Deep incarnation

Today, in his reflection on chapter 7 (“All Creation Groaning”) Barry Turner reviewed the thinking of a number of modern theologians. Here is his outline:

I. “It began with an encounter.” (Edward Schillebeeckx)

Johnson relates briefly the short story of Jesus of Nazareth, a 1st century Jewish man in Roman occupied Palestine. He called disciples to join him in an itinerant ministry that lasted just 1-3 years. He declared, “Salvation is on its way from God.” What normally would have been the end of the story turned unexpectedly into a new beginning as the community of disciples proclaimed he had risen from the dead, an act of the Spirit which anchors hope of a blessed future for all the world.

Jesus, crucified and risen, later came to be identified as in person, “God with us.” The disciples preached that Jesus embodied the ways of God’s coming reign in an intensely original way. For this startling insight they found Jewish metaphors to help them express this: Messiah, Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Wisdom, Word.

II. Interpreting Experience

A. Wisdom — It was the Wisdom metaphor that was especially fruitful because it began to identify the crucified prophet from Nazareth, “localized in time and place, with a divine figure associated in Jewish tradition with creating and governing the world and nurturing human beings on the path of truth and life.” In the light of the resurrection, the early Christian community saw Jesus as the Wisdom of God come to us.” (Denis Edwards)

B. Word — The biblical language of Wisdom (Sophia) is closely related to language about God’s Word (logos). See for example, the prologue of the Gospel of John. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14). With artistic allusions to the creative and saving activity of Wisdom, the prologue narrates the advent of Jesus as the coming of God’s personal self-expressing Word, full of loving-kindness and faithfulness, into the world.

C. This was later interpreted as saying, the personal self-utterance of God within the Trinity expressed itself outwards in creation as the Word by which God makes the world, now pitches a tent in the midst of the world, becoming personally part of its history. Jesus dwells among us as the Wisdom of God incarnate, the Word made flesh. Henceforth, the glory of God is not to be seen alongside flesh, or through flesh as through a window, but in the flesh and nowhere else – (Bultmann.)

D. This does not mean the Word became a human being, or a man, but flesh (Sarx). The Word of God enters this mortal realm of earthly existence. (Barnabas Linders) John 1:14 would horrify the readers with a dualistic world-view of Hellenistic thought, that the Word became flesh. Taking the ancient theme of God’s dwelling among the people of Israel a step further, it affirms that in a new and saving event the Word became flesh, entered into the sphere of the material to shed light on all from within.

III. Theology of Deep Incarnation

A. Niels Gregersen signifies this radical divine reach through human flesh all the way down into the very tissue of biological existence, joined with the wider processes of evolving nature that beget and sustain life.

1. God’s closeness with the material world is in scripture from the beginning, creating matter, declaring that it is good. Humans formed from the dust of the earth and divine breath are the image of God.

2. Now incarnation enacts a radical embodiment whereby the Word/Wisdom of God joins the material world, sharing in the conditions of the flesh in order to accomplish a new level of union between Creator and creature. “What is not assumed is not redeemed.” The divine self-embodiment in Jesus Christ encompasses all that belongs to the creaturely, human condition, or else it is not saved.

3. Deep incarnation extends this view to include all flesh. The flesh assumed in Jesus Christ connects with all humanity, all biological life, all soil, the whole matrix of the material universe down to its very roots.

4. Born of a woman and in the Hebrew gene pool, the Word of God’s embodied self became a creature of Earth, a complex unity of minerals and fluids, and in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet.

5. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself “the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth.” The incarnation is a cosmic event.

B.  Karl Rahner: “The statement of God’s Incarnation – of God’s becoming material – is the most basic statement of Christology.”

1. Rahner argues, “the climax of salvation history is not the detachment from earth of the human being as spirit in order to come to God…

2. …but the descending and irreversible entrance of God into the world, the coming of the divine logos in the flesh, the taking of matter so that it becomes a permanent reality of God.”

C. Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn to Matter:

1. Harsh, perilous, mighty, universal, impenetrable, and mortal though this material stuff be, “I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay moulded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.”

2.   The incarnation, a densely specific expression of the love of God already poured out in creation, confers a new form of nearness to God on the whole earthly reality in its corporal and material dimensions, on all of Earth’s creatures, on plants and animals, and on the cosmos in which planet Earth dynamically exists.

D. This deep incarnation of God within the biotic community of life forges a new
kind of union, one with different emphasis from the empowering communion created by the indwelling Creator Spirit. This is a union in the flesh.

IV. Response

A. Richard Rohr writes (in Yes – and):

1.  Christians should have been the first to appreciate evolution and to recognize what God is doing — that God creates things that continue to create themselves from the inner divine Spirit. Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), .. for in him is recapitulated all things in heaven and on earth” (Col. 1:20). The Eternal Christ is the microcosm of the macrocosm or what Shakespeare would call “the play within the play.” His (Christ’s) role is to forever hold together matter and spirit, divine and human, and to say they have always been one, but you just don’t know it yet. So God is going to hold them together in front of your face – until you do. [Yes, p. 136f]

2. Full incarnation is what distinguishes us from all other religions. This is our only trump card, and, for the most part, we have not yet played it….The mystery of the Incarnation is precisely the repositioning of God in the human and material world and not just part of that world. [Yes, p. 178]

3. When God gives of God’s self, one of two things happens: either flesh is inspirited or Spirit is en-fleshed. This pattern is really very clear…God’s will is always incarnation. And against all our godly expectations, it appears that for God, matter really matters. God who is Spirit, chose to materialize! We call it the Christ mystery. [Yes, p. 179]

 B.  Denis Edwards sums up his Trinitarian theology of creation by saying the world is a sacrament of Divine Wisdom.

1. The diversity of life on Earth, interconnected and interdependent in the one biosphere of our planet, is a sacrament of divine Wisdom. It gives expression to and manifests Wisdom. It points to the divine artisan. And what it points to is really present in the manifestation. The divine artisan is not only manifested in the beauty and diversity of a tropical rain forest, but is also present to each creature of the forest as the creative power which enables it to be. Creation is a sacrament of the divine presence.  (The God of Evolution, p. 56)

2.  For a brief summary and comparison of the contributions of Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann to a theology of evolution and an attempt “to integrate these elements of these views within an evolutionary  Wisdom Christology.” see Denis Edwards, The God of Evolution ( ch. 6, pp. 101- 125; 1999).

C John Haught: Evolution is a gift to theology.

V. The Christic Paradigm

A. Once God is identified as God’s own self-expressing Word in the flesh, the gospel accounts of his life acquire a profound revelatory function…If Jesus is God with us, then his story inscribes in time a revelation of the heart of God. This Spirit-blessed prophet provided a joyous foretaste of what the arrival of God’s reign would entail.

1. Jesus taught that the compassionate love of God is extravagant, transgressing all cultural and religious expectations of fairness in order to gather in every last hurt or rebellious sufferer.

