Chapter 8: Revelation and the Cosmos
Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein is reported to have said that the most important question each of us has to ask is whether the universe we inhabit is friendly or unfriendly. The response we give to this question will, to a large extent, determine the shape of our lives and the degree of satisfaction and joy we find in living. It would seem then that if the notion of revelation is to be of any consequence, it must at the very least help us formulate some answer to this largest of all puzzles.
In the present chapter, we shall attempt to unfold something of what the universe might look like when interpreted in the light of revelation. We shall propose that when our consciousness is shaped by faith in the divine promise, as well as by a trust in the gift of God’s self-limiting love, we will be able to see in the cosmos a depth and breadth otherwise obscured.
We know from modern science that the events of our lives occur within the story of a universe that is much vaster than our earthly history. Even in the Bible, the redemption of Israel and the establishment of the Church fall within the more encompassing chronicle of nature’s own creation and liberation.(From one point of view the doctrine of creation seems to be subordinate to that of salvation history, but it is also possible, as Moltmann in particular has shown, to view salvation within the horizon of creation and cosmology. See God in Creation. 1-56.) The cosmos itself, having come into being eons before the arrival of human history, is the more encompassing context of God’s self-revelation. The divine vision for the world goes far beyond what takes place in the course of our own species’ history or of events here on earth. Yet faith allows us to read cosmic events in the light of the revelatory promises of God that occur within our terrestrially bound human history. In the light of Christian faith, we may even say that billions of years before biblical religion emerged on earth the universe had already been seeded with promise. The reflections of the present chapter are rooted in the conviction that a faith-enabled consciousness can catch at least a glimpse of this promise in the cosmos.
From revelation’s perspective, the world presented to us by science appears to have been shaped by the same longing for future fulfillment that came to light consciously, explicitly, and historically in Abraham, the prophets, and Jesus. Science itself does not -- nor should it be expected to -- discern this promise of fulfillment. It does not concern itself with teleological or "final causal" questions. Yet nothing that faith tells us about the creation or about God’s promise contradicts the findings of science. In fact, as we shall see in Chapter 11, the perspective of biblical faith actually nourishes and supports the process of pure scientific inquiry.
This faith is rooted in a revelation that comes to us through the medium of human history. But revelation is not simply a plan for God’s people, for humanity, or for history, as theology has usually put it. This way of speaking, we are now beginning to see, is too narrowly earth-centered and anthropocentric. It also fails to speak to our current environmental crisis. Revelation must now be interpreted as God’s envisagement of the whole universes possibilities and ultimate destiny.(This wider-than-human view of revelation is quite biblical. It is present in the creation story, the Wisdom literature, and the Psalms, not to mention the theology of John and Paul.) Obviously, we ourselves are in no position to grasp what the fullness of this vision entails. From within our human history God’s vision of cosmic destiny can be grasped only through the relatively limited and time-conditioned stories of promise that serve as the foundation of our biblical tradition. And yet faith, aroused by the images associated with revelation, may lead us to look for and see things in the universe that would escape a kind of inquiry not so gifted.
Both the Bible and modern science place the cosmos within a narrative setting. When surveyed from the point of view of Current evolutionary models, for example, our universe quite clearly has the character of a story. And like all stories, it is revelatory. From its very beginning, the universe seems to be the unfolding and disclosing of a mysterious secret potential and inexhaustible depth, aspects of which are only now being brought to light by science. The universe itself is, in a sense, an ongoing revelation. In its immensities of time and space, as well as in its love of endless diversity, it sacramentalizes the generosity, extravagance, and unpredictability of the creator known by biblical faith as the God of promise. Let us take a brief look at the cosmic story so that we may eventually explore more closely its relationship to the idea of revelation.
The Cosmic Story
The outlines of the cosmic story began to appear as early as the seventeenth century during the period of the birth of modern science. But following the triumph of evolutionary theory in the past century, the narrative character of nature’s unfolding has become ever more conspicuous.(This is not to deny that in a subterranean way the biblical view of time has also prepared the way for the arrival of evolutionary thinking in the West.) Recently, astrophysics has brought us into more intimate proximity to the beginnings of the story. The current scientific consensus informs us that cosmic evolution began in a singular event, known today as the "big bang," occurring fifteen or so billion years ago. After that event, the universe continued to unfold in a series of transformations, none of which could have occurred the way they have unless the cosmic beginnings had already been configured in a very precise way.(This perspective may seem compatible with the ideas associated these days with the anthropic principle. According to this principle, the physical constants and initial conditions of the universe at the time of its origins were fine-tuned so that eventually the cosmos would give birth to life and consciousness. Even if the specific theories of contemporary physicists concerning the anthropic principle turn out to be scientifically unacceptable, a theology of revelation is obliged nonetheless to emphasize that the universe is at least in some way open to such promise from its very inception.)
After the mysterious big bang the universe began to expand outward creating space, time, and the galaxies. For billions of years its free hydrogen gases labored through various phases, eventually giving rise to stars and constellations. At the heart of immense stellar bodies, lighter elements were compressed and heated to exceedingly high temperatures and gradually became the heavy chemical elements (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, etc.) required for life. This process itself took several billion years of "cooking time" before supernovae explosions eventually dispersed them throughout space.
