An American Childhood (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 11.,
Falling in Love with God and the World
Some Reflections on the Doctrine of God
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2013
Copyright © (2013) World Council of Churches
The Ecumenical Review
Volume 65, Issue 1, pages 17–34, March 2013
How to Cite
McFague, S. (2013), Falling in Love with God and the World. The Ecumenical Review, 65: 17–34. doi: 10.1111/erev.12024
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2013
A Biographical Introduction
- Top of page
- A Biographical Introduction
- The Task of Theology
- Who Is God?
- Some Concluding Thoughts
I have been asked to write an essay on the doctrine of God and ecology. It is a monumental task; it is also one that could be done in a number of different ways. But since I am almost eighty years old and my horizon is shrinking, I have decided to use my own story as the context of how the standard doctrine of God has changed into an ecological one over the last seventy or so years. My story and the rising up of the “ecological God” cover approximately the same time frame; hence, sketching the journey of the big story within my small one may provide a few modest but hopefully honest insights.
Seventy-three years ago I was seven years old and experienced God for the first time. Coming home from school one day, I suddenly realized that some day I would not “be here” for Christmas, and even more shocking, I would not be here for my birthday. I was becoming conscious that I was contingent, that I did not create myself, that I would not live forever, and that I was dependent on something else. I believe now that such a radical sense of non-being with the accompanying gratitude and awe at what did create me – and sustains me in life – is one of the quintessential religious emotions. It underlies a profound sense of radical transcendence and radical immanence that has been the theme of my religious journey and I believe is the central issue facing any Christian doctrine of God.
For me and for most of my cohort seventy years ago, it was the transcendent dimension that dominated our view of God and did so in a comfortably personal and often individualistic way, with a picture of God as a supernatural father who both judged and forgave his wayward children. My “theology” and the implicit theology of this era, the forties and fifties in the Western, Christian world, was unapologetically anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. God was the God of human beings, and especially individual human beings in their personal and public joys and woes. “Human beings” were essentially all the same under the skin, as the National Geographic instructed us, and loving your neighbor was practised by charity and the social gospel.
At about the same time as my first experience of transcendence, I was also opening up to the natural world. My family owned a one-room cabin without running water or electricity on Cape Cod and I was free to run wild all day in the woods as long as I turned up for dinner. I fell in love with the world in a way similar to Annie Dillard's description of her waking up to it: “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along … They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning.”1 Such an awakening to the world was a conversion of equal strength and importance to my sense of radical contingency. Simultaneously, I was waking up to experiences of transcendence and immanence, but they were not connected. Years later when I read that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin at seven years old wrote that he had a passion for God and a passion for the world and could not give up either one, I knew my theological journey mirrored his.2 However, it took many years before I could see the way that radical transcendence and radical immanence might be one. Along the way I met once again the transcendent God when, as a college sophomore, I read Karl Barth's preface to the second edition to his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans. Here he identifies himself with Kierkegaard's “infinite qualitative distinction” between time and eternity, “God is in heaven, and thou art on earth,” claiming that this is the “theme of the Bible.”3 When I read these words I can recall feeling a conversion to a whole new level of what divine transcendence meant, blowing wide open my cozy view of a supernatural father who judged and forgave his wayward children. Radical transcendence meant the otherness of God in ways I had never imagined. But soon, while studying theology at divinity school in the fifties and sixties, I met the feminist critique of the distant, patriarchal, transcendent God and had my faith shaken: a supernatural being who controlled the world “in heaven” was not only not credible to me, but oppressive. Barth had given me the cold mountain wind of radical transcendence, but what of the world – that wonderful feel of earth on my bare feet as I ran in the woods, hunted turtles from a tipping canoe, and had close encounters with caterpillars and pine trees? What of my other love? There was no connection. Soon, however, with the help of my undergraduate degree in literature, I began to question the type of language that we were using to talk about God. It sounded like description, but I began to suspect it was metaphorical.
And it has been a long journey for me (and for many others over the last fifty years) to move toward an understanding of God and the world in which one's passion for the world and passion for God can come together. Like Teilhard de Chardin, I discovered that I did not have to give up either; in fact, as I experimented with the model of the world as God's body I came to see how loving the world is loving God. As a Christian, I no longer see God off in the sky (or even as an infinite abstraction), but as the spirit of the body we call the earth. God is always everywhere with each and every smidge of creation as the loving power of life to all in their sufferings and joys.
The world as God's body is a “panentheistic” understanding of God, in contrast to both theism (deism) and pantheism. In theism (and deism) God and the world are separate, abiding in different places (heaven and earth); in pantheism, God and the world are the same, without distinction. But in a panentheistic view, the world lives “within” God, insisting on the most radical transcendence and the most radical immanence. Teilhard's passions (and mine) are one, as expressed in the lovely prayer he wrote while contemplating his own death.