2. Does the “good news” include the land and its other than human creatures? The dualism of later Christian tradition that separated the spirit from the body and saw bodiliness opposed to the divine was not operative in the ministry of Jesus. Everything was encompassed in the transformation he envisioned.

B. Sallie McFague calls this the “christic paradigm”: liberating, healing, and inclusive love is the meaning of it all. This love is the meaning encoded at the core of human life and at the heart of the universe itself. Write the signature of the christic paradigm, drawn for the gospel of mercy, across the evolving world. Jesus’ ministry reveals that plenitude of life for all, not just for one species or an elite group in that species bur for all, including poor human beings and all living creatures, is God’s original and ultimate intent.

All creation groaning – 3

Beasts 7 Creation groansWe know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains…
Romans 8:22

The cross and the tree of life:

Jesus shared the fate of all who die – which is every living thing – and the price exacted for Jesus’ fidelity to his ministry was excruciating.

The manner of Jesus’ death was not part of an evolutionary process. Rather, it was the result of decisions made by political authorities.

So the cross has political meanings as well as theological meanings. Today, liberation theologians connect his death with all the violent murders unleashed by state power through the ages.

Kenosis: That Jesus suffered an agonizing death on the cross is a fact of history. That it was Emmanuel who suffered and died is a statement of faith, made on the basis of the incarnation.

Here Christians read a new chapter in the Creator-creature relationship, the Word’s immersion in matter, even unto a suffering death.

 (The idea of kenosis (self-emptying) is a way to understand the character of God – and God’s unbreakable link to Jesus, even in his miserable death. (Philippians 2)

What is new in view of the cross is divine participation in pain and death from within the world of the flesh.  The crucified Christ knows what it means to suffer. That means that God knows what creatures are suffering – and such knowing is part of the Spirit’s indwelling relationship to the world.

Matter and spirit: Greek philosophy maintained a strict separation between the all-holy God and the material world of suffering. In contrast to this, Christian theology forged a deep personal connection between God and suffering – as part of its witness to the abiding, free love poured out in Jesus Christ.

The logic of deep incarnation extends from the cross to all creation. The Giver of Life dwells in the evolving world and acts in, with and under its natural processes, continuously knowing and bearing the costs of new life.

Does this really make any difference?  Death goes on as before.

God’s suffering presence:  Southgate writes, “I can only suppose that God’s suffering presence is just that, presence, of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience.” (Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation)

Seemingly absent, the Giver of life is silently present with all creatures in their pain and dying. They remain connected to the living God despite what is happening; in fact, the connection to God is in the depths of what is happening. The indwelling, empowering Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ who companions all creatures, does not abandon them in the moment of trial.

The cross places the compassion of God right at the center of all suffering.

Deep resurrection extends Christ’s relationship to the whole world.

Jesus after the cross: The gospel story does not end at the tomb. The gospel narratives tell about the discovery of the empty tomb, angelic messages, and encounters with the at-first-unrecognized risen Jesus by different disciples in the garden, on the road, in the upper room, on the lake shore, on a hill outside the city. Through these encounters, the disciples’ faith in the God of life took a quantum leap.

Resurrection: What resurrection means in the concrete is not seriously imaginable to us who still live within the time-space grid of our known universe. But the Easter message means that Jesus did not die into nothingness, but into the embracing arms of the ineffable God who gives life. What awaited him was not ultimate annihilation but a homecoming into God’s mystery.

Christ’s destiny is not meant for himself alone; the Alleluias that break out at Easter well up from the realization that his new life is not meant for himself alone, but for the whole human race.

This means that salvation is not the escape of the human spirit from matter, but resurrection of the body, the whole person, dust and breath together.

Deep resurrection: Johnson suggests we employ the idea of ‘deep resurrection’ to extend the risen Christ’s relationship to the whole natural world. Johnson’s reasoning runs like this (Ask the Beasts, p. 209):

Jesus of Nazareth was composed of ‘star stuff’ and ‘earth stuff.’

Jesus’ life formed a genuine part of the historical and biological community of Earth.

Jesus’ body existed in a network of relationships drawing from and extending to the whole physical universe.

Thus Jesus’ resurrection points to the beginning of redemptive glorification – not just for other human beings but for all flesh, all material beings, every creature that passes through death.

Christ is the firstborn of all the dead on Darwin’s tree of life.

cross celtic tile

Christ is the firstborn
of all the dead on
Darwin’s tree of life.
Now the Earth needs
to hear this good news:
God’s compassionate presence accompanies all suffering and dying creatures.
Affliction, even at its worst, does not have the last word. Biologically speaking,
new life continuously comes
out of death over time.
Theologically speaking,
the cross gives us hope
that God’s presence
in the midst of our pain
bears creation forward
with an unimaginable promise.
(see Ask the Beasts, p. 209)


Johnson then concludes chapter 7 with these words:   “This does not solve the problem of suffering in a neat systematic way – but it does make a supreme difference in what might come next.” (p. 210)

 Next week: chapter 8, “Bearer of Great Promise”


All creation groaning – 2

Beasts 7 Creation groansWe know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains…
Romans 8:22

Deep incarnation:

Emmanuel:  When Christians identify Jesus as Emmanuel (God-with-us) we are linking God to the groaning of all creation.

The gospels tell of the human Jesus, who healed and cared for others, emphasizing God’s compassion for all people.

Then this Jesus, crucified but risen, was experienced by the community of disciples.

To interpret the meaning of Jesus in the light of Easter, the disciples began drawing on different metaphors and figures from the Jewish scriptures – Messiah, Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Wisdom, Logos/Word.

Wisdom: In the Jewish tradition, Wisdom is present with God in the creation (and in the governing) of the world. This is an ancient way of imaging the creative and saving presence of God within the world.

Biblical language about Wisdom (Sophia) is closely related to language about the Word (Logos) – which gave early Christians words to describe the unique significance of Jesus in relation to God and human beings.

The prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-14) describes Jesus as the coming of God’s personal Word, full of loving-kindness and faithfulness, into the world. The text expresses the belief that the living God, who is utterly beyond comprehension, joined the flesh of earth in one particular human being of one time and place. This belief would come to be called the doctrine of incarnation (carne, flesh).

Sarx:  Johnson notes that in John’s prologue the Word did not become a human being (anthropos), or a man (aner), but flesh (sarx).

Here sarx conveys not the unworthiness or sinfulness of the material world, but but its finite quality – fragile, vulnerable, transitory – the opposite of divinity clothed in majesty.

The kind of sarx that the Word became was human flesh; but the sarx of homo sapiens is part of an interconnected whole, an intrinsic part of the evolutionary network of life on our planet.

Deep incarnation: Theologians are beginning to use the phrase ‘deep incarnation’ to describe God’s reach through human flesh into the very tissue of biological existence – and therefore into the wider processes of evolving nature.