Some of these elements eventually began to assemble into planetary bodies like the earth. Chemicals and compounds that had been fashioned in the crucible of some remote burnt-out stars came together five billion years ago and formed our own planet. Then after another billion years or so, the earth’s surface having cooled sufficiently, primitive forms of life began to appear. Biological evolution had begun, but like other cosmic episodes it was not in a hurry. It was patient, experimental, random, and extravagantly "wasteful." After tossing up and discarding millions of primitive species, it finally gave rise to elaborate arrays of more and more complex organisms, to plants, reptiles, birds, and mammals, most of which are now extinct. And then, perhaps two million years ago, our immediate pre-human ancestors came onto the scene, probably in what we now know as East Africa. Finally, several hundred thousand years ago, our direct human ancestors appeared and began to spread out over the face of the earth.
We know that the unfolding of cosmic evolution has not always been progressive, but this does not detract from its narrative character. For in all great stories there are numerous dead ends and regressions. In the chronicle of any great struggle, there are long spans of waiting punctuated by brief but significant episodes of terror, victory, and defeat. Still, over the long haul, the evolutionary story clearly displays a trend toward the emergence of more and more elaborate entities. Matter does not remain lifeless and completely dispersed, but gradually converges upon itself and evolves in the direction of more complex life and eventually consciousness.(See Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall [New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959]). In spite of what some contemporary scientific skeptics have written about the aimlessness of evolution, it is hard to miss the generic sort of directionality (toward more intensely organized complexity) that the cosmic story has followed thus far.
It is obvious that life and consciousness have come into being out of elementary forms of matter. But after they came onto the cosmic landscape, evolution tended to complicate itself more and more, for reasons that scientists are still trying to unravel. Life was not content to remain stuck at a primitive level but instead advanced toward more sentient, conscious, and eventually self-conscious forms. And having produced the human species, the struggle for further complexity did not suddenly cease. Cultural evolution began to occur. After a long period of hunting and gathering, comprising by far the largest portion of our human history (from at least 100,000 to 10,000 BC.), humans invented agriculture, civilization, and other aspects of culture such as art, music, poetry, politics, education, and science. These developments at the level of consciousness are additional evidence that our universe, as embodied in human life, is still impatient with monotony. It continually seeks more subtle shading, contrast and novelty. In other words, it has the character not just of a story but of an adventure. The adventure now persists, especially in our religious excursions into mystery.
This cosmic adventure seems to have had a definite temporal beginning, followed by chapter upon chapter of dramatic events. These narrative features make us wonder, as humans always wonder when they attend to a tale, where this immense story might be heading. Toward what sort of destiny does it possibly tend? The expansion of the universe, its experimentation with so many peculiar patterns, and above all its hospitality to the evolution of life and the birth of consciousness persuade us that it may be a story with great consequence. For this reason, it is more urgent than ever that we connect the story of the cosmos with that of revelation.
We have said that the story is more aptly called an adventure. Adventure may be defined as the search for ever more intense versions of ordered novelty.(for this understanding of adventure see Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas [New York: The Free Press, 1967] esp. 252-96.) Adventure is what moves a process beyond triviality and monotony toward more highly nuanced forms of order. Any process that seeks thus to complicate the arrangement of things may be called adventurous. A tendency toward becoming more intensely complex seems to be an intrinsic characteristic of our whole universe, including our own species. The restlessness that impelled matter toward complexity, beginning with the big bang, has not yet been stilled.(See, for example, Louise B. Young, The Unfinished Universe [New York: Simon and Schuster,] 1986.) It continues now in our human inquiry and exploration. The cosmos reveals itself as an adventure of continual experimentation with novel forms of order. Hence, being part of this cosmos already means being a participant in a momentous adventure story.
Is this adventurous evolution of our universe already perhaps an aspect of what we call revelation? Thomas Berry, for one, argues that the universe is indeed not just vaguely revelatory but is instead the "primary revelation."(See Berry, The Dream of the Earth, [San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988] 120) It is the fundamental self-manifestation of mystery, and our religions should be seen as further episodes in a continuous unfolding of the depths of the cosmos itself. Whether or not we wish to understand revelation in such broad terms, it is at least imperative, especially today, that we relate the Christian idea of revelation to the larger story of the evolution of the universe.
What Does It Mean?
One can hardly listen to the cosmic story without asking about the meaning of it all. Theology can no longer honestly ignore what science tells us about the universe, nor can it suppress the questions the new cosmology has raised. The largest of these questions has to do with whether there is any final meaning to the cosmic adventure to which we and our history belong. Is evolution going anywhere, and how do we fit into the process? Is there really anything to the universe? Was anything of significance going on prior to our emergence? What exactly is going on now? What is our cosmic future? Can revelation shed any light on these questions?
We cannot begin to discuss such matters without first recognizing the fact that numerous modern scientific thinkers adopt a tragic interpretation of the universe which they take to be much more realistic than any theological vision. Basing their "cosmic pessimism" on materialist interpretations of science, they insist that there is no evidence of ultimate meaning to the universe. The universe is composed of mindless chunks of matter with no intelligible explanation, originating by chance, moving in no particular direction, and fulfilling no inherent purpose. There is really no story at all inscribed in the confused series of cosmic occurrences brought to light by modern science.
