The Dwelling Place of God

Elizabeth Johnson asks,

“How can we speak of the creating, redeeming, re-creating God of life
in view of evolution? 

“For the sake of the intelligibility of belief in our day, as well as a basis for right moral action, it is essential that a Christian theology of evolution locate this drama within the very heart of God.”       ( Ask the Beasts, p. 121)

What would ‘a Christian theology of evolution’ look like?

Belief in a Creator is a religious affirmation, expressing a basic trust that the universe has an ultimately transcendent origin, ongoing support, and a goal towards which all creation moves.

To describe how a Creator works with – and within – this universe, Herbert McCabe gives us a helpful image of a Creator who “makes all things and keeps them in existence from moment to moment, not like a sculptor who makes a statue and leaves it alone, but….

 like a singer who keeps her song in existence at all times.”
(God, Christ, and Us, p. 103)

Beasts 5-1

Classical theology speaks of creation in three senses:

• Original creation – In the beginning, the God of life created the universe, and all its life forms. All living species receive life as a gift from their Creator, and exist in utter reliance on that gift. Without this gift of life, all things would sink back into nothingness

• Continuing creation – As the universe moves through time, the ever-creating God continues to sustains all things. If the ever-creating God is always and everywhere present, then the world of life is itself the dwelling place of God.

• New creation – Source of endless possibilities, the ever-creating God continues to draw the world to an unimaginable future, which Christians view through the lens of a radical promise: in the end, the Creation will not be abandoned, but transformed into new communion with divine life.

But as Christian theology developed in the west, the natural world received little sustained attention. A brief sketch of several contributing factors shows how deep the roots of the problem go.

• Hellenistic philosophers had divided reality into two separate spheres – spirit and matter. Spirit was seen as transcendent: whatever is light, permanent, infinite – and expressed through in autonomy, reason, and the human soul. Matter was seen as inferior: whatever is dark, transitory, finite – and expressed through passivity, dependence, emotions, and the body. In some Hellenistic systems spirit and matter existed in a harmonious tension; but in the Gnostic forms which influenced Christian theology, spirit and matter came to be seen as polar opposites.

• Medieval theology: The dualistic Hellenist philosophies had a profound influence on Christian theology, leading Christians to devalue the earth (as a decaying present reality, the natural world) when compared to heaven (the eternal spiritual reality, the supernatural world).

• Patriarchal androcentrism: The hierarchical dualism of spirit over matter justified the cultural and religious superiority of men over women, because the physically fertile powers of women (and the earth) were seen as inferior to the rational mind. The resulting worldview subordinated both women and earth to men’s control.

• Cartesian dualism: With the Enlightenment came Rene Descartes, who also divided the world into two categories: the human rational mind – which has the ability to know – and everything else – which can be known). Nature was seen as inert and passive; the rational mind could manipulate it for human use.

• Modern Biblical scholarship distinguished between the gods of nature and the God of history. Unlike the nature deities of the ancient world, who governed fertility and the cyclic return of the season, the God of Exodus acted in historic events.

Towards a Christian theology of evolution:
God sustains the world in every moment of its being and becoming.

• The Hebrew scriptures have a powerful sense of the one God who is transcendent beyond all imagination. To protect this holy otherness, biblical writers did not name God but used images such as Word, Wisdom, Glory, Voice, Angel, and Spirit. Yet the Spirit of God is present from the beginning, when the Spirit moves over the primeval waters (Gen 1:2); when the Spirit is sent forth again and to renew the face of the earth (Ps 104:30). From the natural world which is filled with the Spirit of the Lord (Wis 1:7), to the world of human beings, the gift of life keeps pouring out (Ps 139). To speak this way is to highlight divine immanence alongside God’s transcendence

• The New Testament: This sense of the transcendent God’s presence through the Spirit is carried over into the New Testament, but with a noticeable difference. There was as yet no formal doctrine of the Trinity, but the first Christians’ faith experience required a threefold language: God the Father, who had created the world out of love and was infinitely beyond human beings, had encountered them personally in the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and still was profoundly present and active in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which was forming their communities.

• The early Creeds: With the development of the Nicene Creed in the 4th-5th centuries, Christians confessed belief in the Holy Spirit as the ‘Lord and Giver of life’. Western theologians would come to see the Holy Spirit as gracious love, proceeding from the Father and the Son and linking both in mutual and reciprocal unity. Eastern theologians would see this love as proceeding from the Father alone, as the breath (spirit) of God’s mouth which accompanies the Word (logos. In both traditions the love of God is not something God does or feels, but rather God’s very nature – Love.

This trinitarian framework is of utmost importance, because it shows us that language about the Spirit is not about some lesser being or weaker intermediary, but the undiluted holy mystery of God’s own personal being.

Our culture’s most common image of God – an all-powerful, distant super-being who started the world and still occasionally intervenes in the world’s life – comes from scripture and from Christian tradition. But – like all words and images for God – this traditional image is inadequate: in particular, the image doesn’t do justice to our experiences of Holy Spirit.  Other images of God at work – such as wind, water, and fire – are also found in scripture, and these images may draw us closer to God’s surging, unbounded, and creative energy.


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One thought on “The Dwelling Place of God

  1. This post helped me understand this chapter by reminding me of the context, the points Johnson is making. Reading it was heavy going for me. I found myself re-reading sections to capture their meaning. Without this group, I’d be unlikely to make it through the book. So, thank you!

    Birds carry spiritual symbolism in many cultures. We recently visited the exhibit of ancient Chinese art of Sanxingdui, in which birds are messengers between heaven and earth,

    So glad we got to chickens! Many people do not know what it means to brood a clutch of eggs. I’ve provided some information on my blog,

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