After having perceived You as He who is “a greater myself,” grant, when my hour comes, that I may recognize You under the species of such alien or hostile force that seems bent upon destroying or supplanting me. When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand it is You (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within Yourself.4
When I first read that prayer I realized that it not only brought God and the world together in the most intimate and total way – taking my “matter” into God's own self – but it also “solved” the eternal life problem in a satisfactory way (at least for me). If we live within God now, then surely when we die we will simply live more fully in God, as God “bears me away within Yourself.” What we cherish now – the God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves here on earth – will be even closer when we die. What more could we ask for or imagine? And what could convey better the passion for the world (in the form of one's own precious body) and the passion for God that is, I believe, the litmus test of a Christian doctrine of God? It is, in a nutshell, what the “incarnation,” the central faith of Christianity, is all about. So: How does this religious journey translate theologically, and what pertinence might it have for ecology and climate change?
The Task of Theology
- Top of page
- A Biographical Introduction
- The Task of Theology
- Who Is God?
- Some Concluding Thoughts
I propose now that we back up and ask the central question regarding a doctrine of God in and for our time. Whose responsibility is it to attend to such a task and what would a sketch of such an understanding of God look like? These two issues will occupy us for the rest of this essay. I will suggest a few preliminary comments. First, while the understanding of God in a culture comes about in a vast number of ways, I will take a narrow focus: what is the responsibility of a theologian in this task? I want to suggest that theology at a time of deterioration due to climate change and financial inequality must focus on deconstructing and reconstructing the doctrine of God. If theologians, who are some of the keepers and interpreters of this deep knowledge, allow false, inappropriate, unhelpful, and dangerous notions of God to continue as our society's assumptions, we are not doing our job. A primary task of theologians is to guard and encourage right thinking and talking about God and ourselves. This, of course, is but one small task needed for the planetary agenda to change. Other people – doctors, car manufacturers, teachers, parents, corporate leaders, lawyers, politicians, agriculturalists, and so on – also have important offerings to make in our struggle against climate change. The particular task of theologians is prior to our action; it is at its roots. It is a limited task and mainly a linguistic one: suggesting different language for talking about God and ourselves – with the hope that different action might follow. The limitations and possibilities of this task are perhaps best seen in the negative: If we do not change our basic assumptions about God and ourselves from one in which God and the world are separate and distant, can we expect people to change their behaviour? If we know nothing else, do we have a choice?
Deep down, beneath all our concepts and ideas about ourselves, is a sense, a feeling, an assumption about “who we are.” This is not a question people commonly ask of each other – or of themselves – anymore than they ask one another, “Who is God?” These questions are seen as too personal or too abstract or too intimidating for civil conversation. Nonetheless, they are the deepest questions of human existence and lie uneasily beneath any glib answers we might give, were we to be asked. However, we act all the time on the basis of these deep assumptions of who we are and who God is, even while not acknowledging that we even have such assumptions. When we respond with approval to an advertisement for an expensive car telling us that “we deserve the very best,” we are implicitly acknowledging that privileged individualism is our assumption about human nature. When we say that God is interested in spiritual not secular matters (and therefore not in cars), we are implicitly confessing that we believe in a distant, uninvolved God.
Who I am and who God is are taken for granted in a culture: the answer lies with the unacknowledged and accepted conventions of what is meant by “I” (a human person) and “God.” But it is the false conventional views of God and human beings that permit the continuing destruction of our planet and its inhabitants. The environmental crisis is a theological problem, a problem coming from views of God and ourselves that encourage and permit our destructive, unjust actions. For example, if I see myself (deep down) as superior to other animals and life-forms – a privileged individual (Western, white, educated, etc.) – then of course I will act in ways that support my continuation in this position. If, as a human being, I am basically “on my own,” then it is also “up to me” to maintain my superiority. This sense or feeling of separate and responsible individualism need not be conscious; in fact, it usually is not. Rather, it is considered by most privileged Western human beings to simply be the way things are. It is seen as “natural” rather than as a personal belief.
Likewise, if I imagine God (deep down) to be a super-being, residing somewhere above and apart from the world, who created and judges the world but otherwise is absent from it, then I will conduct my affairs largely without day-to-day concern about God. If the God I believe in is supernatural, transcendent, and only intermittently interested in the world, then this God is not a factor in my daily actions. Whether or not I treat myself to that expensive car is certainly not relevant to such a God.
So, we are suggesting that who God is and who we are must be central questions if we hope to change our actions in the direction of just, sustainable planetary living. It is useless to censure people for their actions when the roots of those actions lie in deep, unexamined assumptions. The problem lies in our theologies and our anthropologies. The problem, as many have pointed out, is a “spiritual” one, having to do with our will to change. We already know more than enough about the disaster ahead of us – having more knowledge (or technology) will not solve the problem. Only changing human wills can do so.