Though it originates in antiquity, this cosmic pessimism has become a serious option among modern intellectuals, always challenging any religious vision as unrealistic and unscientific. Even though to cosmic pessimism the universe outside of us appears to be devoid of any objective meaning, this is no cause for personal despair. It is still possible for the individual human person to gain at least some sense of significance. Even though the cosmic process is hopeless, the absurdity of the universe as a whole provides each of us with the opportunity to exercise a kind of courage to create our own meanings and values that would be impossible if we thought, with religion, that the universe were itself inherently purposeful. And so, by identifying our fate with that of an Atlas, a Sisyphus, or a Prometheus and other tragic heroes, we may discover in ourselves a hidden strength and sense of well-being that hope and eschatology cannot accord us. We do not need any overarching cosmic teleology to assure us that our personal project of existing is still important.
To many intellectuals today, this tragic view seems more truthful than any religious belief in cosmic purpose. It apparently accords better with empirical reason and logic. It does not require that we make imaginative projections about a future to hope in. In fact, it judges such "illusory" thinking as a symptom of weakness which the stout of heart will shun. It sees no promise in cosmic events, but instead reads natural history as a vacuous process leading only to eventual doom. And it proposes that by resignation to an absurd fate we can find an individual contentment unavailable to those who bury themselves in the shallow consolations of religion.
Sometimes those of us who live by hope and promise fail to appreciate how alluring such cosmic pessimism can be. For it often seems more rational to embrace an absurdist view of the universe than to remain steadfast in hope, especially when there are so many happenings within our evolving universe that, taken in isolation, seem to warrant a tragic interpretation. Even the biblical story contains several intriguing chapters where there is a strong flirtation with tragic thinking, for example, in Ecclesiastes, Job, and some of the Psalms. Sometimes it appears that accepting the present unintelligibility of the universe is a lot simpler than waiting for a revelatory word that might illuminate it and give us reason to hope in a surprising future that brings all of creation to a glorious fulfillment. Yet it is not preposterous for us at least to ask whether the billions of years of cosmic evolution have transpired completely without any inner meaning. Is it really conceivable that no principle of care has ever nourished the process, or that the universe from its beginning has been completely untouched by promise? Whether pessimistic cosmologists would approve or not, we still cannot but wonder whether there is any sort of purpose to, or promise concealed within, the cosmic process.
Science itself cannot answer this question, for its method deliberately leaves out any consideration of purpose or meaning. By definition, science puts aside questions of final causation or teleology. Even so, however, contemporary science is now in the process of drastically altering the picture of the universe out of which cosmic pessimism arose. For example, developments in astrophysics indicate that the universe is not so alien to life as it was formerly thought to be. In some of its early modern formulations, science had almost convinced us that the universe of matter is fundamentally uninhabitable by living and conscious beings. It held that living and thinking beings had emerged only by the sheerest of evolutionary accidents. Now, however, the picture is changing, largely due to developments in physics and astrophysics. These sciences, which formerly laid before us a universe fundamentally inhospitable to life and consciousness, are now instructing us that our world is quite remarkably congenial to their eventual emergence. The realm of physics is naturally conformed to the appearance of life and mind in a manner that conventional scientific wisdom had obscured from view. Today’s physics has observed that the universe’s initial conditions and physical constants were configured in such a delicate way during the cosmic dawn that, if these conditions and constants had been only slightly different, the universe would never have permitted the evolution of life and mind. An immense number of physical coincidences had to have converged in the initial stages of the universe, as well as later on, if it were eventually to bear life. If the force of attraction between protons, for example, had been just infinitesimally different from what it actually is, there could never have been hydrogen atoms (which require free protons). If there had been no hydrogen there would have been no galaxies and no stars to convert the hydrogen into the heavy elements essential to life. In other words, without a careful fine tuning at the beginning, there would never have been a life-bearing universe.(see Hawking, 124-27.) From its birth, the physical constants and initial conditions have been such as eventually to allow for the origin and evolution of life and mind. There is no reason, from the point of view of physics, that these initial conditions and physical constants might not have been different and led to a universe incapable of such evolution. To an increasing number of scientists today, it is appearing more and more remarkable that the physical conditions in the universe were from the beginning configured in such a way as to make the eventual emergence of life and mind a relatively probable development.
A few scientists have even gone so far as to argue that the initial conditions and fundamental constants established at the time of the big bang were fine tuned in such a way because our own species would inevitably be forthcoming.(Ibid.) In some way, the beginnings of the cosmos were already oriented toward the eventual emergence of living and conscious beings who would be aware of the universe. The majority of scientists are uncomfortable with such an obviously teleological explanation. Likewise, theology would do well not to make too much of this so-called strong anthropic principle. But even if one does not wish to baptize this principle, it is now at least clear that there are many stunning, and as of yet not well-understood physical coincidences that needed to be present in order for life to evolve. Thus it is tempting, especially in the light of revelation by which we view the cosmos with the eyes of faith as well as science, to hold that the material dimension of our cosmos was shaped by the promise of life, consciousness, and faith from the time of its earliest formation. Indeed, from the point of view of revelation, if not from science, there can be no alternative to our looking for such promise in the cosmic dawn. Freeman Dyson, a well-known contemporary physicist, says, "It almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming."(Freeman J. Dyson, "Energy in the Universe," Scientific American 225, no. 3 [September 1971] 59.)And many other physicists now concur that the early phases of the universe have always held out much more promise for evolving into life, mind, and spirituality than earlier science had allowed. There is now an emerging suspicion that the universe is much more amicable toward life and consciousness than we would ever have thought before the advent of twentieth-century physics and astronomy.
