Q: I want to know more about the Cosmic Christ, of one-ing.
Ilia: In March of this year Richard Rohr released his new book on The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Quickly Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe which quickly rose to the top on the list of New York Times bestseller books. I am not sure if we forgot this reality or if we ever really engaged it. One cannot easily forget what is first experienced and remembered. Richard’s discussion points in this direction.
The New Testament is based on the accounts of the early followers of Jesus. They experienced a power of God within the itinerant prophet from Galilee that evoked an experience of the “Christ,” the Greek translation of Messiah or anointed One (Christos): “You are the Christ,” Peter exclaimed (Matt 16:16). But how to make sense of this divine presence in Jesus was another matter. Early Christian writers looked to Greek philosophy to help them out.The Stoics posited a Logos principle in nature, a principle of order that could account for beauty, harmony and goodness. The Jews had a deep sense of wisdom as the governor of beauty and harmony in creation: “Wisdom has built herself a house” (Prov 9:1). What is important to note is that the cosmos, the whole order of created reality, was the primary focus for contemplating divine matters. The Logos (and wisdom) were the ordering realities of the cosmos.
The early Christians took these ancient ideas and interpreted Jesus as Logos and Wisdom: Jesus is the Logos of God, the Wisdom of God, which meant the earliest Christians first identified Jesus as the Christ of the cosmos.The word “catholic” adopted from the Greek katholikos meant a consciousness of the whole. Hence the early followers of Jesus Christ experienced in him a new consciousness of the whole where God is center. One of the earliest titles of Jesus Christ is Pantokrator, Lord of the universe or sustainer of the world. Hence the cosmos is not governed by principles of matter but by the living presence of God.
But then the real question that plagued the early church was: is Jesus truly God? This is where Church history becomes really important because if we do not appreciate what took place in the first five centuries of the Church, we cannot really grasp the heart of the Christian message. Richard Rubenstein in his book When Jesus Become God provides a scathing account of the rise of orthodoxy at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Arians argued that Jesus was not truly God but a perfect representative of God, just as a painting or statue “represents” its subject– not the subject itself.The Bishop Athanasius argued that if Jesus is not truly God then we are not saved. God became human, he said, so that the human can become God. Rubenstein tells us that what was at stake between the two camps (Arians and Orthodox) was a passionate monotheism fundamentally at odds with the premises of pagan thought.The ordinary churchgoer had to choose between rival theologies: Arian or non-Arian. He writes: “These clashes between Christians were traumatic, raising questions that would haunt the Church for generations to come.[i]
The main question, Rubenstein writes, was, when did Jesus become God? The answer he gives was at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The emperor Constantine was anti-semitic and desired full power of Eastern and Western empires; he felt that Christianity could be used for his political motives, universal power. The Council itself was like a gripping novel: crime, cover-up, ulterior motives, dangerous ambition, power-mongering, fear, intimidation, intrigue, back-stabbing, conniving, bludgeoning, and terrorizing.The cause for the tumultuous event was the word “homoousios” a term borrowed from Greek philosophy (ousia or substance) and modified to fit the Nicea agenda or what we have come to translate as “consubstantial”: Jesus Christ who is the Son of God is one in essence (or substance) with the Father. Most of the Bishops did not like it, since it was a Greek philosophical term not found anywhere in Scripture. But this word came to define Jesus as one in substance with the divine nature (that is, truly God) and one in substance with human nature (truly human). This is our doctrine today (defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD) and the problem with it is that the relationship between Christ and cosmos was sacrificed to appease opposing political forces in the Church. Rubenstein writes: “Constantine hoped that his Great and Holy Council would bring the opposing sides together on the basis of a mutual recognition and correction of erroneous ideas. When these hopes were shattered and the conflict continued to spread, the adversaries were drawn to attack each other not as colleagues in error but as unrepentant sinners: corrupt, malicious, even satanic individuals.”[ii]
While the confession that Jesus is the Christ perdured in Christianity, the meaning of Jesus Christ underwent various interpretations down through the centuries. Jaroslav Pelikan’s book Jesus Through the Centuries is helpful in this regard. The Middle Ages added its own set of variables to the mix of interpretation. Relying on Scripture, the writings of the Fathers, and the Islamic commentaries on Aristotle and scholastic reasoning, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure forged Christologies that tried to be faithful to the concept of original sin and redemption while attempting to connect Christ and cosmos. The problem is that Greek philosophy got in the way of a full Christian revolution. Neoplatonism, in particular, was very influential on Christian writers. God was divine Being and ultimate goodness, transcendent to creation although immanent in Christ. The ideals of unity, truth and goodness were discernible in nature but the essence of these ideals were to be found in God. Hence the journey to God meant withdrawal from the world of the senses to contemplate the things of divinity which were “above.” The spiritual life had priority over material life, just as the soul was the more noble part of the body. For Plato, soul, spirit and immortality prevailed over body, matter and mortality. In the Enlightenment the Jesuit-educated Rene Descartes separated the soul from the body which led to a profound dualism and a world stripped of Logos or wisdom, a world of inert matter open to manipulation and destruction.
While Catholic theology struggled to make sense of Jesus Christ in view of cosmic life, the inability to renounce Greek philosophical principles led to a separation of theology from modern science. This point alone is worthy of our attention—why we cannot get over our Greek philosophical fix. Had the Church accepted heliocentrism and subsequently evolution as the starting point for reflecting on divinity and created reality, we might have had a whole different theological paradigm today.