This view arises from the logic of John’s prologue, and arises from today’s scientific understanding of the world. (Niels Greggersen, The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World)

The incarnation is a cosmic event: in becoming flesh the transcendent Word of God lays hold of matter in the form of a human being, a species in which matter has become conscious of itself. ‘Deep incarnation’ understands that Jesus’ sarx not only links him to other human beings; it also joins him (and us) to the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they are composed.

Karl Rahner wrote, “The statement of God’s incarnation – of God’s becoming material – is the most basic statement of Christology.” Hence “the climax of salvation history is not the detachment from earth of the human being as spirit in order to come to God, but the descending and irreversible entrance of God into the world, the coming of the divine logos in the flesh…(Rahner, Christology Within an Evolutionary View)

Teilhard de Chardin saw the incarnation as the densely specific expression of God’s love (already poured out in creation) conferring a new form of God’s nearness to all of Earth’s creatures. In Jesus God’s own self-expressive Word joins the biological world as a member of the human race, and thus enters into solidarity with the whole biophysical cosmos of which humans are a part. (Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe)

The ‘Christic paradigm’:

The gospels give details about Jesus that help us flesh out the meaning of incarnation, and at the same time reveal God’s desire for the flourishing of all people.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught that God’s compassionate love is extravagant – transgressing all cultural and religious concepts about fairness – in order to reach every last hurt or rebellious sufferer.

Interpreting the gospels with our contemporary ecological concern raises the question of whether this ‘good news’ includes the earth and its other-than-human creatures.

The creation faith of Israel was a part of Jesus’ (and his disciples’) worldview. Therefore, Jesus’ proclamation that the reign of God was near assumed the natural world was included in this ‘good news’.

Set within a agrarian culture, Jesus’ parables were salted with reference to seeds and harvests, wheat and weeds, vineyards and fruit trees, rain and sunsets, sheep and nesting birds.

A ‘spiritual’ savior?  For someone subsequently interpreted mainly as a spiritual Savior, it is remarkable how strongly Jesus’ characteristic deeds focused on bodily wellness.  The dualism of later Christian tradition that separated spirit from body was not seen in Jesus’ ministry.

Compassionate love is the meaning of it all:  With our new evolutionary awareness, the gospel now takes on an ecological dimension. Theologian Sallie McFague brings various gospel episodes together into a brief phrase she calls the ‘Christic paradigm’: “liberating, healing, and inclusive love is the meaning of it all”. (Sallie McFague, The Body of God)

Christians trust that Jesus’ love reveals the ineffable compassion of God.

Jesus’ ministry demonstrates God’s compassion for all bodies in creation – not just humans.

This compassionate Love is deeply embedded in human life – and at the heart of the universe itself.


Tomorrow – we look at ‘The Cross and the Tree of Life’


All creation groaning – 1

Beasts 7 Creation groans

We all suffer and die:

Pain and death accompany the passage of life for all creatures. This world is indeed the beautiful dwelling place of the Creator Spirit – but its natural processes exact a very high price.

In response to this universal fact of life, St. Paul writes that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now – but in the midst of this agony dwells the Spirit, interceding ‘with sighs too deep for words’.

Note that Paul weaves the natural world into the picture: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:18-23)

Pain is part of the natural world:

Pain enters the natural world with the emergence of neurons, nervous systems and brains.

Pain is a physiological stimulus that signals danger; pleasure, which travels along the same pathways, signals something beneficial. Both stimuli enable behavioral adjustment in the face of changing situations – and since this gives a clear benefit for survival, evolution selects for sensitivity to pain and pleasure.

Suffering arises in response to pain. As species evolve, nervous systems and brains grow more complex (allowing for heightened alertness) all the way to levels of consciousness typical of sentient animals. The more sensitivity in a species, the more suffering and the more pleasure.

Death, whether accompanied by pain and suffering or not, is always a fact of life for all organic beings.

The extinction of species brings the rate of death to an astronomical level:

About 98% of all previously existing species have gone extinct. Those who live today walk upon this Earth as upon a vast cemetery.

Most of the world’s pain, suffering, and death are not the result of human sin. Pain, suffering and death existed long before humans emerged:  Such afflictions have played an irreplaceable role in the emergence of complex and beautiful life forms. While human misuse of the creation is sinful, if we take humans out of the picture, pain, suffering and death would still continue unabated for other species.  Once nervous systems developed, there never was life without pain.

Could the biological world have developed otherwise? The majority of scientists, philosophers, and theologians hold that pain – and eventually the conscious suffering in more complex creatures – is inevitable in a system where organisms interact with their environments. So too, death and extinction are intrinsic to an evolutionary process that over thousands of millennia brings forth ever new forms, including humans.  Indeed, some Christian theologians have described the evolutionary process as a way of the cross.

Pain, suffering and death are woven into the very fabric of evolution:

We need to take the evolutionary function of affliction at face value, and then reflect on its workings in view of our understanding of the God of love.

We also need to seek ways to ameliorate suffering, not to reconcile ourselves to it.To assuage suffering and promote life’s flourishing is a moral imperative in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

But then how can we still see God’s world as good – indeed, as “very good”?

Without giving this reality ultimate meaning – that is, without rooting it in the eternal will of a good and gracious God (and without using it as an excuse not to do good) we can begin by acknowledging it as part of the finite character of the natural world, and respect its role in the evolutionary process.

This can lead us to a deeper understanding of the ‘theology of the cross”:

God’s compassionate presence dwells in the midst of pain and death.  A rich source for this idea lies in Jewish theology: the Holy One of Israel is a God of immense pathos who freely relates to the world in delight and anguish.  Christian theology adds the story of Jesus Christ: the living God, the Holy One of Israel, redeeming the world not by the divine fiat of a kindly, distant onlooker, but by freely participating in the groaning of the flesh.

 Tomorrow – we look at ‘deep incarnation’. 

More thoughts from April 23

Does matter has the capacity to transcend itself?  (See Ask the Beasts, p. 175f)

Barry Turner comments,

It seems to me also, as John Horsley has said, that (in chapter 6) Johnson leaves unsaid how God acts in the world, at least in comparison to the other theologies that she critiques. Johnson says that the important characteristics of the Thomistic approach of Primary/Secondary forms of causality preserve us from making God just one more cog in the process of the natural causes of the world.

So, saying that God acts in the world even through non-interventionist ways such as quantum reality, random in-determinants, and chance takes away the integrity of the natural order – and also of the divine order. But it seems that the effect of that leaves us in the two-domain approach, science and theology are about two different realities, which seems to take us back to a dualism that was our hope to overcome at the beginning.

