I want Christians to know a few things about Jesus of Nazareth, given that he’s the central character in our story. I want them to know that he was an emergent form of Earth — an occasion of miraculous cosmic and planetary creativity. Salt waters coursed through his blood, ancient bacteria were alive in his gut, and the neurons that fired in his grey matter were gifts of an ancient exploding supernova. He was, in short, a child of Earth and Cosmos. Before the various and necessary doctrines and dogmas developed to address the mystery of Jesus, he represented, inside and out, soul and body, an occasion of cosmic coalescence and creativity. The evolutionary pressure coursing through the whole universe also gave birth to Jesus. In short, I’d want to him to be known as child of Earth and Cosmos and not only child of Heaven.
Highly educated Christians still speak of Jesus being “sent” to Earth by God. This Star Trek version of Jesus’ arrival on the scene (“beam me down, Scotty”) is reinforced when we read the story of Jesus birth without interpretation. Clergy may appreciate that the myth of the virgin birth was the early church’s way of saying that this peasant Jew (and not the guy wearing the laurel wreath and the toga) is God’s only son. But without an explicit interpretive framework, the layperson is left thinking that Jesus arrived on the scene having circumvented all the evolutionary, deep time history that actually constitutes our humanity. Let’s realize that Jesus is kin with starfields, our solar system, the Earth’s biosystems and all creatures — and see if that impacts our mission to repair Earth. By grounding Jesus’ humanity in the evolutionary narrative of the universe, the ancient doctrine that affirms Jesus’ full humanity takes on a more precise and empirically accurate meaning. His humanity is an expression of an evolving cosmos. It took 13.7 billion years to produce Jesus. Once this terrestrial identity is established we can employ what Michael Dowd calls “night language” to the Jesus event. For example, we can enjoy the biblical language of the Holy Spirit “overshadowing” Mary to describe the Mystery of Jesus’ conception.
I recently participated in a Eucharistic service at which the body of Christ was offered as a tasteless, sterile wafer. Nothing could proclaim with more power Jesus Christ’s essential disconnection from Earth — Christ as cardboard. Don’t get me wrong. There was much about the ancient liturgy that I appreciated. But the symbol of the body of Christ should taste like it came from Earth: yeasty, whole grain, locally ground, and baked in a wood-fired oven. The aroma should trigger salivation. Salivation as salvation! Our instinctual desire for food is a sacramental expression of our spiritual yearning to become one with the divine.
Walking along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Narragansett Rhode Island, almost 20 years ago, I received a sacrament of another sort. The whole cosmos was fed to me as the living body of the Christ. I awoke to an identity that included, yet transcended, my psychological self. I received my cosmic identity. I knew myself to be the presence of the universe coalesced after 13.7 billion years in this transient presence with the name of “Bruce”. But I also knew that the warm rocks under my feet were the presence of the cosmos, and the screeching gull drifting by sounded like the call of the divine insisting that I step through forever into this moment. Evolution itself had arrived, as the presence of love, wanting to express itself through me, in me, and as me. I knew more deeply than I knew anything that I was one with the universe and one with Spirit — expressing Itself in all this diversity.
I want Christians to know that our Common Creation Story, given to us by science, is a sacred narrative. It’s another scripture declaring God’s handiwork. As the psalmist puts it, creation pours forth speech about the nature of the Holy One and Holy Oneness (Psalm 19). When this story of sacred emergence is presented as the sacred context of the Judeo-Christian text and tradition, the reality of what we call “God” comes alive in my experience.
Much theology assumes that to be human is to be a separate and fallen creature. My Barthian seminary professor taught me that creation too was fallen. But God “sent” Jesus into the world to redeem me, if I believed the right things, as eventually “He” would redeem all of creation. I want Christians to know that it's our belief in separateness that constitutes our fall and our failing, but there is not actually any separation, anywhere.
Christians need to allow our theology to be updated by scientific evidence, and wherever our theology and actual facts clash, science wins every time. For example, empirical, evolutionary evidence doesn’t support the metaphysical assumption that we’ve fallen from some primordial perfection, and that this fall renders us “sinners”. We now know that we have three brains (some say four) stacked on top of each other, the earliest ones, the reptilian and mammalian, predisposing us to indulge instincts that evolved under different evolutionary conditions. As well, our brains have two distinct hemispheres that are associated with different functions and states of consciousness. It could be said that we have four or five natures, not one, which are in daily “conversation” with one another. That conversation is more often than not heated. The science of brain chemistry was unknown to Paul when he wrote that he was a man undone — doing the very things he didn’t want to do and refraining from those things he did want to do. He chalked up this instinctual war between his “members” to sin. Today scientists speak of “mismatched instincts” — one part of our brain will forever try to convince us that we can never get enough sugar, salt, and fat from a time in our evolutionary history when the threat of starvation was real. The diet industry has capitalized on the messages from this part of our brain. When confessions of sin are not grounded in this scientific understanding of what makes us tick, these rituals perpetuate a kind of chronic helplessness requiring repeated divine rescue missions. Instead, we could teach that the very act of becoming conscious and making choices is the presence of Spirit in our lives.
