Out of Control but Vital to God

Ilia DelioOne of my favorite passages of Scripture is the opening lines on Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gn 1:1). All translations, except the King James Bible, state that God created “the heavens and earth,” not “heaven and earth” (KJB), that is, God did not create two places, one to labor and suffer through, (earth), the other to have eternal sleep-ins (heaven) a place where the immortal soul seems to exist without bodily existence.  Rather, God created a cosmic whole that today we all the universe. The author of Genesis writes that the earth was dark and empty, a black void; today we call that void space and it is not empty at all but filled with energy. The Spirit hovered over the water, the Genesis author writes, because water is the essence of life, and the Spirit is the symbol of life. Then God said “let there be light” which today we might say, let there be light to see and awaken to the dawning of mind from the heart of matter. The beauty of the Genesis account is the evolution of life from the simple elements of water, air, fire and water; today we know that these primal elements of life are even more elemental in the form of quarks, leptons and bosons which undergird elements and compounds. Nature is the term to describe the basic sources of life from which we humans emerge, after billions of years of cosmic evolution and millions of years of human evolution. God is the name of ultimate reality; not a proper name but a symbol of ultimate reality itself. The origin of the word “God,” according to Raimon Panikkar, is Sanskrit: dyau (day, Latin dies), suggests brilliance, the light, divinity (like theos in Greek).  Light makes it possible to see and gives life.  God is the brilliance of light and life.

Early Christians developed spiritual insights around the ideas of God as light and life, beginning with creation as a reflection of God, the spiritual journey into the light of God, culminating in union with God. Jesus was mediator of the God-world relationship, the revealed truth and life of God, and hence the way to the fullness of life. Borrowing the ancient concept of axis mundi, Jesus was considered the “Tree of life,” the One who brought together heaven and earth, who hung on the tree of the cross, and opened up the gates of paradise. This Christian narrative functioned as a guiding narrative for how one lived in the world, from birth to death. It held together heaven and earth like a seamless garment, with the harmonious choir of angels clothing earthly life.

This grand narrative was disrupted in the 16th century by the Copernican revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and the invention of the printing press. The Church’s authority was challenged, as the printed word evoked a new individualism, the Protestant Reformation emerged and rallied against ecclesial authority, science distanced itself from Christendom, and philosophy developed a turn to the subject. The separation of science and religion was deepened by the publication of Darwin’s Origin of a Species by natural selection in the 19th century, during which time Newton’s mechanistic paradigm dominated the development of science, technology and other systems, such as politics and education. The United States was founded as an experimental project by European white, anglo-saxon men, a combination of Leonardo’s Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man and the wilderness explorer. The Protestant ethic of frugality, hard work and success was coupled with the male ideal of the new Adam, as lands occupied by Native American tribes were pillaged and conquered. The ideals of conquest, expansion, growth, subjugation of non-whites (and women), and the spirit of capitalism were all part of building the American dream. The Catholic Church had no real role in the formation of this dream, and its heavy-handed emphasis on Roman authority and power was countered by the Protestant emphasis on the divine Word of God, spiritual revivals and the social Gospel.