I think Johnson moves beyond this dilemma by introducing Carl Rahner’s idea that matter has a property of “self-transcendence” by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, which is a theology of “Panentheism.” (see Ask the Beasts, p. 175f)

So, more than just making a metaphysical/theological statement that God is in the world, (which can’t be verified empirically), what Rahner is saying here is a major implication of this view.

In the long process of evolution and the increasing diversification and complexity of matter, we see it moving toward Spirit. In the process of evolution something genuinely new comes into being that is not just a product of causal forces out of the past.

This is a way to understand what Johnson calls, “deep Incarnation” in chapter 7. Of course trying to verify this by empirical means is not possible. But looking back at the long story of the coming-to-be of the universe as it is today, this would be seem to be a quite helpful way to address the mystery that evades our understandings.

I wrote a paper some years back that refers to these subjects in many sources including the work of the contemporary Denis Edwards, The God of Evolution.  (Johnson also refers to Edwards’ thought in Ask the Beasts.)  Edwards develops a Trinitarian framework for discussing these issues. Here is an excerpt from the paper:

Edwards has a different understanding of basic metaphysics (what has always been there).  Edwards says it is “being in relation,” in contrast with simply “being as becoming.”

The difference is a more definite sense of purpose or meaning as “being in relation” assumes another reality beyond itself. For Edwards the arrival of the radically new emergence of self-conscious spiritual beings is beyond philosophical explanation. We must find explanation at the level of theology with the proviso that this need not contradict natural processes. To give a theological accounting for God’s ongoing creative role in the evolution of life he draws on the suggestion of Karl Rahner, of the “active self-transcendence” inherent in nature.

God is interiorly present to evolving creatures, not simply enabling them to exist in a static way, but enabling them to transcend what they already are…The power of self transcendence comes from within the creature, but it is a power that finally comes not from the creature, but from the ongoing creative activity of God…human beings [are] the self transcendence of matter into self-consciousness before God.

To this idea Edwards links the theology of Basil the Great of the Spirit as the Life-Giver. The process of self-transcendence can be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit in whom the triune God is immanent in all things.

Where Haught sees the source of all novelty in creation as the Power of the Future, Edwards describes it in a trinitarian framework as the Holy Spirit that goes forth to bring all creation into relationship with the divine life….  The Spirit is the ecstatic one, who in the divine choice to create goes beyond the divine communion to what is not divine, and brings what is not divine into relation with the divine Persons. The Spirit as the excess, the ecstasy of divine love, brings creation into relationship with the divine life. It is this ongoing relationship that enables creatures to exist and become.

Thoughts from our discussion, April 23


(1)  In response to Johnson’s section, ‘The Wisdom of Philosophy’
(Ask the Beasts pages 160-169) and summarized here:

John Horsley writes,

I think that the neo-Thomism approach of Elizabeth Johnson is fine as far as it goes but I tend to agree with Polkinghorne that it seems to be missing something, and that something is what the various theologians (listed on pages 161 and 162) are addressing.

My own belief, for example, is that God does indeed “lure the world in a desired direction” towards more wholeness. Then the question is: how does God do this without “interfering” with the natural order? Several of the suggested approaches described briefly in p 161-162 seem to me promising. In fact some of them seem to overlap and might be saying much the same thing with different metaphors. For example, single action theory, top down causality and the organic model seem to me to have much in common and are not necessarily in conflict with the autonomy of the natural order. I need to think more about Elizabeth Johnson’s criticism of Polkinghorne’s causal joint theory, but I have a feeling that she may not understand the implications of quantum theory, whereas Polkinghorne definitely does, having worked with one of the founders, Paul Dirac, and written several books on the subject.

In addition I don’t see how Elizabeth Johnson could address what are called “miraculous” events, which are normally attributed to God’s special intervention (such as a healing in response to prayers that appears to be inexplicable in medical terms). It is surprising in view of her Roman Catholic faith that she does not address this. More generally, we believe that God acts in history (specifically through the acts stated in the Eucharistic prayer, the calling of Israel, the sending Jesus etc.). Did God’s specific actions only start when human history started? Aquinas certainly had to give an explanation of these things somewhere, but I’m not sure I would be able to follow it, even if I found it!

(2)  In response to Johnson’s section on ‘The Interplay of Law and Chance’
(Ask the Beasts pages 169-174) and summarized here:
John Horsley writes,

Dawkins et al. assert that because chance plays such an important role in evolution the whole process must be purposeless and is incompatible with a Creator God – i.e. they say you are compelled to come to this conclusion just from looking at the facts – no other conclusion is possible. In fact they are making the same mistake as William Paley with his argument from design (only in the opposite direction). It is how you interpret the data that is important. They interpret the data in the light of their prior commitment to materialism. We are free to interpret the data based on our prior commitment to a Creator God, as Arthur Peacock has done very ingeniously.

The idea of God using chance events (mutations or epigenetic changes) to produce novelty fits very well with the recent discoveries in Evo-Devo, as I mentioned in my presentation in February. There is a basic body plan due to a common set of “tool box” genes and new forms are produced by using chance events to tinker with the switches that switch these genes on at particular times in the development of the embryo. Following Elizabeth Johnson, these new forms could be said to actualize “propensities” that were in a sense ready to be actualized because they had been given to the natural world at the beginning of time.

The question that arises in my mind is: is the interplay of regularity and chance the only process at work in creating new organisms, or is this model too “mechanistic”? Two other possible factors occur to me:

a) quantum effects

Biologists until recently discounted any possibility of quantum effects in biological systems (too warm and too wet). However, quantum effects have now been found in several processes, including photosynthesis, the sense of smell, and the navigation of birds using the Earth’s magnetic field. Quantum biology is an exciting new field. This opens up the possibility that these effects, including quantum entanglement, for example, play a role in evolution. This is just speculation, but my feeling is that they will come to be seen as important. The present neo-Darwinian theory is based on 19th century physics. It should at least be brought into the 20th century.

b) consciousness

Animals are certainly aware and conscious, even if they don’t have the self-awareness of humans, and their consciousness will influence their behavior. As the process theologian John Cobb has pointed out: “When animals find that their present behavior does not procure the food and safety they require, some try out different behavior. To suppose that these trials are purely random strains credulity. When one animal is successful, it repeats the successful action, and others imitate it. Genetic change follows, and this priority of animal behavior over genetic change is far from rare. Indeed, it is probably more common that the reverse sequence presented us in standard evolutionary theory.

Some of this behavior is surely both intelligent and purposeful. But the mechanistic model opposes any role for intelligent purpose. Because of commitment to the mechanistic model, standard formulations of evolution simply ignore the role of animal action. “

(There could also be a sort of Jungian collective unconscious governing behavior in a species, but we might not want to go there).

(3)  In response to Johnson’s section on ‘Emergence’ (Ask the Beasts pages 174-180) and summarized here:
John Horsley writes,

Unscripted Adventure? 