But is this possible? It is not sufficient “to know the good” in order “to do the good.” While the Greeks believed this, St Paul knew better, and most of us think Paul is the better realist. So why bother with new theologies and anthropologies? Aren't they just more “knowledge”? Yes and No. Yes, because obviously they fall into the category of knowledge, but No, because it is a peculiar kind of knowledge, the deepest possible kind – who we are and who God is. If we change these basic assumptions, our behavior may change as well. To be sure, it will not happen necessarily, easily, or universally, but it can and might happen. Or to put it negatively, unless another option becomes available to us, we have nothing to choose but the conventional view of God and ourselves, a view that is destructive of ourselves and our planet.
Who Is God?
- Top of page
- A Biographical Introduction
- The Task of Theology
- Who Is God?
- Some Concluding Thoughts
If we are in agreement that the understanding of God is not a description but an interpretation and that interpretations can influence our behaviour, then let us look at a major model of the relationship between God and the world that has been traditional and is still current in much Western theology. We recall that the task in this essay is to trace the movement over the past century toward a model of God that expresses both divine immanence and divine transcendence in the most radical way. Such an understanding of God would encourage us to love both the world and God, or more accurately, to love the world in God. We are reaching for a doctrine of God that tells us that loving the world is loving God.
The traditional doctrine of God
The classical view certainly does not do this. The First Vatican Council (1869–70) expresses the God–world relationship that, with some variations, is a common one in major creeds of various Christian churches since the Reformation and which lies behind the traditional creation story.
The Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church believes and confesses that there is one true and living God, Creator and Lord of Heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intelligence, in will, and in all perfection, who, although He is one, singular, altogether simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, must be pure and distinct in reality and essence from the world, most Blessed in Himself and of Himself, and ineffably most high above all things which are or can be conceived outside Himself.5
Given this view of the God–world relationship – one of total distance and difference – the story of creation and providence follows. That story, in its simplest form, claims that an absolute, all-powerful, transcendent God created the world (universe) from nothing for entirely gratuitous reasons. God did not need creation nor is God internally related to it: it was created solely for God's glory. Unfortunately, creation “fell” through the pride of one of its creatures – human beings – making it necessary for God to initiate a reversal of creation's downfall through Jesus Christ, who atones for the sins of all human beings. In this story creation and providence are part of one coherent, historical, all-inclusive drama in which God is in charge from beginning to end, creating all things and saving them through the atoning blood of his own Son.
This mythic story focuses on God's actions – God is the protagonist of the world drama – and its purpose is to answer Why, not Where, questions. The story speaks to our concerns about why the world was made, who is in charge of it, why it is no longer harmonious, and how it is made “right” again. This story does not speak to our interest in the world or how we should act toward our neighbours. Human beings are, in fact, minor players in the classic Christian story of creation and providence. Moreover, the action does not occur in our physical neighbourhoods, the actual spaces and places we inhabit, but over our heads, as it were, in the vast panoramic historical sweep of time, with its beginning (creation), middle (redemption), and end (eschatology). In each of these events God is totally in charge; we, at most, like good children are grateful to our all-mighty, all-loving Father and try to follow his will. Even when sin and evil divert the drama from its triumphant course (and cause us to lose faith and hope), the lord of history will prevail, the king will be victorious.
What is left out of this story of creation is creation itself, that is, “the neighbourhood,” the lowly, concrete, particular – and fascinating, wonderful – details of physical reality. It is about history, not geography: about God's action through the sweep of time, not about our life on planet earth. In fact, the story does not seem to be about creation, but about a God whose “spiritual substance … is to be declared really and essentially distinct from the world.” This God does not inhabit creation; in fact, the assumption behind this creation story is that spirit and matter are entirely distinct and in a dualistic, hierarchical relationship. God, and all things spiritual, heavenly, and eternal, are perfect and exalted above all things material, earthly, and mortal, with the latter being entirely different from the former and inferior to it. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this assumption – the dualistic, hierarchical relationship of God and the world – for it encourages not only an understanding of salvation as the escape of individuals to the spiritual world, but also justifies lack of attention to the flourishing of this world. If God is spirit and creation is matter, then God does not occupy the earth and we need not attend to it either. But what if spirit and matter were not entirely different; what if all life – God's and ours, as well as that of all others on earth – was seen to be on a continuum, more like a circle or a recycle symbol, than like a dualistic hierarchy? What if spirit and matter were intrinsically related, rather than diametrically opposed? Would not this make a difference in how we thought of where God is and where we should be? Would it not turn our eyes to the earth, whether we were searching for God or trying to understand where we belong?
The traditional model of God and the world does have the advantage of underscoring divine transcendence. It sees the relationship between God and the world as one in which the divine, all-powerful king controls his subjects and they in turn offer him loyal obedience. It underscores the “godness” of God, for the monarchical imagery calls forth awe and reverence, as well as vocational meaningfulness, since membership in the kingdom entails service to the divine Lord. The continuing power of this model is curious since contemporary members of royalty scarcely call up responses of awe, reverence, and obedience, but its nostalgic appeal, as evidenced in the gusto with which we all sing Christmas carols that are rife with this imagery, cannot be underestimated. Any model that would attempt to criticize it ought to look carefully at the main reason for its attraction: it underscores and dramatizes divine transcendence. In other words, it accomplishes one of the tasks of a model of the God–world relationship: it emphasizes the power and glory of God.