But it also remains clear that science by itself is ill-equipped to answer the big questions about any possible purpose and meaning to the cosmic process. Science always leaves out such considerations, and it does so rightly. It is neutral on those questions that are most important to us as persons who seek a meaning to live by. It does, however, leave open the question of purpose and meaning, and this is why religion and revelation may be allowed to respond to the question of cosmic purpose without at all intruding into the territory proper to science. Revelation must not contradict what science tells us about the cosmos. And a theology of revelation should be informed by science, so as to avoid making incoherent statements about the relation of God to the world. But there is nothing in the scientific picture of the cosmos that forbids our envisaging the story of the universe, in its modern scientifically established character, as simultaneously a story shaped by the same promise that becomes explicit in historical revelation. Indeed, recent developments in science even seem to encourage such a vision.
Christian faith believes that it is the role of revelation to address the question of universal meaning. Faith affirms that we have been addressed by a Word of promise that uncovers the meaning not only of our individual lives and of history, but also of the entire universe. In the midst of what we often take to be a cosmic darkness, faith discerns a light that has always been shining. It hearkens to a word telling us that the universe is not now, nor ever has been, completely alone. Even "in the beginning" there was the "Word" that gives meaning to the cosmos. At no time in its existence, then, has the universe as known by faith been devoid of meaning. Though the Word breaks out into the daylight of consciousness only with the birth of persons and human history, faith allows us to discern a great promise even in the very earliest moments of the cosmic adventure. And by dwelling within the stories of our faith, we are enabled by grace to look for and even to discern a pattern of promise in the evolving universe. If we came to the cosmos armed only with the useful but limited abstractions of science, we might miss this pattern altogether. Faith can complement science in our human search for the ultimate character of the universe.
Faith’s Shaping of the Story
At the beginning of the story of our faith, Abraham experienced the promise of a deeply fulfilling future summoning him to leave his ancestral home behind and launch forth into the unknown. And his children, having the same hope in their own hearts, are instructed by faith to carry on the quest for what had been promised to their father. The names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and the great judges and prophets of Israel all remind us that a word of promise has broken what we may have taken to be the silence and indifference of the universe. For Christian faith, the person of Jesus is the decisive breaking out into the open of the promise. The event of Jesus the Christ and especially the accounts of his having been raised up are fundamentally promissory realities. We must now learn to see them as inseparable from our concern about the destiny of the universe as a whole.
In his evolutionary Christology, Karl Rahner writes that Jesus Christ is God’s gift of self to the universe, bestowed definitively and irreversibly.(Foundations of Christian Faith, 178-203.) The substance of the promise to Israel and the Church is, in the final analysis, nothing other than the very being of God. The same divine self-gift that planted hope in the hearts of our ancestors in faith had earlier aroused the cosmos into being and continually stirred it toward further evolution. Revelation is the self-gift of the promising God, not just to history but to the entire world of nature which includes us. From the moment of its creation nature, too, even apart from human existence, has felt the promise of God. This promissory divine self-donation to the cosmic totality is God’s universal or general revelation. General revelation is the self-outpouring of God into the whole created world. Revelation in the broadest sense includes God’s presentation of relevant new possibilities persuading the cosmos to reach for further and more intense modes of fulfillment. It is only by way of the revelation of such possibilities that the cosmos could ever evolve toward new kinds of ordered complexity.
The promise of God to Abraham, Israel, and the Church, therefore, may be viewed cosmologically (and not just historically) as a special instance of the general breaking in of God’s promise to the entire emergent universe. Previously, we mentioned the problems that arise in a situation of religious plurality whenever one religion claims that it is founded by a special revelation withheld from others. The term "special" can easily smack of pretense and appear at times to bear the assumption of superiority. But from the point of view of an evolutionary cosmology, the special character of Abraham’s calling or of Israel’s election or of Jesus’ unique status need not a priori be taken as an embarrassment for theology. For by the very nature of cosmic evolution, of which the birth and growth of religious traditions are a component, the introduction of unprecedented novelty inevitably has to be a unique and local event. At an earlier time in evolution, life itself came about at a particular place, as a unique and privileged event, and we do not object to the rather undemocratic style of its entrance. Within the cosmic process, novelty appears at very particular times and locales rather than all over the place all at once. Hence, if we situate the call of Abraham, as well as other special revelatory moments of the history of religion, within the wider context of cosmic evolution, this may help soften the "scandal of particularity" associated with any unique or distinctive summoning by God of a particular people to bear witness in a novel way to the divine promise and mystery that come to expression first in the very creation of the world.