Elizabeth Johnson states (p.173) that if you rewound the tape of life’s evolution back to the beginning and let it roll again the community of life would not look at all how it does now. But how different would it be? The Harvard paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould has claimed that it would be totally different due to the large number of random and contingent events in evolutionary history. On the other hand, Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris has vigorously challenged this, claiming on the basis of “convergent evolution” that, on the contrary, the community of life would be very similar what exists now.

Convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms that are not closely related evolve similar forms and adaptations in similar environments. For example there is a marsupial version of several different placental mammals (e.g. marsupial moles, cats, wolves, and flying squirrels); the eye has evolved independently at least seven times; birds have evolved independently twice, etc. According to Conway Morris such convergence is the rule rather than the exception so different organisms in similar environments will always tend to converge on the same “solution” to enable them to survive (although by different routes). Conway Morris writes, “The number of things that ought to work (biological solutions) is ridiculously large, whereas we find that the number of things that actually work is surprisingly small – a very small fraction of all possibilities”.

Conway Morris even proposes that in view of convergent evolution the evolution of consciousness and something very like humans was inevitable. Hence, evolution appears to have an inherent direction and purpose (something also proposed by Teilhard de Chardin). Elizabeth Johnson rejects this and believes that evolution is open ended and indeterminate (nature having an adventure). Other theologians, for example Keith Ward, agree with Conway Morris. According to Keith Ward, the purpose of evolution is “the generation of communities of free, self-aware, self-directing sentient beings” (Keith Ward, God, Chance and Necessity). So play the tape again and something like us will appear.

(4) Also in response to ‘Emergence: On Behalf of Matter and the Body’
(Ask Beasts, pages 174-180)
Barry Turner writes,

Looking at Conway Morris – a biologist who has different metaphysical assumptions – is a good way of saying that interpretation is indeed based on one’s metaphysics.  Scientists are not immune to metaphysical assumptions though many seem to claim that.

Have you read any of Thomas Berry, sometimes called a “Geo-logian”?  He co-authored a book with Brian Swimme, a mathematical physicist entitled, The Universe Story that attempts to tell the story of our universe from some broader metaphysical beginnings and locate meaning in the process.  Berry and Swimme state that if we look at the large-scale structure of the universe, it is difficult or impossible to account for it in a random or unbiased cosmos.  On the scale of molecules, to get the atoms of the universe to bounce together haphazardly to form a single molecule of a molecule of an amino acid would take more than even a hundred times the 15 billion year history of our universe.  Yet we observe that amino acids are formed not only on planet Earth but throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Barry and Swimme argue for what they call a Cosmological Principle that asserts that the universe has natural powers that when given the proper conditions, will create galaxies, etc…. It is a principle as opposed to a fact because we assume that it operates at other places and times than our own corner of the universe.  It overcomes both the bare reality of chance as well as the intrinsic property of matter that we call entropy which always progresses to disorganization.  They write that it is characterized by differentiation (complexity), auto-poiesis, and communion at every level of reality.  They also use the metaphor of music as a way notes are organized in a symphony.  Their descriptions of these qualities is really beautiful.

This seems similar to a movie I saw last week called The Imitation Game, the story of how Alan Turing defeated the German encryption device called The Enigma.  Because there were so many million ways that the encryption codes could be done by this machine, humans could never in thousands of years decipher the codes which were changed daily.

 Turing invented a machine that could try out all the possibilities one by one much faster than humans.  But even then the time it took was much longer than any possibility of being effective.  This is the reality of relying only random efforts to read all the possibilities.  The success only came when they realized that there were certain German words that would very likely be in any message, such as “Heil Hitler.”  So it took the added information of outside intelligence (humans) to put constraints on the machines to limit it’s searches and then they had success.
It seems to me that is similar to the difficulties of the almost endless random efforts of the universe to come up with the forms we have in the time available.  Some other source of information seems to be in operation.  Theologians call that the will of God drawing the world to God’s self.  Rahner says that matter has the innate motion towards the spirit.  That is very similar to de Chardin, when he speaks of Christo-genisis.

Anyway these are my non-scientific meanderings.

Once again – what are your responses?



Free, empowered creation – 4

The last of 4 posts for chapter 6 of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Emergence: on behalf of matter and the body

We will need a new understanding of ‘matter’ if we are to understand how evolution grows the tree of life.  Classical ideas that cast matter and its concrete bodily forms into categories such as inert, dead, or inferior to spirit no longer hold up.

New characteristics that develop in creatures are not something added on externally to what already there, but emerge from within as a result of nature’s interactions at every level.   In an ordinary sense the term emergence connotes something coming out of hiding, coming into view for the first time. Evolutionary scientists use emergence to describe the spontaneous appearance of unprecedented new biological forms.

Pondering the concept of emergence,  Karl Rahner proposes that we embrace a fundamental idea:

Matter has the capacity to transcend itself.

Matter can do this because it has been endowed by its Creator with an inner tendency, a quiet, powerfully pulsing drive, to become something more.  (Rahner, Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World).

The foil against which Rahner places this dynamic assessment of matter is the old philosophical dualism which radically separated matter and spirit, considering matter passive and devoid of movement.  But if we take our cue from how spirit and matter are related in a human person (as Rahner does), a different understanding ensues:

A human person is a dynamic unity of matter and spirit, an embodied spirit in the world.  Far from our bodies being disposable containers for our souls, our bodies and spirits form one unified being.

Rahner reflects on this unified experience of human beings to consider the natural world from which humans have emerged, and concludes:

Matter develops out of its inner being in the direction of spirit. 

Darwin’s completely non-transcendental description puts this dynamism in concrete terms. Far from being an inert substance, matter has a dynamic urge to explore; it is oriented to become more.  And so Rahner urges us:

Do not underestimate what it means for nature to become. True ‘becoming’ entails that nature surpasses itself, attains a greater fullness of being, reaches an inner increase of being, proper to itself … and does this not by adding something on but from within. God made the world this way, conferring on creatures an extraordinary capacity for becoming more.

Rahner stresses that in evolution the activity of divine presence must be thought of as something so interior to the creature “that the finite being is empowered by it to achieve a really active self-transcendence, and does not merely receive this new reality passively as something affected by God. Matter can transcend itself at any moment in bringing forth life and ever new forms of species”.

This, Rahner suggests, is the secret of life, and nature’s capacity for active self-transcendence is the key. In the realm of biological evolution, natural selection’s work on spontaneously arising variations turn that key, opening the door to ever-new forms of life.

Beasts and entangled bank

Theologians are finding it helpful to imagine new metaphors to capture the nuances of God’s creative relation to the autonomous workings of the cosmos. These images are drawn more from artistic experience than from the classical models of monarchs giving commands or artisans using inert tools. No one of these metaphors, of course, is adequate but each sheds a little light. The Creator Spirit is like…

a composer of a fugue….
a jazz player…
a theatrical improviser of unsurpassed ingenuity in life performance…
a choreographer, composing dance steps together with ideas from the whole troupe…
a game designer with salts the deck with wild cards….