Nonetheless, this model has several problems, the first being that the model of God as king is “domesticated” transcendence, for a king rules only over human beings, a minute fraction of created reality. The king-realm model is neither genuinely transcendent (God is king over one species recently arrived on a minor planet in an ordinary galaxy) nor genuinely immanent (God as king is an external super-person, not the source, power, and goal of the entire universe). Moreover, a king is both distant from the natural world and indifferent to it, for as a political model, it is limited to human beings. At most, nature enters this model only as the king's “realm” or “dominion,” not with all the complexity, richness, and attention-grabbing qualities of the living, mysterious creation of which we are a part. Moreover, the hierarchical nature of the model encourages human beings to act like kings in relation to the rest of creation: we are to subdue and dominate it.
The king-realm model would not be so harmful if it were not also hegemonic; that is, for many Christians it (along with the father-child model) literally describes the divine–world relationship. It is for them not a model – that is, one good, useful way of talking about the God–world relationship (while admitting there are other ways) – but the one and only way. Both of these favourites, the king-realm and the father-child model, exclude the natural world: they exclude the neighbourhood we need to pay attention to. Models are dangerous as well as helpful and necessary, for they only allow us to see what they want us to. If the God–world relationship is not expressed in models that include the natural world – God's love for it and our responsibility for it – then, we ignore it: the “world” will mean the human world, either personally or politically. What model of God and the world might help us to see loving God and the world together?
The world as God's body
We take as our text Augustine's words expressing his sense of the God–world relationship.
Since nothing that is could exist without You, You must in some way be in all that is; [therefore also in me, since I am]. And if You are already in me, since otherwise I should not be, why do I cry to You to enter into me? … I should be nothing, utterly nothing, unless You were in me – or rather unless I were in You “of Whom and by Whom and in Whom are all things.” So it is, Lord. So it is. Where do I call You to come to, since I am in You? Or where else are You that You can come to me? Where shall I go, beyond the bounds of heaven and earth, that God may come to me, since He has said: “Heaven and earth do I fill.”6
If God is always incarnate – if God is always in us and we in God – then Christians should attend to the model of the world as God's body.7 For Christians, God did not become human on a whim; rather, it is God's nature to be embodied, to be the One in whom we live and move and have our being. In Christianity, the God–world relationship is understood in light of the incarnation; hence, creation is “like” the incarnation. Jesus Christ is the lens, the model, through whom Christians interpret God, world, and themselves. The doctrine of creation for Christians, then, is not different in kind from the doctrine of the incarnation: in both God is the source of all existence, the One in whom we are born and re-born. In this view, the world is not just matter while God is spirit; rather, there is a continuity (though not an identity) between God and the world. The world is flesh of God's “flesh”; the God who took our flesh in one person, Jesus of Nazareth, has always done so. God is incarnate, not secondarily but primarily. Therefore, an appropriate Christian model for understanding creation is the world as God's body. This is not a description of creation (there are no descriptions); neither is it necessarily the only model; it is, however, one model that is commensurate with the central Christian affirmation that God is with us in the flesh in Jesus Christ and it is a model that is particularly appropriate for interpreting the Christian doctrine of creation in our time of climate change. Its merits and limitations should be considered in relation to other major models of the God–world relationship.
The world as God's body is appropriate for our time (as well as being in continuity with the Christian incarnational tradition) because it encourages us to focus on the neighbourhood. It understands the doctrine of creation not to be primarily about God's power, but about God's love: how we can live together, all of us, within and for God's body. It focuses attention on the near, on the neighbour, on the earth, on meeting God not later in heaven but here and now. We meet God in the world and especially in the flesh of the world: in feeding the hungry, healing the sick – and in reducing greenhouse gases. An incarnational understanding of creation says nothing is too lowly, too physical, too mean a labour if it helps creation to flourish. We find God in caring for the garden, in loving the earth well: this becomes our vocation, our central task. Climate change, then, becomes a major religious, a major Christian, issue. To be a Christian in our time, one must respond to the consequences of global warming.
Another implication of the model of creation as God's body is that it radicalizes both God's transcendence and God's immanence. This model has been criticized by some as pantheistic, as identifying God and the world. I do not believe it is. If God is to the universe as each of us is to our bodies, then God and the world are not identical. They are, however, intimate, close, and internally related in ways that can make Christianity uncomfortable, when it forgets its incarnationalism. But we Christians should not shy away from a model that radically underscores both divine transcendence and divine immanence. How does it do so?