Thus we may interpret evolution as itself an aspect of revelation. The implication is that like revelation in general, evolution’s meaning consists not only of its achievements (which are in themselves often ambiguous), but even more of its promise. We cannot evaluate evolution simply by looking at its past history, one which is often quite tumultuous, violent, and confusing. And we make a great mistake theologically if we look into the cosmos only for a finished design that would prove to us that God exists. Such a theological approach is possible only by placing the cosmos itself outside of the theme of promise. For the most part, modern theology has separated the natural world from the notions of subjectivity and history and has made the latter the locale of God’s promise and revelation. However, today we are encouraged both by science and especially by faith to look at the cosmos from the point of view of the promise it contains in itself. Viewed in this light, we may see the birth and deaths of stars, the emergence of life, its moments of complexification, and the eventual rise of consciousness as sacramental evidence of revelation’s promise no less significant than God’s calling of Abraham and the prophets. The cosmos remains unfinished, and so we may look to its various evolutionary episodes for signals of its promise but not for any categorically diaphanous epiphany of God.(See the parallel argument of Ted Peters, "Cosmos as Creation" in Ted Peters, ed. Cosmos as Creation [Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1989] pp. 86-102: "The call to faith is not a call to place our trust in the ordered cosmos but rather in the faithfulness of the Beyond which has committed itself to determine a future that is redemptive. In short, trust God, not nature!") (102).
However, many Christians in the last century have been paralyzed with fear about the whole idea of evolution. The so-called creationists even teach that revelation contradicts the theory of evolution. Both skeptics and believers have wondered why an omnipotent Creator would allow the universe to unfold so ponderously and in such a long, drawn-out evolutionary manner. If God is all powerful, why was not the universe created in its final, fixed state once and for all? Why fifteen billion years of struggle, randomness, and waste before our own species eventually materialized? What is the meaning of the apparently enormous waste of time before anything of such consequence (at least in our typically anthropocentric estimation) occurred?
Although none of us can give definitive answers to these questions, our central revelatory image of God as self-emptying love may be invoked here once again at least as an experimental hypothesis to make sense of this puzzle. If, along with the theme of promise, we interpret natural evolution in the light of the image of God’s loving self-renunciation, then its long and arduous struggle takes on considerable significance. Cosmic evolution itself becomes a sacramental revelation of God’s personality. It is the narrative representation of God’s giving away the fullness of divinity to the cosmos.
The cosmos in its finitude is unable to receive the boundlessness of God’s self-gift in any single instant. A finite reality, even if it has the dimensions of our seemingly unfathomable universe, is never sufficiently expansive to contain an infinite love. Hence in its response to the overflowing self-bestowal of a promising God, the cosmos would be subject to an incremental intensification of its own being in order to partake ever more fully of the divine life given over to it. In other words, it would be invited to evolve. The finite world would move and grow (undergo a kind of self-transcendence)(Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 178-203.) as a result of a continual impregnation by the self-giving mystery of God. Evolution, when interpreted by the revelatory images of God’s love, is both the expression of God’s gift of self to the world and at the same time the world’s response to the non-coercive, defenseless divine self-bestowal. Karl Rahner interprets the Christ-event cosmically as the definitive and irreversible moment of God’s self-communication to the evolving world and at the same time the climactic reception by the world of God’s revelatory promise.(Ibid.)
The universe cannot contain the infinite in any single moment. Hence it is allowed, but not forced, to inch gradually forward by way of what science knows as evolution. Only over a period of time would it move toward fuller participation in the promise that comes to light historically in the faith associated with Abraham. Christians, however, may understand the decisiveness of Christ as the moment in evolution when God’s promise and self-gift, which have been continually and creatively present to the cosmos from its birth, are embraced by a human being without reservation. In Christ, the vision of God for the universe is accepted fully, and the significance of cosmic process eternally guaranteed.
Out of the inexhaustible "futurity" of God, the revelatory promise is issued to the world and the world lured toward its fulfillment. To the eyes of faith, evolution -- even in its pre-human episodes -- is already a revelatory story of the world’s movement into God’s future. From the perspective of science alone, evolution has no meaning. It is simply the gradual appearance of more and more complex entities and societies. But from the perspective of revelation, cosmic evolution is the story of a self-humbling God’s entering ever more intimately into the universe and drawing it toward a meaningful fulfillment.
It is especially in the crucified man, Jesus of Nazareth, that Christians have discerned the disclosure of God’s humility. The conviction of a divine kenosis could scarcely have entered our consciousness apart from this event.(In the light of this event, however, it may be possible for Christians to see indications of the humility of God in other religions also.) It is in Jesus’ death that faith discerns the complete outpouring of God’s own selfhood into the world. And out of this faith, theological reflection is gradually learning to regard the divine self-emptying as an eternal characteristic of God. Such humble condescension, manifest historically in the cross, is of the everlasting essence of God, and not just an ad hoc historical occurrence only externally connected to God’s inner life.
