I spent much of this past summer in and around Denver, Colorado, first for a five-week directed study on the thought of theologian William Lynch, S.J. for my licentiate degree (for some of theologian John Kane's reflections on Lynch, click here) , and secondly as part of the three-week “Arrupe Experience,” a series of seminars and workshops on the priesthood followed by an eight-day retreat in Sedalia, for Jesuit scholastics preparing for ordination.  Both endeavors required a fair amount of time spent indoors, but whenever I could I tried to escape from civilization for a little while, mostly by exploring and hiking in the nearby parks and mountains.  Colorado is conducive to that, since even metropolitan areas like Denver are fairly close to natural landscapes that can shock a bicoastal fellow such as myself with their size, majesty, and relatively unspoiled stretches of natural beauty (and occasional danger, or at least the illusion of same). I also found my experiences away from the desk or the retreat house to be invaluable complements in terms of my theological appreciation of the issues I was pondering.

            An experience I had time and again while clambering around areas like The Flatirons or The Garden of The Gods or Red Rocks (or while reading up on these and similar natural rock formations) was of the immense age of these rock strata, many of which began forming as long as 300 million years ago.  Between 80 and 40 million years ago, the rock strata of which these formations are a part were lifted and tilted during a period of mountain formation, with the result that they are often rather dramatically shifted from their original horizontal axis, as seen at right.

If these mute stones could speak, they might point out that nothing formed over the course of 300 million years could possibly take seriously the existence or the history of the human race; we are but the blink of an eye in the timelines used to measure the formation and change of these rocks.  It points to one of the central ironies of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one to which Scripture regularly returns—you, human, who are an insignificant speck in cosmic history, are nonetheless made in the image of God.  But this reality also asks of the Christian how he or she is to make sense of the Incarnation. 

The human mind can just about grasp what it would mean for the world to be 6,000 years old—but can we get our heads around a universe literally millions and millions of times older than that? If so, at one point does the low and humble birth of Christ become asymptotically low and humble?  If our notion of time keeps expanding, and our notion of space does the same, that particular moment of the Incarnation can seem more and more vanishingly discrete.  William Lynch writes about this conundrum concerning the Incarnation using the language of irony, in Images of Faith.  What could be more ironic, Lynch asks, than the reality of God-made-flesh 2,000 years ago in a storyline we might now believe to encompass 14 billion of those years?   Here is Lynch:

“Against the background of enormous space time, at a completely specific and free moment in the millions of light years, within a body that occupies a few feet of the space of all our universes, [Christ] seizes upon and declares importance and seriousness, his own.  This is ironic, that this should happen at an infinitely small point in infinitely large space time.  It is, in a completely literal way, the basic image of faith.”

Christ’s importance is not diminished by the realities of infinitely large space or time, Lynch argues; the Incarnation is and was what it is and was because it occurred “on the small line,” in the appearance of the infinite within the most finite of circumstances.  In that sense, every increase in our sense of the age or size of the universe makes the Incarnation all the more precious and important a moment; because every time, at each new discovery of our relative insignificance, God says “nevertheless.”

At the same time, there is no doubt that many of our new scientific understandings require or inspire parallel new understandings of their implications for theology and how we imagine humanity's place in the cosmos.  Teilhard de Chardin might be the name most cited as the popularizer of the theological turn to the cosmological, but I would guess that more recently, David Toolan’s book At Home in The Cosmos has been the most useful resource for non-specialists seeking a better sense of how the scientific discoveries of the past century interact with our understandings of everything from Christology to ecology to salvation history and more.

            In recent years, two prominent American Catholic theologians have written in these pages on issues that touch upon this same question.  In March of 2008, Roger Haight, S.J. wrote an essay for America on Catholic theology since Vatican II entitled “Lessons from An Extraordinary Era," in which he noted that a “new cosmic expansion of consciousness” could produce a turn back toward the theocentrism that was a commonplace of scholastic theology, away from the anthropocentrism which today rules philosophy and theology alike. Here is Haight:

“The size and complexity of the universe suggest something so massive, both on a macro level of astronomy and a micro level of subatomic reality, that the imagination seems spontaneously drawn into ideas of infinite creative intelligence and power. Where are we as a human race in all of this? Anthropocentrism seems so inherent in human thinking that it cannot be escaped. The anthropic principle notwithstanding, the space-time coordinates of human thinking have been so expanded that it almost seems intrinsically wrong to see ourselves as at the center. Gradually this new framework is moving toward a new theocentrism for Christians. This is one of the new, growing frontiers in Christian theology.”