In the world as God's body, God is the source, the centre, the spring, the spirit of all that lives and loves, all that is beautiful and true. When we say “God,” that is what we mean: we mean the power and source of all reality. We are not the source of our own being; hence, we acknowledge the radical dependence of all that is on God. This is true transcendence: being the source of everything that is. Our universe, the body of God, is the reflection of God's being, God's glory; it is the sacrament of God's presence with us. The most radically transcendent understanding of God is, then, at the same time the most radically immanent understanding. Because God is always incarnational, always embodied, we can see God's transcendence immanently. Meeting God is not a momentary “spiritual” affair; rather, God is the ether, the reality, the body, the garden in which we live. God is never absent; God is reality (being); everything that has being derives it from God (we are born of God and re-born by God). The entire cosmos is born of God, as is each and every creature. We depend on this source of life and its renewal absolutely. We could not live a moment without the gifts of God's body – air, food, water, land, and other creatures. To realize this is an overwhelming experience of God's transcendence; it calls forth awe and immense gratitude. Yet, at the same time, as Augustine puts it, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Where can we go where God is not, since God fills heaven and earth: “I should be nothing, utterly nothing, unless You were in me – or rather unless I were in You …” The God whom we meet through the earth is not only the source of my being, but of all being. We see glimmers of God in creation (God's body) and we see the same God more clearly in Jesus Christ, the major model of God for Christians.
A further implication of our model, then, is that is allows us to meet God in the garden, on the earth, at home. We do not have to go elsewhere or wait until we die or even be “religious.” We meet God in the nitty-gritty of our regular lives, for God is always present in every here and now. This implication underscores that since God is here in our world, then surely it is indeed our neighborhood, our planet and its creatures, that we should be caring for. The significance that the transcendent God is with us cannot be overestimated as we struggle to care for the earth. It means that we are not alone as we face the despair that creeps over us when at last we acknowledge our responsibility for climate change. We do not face this overwhelming problem on our own: God is with us as the source and power of all our efforts to live differently.
The incarnate God
At the outset of this essay I mentioned that a passion for the world and a passion for God is the litmus test of a Christian doctrine of God. The reason this is so is that Christians do not start talking about who God is “in general,” but always in relationship to the message, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth. What does the story of Jesus tell us about God? Most essentially, it tells us that God does not “exist” in another world; rather, “God” is what/who makes this world go round. “God” is knowing that I owe my life to Something, Someone other than myself. What we learn from the life and witness of Jesus is that the questions “Where is God?” “How great is God?” and “Is God with us here on earth?” are not abstract, useless questions, but lie at the heart of what Jesus tells us of God. “God” is not, on this reading a distant, minimal, supernatural being, but rather God is another name for “reality,” for the reality that actually creates, fuels, sustains, and saves all life. The lives of saints witness to this God at both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic levels. At the macrocosmic level God is the Yes that the scientific story does not give us – God is not only the source of life but its direction toward flourishing. At the microcosmic level God is also the Yes that helps each of us get out of bed in the morning and keep going. “God” is the plus in life, the “extra” that makes life worth living. “God” is why the earth is not flat and sterile, why it shines with glory. “God” is that specific Something/Someone that keeps us from sinking every day, who lifts us out of the pit of despair. “God” is everything and anything that is good, true, and beautiful. Does this mean that God is everything and therefore the world is nothing? No, but God is the Yes (however small) to all the big No's – the No to slavery, to starvation, to market capitalism, to war, and to climate change. Is God, then, merely human hopefulness? No, because folks who protest these No's do not believe that hope comes from themselves, no matter how dedicated their efforts. Rather, hope comes to us. We are not the source or strength of any of our efforts toward justice and sustainability. At most, we can try to move our narrow egos out of the way so that we can become channels of God's loving power for saying “No” to all that diminishes life and “Yes” to all that promotes it. We are the receivers, the listeners, the admirers, the grateful ones. We live within a world “cupped” within the hands of God, who is all things good, true, and beautiful. We did not create any of this and we cannot live apart from What/Who did.
Starting with the most immediate, personal, and daily experiences of that Something/Someone beyond us but within whom we live from breath to breath – what I read as the story of Jesus and the experience of our saints (and know from my own spiritual journey) – embraces both the beauty and the suffering of the world. These experiences are not a “foundation,” a claim to truth about the theology that follows. On the contrary, they are a recognition that all statements about God rest on the shaky sands of human experience, but nonetheless, such experiences are intimations of God. Neither beauty nor suffering is sufficient alone: beauty and suffering are both routes to God, the beauty of the world that causes us to exclaim with wonder and gratitude just for another day in this glorious place, and the suffering of millions of individuals and species, human and non-human, both by accident and by intention that likewise causes us to exclaim, but now in horror and unbelief, that such waste and cruelty are possible. “God,” then, is first of all not a “being” (no matter how great) but the slow (or sudden) experience that makes us aware that we are not alone – and that we are living in world of Yes. Julian of Norwich's enigmatic words reach out trying to express this: All will be well. The Christian Easter attempts to say the same thing: all it says is that while we do not know how or what will be “well,” we know that it will be. It simply says that a “Yes” rather than a “No” rules and empowers the universe. This is all we need to know: it is the witness against our deepest fear – that despair, hatred, indifference, and malevolence is at the heart of things. We see glimmers of the Yes in the tiniest forget-me-not flower hidden under a mountain rock as well as in a piece of bread shared with a hungry person. This, not a “being” of any sort, is “God.”