American philosopher, Ken Wilber, says that we're moving “up from Eden”. We’re evolving in a biased direction of increased complexity, unity, consciousness, and compassion. The modern worldview and associated theological models are dismissive of any notion of progress. They point out the many, undeniable atrocities of the 20th century to support their case. Yet, taking the long view of Big History it seems undeniable that the cosmos is moving toward what A.N. Whitehead calls an increase in value.
Is there evidence of this? While not denying our continuing propensity for violence, the last fifty years has seen an unprecedented social evolution apparent in the rights assumed in Western democracies by women, blacks, handicapped, and even other-than-human species — such as legislation passed in Ecuador conferring rights to the bio-systems. There are many progressive Christians who lament that what was started in the 1960’s civil rights movement in the U.S. fizzled out. They see only regression. Yet as I write this, the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritius are expressing an impulse for freedom and democracy that has already seen two dictators fall. To give one more example, the congregation I serve is privileged to practice an international ministry of marrying gay and lesbian couples. We could hardly imagine that this would have been possible in society — let alone in a church — even twenty years ago! To repeat, we have not fallen from some perfect paradise. We are evolving. It’s not, therefore, religion’s primary role to help us recover some lost state of wholeness through various rituals. It’s the role of religious institutions to create habitats of creative emergence to support and foster a sacred evolutionary impulse to realize greater freedom and fullness of life on Earth.
I want Christians to know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. In my experience, this is still news to most intelligent, educated Christians. It’s a title that the early church gave to Jesus. It’s the Greek word for Messiah in Hebrew. There’s a complicated history to the word. By the time the writer of John’s gospel comes to give his account of Jesus as the Christ, he employs the Greek idea of the Logos or the Word of God. Whereas for Jews, the Messiah is a very human figure who would come as priest and king to save Israel, the Word of God or Logos represented a kind of Platonic ideal — the Heart and Mind of God in which everything that was created came into being and was given life (John 1). Many scholars are convinced, as I am, that the Word of God was the Greek version of the Jewish tradition of Lady Wisdom — a feminine creative and creating principle. What matters is that the early church believed that the Christ/Logos/Wisdom/Divine Creativity took up residence in Jesus of Nazareth — the Word made flesh.
These days, my shorthand for all of this is simply “Heart and Mind”. Jesus was transparent to, and enacted, Heart and Mind. His transparency, surrender, and enactment issued in what he called the Kingdom of God, or the divine realm. This realm manifested in the interior life of individuals, in our relationships and our culture, in nature, and in our social and political systems. This realm is ever-present and ever-evolving in these four domains. To “enter” this realm one must shed the self-sense of being a separate and disconnected individual. This sense of self must undergo a metaphorical crucifixion. As we die to our small self, we’re raised to a self of both cosmic and transcendent dimensions. To follow Christ, then, is to submit oneself to the Heart and Mind that manifest in Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus didn’t want to be worshipped. I don’t even think he wanted to be followed — if by “follow” we mean creating a whole new religion around him. We’re stuck with it now, and I make my living trying to keep it alive. But I’m pretty sure Jesus himself would direct us back to the original experience of actually entering and enacting the realm of God. Jesus did want people to know that what lit him up was also available to them — if they were ready to drink from the cup that he drank from. That is, if they were ready, willing, and able to surrender their small selves and be transformed by Heart and Mind.
I will end with a few comments about Heart and Mind as it relates to the church’s conversation with science, particularly evolution. I want Christians to know that the reductionist version of science that’s being popularized by Richard Dawkins and others doesn’t represent the whole of science. This is important because a great many Christians are worried that to embrace science means accepting Dawkin’s doctrine of genetic determinism — evolution as a godless, directionless process. This is metaphysical doctrine, not science, no less than any of the church’s doctrines. Scientists themselves distinguish between epistemological naturalism (leaving God out as a causal agent in order to search for knowledge on solid scientific principles) and ontological naturalism (the belief that the universe is nothing but matter in motion).
Science will never be able to explain how life emerged out of matter, how consciousness emerged out of life, or how soul emerges out of consciousness. This is the realm of metaphysics, and when Richard Dawkin’s weighs in and declares that dirt just got up and starting writing Shakespeare (1), or that somehow a Shakespearean sonnet is somehow serving the selfish ends of our genetic material, he’s not speaking as a scientist.
As a theologian I will weigh in on the subject as a way of bringing this essay to an end. The same Heart and Mind that animated Jesus of Nazareth was present from the get-go in this Great Emergence. This is a thoroughly inside job. We live within a miraculous, evolutionary unfolding that is the allurement of Heart and Mind towards increased complexity, unification, beauty, love, and freedom. The whole universe, from electrons and protons to galaxies, and from single cell bacteria to the intelligence of Gaia and the human mind is shot through with, and responsive to, the presence of non-coercive Heart and Mind.
The same Heart and Mind that was present in Jesus is also present in us. This means that as Christians what we’re called to make of our lives is distinct from, yet connected to, the heart and mind of the 1st century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. This is because the divine Heart and Mind that’s forever and always creating and loving will inevitably be interpreted anew in the evolving consciousness of the human species. We are in the process of being divinized. To be in Christ is to consciously cooperate with a sacred evolutionary impulse to assume responsibility for realizing the Kin(g)dom of God on earth. The church will be renewed as we help people awaken to the desire of God to manifest in, through, and as us.
(1) Thanks to Ken Wilber for this image