The foil against which all these new metaphors work is the image of a heavenly ruler who exercises direct supernatural control over everything that happens on Earth, vitiating the integrity of natural causes.  But the theory of evolution today challenges us to develop a faith that acknowledges the intense creative activity of both Creator and creation.

A theology of the Spirit

Understanding the Spirit (as the love of God indwelling the natural world and sparking the world’s own generative powers) can help us meet evolution’s challenge.

Looking now at the openness of the natural world, the old biblical images of the Spirit return with ever more significance. Each of these images evokes the insight that the creative Spirit of God desires free partnership, not subservience.

blowing wind…
flowing water…
burning fire…
brooding bird…
holy Wisdom….

Mockingbird CarolMockingbird in flight

Thus Spake the Mockingbird
by Barbara Hamby

The mockingbird says, hallelujah, coreopsis, I make the day
bright, I wake the night-blooming jasmine. I am
the duodecimo of desperate love, the hocus pocus passion
flower of delirious retribution. You never saw such a bird,
such a triage of blood and feathers, tongue and bone. O the world
is a sad address, bitterness melting the tongues of babies,
breasts full of accidental milk, but I can teach the flowers to grow,
take their tight buds, unfurl them like flags in the morning heat,
fat banners of scent, flat platters of riot on the emerald scene.
I am the green god of pine trees, conducting the music
of rustling needles through a harp of wind. I am the heart of men,
the wild bird that drives their sex, forges their engines,
jimmies their shattered locks in the dark flare where midnight slinks.
I am the careless minx in the skirts of women, the bright moon
caressing their hair, the sharp words pouring from their beautiful mouths
in board rooms, on bar stools, in big city laundrettes. I am
Lester Young’s sidewinding sax, sending that Pony Express
message out west in the Marconi tube hidden in every torso
tied tight in the corset of do and don’t, high and low, yes and no. I am
the radio, first god of the twentieth century, broadcasting
the news, the blues, the death counts, the mothers wailing
when everyone’s gone home. I am sweeping
through the Eustachian tubes of the great plains, transmitting
through every ear of corn, shimmying down the spine
of every Bible-thumping banker and bureaucrat, relaying the anointed
word of the shimmering world. Every dirty foot that walks
the broken streets moves on my wings. I speak from the golden
screens. Hear the roar of my discord murdering the trees,
screaming its furious rag, the fuselage of my revival-tent brag. Open
your windows, slip on your castanets. I am the flamenco
in the heel of desire. I am the dancer. I am the choir. Hear my wild
throat crowd the exploding sky. O I can make a noise.

From Babel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Hamby.

Free, empowered creation – 3

The third of 4 posts for chapter 6 of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

The Interplay of law and chance:

How do we explain random occurrences? What Darwin called ‘variations’ are called genetic mutations today – examples of chance events in the succession of generations.

Peacocke writes, “It is in the interplay of chance and law which is in fact creative within time, for it is the combination of the two which allows new forms to emerge and evolve.” (Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age)

Law refers to the orderly suite of natural forces that govern how the universe works. These principles (arrived at by observing the regularities in the world) hold true in all ordinary circumstances. Certain constants, processes, relationships emerged as the universe developed over time. These ‘laws of nature’ are descriptive rather than prescriptive – descriptions read from regularities in the universe. Einstein: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility”.

Chance refers to the crossing of two independent causal chains that intersect for no known reason that can be figured out in advance. The interruption may be destructive or it may open the possibility that something new might emerge from within these systems. Either way, things do not go on as before.

Together: Changes in genetic material bring about changes in the structures of organisms, which in turn make possible new behaviors and relationships. These mutations are inherently unpredictable at the molecular level at which they occur, and are random with respect to the needs of the organism (some are beneficial, many are harmful). Uncertainly also awaits in the particular environmental niche where the mutated organism has to interact. Far from creating a confused jumble, however, these random events operate within a milieu which constrains and delimits their possible outcomes. Without such constraints small changes would dissipate in chaos. With such selection in place, random changes are accommodated in ways that allow regular trends to take root and develop.

If all were law, the natural world would ossify.

If all were chance, nature would dissolve in chaos.

But chance operating within a law-like framework introduces novelty within a pattern that contains and directs it. Rather than being an enemy of law, chance is the very means by which nature becomes continuously creative.

Chance challenges us precisely because it is so unpredictable:

There are important philosophers and scientists who are so struck by this uncertainty that they have elevated the play of chance to a metaphysical principle. Consequently, any idea that the universe has an overall direction or purpose must be false, along with the belief that there is a Creator God engaged with the process. (Monod, Dennet, DawkinsTo learn more about these authors and their theories, go to Johnson’s Select Bibliography, which begins in Beasts on p. 306)

In response, other thinkers call attention to the fact that chance is not the only dynamism at work in evolution. Peacocke opens a way ahead with a striking idea: why not see chance as a tool that allows matter to explore the full range of its possibilities? Chance mutations are the way the stuff of the universe gets investigated, its potential unpacked, so that it moves in the direction of living richness and complexity.

• To digress to the human species for a moment, it is a given among philosophers of science that the emergence of human nature is based on the existence of a natural infrastructure of this kind.

• There is a deep compatibility between the creative (though not conscious) ways that physical, chemical, and biological systems operate through the interplay of law and chance on the one hand, and the human experience of consciousness and freedom on the other.

• At the very least, the freedom of natural systems to explore and discover themselves within a context of law-like regularity is one of the natural conditions for the possibility of the emergence of free and conscious human beings as part of the evolving universe.

What sense can theology make of this dynamic?

Propensities given to creation by the Creator in the beginning are gradually actualized by the operation of chance working within law-like regularities over deep time.

If law stands for the constants of the world, for its steady physical properties and regular processes, then this regularity can be regarded as a feature with which God has endowed the world.

• If chance stands for the unpredictable interruption of this regularity by other natural forces, then this capacity for surprise can also be taken as a God-given feature of the world.

• The interaction of chance and law becomes a creative means, over time, for testing out, tweaking, and finally evolving every new structure and organism of which the physical cosmos is capable. (It is, as Peacocke astutely observes, what one might expect if God created the world to be a participant in developing its own richness.)

Theology has traditionally allied God with lawful regularity. “This is still a fine idea,” Johnson writes, “the deep regularities of the world in their own finite way reflect the faithfulness of the living God, reliable and solid as a rock. It has been more difficult for chance to find a home in the theological imagination….”