Franciscan theology did in fact make some novel contributions to theology in the attempt to formulate a truly Christian doctrine.The model for Franciscan theology was Francis of Assisi and his profound experience of God in materiality. Since Francis was not formerly educated, he had no problem seeing God and matter united. Bonaventure (d. 1274) tried to Christianize Neoplatonism, but he was wedged between the academy and the radical experience of Francis. Toward the end of his career we see emerging in his doctrine a metaphysics of Christ the center based on a philosophy of love. However, it is the fourteenth century theologian Duns Scotus (d. 1308) who really provided novel theological ideas that have been the target of Radical Orthodoxy in our own time. Some claim that Scotus is the reason God collapsed in modernity (see for example, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation). Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. What Scotus did was to build on the experience of Francis of Assisi and what he aimed to construct was a true Christian philosophy that could support the theological claim of God’s incarnation. In fact, the more I study Scotus the more I realize that he is one thinker who is thoroughly Christian. And if his ideas are seen as radical, it is because New Testament revelation is the radicalization of God, the materialization of divine reality.
And this is where I think the cosmic Christ must begin, on the radicalization of God in materiality—not as a governing principle of order but a self-making God in material existence. Francis of Assisi experienced a God bending low in love, embracing his deep, wounded self in love, a realization that his self is no self apart from God. Francis’s experience impelled the theologians to ask, what kind of God can communicate divine life? The answer for Bonaventure and Scotus was a God who is by nature self-communicative, relational and personal. Love is the nature of God; love is communicative and relational and love is the basis of the Trinity which is the ground of creation.
The big difference between Franciscan theologians and other theologians is that many writers in the tradition, including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, held a strange mix of Greek philosophical ideas on divine substance and Trinitarian relationality. “God is pure act” Thomas said and everything else is potency-act. Scotus said, no, God is pure act and the act is dynamic and generous love (Bonaventure said this too). Hence God really gives Godself away in the act of creation. This means the primary cause (God) and the secondary cause (created effect) exist simultaneously in every existent being. Everything that exists is created out of divine love and this love indwells each unique being in such a way that it does not interfere with the freedom of created being to make itself.
This too is what Alfred North Whitehead proposed. Whitehead said that western Christianity was nothing more than a footnote to Plato and he tried to offer a more compelling philosophy. He spoke of God as the primordial subject of the never-ending act of existence, a determinate reality here and now but with unlimited capacity to acquire further determinates in later moments of divine existence. God’s eternal purpose is to evoke creatures with the richest possible form of experience into being in love. Everything that exists is born out of divine love and thus out of infinite creativity. Process theology claims that divine being and created being are in mutual relationship. God is not omnipotent in terms of being coerceive but persuasive. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. If God is truly present in each created being then the capacity to create, to become something new, means that created being can transcend God. God and creation share a mutual relationship of creativity, God gives being to being and being contributes new life to God; hence every new creation contributes to God’s life. God in a sense is always becoming God in relation to created reality, and in becoming more God creation is becoming more itself, a cosmos. God is ever newness in love and when we are united to God, we become new again, as Meister Eckhart wrote.
Jesus Christ is the perfect union of divine love and created reality in so far as in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the love of God poured out and received, was reciprocated by an active response of self-offering in love.The Church states that in Jesus Christ universal salvation is achieved. This idea has behind it the Greek philosophical notion of class, that humanity shares a common substance, so that what is achieved in Christ pertains to all humankind. But the idea of “class” or “genus” in the biological sense is a taxonomic word that helps order humankind within the larger evolution of biological life; it does not refer to substance but to biological classification. And this is one area where Greek philosophy and modern science part company – the gap between them is profound.
In the Scotistic sense, Jesus Christ is the motif or model of everything that exists, not just human persons but quarks, atoms, stars, flowers, cats, worms and humans. Every person is created out of divine love and must freely choose to respond in love, to create their lives in love, if the Christ is to shine out in the world. Every person has a “christic dimension”, Raimon Panikkar wrote, and the task of each person, our main work, is to radiate the icon of love that defines each particular life. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours”, St. Teresa of Avila prayed. Every person is, in her or his own unique way, the Christ, and the union of persons in love is what contributes to the reality of Christ in our world. Such a union does not mean dissolving unique distinctions into a blender of Catholic doctrine; rather it means to see the ultimate goodness in one another as we receive one another in the exchange of encounter. For in truth, the goodness of one person, bestowed in an original and unique way by the love of God, complements or makes up what is lacking in the goodness of another person. Only together do we form one cosmic body which is the fullness of Christ.
Hence the Christ is not some abstract idea or principle governing the order of creation. Rather the fullness of Christ is the rich diversity of God’s infinite love shining through each created being. The Christian revolution is to live from the deep center of divine love within, to radiate this love, to share this love, to suffer for this love, to see this love in the unique beingness of every person and every creature of the universe; to receive this love, however it is lived and expressed in humankind, as the love of God revealed, and to give thanks for this love in praise and worship.
One-ing begins in the depths of our own beingness and grows as we participate in the ongoing creativity of our own personal identity, for the “I” is God’s creative love. One is born with the seeds of God’s love but how those seeds grow and mature into personhood is the mystery of Christ within us. Oneness or unity cannot be attained by doctrine or confession; it can only attained by the dynamic transformation of each personal life.Thus we must help one another on this path of love, because the love that is the root of each personal life is the love that joins us in the community of life. In short, God needs us to be God and we need God to be ourselves. And we if we really come to the root of ourselves, we will have a different world. If we want a different world, we must become a different people. This is the heart of the Gospel message.
[i] Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 40.
[ii] Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 87-8.
*Photo courtesy of Michael Potter