What was lost in the translation of European Christianity into the American project was the axis mundi, the cosmic Christ, and correspondingly, the holiness of nature in the wholeness of the Creator God. By mid-twentieth century, the systems that supported the success of the American dream were set in place. Nothing could shake them, change them or alter them. The drive for financial success and social status, fueled by the expansion of competitive markets, drove the systems of politics and higher education to new heights. The American project became a tangled ball of competition, wealth, success and the aimless desire for bigger, better and more. By late twentieth-century, Americans ate more, shopped more, fought more, loved more and hated more. America the beautiful became American the bigger.  We became completely enamored by bigger, better and brighter things, we forgot the meaning of oneness, truth, beauty and goodness. Christianity taught that heaven was our goal and Jesus our way, while the American dreamers said that wealth is our goal and success is our path. The American dream was built on the Protestant principle which disavowed any absolute claim made for a relative reality; hence, the slogan “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was a license for anything and everything. The word God was not only stamped on money but became equated with money, printed on dollar bills: “In God we trust.” In the American dream, the lines between God and the individual blurred or disappeared. We must become gods ourselves, Frederick Nietzshe said, if we are to live in this world without God. Our systems grew to behemoth size while Catholic Christianity stayed in its medieval clothes. We became so successful in bigness (marked by commercial, efficient, profitable success), the rest of the world wanted to be big too. The price of growth, the global virus of “Americanization,” was coupled with the disenchantment with nature, the divorce between nature and culture. Nature, as Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organon, must be tamed and controlled, her secrets wrested from by the power of man.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, we began to realize that Newton’s concepts of space, time and gravity were incorrect on the fundamental levels of matter; the mechanistic paradigm was deceiving. The systems of life are not stable and fixed, operating according to inherent laws. The universe is not a steady state entity but began as an elusive eruption of spacetimematter about 13.8 billion years ago; matter and energy being interconvertible. Early twentieth century biologists realized that biological systems are open, autopoietic (self-organizing), complex and emergent. The relationship of mind and matter took on new meaning, as physicists like Max Planck and Erwin Schroedinger realized, consciousness is singular and fundamental to matter. Technology built on the new discoveries of modern science and by mid-twentieth century, the thinking machine (computer) was born. Technology disclosed the true nature of nature; its inability to be controlled and tamed, its excess of meaning and capacity to transcend itself.  Nature is art:  poetic, creative, transcendent. The transcendence of nature into more complex forms and higher consciousness is the basis of evolution, as Teilhard de Chardin and Julian Huxley realized.

The problem of Newton and a post-Einsteinian universe is that Newton’s world was predictable, lawful and controllable. Quantum physics toppled Newton’s world of certainty and ushered it in a world of uncertainty. Quantum biology undergirds systems that are open, chaotic, emergent, complex unlike our current political, educational and religious systems which are closed systems, unable to adequately flow into new patterns of relationship. In short, our systems no longer effectively organize and vitalize life; institutional religion is suffocating under the weight of ancient principles and medieval constraints. The Judeo-Christian tradition is an agricultural one, even though we live in a scientific-technological age. Homilies on planting seeds and farming still dominate Sunday sermons. The Catholic Church insists on keeping two books of revelation: Nature and Scripture; two persons, Adam and Eve, as the source of universal sin; two destinations, heaven and hell. There is no world religion that has embraced the new universe story. Hence, religion does not address a world in evolution. We are still wondering if Noah really built an ark or how we can change our rocky soil into good soil. Even the highest levels of theological reflection fail to grasp the import of evolution for the unfolding of the God-world relationship. There is simply no grasp of nature’s secret–nothing is given or fixed; all spacetimemattering is in dynamic processes of interaction, intragencies, interconnectedness, greater complexities. We simply have no handle on what it means to be a species in evolution because there are no systems to support such an understanding. Even the questions of evil and theodicy are misplaced and therefore unable to be adequately engaged, leaving wide open the propensity for greater evil and tragedy.

We humans are straddling a precipitous moment of cosmic history.  If we continue to ignore the signs of decline all around us, beginning with climate change, we will become an extinct species. We should not be surprised, as millions of species have become extinct, including our hominid forebearers. If we continue to spend our energies on simply surviving, we will not endure. If we continue to believe that the world is the problem and not religion, we will be in for a big surprise. Our world is out of control because the systems that regulate it are out of control, broken down jalopies, riddled with dysfunction, and unable to cope with the evolutionary rate of change. Our systems have abandoned us because they have abandoned nature, and we evolve from nature. We might say that humanity is collateral damage for a patriarchal world trying to hold on to the last wisps of power.