In other words, recognizing the immensity of space and the eternity of time might prove a valuable wakeup call for all of us:  it’s not just about you, pal

In April of 2009, Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., contributed an essay to America’s Centennial Issue entitled “An Earthy Christology," in which she pointed out that our expanding knowledge of the planet and of the cosmos not only required humanity to stop seeing itself as the center of the universe, but also to stop imagining that we are somehow separate from the rest of created reality, rather than one part of an interconnected whole reaching through time and space. Here is Johnson:

“Knowledge of the world in our day is repositioning the human race itself as an intrinsic part of the evolutionary network of life on our planet, which in turn is a part of the solar system, which came into being as a later chapter of cosmic history. Out of the Big Bang came the galaxies of stars; out of the exploding material of aging stars came our sun and its planets; out of the molecules of Earth came living creatures; out of those single-celled ancestors evolved all plants and animals, including human beings, we primates whose brains are so richly textured that we experience self-reflective consciousness and freedom, or in classical terms, mind and will.

Repositioning the human phenomenon with regard to its historical, ongoing relationship to planetary and cosmic matter has far-reaching implications. It rearranges the landscape of our imagination to know that human connection to nature is so deep that we cannot properly define our identity without including the great sweep of cosmic and biological evolution. We evolved relationally; we exist symbiotically; our existence depends on interaction with the rest of the natural world.

From this perspective, the flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. The phrase “deep incarnation,” coined by Niels Gregersen, is coming into use in theology to signify this radical, divine reach into the very tissue of biological existence and the wider system of nature. Jesus of Nazareth was an earthling, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. The atoms comprising his body once belonged to other creatures. The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The sarx of Jn 1:14 thus reaches beyond Jesus, and beyond all other human beings, to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they are composed.”

In one form or another, many of these observations have their analogue or their kernel in the poetry of Scripture itself.  In Psalm 95, we hear the lyric of one who has clearly seen the evidence of massive tectonic shifts in the geography of the Holy Land, and who sees the hand of God in all of nature’s wonders:  “The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.” What is a million years, a mountain range thrust forth from the earth, a new continent, a planet, a galaxy, in the mind of God? At the same time, we sense the opposite in our theological explorations, that every speck of dust from the mountain that melts like wax is part of a larger story; one begun perhaps too long ago to know, but given its major premise 2,000 years ago, and one that includes, in ways grand and humble, our stories within it.

 

Comments

Anne Chapman | 8/29/2011 - 4:28pm
Brett, clearly my words are not, well, clear. Your interpretations are not even close to what I had hoped to convey and since you are so far off the mark in understanding me, I guess I will have to think some more before writing again and hope that I can be more clear.

 I have no idea where in my words you found ''heresies'' such as ''God as distant, uninvolved watchmaker, or some gnostic fallacy that presents a strict separation of the world and the next'' - much less ''separating the physical particulars of human experience from tha action of God....l''

I have literally no idea where you are seeing these ideas in my posts.  Perhaps you just want to say some things of your own, and for some reason chose my posts as your launching pad, even though we are not even close to discussing the same concepts.
Anonymous | 8/29/2011 - 9:17am
With very few exceptions, God does not hurl thunderbolts or fire from heaven on people who disobey his commands to love one another to the degree that they are threatening vast numbers of innocents with harm.

Most of the time in history he allows bloodthirsty tyrants or tribes to get what they desire and in so doing to undermine their own civilizations - to gorge on whatever it is that they lust for (conquest, war, domination, debt-spending, big government etc.) until this idol literally crushes their culture and civilization under its own logic.

Thus the French Revolutionaries' use of murderous violence against Christians and any opponents eventually led to Napoleon and his wars in which former Revolutionaries marched off obstensibly to conquer the world for their revolution only to die on a hundred battlefields from Madrid to Moscow and no longer in service of the supposed brotherhood of man but in homage to the Emperor Napoleon.

The Bolcheviks of Russia desired to overthrow the Tzar in the name of "communism" but really just installed their own Tzar and nobles by another set of names; the Premier of the Soviets and Politburo. Their love of martial order led the USSR to become literally a nation run as either a prison or an armed garrison - squandering all their energies on control and destruction.

This is what it means when you "live by the sword" - when the sword is the means by which you live.... it'll be the means by which you're destroyed.

So if debt spending (via annual trillion dollar deficits) is the way by which our nation believes we ought to sustain our government.... or sexual hedonism from a strictly materialistic secular viewpoint is our 'lifestyle' orientation (hetero, homo, bi...) then those are the very vectors from which our doom will come, not from God.

