aesthetic. Sermons and religious education seem to focus more on rules of conduct than on opening our eyes to the contrasts the story of Jesus displays. Ethical concerns are an important dimension of Christian life, but they are not the ultimate horizon of faith. The ultimate horizon of faith and hope is a universal beauty. And it is our being drawn toward the spectre of eschatological beauty that gives rise to our moral aspiration in the first place. If we try to establish an ethic of duty independently of our hope for ultimate beauty, then the ethic will become an intolerable burden. The vision must precede the moral imperatives or else the imperatives will become demonic. Much contemporary atheism seems to be more aware of this fact than are many Christians.
It is partly because Christians have portrayed Jesus too dominantly in ethical terms that they leave themselves open to the suspicion of modern critics of religion. The modern rediscovery that Jesus was more preoccupied with eschatology than with morality should accordingly cause us to reassess how the figure of Jesus fits in relation to the universe. Jesus’ eschatological obsession was one in which the evil in the world is not rooted out and separated from the good. Rather his vision was one in which we should allow the weeds to remain along with the wheat, one in which God allows the sun to shine on both the just and the unjust. There is no moralistic segregating of the innocent from the dark side of life. The aesthetic urge to harmonize contrasts wins out over the ethical impulse to destroy evil outright. In this attitude, then, Jesus symbolizes for the Christian the intensity and expansiveness of universal beauty that characterizes ultimate reality. He did not strive simply to tell us how to behave but, even more, to open our eyes to the wider vision. His assumption was that if we are drawn to that vision our behavior will be shaped accordingly. But he seriously objected to those who attempt to reshape our conduct in the absence of such a vision.
Therefore, Jesus insisted that the love of God for the world was comprehensive and unconditional. It embraced all contrasts in the urge for more intense unity. It is in the same spirit that subsequent Christian theological reflection has insisted that God also embraces suffering and even death as aspects of the divine life. In its teaching that God identifies with the crucified man it proclaims in effect that omnipotence empties itself and takes the form of utter weakness and helplessness. No wider or sharper contrast can be imagined than that the infinite embrace the nothingness of death. In this sense, Christian theology that focuses on the "crucified God" also presents the vision of universal beauty incipient in the teachings of and about Jesus.
No doubt it is because I am myself attracted to this vision that I have highlighted the aesthetic approach to cosmology, teleology and theodicy throughout this book. It is the image of a suffering God presented in the symbolism of Christian faith that has led me toward Whitehead’s thought as an approach to cosmology which corresponds in most respects with the Christian symbolism. I would now like to show how the hierarchical model of the universe allows us further to unravel this imagery of divine vulnerability in a cosmological setting.
II. Christianity in an Emergent Universe
In the emergent hierarchy of nature each higher level dwells in and relies upon subsidiaries that constitute the lower level. For example, life dwells in and relies upon chemical processes which have to occur in a predictable and orderly manner in order for life to appear and function. This means that there is a certain "vulnerability" of the higher level in relation to a lower. Life seems to have a sort of power over the chemical level in that it is capable of integrating and organizing chemical processes into specific sequences that give it the character of life. But, at the same time, the incarnation of life in the cosmos is dependent upon the reliable performance of chemical processes. Life is fragile because of its vulnerability to being destroyed whenever there is a breakdown at the chemical level. If this vulnerability is a characteristic of all "higher" levels in their relation to the lower, then there are also theological consequences to be drawn from this condition.
The vulnerability of higher levels to malfunctions at the lower seems to intensify as we move up the ladder of emergence. Our mental processes depend for their successful achievements upon the reliable workings of biotic and physiological functions in our bodies, which in turn rely upon chemical processes. The latter in turn rely upon physical laws which themselves are orderings of quantum occurrences. The instability of entities increases as we ascend the hierarchy in the direction of human consciousness. Our conscious achievements depend for their success on an exceedingly complex hierarchy of assemblies of subassemblies. Such a ladder of ascending intensification gives an acute fragility to our humanly mental life.
Of course it is also true that a certain amount of stability is part of the very nature of hierarchies in that hierarchical structuring prevents the collapse of the whole edifice if there is a local disturbance at one of the levels. The hierarchical ordering of nature assures us that the world will not be reduced to sheer chaos every time there is a small breakdown at one level. The now famous analogy of computer scientist Herbert Simon clarifies this point. Huston Smith summarizes Simon’s parable as follows:
Two watchmakers, Hora and Tempus, both make watches composed of a thousand parts each. Hora assembles his watches piece by piece, so when he drops a watch he is working on it falls to pieces and he must begin from scratch. Tempus, for his part, assembles subassemblies of ten parts each, joins ten of these to make a larger subassembly of a hundred units, and then joins ten of these to make a complete watch. If he drops a part he is working on he will have to repeat at most ten assembling operations and possibly none.1
Nature is structured in a manner parallel to the procedure followed by Tempus. Consequently it is immune to the caprice of a misplaced atom, molecule or cell here and there. Chance is not the only factor involved in nature’s emergence. Hierarchical structuring provides the universe with a stability without which emergence of higher levels would be impossible.