Teilhard de Chardin was a prophet, mystic, scientist and visionary. Writing between two world wars and the intransigency of a medieval Church, Teilhard saw that the problems of our age are essentially the loss of the religious dimension of life. Profoundly misunderstood and labeled by some critics as a charlatan, Teilhard realized that the real path to truth, the fecund transparency of life, must begin with concrete reality, not abstract knowledge. He composed his opus, The Human Phenomenon, not as a work of metaphysics, still less as a theological essay, but simply as a scientific treatise.[1]  What Teilhard contributes is a renewed scientific methodology that connects cosmos with logos and science with eros in a way that impacts the whole social order and thus the course of evolution. It is precisely his renewed scientific methodology that enabled Teilhard to see a new role for religion in view of evolution which proceeds through the spheres of matter, life and consciousness. Religion and evolution belong together, he wrote. In his essay “How I Believe” he indicates that most people think of religion as a “strictly personal matter.”  However, Teilhard rejected this view from an evolutionary perspective. He wrote: “To my mind, the religious phenomenon, taken as a whole, is simple the reaction of the universe as such, of collective consciousness and human action in process of development.”[2]  The true function of religion is “to sustain and spur on the progress of life.” Thus, the religious function increases in the same direction and to the same extent as “hominization”; the emergence and growth of religion corresponds to the growth of humankind. Religion is primarily “on the level of consciousness and human action, rather than on the level of institutions or belief systems, except insofar as these systems manifest and give direction to the former.”[3]

Teilhard saw that no one religion can satisfy the religious spirit of the earth because religion is directly concerned with the universe and its evolution towards Omega. He also saw that computer technology could enhance the religious dimension of evolution by ushering in a new level of interconnected minds and hearts. Artificial life has become hugely successful in the 21st century because computer geeks understand that life is a process and that the logic of biological life can be extended and reproduced in different forms. As Kevin Kelly writes: “Life is not bound to a material manifestation.  What count about life is not the stuff it is made of, but what it does. Life is a verb not a noun.”[4] Computer geeks get the logic of nature but the fine-line between understanding nature and controlling nature can become blurred, and technocrats can easily slip into illusions of deity. The COVID virus is an example of nature’s inability to be entirely manipulated and controlled. A virus will do what it is created to do, but displaced or threatened with danger, it will mutate in order to survive, even if survival incurs human death. Viruses in their own biological niches are not deadly but displaced from those niches, they threaten the vitality of life. Viruses per se are not the problem; disruption of environmental niches and human consumption, however, is the problem.

Nature reveals one long truth:  life seeks more life. Nature has an intrinsic capacity for life because God, who is life itself, is at the heart of nature. But nature has become denatured by human greed, and God has become denatured by human power, including the power of religious institutions. To return to nature is to return to God, and to return to God is to return to nature. God and nature-cosmos are inseparable, not identical but a complementary whole, a unity, as the author of Genesis realized. Simply put, no cosmos, no God. But “nature” is shorthand for the dynamic processes of life.  If nature is dynamic, interconnected fields of energy, so too is God; if nature is in evolution, so too is God.  God cannot be the great metaphysical exception, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, but must be the world’s chief exemplification. The only way into a vital future is to reinvent religion, as Teilhard realized, a religion of the earth, that animates and instills a zest for life, a religion of the whole, bringing together the wisdom of various traditions into a new whole, with new symbols, new rituals, new language, new creeds, new forms of worship. To rely on the past is to be condemned to the past.  Our only real common ground is the future.  Everything changes including God – and here is the key to the fullness of life itself.

 

Notes

[1]  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall (New York:  Harper & Row, 1959), 29.

[2]   Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “How I Believe,” in  Christianity and Evolution, trans. René Hague (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1971),118-19.

[3]  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Activation of Energy,” trans. Rene Hague (New York:  1963), 240 – 42.  

[4]  Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (Addison-Wesley Publ., 1994), 347.

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