This divine humility is the foundation even of the creation of the universe. The coming into being of the cosmos already involves an act of self-humbling on God’s part. Creation may be understood not so much as the consequence of God’s self-expansion as of God’s self-limitation. God’s allowing the world to exist is made possible by a restraining of divine omnipotence. Divine power humbly "contracts" itself, surrendering any urge to manipulate events or persons. This humble retreat is what allows the world to stand forth as distinct from its creative ground. Creation is less the consequence of divine "force" than of God’s self-withdrawal.(This kenotic view of creation is found also in kabbalistic Judaism. Likewise, it occurs occasionally in the writings of Simone Weil as described in detail in Geddes MacGregor’s He Who Lets Us Be. It is even more prominent in the later writings of Jürgen Moltmann. See, for example, God in Creation. 88. A recent Jewish reaffirmation of the view that creation is grounded in God’s self-withdrawal may be seen in Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) 9-10. What Wyschogrod says about God’s creation of humans can also be adapted to the creation of the cosmos: "A world in which the divine light penetrates and fills all is a world in which there is nothing but God. In such a world no finitude and therefore no human existence [cosmos] is possible. . . . The creation of man [the cosmos] involves the necessity for God’s protection of man [the cosmos] from the power of God’s being. This protection involves a certain divine withdrawal, the tsimtsum of the kabbalists, who were also puzzled by how things other than God could exist in the light of the absolute being of God. To answer this question they invoked the notion of tsimtsum, by which they meant that the absolute God, whose being fills all being, withdraws from a certain region, which is thus left with the divine being thinned Out in it, and in this thinned out region man [the cosmos] exists." Some such notion seems essential to resolve the theological difficulties, especially regarding human freedom, resulting from the traditional habit of modeling God’s creativity on the rather deterministic idea of efficient causation.) It is especially in the image of the crucified that Christian faith is given the key to this interpretation of creation. The cross reveals to faith the self-sacrificing of God out of whose limitless generosity the world is called, but never forced, into being.
This kenotic image once again brings a surprising intelligibility to our evolutionary universe. Evolutionary theory has two main features that have made it seemingly irreconcilable with traditional theism. In the first place, it holds that chance or randomness is the raw material of evolution. If chance is real, then it apparently places God’s omnipotence and omniscience in serious question. A universe that possesses such a degree of randomness seems to lack intelligibility. God, the alleged divine designer, is apparently not in control. In the second place, evolutionary theory insists that an impersonal and ruthless process known as natural selection is the sole and sufficient explanation for the survival of some species and the extinction of others. A process that selects mutant species only on the basis of their accidentally favorable traits seems incompatible with a beneficent and intelligent creator. Evolutionary theory seems to think of the creative process as a prolonged, impersonal lottery rather than the "mighty act" of an omnipotent God.
In the light of revelation we are provided with a way of addressing these objections. We must begin, though, with a confession that the idea of a designing and controlling deity whose existence is rightly denied by many skeptics is also problematic from the point of view of a kenotic theology.If God is all-powerful in the sense of being able to manipulate things at will, then the facts of evolution do indeed cast doubt on the plausibility of theism. However, revelation’s image of a self-limiting creator, whose power is made manifest in a kind of defenselessness or vulnerability, is not only congruous with, but also possibly explanatory of the world that evolutionary theory presents to us. The randomness, struggle, and seemingly aimless meandering that the theory attributes to the universe are more or less what we should expect if creation is the product of the non-obtrusive love of a self-emptying God. The absence of strict determinism that recent physics has discovered at the most basic levels of matter, the chance mutations that biology finds at the level of life’s evolution, and the freedom that comes forth with human existence -- all of these are the expected features of any world we might claim to be distinct from the being of its creator. In order for the world to be independent of God and to possess its own existence, or to undergo a genuine self-transcendence in evolution, its creative ground would in some way make itself absent from that world instead of overwhelming it with divine presence. God would concede to the world its own autonomous principles of operation, such as the "law" of gravity or the "law" of natural selection. A self-limiting God, the humble God of revelation, makes more sense within an evolutionary framework than in any others that have been proposed so far by science.("A God who withdraws from the world in this kenotic sense, however, is nothing like, and should not be confused with, the useless God of deism. Paradoxically, it is out of love of relationship and dialogical intimacy with the world that God renounces any overwhelming, annihilating "presence" to the world. The retracting of annihilating presence is, as we know even from interhuman experience, the very condition of dialogical presence.)
We have been looking at how cosmic evolution may be interpreted in the light of revelation. But how does revelation appear when seen in terms of evolution? We may say that the revelation of God in Christ is the coming to a head of the entire evolutionary process. The intuition that Christ is the fulfillment of a cosmic promise, one that has a breadth that carries revelation beyond the sphere of human existence, is already present in Paul’s letter 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. . . ." (Rom 8:19, 22) When viewed from the perspective of evolution, revelation is the flowering fulfillment of the universe itself.
Care for the Cosmos
A cosmic interpretation of revelation is important today not only because of our need to address the question of purpose in the universe, but also because our globe is now threatened by an environmental crisis of unprecedented proportions. Does revelation have anything to teach us about the worth of our natural environment that we cannot already find in the resources of science? Let us first examine the possible roots of the crisis itself and then look at how religion and revelation might be situated with respect to it.(What follows is an adaptation of ideas developed at more length in my article "Religious and Cosmic Homelessness," in Liberating Life, edited by Charles Birch. et al. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990) 159-81, and in my book, The Promise of Nature (New York: Paulist Press, 1993).