• But the occurrence of chance reflects God’s infinite creativity. Johnson sees God’s infinite creativity as the endless source of fresh possibilities, and concludes, “Divine creativity is much more closely allied to the outbreak of novelty than our older order-oriented theology every imagined. In the emergent evolutionary universe, we should not be surprised to find the Creator Spirit hovering very close to turbulence. (Beasts, p. 173)

Unscripted adventure:

The interplay of law and chance over deep time underscores the fact that the history of evolution is amazingly unscripted.   A favored imaginative game among scholars is to rewind the tape of life’s evolution back to the beginning, and let it roll again. Would the community of life look as it does now?  No.  Looking back, an intelligible story of life’s emergence can be constructed, which is what Darwin did. But looking forward, there is no telling what might happen.   A better analogy might be a wild ride through time whose outcome defies prediction. The laws of physics and chemistry are reliable, but “nothing in them demands that Earth be created, let alone with elephants”. (Rolston, Three Big Bangs)


Baptism: Saved or Called?

Preached on January 10, 2016

All four gospels begin their stories of Jesus’ adult ministry with his baptism.

In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, this is what happened after Jesus was baptized:

When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. Luke 3:21-22

Today, for a variety of reasons, parents usually bring babies and small children to the baptismal font (almost all of us here were baptized when we were too young to remember).

For too many centuries, Christians were taught that baptism was necessary to save them for eternal life. That was why parents brought their babies to the font – to make sure their beloved children would always be included in God’s saving love.

But that is not how baptism was understood in Jesus’ time, or in the first centuries afterward.  Instead, baptism was seen as the step into Jesus’ ministry, through the power of Jesus’ Spirit.

Note that there are no babies in today’s lessons – they are all adults, committing themselves to Jesus’ service after life-changing experiences. So what were those experiences?

I think the best way to illustrate that – quite literally – is to step into a picture.

Roman Ravenna 4
Roman Ravenna

Imagine you are living in the Roman city of Ravenna, six centuries after Jesus. There are now many Christians in your city – maybe even in your own family – and sometime in the recent past, you’ve had experiences that have led you to believe in Jesus, too.

What might those experiences have been?  You may have seen Christians coming to their neighbors with prayers for healing….  You may have received food from Christians in times of famine….  You may have heard Christians singing with great joy in their worship…  You may have seen Christians in times of crisis and danger, facing their challenges with courage and hope…

So you have been attending the church’s worship services, and you have been learning about Jesus from the church’s teachers. (You probably never learned to read, but there are other ways to learn spiritual truths.)   And now you are ready for your baptism.

Ravenna baptistry exterior
Arian Baptistry (500 AD)

Imagine that you have come to a small round building, a building you’ve seen many times. It’s not a particularly beautiful building, just a simple two-story octagon faced with ordinary brick. You’ve never been in the building, but you know this is the baptistry – the building next to the church were all baptisms now take place.

So now you walk through the door – and in the center of the room ahead of you there is a shallow pool, right under the building’s dome.

Candles are being lit throughout the building, and their light glitters on the colored mosaics all over the walls and ceiling.

This is no longer the humble brick building you’ve seen from the outside. It represents another world. It’s not heaven yet – but it’s heaven on earth, which is where Jesus sought to bring heaven’s love.

Ravenna baptistry dome
Arian Baptistry – the dome

Now imagine stepping into that pool, your bare feet in the water, and looking up at the dome. There above you is a circle of colored mosaics, and at the very center of the circle is a young Jesus, being baptized by John. The water is being poured over him, and a dove hovers in the air above his head.

Underneath that mosaic of Jesus’ baptism, you are standing in the waters of your own baptism. You are following in Jesus’ footsteps.

But did Jesus come to his own baptism to be ‘saved’ for eternal life? Or was he asking for spiritual power for his ministry?

Look up at the dome again – there’s more to the picture.  Now you see another circle around the central mosaic.  That circle is filled with the first people who followed Jesus. One after another, they keep moving forward. You look more carefully at their faces, and you see they are all Jesus’ disciples. And you know you are following in their footsteps.

But did the first disciples come to their baptisms so they could be ‘saved’ for eternal life? Or – in their encounters with Jesus and his Spirit – were they given power for their ministry?

There’s a clue in the mosaic above you.

Ravenna baptistry dove
The power of the Spirit is poured upon Jesus

This mosaic tells us the meaning of baptism in powerful images.

The reading from Acts tells us in words

When the apostles heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John… who went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17)

Here the Samaritans – yes, those Samaritans! – receive the Holy Spirit after their baptisms. Did these Samaritans believe they were being ‘saved’ for eternal life? They had already followed Jesus and all of his disciples into the waters of baptism. They were already connected to Jesus and to his church, the company of his disciples. But now something more was happening to them– the Spirit was giving them power for ministry.

And now you – with Jesus and the disciples, and with all his other followers from Jerusalem to Samaria and now even to Italy – you are standing in the pool of baptism, and you are ready to step into the great circle of Jesus’ servants, every one of them empowered by the Holy Spirit for ministry.

You’re not just standing in that pool to be ‘saved’ for eternal life – you are asking for the Spirit’s power to serve God in this world, too.

The Holy Spirit gives us power for service

One of the greatest gifts of the American Book of Common Prayer is the way it has taught Episcopalians what baptism really means.

Yes, our faith tells us that baptism links us to Jesus throughout eternity – we are ‘saved’ for eternal life with God – but that’s not all it means.

In our baptisms, we were called to serve in Jesus’ Name, and we were given the power of the Spirit to do that.  So in our baptisms we joined the great company of those who follow Jesus; throughout our Christian lives we’ve been walking along with them, one step at a time, always accompanied by the Spirit of Jesus.

So…. Let me highlight some of the baptismal promises we’re about to renew:

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

How will you proclaim the Good News – what kind of example will you be?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons…?

How will you seek and serve Christ in all persons – even today’s Samaritans?

Will you love your neighbor as yourself?

How will you love your neighbors as yourself – even your most unlovable neighbors?

Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being?

How will you strive for justice and peace –  even in a time when too many of this world’s leaders think war will bring peace?

Our answer is always the same:  I will, with the Spirit’s help. 

Ravenna Holy Virgins procession
Procession of the Baptized (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna)


A homily preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos
January 10: The Baptism of Jesus


Free, empowered creation – 2

The second of 4 posts for chapter 6 of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

The wisdom of philosophy

In their dialogue with science, almost all contemporary theologians accept the theory of evolution. But they differ over how to view the relationship between God and the created beings of the evolutionary world, asking,

How can we affirm our faith in God without compromising the integrity of what science has discovered?

The following theories indicate ways to think about ‘God-and-created-world’ that will set the stage for discussing one more option (the classical notion of primary and secondary causality, related to the dynamic of participation in being.)