We as a socio-political empire will spend ourselves into oblivion by swapping genuine sustainable income for a credit card (thus becoming ever less prepared for what happens when the line of credit is cut off overnight). We as a post-Christian culture will likewise get what we want: total hedonism declared as perfectly fine, wonderfully healthy, and 'wave of the future inevitable'.... all the way into the teeth of demographic terminal decline where the meek (self-controlled) really will inherit the earth.
Anne Chapman | 8/29/2011 - 8:47am
Brett, do you believe that Jesus's mission was simply to validate our human littleness in all aspects?  It is not the human physical form that is under discussion, but the human characteristics that are invisible to the eye. Jesus may have shared the limitations of the human physique, but those are not the limitations that are important. Jesus' mission was to try to teach us how to expand our tiny, constrained, little human minds and souls and spirits.  Jesus did not come to validate human pettiness, human selfishness, human prejudice.  He came to teach us how to free our minds, souls and spirits from the little boxes we create for ourselves, and then try to fit God into.
Victor Hoagland | 8/28/2011 - 4:55pm
Nature has another side, stark and hard, as we’ve just seen here on the east coast. Hurricane Irene got our attention from Miami to Washington to New York City and to Boston. She took over television, governments, businesses, transit systems, entertainments as nothing else has done since the terror attack on the World Trade Center ten years ago and, for a couple of days, she’s turned our regular human preoccupations upside down.
 
Even us easterners living in cities with no stars to look at paid attention to her. Mayor Bloomberg and other government officials spoke of  “Mother Nature” when they spoke of Irene, but they seemed a little uncomfortable dealing with this uncontrollable, non-human reality. Mother Nature isn’t always pretty. She can be wild and dark and unpredictable, like death.
 
I wouldn’t want to be around when them mountains were melting like wax.
 
I appreciate Jim Keane wonderful piece on what our expanding knowledge of creation means for our faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and our understanding of our place as humans in this world. I like especially this line:  “In other words, recognizing the immensity of space and the eternity of time might prove a valuable wakeup call for all of us:  it’s not just about you, pal
 
Besides knowledge of our expanding universe, I have the feeling more Irenes will be part of that wakeup call too.  There’s not going to be any  “Good night, Irene.”
 
 
 
NORMA NUNAG | 8/28/2011 - 4:19pm
Thanks for this article.... I really love it.  I am presently reading Gerald L.Schroeder's  book, God According to God:  A scientist discovers we've been wrong about God all along.   He is an MIT-trained physicist and also wrote, The Science of God and The Hidden Face of God.
Anne Chapman | 8/28/2011 - 12:36pm
William Taylor, thank you for your comments.  It seems you are far closer to ''understanding'' God than are most of us - especially those whose main focus is religion, rather than the mystery we call God - who focus on the finger pointing at the moon instead of focusing on the moon.  It is clear why most people who respond to polls report that they feel closest to God when they are in nature.

You wrote: One lesson I always learn there with those mountain stars is actually a question:  How concerned is this God with all our intra-Church squabbles?    Does God this really throw thunder-bolts at gays and people who use birth control?, Or refuse to appear because it is a female, and not a male, who is celebrating Mass?

If the answers to your questions were ''yes,'' then the next question should be ''What kind of petty little God would that be?  Would that be a God that I would want to follow, - or worship?''

It is predictable, but still sad, that human beings spend so much time trying to make God into our own image - try to assign to God all the petty human prejudices that chacterize human beings, not the divine.  Humanity tries to limit God, to fit God into their own little, tiny human-sized boxes.

A trip to the southwest, or to the mountains anywhere, or to deserted coastlines seems to be the best way for we humans to realize that we are guilty of turning God into a likeness of ourselves, with all our littleness and pettiness, and that we must put away all that nonsense, and simply sit in silence and give thanks for the real glory and beauty that is God.
Bill Taylor | 8/28/2011 - 11:00am
Whenever I enjoy the back country in my own mountain studded state, I stay awake until midnight and watch the stars, searching the Milky Way with my binoculars.  I always take a last long look at the Big Dipper.   That is our door opening beyond our own galaxy into the Universe.  I am literally staring into infinities.   The God of those infinities we call "Father," but my sense of God expands until I am overcome and all I can do is sit silent with a God who is before me, around me, and within me.

Then I go back home where the lights of the city limit the night view to a handful of stars.   We are so busy about ourselves that infinity disappears. 

One lesson I always learn there with those mountain stars is actually a question:  How concerned is this God with all our intra-Church squabbles?    Does God this really throw thunder-bolts at gays and people who use birth control?, Or refuse to appear because it is a female, and not a male, who is celebrating Mass?

William Taylor
Anonymous | 8/28/2011 - 9:19am
I have a couple comments:


1.  This area of the world especially the area on the other side of the Rockies in Western Colorado, Southern Utah, Arizona and Northern New Mexico is one of the most spectacular areas of the world and should be a destination for everyone at some time in their lives.  There is just one great national park, national monument or state park after the other.


2. When I was taught as young Catholic about God and the earth. man, aspects of Christ, etc. it was said it was a mystery.  It will always be a mystery while we are here.  If it wasn't, then life as we know it would be much different.  Science as we know it today confirms this, it is a mystery.  While we often think that science provides answers it often does not