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.

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