Bookends (Reading Ask the Beasts, pages 211-214)
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. Julian of Norwich, Showings
Julian’s vision of the hazelnut showed her that God’s love expands beyond humans to encompass the whole world. Johnson’s Chapter 8 – ‘Bearer of Great Promise’ – reflects on the ‘hazelnut’ of the evolving world.
Where did this world come from? Where is this world going?
Science answers these questions about the evolving world by searching within the framework of time and space. Theology, with its conviction that God is faithful, can move beyond time and space.
Theology does not claim factual information; it proclaims a deep trusting faith. Such deep trust develops because experiences of God’s presence – in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike – leads believers to affirm God’s presence at the beginning of creation, God’s continuous presence throughout time and space, and on to God’s presence even at the end.
Bookends: to give life in the first place, and to renew life in the second place, are facets of one and the same divine love encompassing the world with the same creative power.
Christian theology has spent much more time with the God of the beginning than with the God of the end; but the logic of faith holds that if holy Mystery can create life, then the same holy Mystery can rescue it from final nothingness.
‘We are created’ (Ask the Beasts, pages 214-219)
All creatures on earth are dependent on the overflowing Wellspring of life. The two creation stories that open the Bible (Genesis 1–2) teach this truth through dramatic myth. Both narratives make the same point: God alone is the Maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is in them. The story of Noah (Genesis 9) includes all non-human creatures in God’s great covenant (and, unlike other covenants in Israel’s history, this one does not require affirmation from the creatures; it is a pure gift of assurance and blessing).
Creation understood this way is an original Jewish belief, and so was part of the disciples’ belief system. But when Christianity came into contact with the philosophies of the Greco-Roman world, the Jewish understanding of creation needed further elaboration. The expression ‘out of nothing’ (creation ex nihilo) came into use to differentiate the way Christians saw creation from the opposing views.
One Greco-Roman view was that matter is eternal, or at least existed prior to the present world.
Another (Gnostic) view was that matter was at the lowest level of reality, making finite bodiliness opposed to the spirit which is eternally good. Against the dualism of this view, the phrase ‘out of nothing’ signals the goodness of all things, including material creatures.
Eventually ‘out of nothing’ came to underscore a third insight: the existence of the world is a free gift. The existence of all creatures is totally owed to the free act of an incomprehensively loving Other.
This belief is not meant to be a scientific explanation. Talk about creation is a type of religious language that refers to the world’s ultimate rootedness in a loving power beyond itself. Whichever scientific explanation ultimately holds true, for Christians the world will still be grounded in God’s creative act.
‘We are finite and will end’ (Ask the Beasts, pages 219-221)
To be created is to be finite and mortal. Such limitation is simply the condition of being a creature; nothing on earth lasts forever. But the doctrine of new creation (creatio nova) affirms that this earthly end is not a final annihilation.
It is important here to distinguish scientific and theological language. According to contemporary science, the universe itself will come to an end (though uncertainty persists as to how).
The theological assertion that on ‘the last day’ the cosmos will be renewed in a transfigured life with God does not deny any of those scenarios. Its claim is based not on the potential of the finite world to survive final death, but on the character of God.
Note that hope like this is far from an easy optimism. Rather, it is the language of courageous and abiding trust in the fidelity of God. What this blessed future will look like is impossible to imagine.
(Hence the various apocalyptic passages in scripture should never be read as if they are predicting a chain of coming historical events. These passages are narrative ways of teaching the truth; like the creation stories in Genesis, the texts reveal that the world’s destiny is totally in the loving hands of God.)
Tomorrow: ‘Cosmic redemption’ and ‘Muir’s Bear’