The kenotic God
So we begin our sketch of a Christian doctrine of God not with the creation of a world separate from God, but with the history – the “face” of Jesus of Nazareth, his message, actions, and especially his cross. Here, Christians, those who base their lives on faith in Jesus as a limited but persuasive revelation of God, claim that the first thing to say about God is self-emptying love. Jesus' whole life was a lead-up of total giving to others, culminating in the cross where he sacrificed his life, not for the atonement of humanity's sins, but as a witness to the totally unexpected and overwhelming gift of God's own self as the answer to our questions about who we are and how we should live. The cross of Jesus tells us that God's own life is also our life (for we were made in the “image of God” to live as God lives). And the most important characteristic of God's life is “love.” Here, we have the one word that we use to talk about God that is not a metaphor; that is, every other word we use to express the divine reality is something drawn from our world and used – stretched – to function somehow for God. Thus, when we call God Father or Mother or the body of the world, etc., we are taking meanings that we understand and substituting them for the silence that inhabits God-talk. We do not know how to talk about God, so we use metaphors from ordinary life. But with this one word – love – we make a statement that is open, blank, unfilled: we need God to define what “love” means. And this, I believe, is where “faith” enters: “faith” is not belief that God “exists,” that God is a “being” (even of the highest sort). Rather, “faith” is the willingness to turn to the “face” of Jesus of Nazareth for intimations of what “love” means.
And here we find a strange thing. Rather than the traditional story of an absolute, all-powerful God who relates to the world by controlling and demanding its allegiance, we see God as the one who relates to the world in a new and astounding way: as self-giving love for the well-being of all creatures. The Christian tradition has called such total self-sacrificing love “kenotic” (after the Greek word for “emptying”). We have hints of this kind of love in the saints, sometimes in a mother's love, and here and there even in the biological world where give and take, reciprocity, sacrifice, and even hints of altruism emerge (as we have seen). But it is in the story of Jesus that Christians find both the fulfillment and the paradigmatic expression of this counter-cultural love.
But the kenotic theological story does not stop with Jesus – it points to God in God's self. The doctrine of the Trinity – that seemingly abstract and often irrelevant notion that God is “three in one” – becomes central at this point. This is the case because Christianity is not Jesus-worship; it is not about him, but about God, and not just about how God relates to the world, but how God is in God's self. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity – a subject that has often been used to illustrate the esoteric irrelevance of the Christian view of God: How can “one” be “three”? Do Christians believe in three gods? Such questions become the centre of a profoundly immanent understanding of divine transcendence. That is to say, rather than a conundrum to baffle people about who God is, the doctrine of the Trinity clarifies and deepens our understanding of God if it is seen as the “face” of Jesus, as we have suggested.
A wide range of theologians agree. Julian of Norwich, writing in the Middle Ages, does not mince words concerning this connection: “Jesus himself, as she sees him bleeding on the cross, is the source of her understanding of the Trinity.”8 Centuries later, John Haught, an evolutionary theologian, claims, “At the center of Christian faith lies a trust that in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus we are presented with the mystery of God who pours the divine self-hood into the world in an act of unreserved self-abandonment.”9 And Jürgen Moltmann adds, “The content of the doctrine of the Trinity is the real cross of Christ himself. The form of the crucified Christ is the Trinity.”10
This is the first and most important point to make about a kenotic theology: our understanding of who God is comes not from “above,” from an external or general source, from the common misunderstanding that “everyone knows who God is,” which is often the opening comment of conversations about the nature of God. For instance, when scientists and theologians gather to discuss “God,” an assumed generic view often prevails on the side of the scientists: God is a static, transcendent, distant, all-powerful super-being dwelling in another world. If, however, the question of who God is starts with what Jesus did in his life, teachings, and death, we have a very different view, one in which, as Grace Jantzen says of Julian's view, “since the revelation of God in Jesus is a manifestation of the totally self-giving suffering of love, this is also the most important fact about the Trinity.”11 Hence, it makes all the difference “where we start” to talk about God.