It has often been argued that an excessive anthropocentrism (overemphasis on the human dimension of our world) is the main source of our current environmental crisis. An exaggerated focus on human significance places value so heavily upon our own species that it thereby drains value away from the non-human aspects of nature. And this robbery leaves nature open to our own abuse. For this reason, our locating revelation as a cosmic and not just an historical reality already has salutary environmental implications, for it counters the excessive anthropocentrism that has misshapen so much Christian theology. God’s gift of self is offered to the whole of the universe and not just to humans or terrestrial history.
It is environmentally important today that Christian theology sustain the critique of exaggerated anthropocentrism implied in this formulation. Anthropocentrism, however, is quite possibly secondary to and symptomatic of a more fundamental sense of our being "lost in the cosmos." Exaggerating our human importance may be the consequence of a more basic assumption that we are exiles from any value-bestowing cosmos. When humans feel that they do not really "belong" somewhere, they feel ashamed. And sometimes they seek to counter this shame by way of self-inflation. In the case of cosmic homelessness this reaction has led to a domineering and destructive attitude toward the life-systems of our planet.
Therefore, a head-long attack on our anthropocentric tendencies may not be the appropriate way to begin building a theology that would promote an environmentally sensitive outlook. Even though it is by way of a relentless assault on anthropocentrism that most contemporary environmental criticism begins, such an approach may not be very effective in the long run. Instead, it may prove more fruitful to address the fundamental feeling of cosmic exile to which anthropocentrism is one important response. Why is it that we often do not feel truly at home in this universe?
Environmentalists hold that if we fail to experience deeply our own belongingness to the natural world we will not sufficiently care for it. They insist that only those ways of thinking that encourage us to make nature our "home" can be environmentally helpful. But this advice already raises a serious question about the environmental significance of the world’s religions, including the Christian tradition. Religions and philosophies of the East and West, at least since the axial age, have at times made us feel alien to the natural world. They have convinced us that we are strangers in a foreign land to which we do not really belong. At times they have even led us to a hatred of the earth. They give us the impression that authentic existence involves a sense of being exiled from the cosmos. How can we reconcile the environmental imperative to respect the earth as our home with the important religious imperative to live as if we were homeless?
Religions clearly do invite us to an attitude of detachment, or to what we are calling homelessness. But does this religious injunction demand also that we learn to feel lost in the cosmos as though it were not a home that we should care for? Biblical religion tells of Abraham’s being called to move from his ancestral home in response to God’s promise. But is there not a danger that the dislocation required by fidelity to the revelatory promise will be interpreted as a call to cosmic homelessness? The theme of "the land" is glorified in the Old Testament, but the period of wandering homelessly in the desert is also emphasized by some of the prophets. In the New Testament, the natural world is an important basis for Jesus’ sacramental representations of the kingdom, but "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." And in most traditional Christian spirituality, we are said to be only pilgrims on earth. The theme of homelessness is so central to Christian revelation that we simply cannot dismiss it. But how can we reconcile it with today’s environmental concerns?
In other great religions, some form of homelessness is also our predicament, and we are instructed to embrace it for the sake of our salvation. In Hinduism, for example, religious teaching idealizes the sannyasin, one who eventually forsakes home and hearth, and through this detachment reaches out for more intense union with the divine mystery. And in Buddhism, the story of Gautama’s Great Renunciation -- in which he abandoned home, wife, and child is presented as an exemplar of the kind of detachment essential for enlightenment. Unless we feel somewhat uncomfortable with "the world," or at least "this present age," religions tell us that we will not experience true fulfillment.
The biblical focus on history as the locus of redemption, as we shall see in the next chapter, seems at first sight to lessen the significance of the natural world. The prophets forbade the Israelites to seek refuge in nature. And biblical religion transformed "pagan" rites of spring and harvest into festivals celebrating historic events. The exilic motif is central to biblical religion, but it seems, especially in its Christian interpretation, to mean that we should move beyond the ensnarements of the physical cosmos. Thus, revelation may easily be interpreted as a justification for our sense of cosmic homelessness. And this raises the troubling question about the environmental value of biblical revelation (not to mention that of other religious traditions). How can we sincerely make the natural world our home if the theme of homelessness is so central to faith in God’s promise? Or is it possible that the revelatory promise can bond us even more firmly to our planet and to the rest of nature?
To reiterate, there has traditionally been a tendency to interpret the biblical requirement of spiritual homelessness as though it also entails a cosmic homelessness. This translation, in turn, has seemingly made the natural world a victim of revelation’s promise, a promise that invites us to live, like Abraham, as wanderers. But if this association of religious with cosmic homelessness is inevitable, then revelation will be taken as incompatible with environmental ethics. If spiritual journeying requires also that we feel lost in the natural world, then religion and revelation will remain cosmically problematic.
Dualistic deposits in Christian theology are themselves partly responsible for the feeling of cosmic homelessness that underlies our present environmental crisis. Traditionally, an exaggerated mysticism, having lost its connection to the sacramental, silent, and active aspects of religion, has turned our attention toward a spiritual world existing apart from the physical universe. Today, most theologians would deny that this withdrawal from the world is consonant with the biblical vision. They would argue that it stems more from Greek and gnostic influences than from the Bible itself. Yet a feeling of cosmic homelessness clings to Christian religious teachings, and to academic theology as well. Christianity, no less than our scientific culture, is still tied to dualism. And with some notable exceptions, its theologians have not yet given us an environmentally adequate theology of revelation.