Nevertheless, there is a vulnerability of the higher to the lower level, especially to the one immediately beneath it. We can see this readily in the case of humanly conscious activity. If we are physically tired we are not usually mentally alert either. Our mental life is exceedingly vulnerable to any biological impairment of our systems. Even though the mind has a certain kind of power over the biological subsidiaries in which it dwells, it is at the same time susceptible to suffering from modifications that occur within its substrata. Numerous forms of mental illness, for example, result from organic disorders in the nervous system.
If this vulnerability of the higher to the functioning of the lower intensifies as we move higher in the cosmic hierarchy, then it would follow that the highest level is the most vulnerable of all. The ultimate level (field, dimension) which dwells in and gives transcendent meaning to the whole cosmic edifice would itself be the most precarious and susceptible to the breakdown of the lower levels within which it dwells. God would be open to suffering and tragedy. Is such a conclusion acceptable from a religious point of view?
I think that at least Christian symbols and reflection are congenial to this interpretation of ultimacy. (Other religious traditions are also, but I am unable to develop this suggestion here.) The image of the "crucified God" is central to Christian teaching, though perhaps it has not often been taken seriously.2 Instead "God" has been ensconced, in classical theologies, as omnipotently immune to suffering and tragedy. The vision of the infinite emptying itself has proven to be too jarring in its contrasts for most of us. The beauty of this spectacle has been perhaps too overwhelming. And so we have typically taken the edge off of it by thinking of God primarily in ethical rather than aesthetic terms. We have subordinated the larger vision of universal beauty to the monotony of our own moral assessments of cosmic order and have invented for ourselves a God whose essential function is that of upholding our ethical orders by way of an omnipotence modeled on physical strength. Most cosmologies have been fashioned within the confines of this ethical vision and for this reason have aroused much of the modern distaste for teleology.
According to our hierarchical model, the ultimate level of meaning would also dwell in and rely upon the subsidiaries which it attempts lovingly to order into a patterning of beauty. And, if we are to be consistent, this would entail a vulnerability of the ultimate field of meaning to occurrences in the subsidiary fields. We are not required to hold that the existence of the ultimate depends upon the lesser orders. But it does seem plausible to hold that the incarnation of this ultimate in the cosmos requires an adequate preparation of its subsidiary base. Any failure at the level of the subsidiaries will impede the ingression of the divine into the world.
Of course one important level of these cosmic subsidiaries is the human. Whether this is the highest level or not we are in no position to say. But we may still conclude that in the case of God’s self-embodiment in the world there is a risk of tragedy because of the precariousness of the web of human relationships that would constitute at least one of the subsidiary levels of the divine indwelling. If the actualization of our mental life is so delicately balanced on the preparation of an extremely complex physiological base, we might also maintain that the "actualization" of the divine life, on our planet at least, is even more sensitively dependent upon the preparation of a network of human relationships which would be the receptacle of the divine incarnation. In this context the Christian injunction of neighborly love (also fervently enjoined in other religious traditions) has the significance in an emergent universe of securing an interpersonal subsidiary base of sufficient order and complexity to allow for the indwelling of a divine life.
We cannot escape the conclusion, therefore, that our sense of divine purposefulness in the universe depends for its depth on the degree of intensity with which the human subsidiaries are tied together in a relationship of mutual love. The academic suspicion of cosmic teleology that this book has addressed and challenged has given little or no consideration to the possibility that the human level of emergence may itself become a new subsidiary in which a yet higher level (or levels) may take up residence. It seems not to have reflected deeply on the fact that by cosmic standards of chronology we are very, very early in our development as a species. Hence the prospect that "cosmic" evolution has not come to an end with the emergence of humans is something we should reflect upon seriously. We know from the past history of the cosmos that the emergence of each new level depends upon the construction of an elaborate interlacing of subsidiary components, whether these be atoms, molecules or cells. If the latest evolutionary level of units consists of persons, therefore, it behooves us to pay attention to the manner in which they cluster together and form networks of relationships. Perhaps the future of cosmic evolution depends considerably upon how communities of human individuals take shape.
Christians hold that faith in God is inseparable from the building of true human communities bound together by a love that respects the dignity and worth of each individual. Because of this ideal, perhaps seldom realized but nevertheless kept alive somehow throughout the centuries as a compelling prospect, I cannot help agreeing with Teilhard de Chardin that Christianity has an important role to play in the future evolution of our planet.3 As one of the religious matrices of the ideal of neighborly love and human community, but also as nurturing a hope for the coming of God climactically into the tissue of cosmic becoming, Christianity is intrinsically open to the possibility of further cosmic emergence. In fostering the necessity of human bonding in the image of the "body of Christ" or "the people of God" it promotes the preparation of a subsidiary base suitable for a deeper incarnation of God in the cosmos. For this reason it seems to me that being a Christian is an acceptable way of endorsing and fostering the scientific discoveries of modernity.
1. Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, pp. 44-45.
2. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. by R.A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
3. Cf. Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. by Bernard Wall (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), pp. 291-98.