Moreover, it also makes a difference what we understand the work of Jesus to be. If it is primarily a sacrificial atonement on the part of an all-powerful God, then the Trinity is likely to be seen as the mechanism for this transaction: thus, as in Anselm's view, the Son, the “second person of the trinity,” sacrifices himself for the sins of his brothers and sisters in order to save them from divine punishment by the “first person,” with the Spirit, the “third person” conveying the benefits to the faithful. Here the focus tends to be on the “persons” of the Trinity and their connecting tasks or functions. Thus, the Western understanding of the Trinity, deeply influenced by Augustine, underscores the “oneness” of God, with the three “persona” (traditionally called the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as functions, aspects, or modes of the divine oneness. The tendency is to see the Trinity as one substance with three natures in contrast to the Eastern view which claims that outside of the Trinity there is no God, no divine substance. The Eastern Christian view underscores the “threeness” of the divine, and in particularly, the relationality of the three.12 The result of these different emphases is that the Western understanding of God verges on an “individualism” for both God and humanity, while the Eastern view focuses on the process of giving and receiving. The first sees both God and humanity as “substances,” separate beings, while the second sees them as “relationships,” reciprocal processes of give and take. In other words, the Western view of the Trinity supports a paradigm of God and the world as both characterized by static, individual substances or essences while the Eastern view assumes that life – for both God and the world – is a process in which relations are more important than entities.
The implications of such a process view are significant. Here, “love” is not a property or characteristic of God, some attribute added on to God, but “love is the supreme ontological predicate” of both God and of us human beings, who are made “in the image of God.”13 In other words, we choose self-emptying love or nothing; we are not created beings who then choose love, even as God is not “God” who then decides to love. Rather, who God is and who we are is defined by love, by the self-emptying action of one into the other, of God into the world and of all parts of the world into each other. What it means to be a human being is simply to choose to be what one is: a participant in the God's very own life of love. Thus, poetically, the Eastern view sees the inner life of God as an “eternal divine round dance” in which there is no inferior or superior, no first or second, but an eternal self-emptying and re-filling of each by each. Here we see the glimmers of mutual reciprocity evident at all levels of evolution epitomized in the Godhead itself, now understood (for Christians who see God in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth) as the very nature of reality. The Eastern view of the Trinity is more suited to the task of conveying an immanent understanding of transcendence – that is, radical self-emptying love as the heart of the divine – than is the Western view, although many, including Augustine with his view of that God as lover, beloved, and love itself, have attempted to emphasize kenotic love.
A second implication of starting with the incarnate self-emptying love of Jesus, epitomized in the cross, is a different view of divine power. The tendency of monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to provide support for the current radical individualism of Western culture, a view that as we have seen undergirds human domination of nature among other things, is aided by unqualified monotheism: as God dominates the world, so human beings, made in the image of God, should dominate the natural world. This view has supported centuries of human exploitation of nature culminating in our current human-induced global warming from excess greenhouse gas emissions. It is impossible to overemphasize the significance of monotheism's contribution to this customary stance of human beings, as it is often the unspoken assumptions of “who we are in the scheme of things” that has more influence than any explicit statements of “who we should be in the scheme of things.” Thus, a radically different understanding of divine power – one in which “God” epitomizes total self-emptying openness to others, all others – is not only an indictment of the common view of power as control, but also a paradigm of “letting be” so profound and so inclusive that we are speechless to suggest what it means.
Buddhism's sunyata, the “God” beyond God; the mystic's prayer to free us from our desire to possess God; the statement by a Christian theologian that “the Godhead is profound and utter claimlessness;” and Meister Eckhart's suggestion that there is no God beyond the distinctions of the Trinity are all attempts to address this speechlessness. In this understanding, God “gives up” all names and properties, wary of all attempts to reach to the “emptiness” of God, acknowledging the breakdown of all human attempts to say what cannot be said – that “God” is God. Ursula LeGuin, the science-fiction novelist, published a nice piece in The New Yorker magazine some years ago in which she imagined Eve deciding to “unname” the animals, a first-step toward overturning the exceptionalism of human beings in “naming” others, from the yak to God. LeGuin notes that “Most of them [the animals] accepted namelessness with the perfect indifference with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names.” As she leaves Adam (who is wondering where his dinner is) to join the other animals, Eve notes how difficult it is to name (and thus possess others): “My words must be as slow, as new, as single, as tentative as the steps I took going down the path away from the house, between the dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.”14 May our words, before all else, “unname” those, including God, whom we have so glibly named and thus sought to control.