Single action theory sees God as the agent whose intention is carried out in the overall development of the cosmos, rather than in its particulars. (Kaufman, Ogden, Wiles….To learn more about these authors and their theories, go to Johnson’s Select Bibliography, which begins in Beasts on p. 306)

The top-down causality theory sees God acting by feeding a flow of information into the system of the world-as-a-whole, influencing its operation the way a patterned whole influences its parts. This position finds an affinity with the gospel of John’s concept of the logos, the divine Word. (Peacocke)

• Causal joint theory sees God inserting divine influence at significant hinge points in open systems, to actualize one of the many possibilities present. (Murphy, Russell, Ellis, Polkinghorne)

• The organic model sees the world as the body of God, envisioning the Spirit of God acting universally and particularly in the world, the way our personal selves act in and through our own bodies. (McFague, Jantzen)

• The kenotic position sees God voluntarily self-limiting divine power in order to participate vulnerably in the life of the world, making room for its freedom. (Hicks, Ward, Fiddes, Haught)

• Process thought sees God as a creative participant in the cosmic community who acts in all events by influence or persuasion. God lures the world in a desired direction toward new possibilities of a richer life together. (Hartshorne, Cobb, Barbour, Griffin)

While markedly different from each other, these various positions have much in common:

All share a profound respect for the freedom of the natural world to evolve consistently with its internal laws, as discovered by contemporary science.

All reject a ‘God of the gaps’ brought in to explain what science has not yet figured out.

All propose models in which the creating God (as known in in the Christian tradition) might be understood to act in the natural world (as known by evolutionary science).

In different ways all seek to make intelligible the idea that the creating God – as ground, sustaining power, and goal of the evolving world – acts by empowering the process from within.


The old theology of primary-secondary causality (as argued by Aquinas and often termed neo-Thomism today) emerged from a static worldview rather than an evolutionary worldview.  It might seem that this would eliminate it from consideration by contemporary theologians – but actually the basic principle remains the same:

The creative activity of God is accomplished in and through the free working of secondary causes.

Johnson acknowledges that language limitations frustrate what she is trying to say:

‘Primary’ and ‘secondary’ causes are not two different types of causes, but operate on  completely different levels – one is the wellspring of Being itself, and the other participates in the power to act (as things that are burning participate in the power of fire).

When Aquinas seeks to explain how God’s creative purpose is achieved over the course of time, he sees no threat to God in allowing creatures the fullest measure of freedom according to their own nature. It is characteristic of God’s all-giving love to raise up creatures who participate in divine being, to such a degree that they are also creative and sustaining in their own right.

In terms of evolution, this does not mean that God’s divine action supplies something that is missing from a creaturely act (or secretly replaces it so that creatures are only a sham cause). Nor does it mean that divine and finite agents are fully complementary, each contributing distinct elements to the one outcome. It means that the living God acts by divine power in and through the acts of finite agents. (Here the wonderful Latin word concursus – meaning flowing or running together -expresses this idea of divine power working in and through finite agents.)

Aquinas says that the processes of the world seem to accomplish their purpose on their own – and without any interference from God. However, this very self-direction already has an imprint from God; it is genuinely part of their own nature, and at the same time it also expresses God’s purpose. Since all good is a participation in divine goodness, the universe as a whole tends toward the ultimate good, which is God.

Johnson tries to draw all these threads together to give us a view of evolution’s autonomous workings while still affirming the Creator Spirit’s innermost presence and action. As the immanent ground of all, God’s intention comes to fruition by means of purposes acted out in grounded creatures.And why?

“The great-hearted God imparts to creatures the dignity of causing.”
(Beasts, p. 166)

Johnson writes that it is so easy to forget this – slipping God into the web of interactions as though the divine were simply a bigger and better secondary cause. But the philosophical distinction between ultimate and proximate causality helps us hold firm to the mystery of the greatness of God and the integrity of creatures.

For Johnson, this is a technical way of interpreting how mature Love acts.

Critics of neo-Thomism

In the dialogue between contemporary positions on divine action, neo-Thomism is criticized on several fronts:

Barbour notes that neo-Thomism has difficulty in moving away from divine determinism to allow for genuinely random acts to occur. (However, Johnson adds, if chance be given the status of a secondary cause, this problem disappears – see Johnson’s assessment, below.)

Peacocke notes that neo-Thomism sometimes uses the artisan/instrument analogy to explain how God, (the primary cause) works through secondary causes in the world. The problem is that this completely overlooks the independent operation of natural causes in the world. The Creator does not relate to the world the way a carpenter uses her hammer; rather, the Spirit of God sets the world up in the fullness of its own powers, which are grounded in the gift of being created.

Polkinghorne (and other critics) note that neo-Thomism merely asserts that God acts through natural causes without giving any idea of the mechanism by which God’s purposes are accomplished. The primary-secondary causality actually offers nothing to illuminate how God acts in the world. Polkinghorne argues that thanks to the indeterminism of reality at many levels, God’s direct intervention in any instance does not transgress the laws of nature.  Natural systems themselves are ‘gappy’ and open enough to receive outside influence without being violated.

(This position, it seems to Johnson, commits a double fallacy. One the one hand, inserting hidden divine action into an open system compromises the natural order. In principle this is no different from the classical idea of divine intervention in a rigidly law-controlled world, except that the intervention is now hidden. On the other hand, the position errs by making God into a bigger and better secondary cause. To the contrary, as Schillebeeckx says, “Belief in God the creator is never an explanation, nor is it meant to be.” Belief in the Creator God delineates the ultimate meaning of the universe, not an explanation of how things work.)

Johnson’s own assessment of neo-Thomism

Johnson holds that neo-Thomism withstands criticism when linked to two overarching concepts: the Creator God as the absolute Living One, pure wellspring of being; and the associated concept of creaturely participation.  Scholars who work with the neo-Thomist position consistently register how it lets the world be the world and evolve in its own way. For instance,

Herbert McCabe: “Aquinas, of course, had no notion of the evolution of species” – but seeing this process as a typical manifestation of the wisdom of the Creator – “he would I am sure have been delighted by the sheer simplicity and beauty of the idea.” (McCabe, On Aquinas)

Denis Edwards: “Aquinas long ago clarified that God’s way of acting in the world is not opposed to the whole network of cause and effect in nature. God’s work is achieved in and through creaturely cause and effect. It is not in competition with it. Aquinas never knew Darwin’s theory of evolution, but he would have had no difficulty in understanding it as the way that God creates.” (Edwards, The God of Evolution)

Johnson concludes: This overview of the current philosophical discussion can help us make room for both evolution and faith. Two agencies of infinitely qualitatively different magnitudes are present in the same worldly action: the autonomous creature which acts, and the divine agency which founds, sustains, and empowers it.   These are not two actions doing essentially the same thing, acting in a parallel way, each contributing to part of the effect:

Brought to life by divine generosity, creatures are genuine centers of activity that operate with their own causal efficacy, interrelated and dependent on each other as well as on God – while the ineffable, transcendent Mystery dwelling within the evolving world continuously creates through the world’s own autonomous processes, letting it be and self-spending in an outpouring of love. (Beasts, p. 168-169)