Take for example the widespread use of existentialism by theology in this century. Theologians turned to existentialism in order to find a set of concepts in terms of which they could articulate the meaning of Christian faith for our times. They found in the existentialist emphasis on human freedom a point of contact with the message of the Gospels. Christianity, Rudolf Bultmann declared, is fundamentally about freedom, and existentialism can help us explain what Christian freedom means. Unfortunately, however, this theologian imported into his theology a fundamental flaw in existentialist philosophy, namely, its uncritical acceptance of a materialist-mechanistic conception of nature and the corresponding assumption that freedom can never be at home in the machine of the cosmos.
Existentialism is an understandable attempt to save human freedom from being snuffed out by mechanism and determinism. In order to complete this rescue operation, however, existentialists posited a distinct realm for humans, one radically discontinuous with nature. They located human reality in the arena of freedom and subjectivity. In making such an absolute distinction between freedom and nature, existentialism perpetuated the dualistic view of the world and the negative environmental consequences it entails. As long as materialism or mechanism seems to be the only plausible philosophy of nature, this existentialist maneuvering is an understandable and forgivable way of keeping us free from absorption into the world-machine. In this respect, existentialism has made noble and moving contributions to humanism, and we must not be excessively critical of it. But existentialism usually requires that we accept our existence as in some way alien to nature. And the theologies that employ existentialist concepts are therefore also likely to be uncritical of the negative environmental implications implied in this segregation of humans from the cosmos.
However, it is not enough for us to criticize existentialist and other kinds of theology that have neglected the environment. If we are to move toward an environmentally wholesome theology of nature, we must also reshape our inherited ways of understanding revelation. We must look at it not simply as a set of historical events, but even more fundamentally as a cosmic phenomenon. Revelation is at root an expression of the universe and not only of humans and their history. If we give the universe a larger role in our theologies of revelation, and at the same time decentralize (without diminishing) human history and existential selfhood, such a way of thinking might change our entire attitude toward nature.
Fortunately, because of our contemporary scientific knowledge of the cosmic story, we are now able to connect the promise of revelation to a wholesome environmentalism. And we need not forfeit the biblical requirement of homelessness in order to accept the cosmos as our proper habitat. The narrative developments in scientific knowledge referred to above help to make this adjustment intellectually and theologically plausible today. We cannot simply ignore the ideal of spiritual homelessness entailed by the divine promise. For if revelation has any consistent theme, it is that an exodus faith in the promise requires our not accommodating ourselves too comfortably to any present actuality. To do so would be idolatry. However, faith promotes homelessness not as an end in itself but as a necessary moment in the quest for our true home guaranteed by God’s revelatory promise. It is not that faith is intrinsically opposed to our instinct for being "at home," but rather it resists our settling for something as home which is really not adequate domicile for our hope. According to the biblical vision, nothing less than the inexhaustible futurity of God can be the appropriate destiny of the human spirit. Such a promissory vision inevitably provokes a kind of restlessness in those who take it seriously.
But how can the hopeful restlessness required by faith prevent an escapism that carelessly leaves the cosmos behind? Can we keep together a feeling of fully belonging to nature, while at the same time embracing the insecurity required by faith in God’s promise?
The sense that the universe is itself a story grounded in promise may be the key to such a reconciliation. This vision allows us to accept the disposition of being on an endless religious journey while at the same time allowing us to put our roots down deeply into nature. For if the cosmos is itself a revelatory adventure aroused by God’s promise, then we may embrace both the natural world and the biblical ideal of homeless searching. We may thereby reconcile the biblical imperative to journey with Abraham into parts unknown, with the environmental requirement that we also feel completely at home in nature. For nature, too, as we now know from evolutionary science, is and always has been creatively restless. Its restlessness is also the consequence of the promise and self-gift of God. We need no longer idealize nature as though it were a haven apart from the perils of homeless historical existence. For the cosmos itself is homeless with respect to the fulfillment promised to it by God.
Because the universe is itself fundamentally a story of restless searching for novel forms of order, we do not have to segregate it from the history of salvation and the realm of freedom. We can now accommodate the entire universe to the revelatory theme of homeless wandering. If we are to be faithful to nature and our continuity with it, we may now accept the universe s own inherent instability as the precondition of the biblical, historical revelation. The cosmos is not merely a point of departure that we must leave behind us in our obedience to the promise. Rather, it is more akin to a fellow traveler that has begun the journey of responding to revelation’s promise epochs before we ourselves arrived on the scene to join it. We may interpret the companionship of nature less as a paradisal refuge from history and more as the root system of our own response to revelation. We need to acknowledge its own inherent exploratory dynamics (rooted in the divine promise incarnate in it from the beginning) as the condition of our own faith and hope. This means that revelation and environmental ethics are not merely compatible, but that they are mutually complementary. If we could learn to see the universe as the story of the unfolding of God’s promise we could then integrate our hope in the promise with the vigorous environmental concern that is needed today if life is to survive on this planet.