Thus, in summary, in the kenotic theological paradigm, there is continuity all the way from evolution to God and vice versa: one “reality” that is characterized at all levels by various forms and expressions of self-emptying. Hence, beginning with the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, Christians believe that we have a paradigm of God, humanity, and the world that does not validate raw unilateral, absolute power at any stage or level of reality; rather, the inverse is the case. For, “what makes the world go round” is mutual, interdependent sacrifice and self-emptying. Thus, one moves from this reading of the incarnation to an understanding of the creation of the world as God's gift of pulling back and giving space to others that they might live (but as the “body” of God, not as separate beings) and an understanding of human life as itself part of the divine life, but as its “image.” We live by participating in God's very own life (since this is the only reality there is), but not simply as parts of God; rather, human life is learning to live into the relationality of God's own life, which is one of self-emptying love for others. Such a theology is not pantheistic (the identification of God and the world), but panentheistic (the world as living – finding its source and fulfillment – within God's very self, the dance of self-emptying love that desires the flourishing of all life). It is a sacramental vision, in which the world is a reflection of the divine in all its trillions of individual life-forms and species; thus, as Gerald Manley Hopkins reminds us, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” not as one shining explosion, but in all its tiniest parts, even the intricate workings of a mosquito's eye. The motto here is “Vive la difference.” We human beings are the one life-form that does not fulfill its role as being a bit of God's grandeur simply by existing; rather, we, made in the image of God, must grow into the fullness of that reflection of God by willing to do so. And, according to the kenotic paradigm, this is what “salvation” is: not release from punishment for our sins, but a call to relate to all others (from God to homeless persons and drought-ridden trees) as God would and does.
Some Concluding Thoughts
- Top of page
- A Biographical Introduction
- The Task of Theology
- Who Is God?
- Some Concluding Thoughts
What have I learned in the seventy or so years since I first “woke up” at seven years old? First of all, I have learned to slow down and pay attention. In Jericho Park where I walk every morning I often stop and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the trail, rejoicing in the present moment. I have learned to appreciate the sacrament of the present moment, how every bit of creation mirrors and indeed “rings out” that unique aspect of the divine that one is. What I have learned and rejoice in is that we do not live in two worlds, but in one: we live here and so does God! The world lives within, for, from, and toward God every minute of every day. Hence, we do not live now on earth away from God, but always, whether in life or death, we all live within God. Death is not to be feared nor is it the only time we meet God. God is the milieu of earthly existence and “heaven” is here and now. To live in heaven, one must practise the presence of God, but that is not impossible since we are constantly, everywhere and always, surrounded by God in our earth, God's body. Whether in pain or beauty, backache or a walk in Jericho, I live within God. My death will be a seamless transition to living more fully within God.
Let me reflect on this statement more fully. It began when I was seven years old and “woke up” for the first time. All my life since then I have been going in and out of being awake. Sometimes I was not able to stand the terror of it, and escaped as many others have into unconsciousness. Being truly awake means being objective, realistic, “facing the music.” That is, it means facing death – one's own and the death of everyone and everything else. “Not being here” is the first revelation of being awake: everything one cherishes (including oneself) will not be here some day. No matter how powerful, how beautiful, how important, how noble, it will all pass away – and the question haunting the awakened ones is, where does it all go? Does it slide into nothingness, into non-being, or is there an alternative: namely, that everything lives forever within God, within love, within the mutual cosmic dance of self-emptying give and take?
To say “Yes” to this alternative is, I think, what “believing in God” means. It means that waking up, acknowledging one's radical contingency, is not just a cruel joke but an invitation to participate consciously in the cosmic dance of self-giving love one to another, of accepting life as a gift, living that gift joyfully and gratefully, and then passing it along to others. One goes from the active to the passive stage of this dance. This means one must “let go” of the active phase, be willing to step back and let other dancers lead. However, one still plays a part – a part similar to a “nurse log,” a tree that has fallen down and now allows itself to serve as nutrients for others to have their turn to grow in the sun. As Teilhard says in his prayer on death, in the passive stage one allows God to part the fibres of one's being so as to bear each of us away within the divine self. So, “waking up,” becoming a conscious human being, is an experience of both terror and beauty. One experiences the astonishing beauty of the world (from plankton to penguins, including human beings) along with the horror of losing it all. However, “believing in God” means that we all continue as a part, a nurse log, in the cosmic dance of self-giving love.
Writings in Time of War, trans. Rene Hague (London: Collins, 1968), 14.,
The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 10.,
The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960), 62.,
First Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution concerning Catholic Faith,” in The Sources of Catholic Dogma, ed. Heinrich Denzinger , trans. Roy J. Defarrari (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1957), 443.
Augustine, Confessions 1.2, trans. F.J. Sheed (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993), 3–4.
See my book, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) for an interpretation of this model. For a comparable development of the economic as well as the science/cosmological sides of the issue, see other of my books, especially Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 200l) and Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).
1987), Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian (London: SPCK), 109.(
2000), God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder: Westview Press), 48.(
The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 247.,
Julian of Norwich, 110.,
See, for instance, the work of John D. Zizioulas and Western theologies influenced by the Eastern perspective: Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985); and Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan (New York: T & T Clark, 2006); , God as Communion: John Zizioulas, Elizabeth Johnson, and the Retrieval of the Symbol of the Triune God (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001); , God After Darwin; , Julian of Norwich; , The Other Side of Nothingness: Toward a Theology of Radical Openness (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001); , The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); also , The Crucified God; , Blessed are the Consumers.,
See Communion and Otherness, 46.,
She Unnames Them,” The New Yorker, 21 January 1985., “