From Collected Readings
“Christians believe the world is hidden in God.” This is the same as saying that human existence takes place within God’s Spirit. The world does not have a separate existence for Christians. Ontologically, we live from, toward, and with God. I did not used to believe this; in fact, I fought it. I wanted the world to stand on its own; I feared that otherwise it would be sucked up into God – shades of Hegel and Barth! But believers are always mystics (even if they are not philosophical idealists). One (or, at least I) cannot believe in God as a being, no matter how infinite, eternal, ubiquitous, good, powerful, or supernatural. God is either everything or nothing, or to phrase it more carefully, God is reality (or being-itself) – if not, there would be something “beyond God” or “more than God” that would be God.
So, how are the world and we human beings differentiated from God? In this story, we are the body of God, we are God “spread out,” we are God incarnate. We (the universe) come from God and return to God, and in the “interim” we live in the presence of God – even when we do not know or acknowledge it. We are created in the image of God (the entire universe reflects God’s glory, each and every creature and thing in its particular, concrete, unique way). Creation is a panoply of mind-boggling diversity, a myriad of outrageously extravagant species and individuals who all together make up the body of God – God going out, God enfleshed, God become matter. Each creature – except us, it appears – praises God by simply being itself, by being fully alive. The whole universe, in this story, desires to grow back into God: the beloved longs to return to the lover. It is the deepest desire of creation to do so: eternal life, as Julian of Norwich says, is being “oned” with God, being “knitted up with God.”
In this story there is nothing but God: God in God’s self (the Spirit) and God going out from God’s self (God embodied). God incarnate means God going out from the divine self to create “another,” the world, which in a sense is over against God: the billions of particular, different creatures and entities that constitute it. But the world’s “being” and its “well-being” and even its “reason for being” is to live in intimate relationship with God, which, of course, means living in intimate relationship with all other parts of divine embodiment as well.
What, then, of sin and evil? Sin and evil are pretending that we can live outside reality, this reality of interrelationship and interdependence of all things with one another and with God. Sin is refusing to grow into the image of God in which we (and everything else) is made. Sin is refusing to reflect God, become like God, by imagining that we can exist outside of relationship with God and others, living as if one’s life came from oneself. Sin is living a lie. If God is reality and if reality is good, then sin and evil are a turning away from the ground of our being and our hope for happiness; sin and evil, as Augustine claimed, are not. They are a turning away from reality, from the radical, intimate relationships that constitute life and its goodness. Sin and evil are a denial of reality in their false belief that we can live from and for ourselves.
My exegesis of the statement, “Christians believe the world is hidden in God” is, I have suggested, a “likely story” of God and the world for our time. It is not a description, but neither were the medieval or deist stories of how God and the world are related. Rather, all three are Christian retellings of the relation of God and the world in terms commensurate with, appropriate to, different times. The story of God’s embodiment and return, of all things evolving from one source that is reality, is congruous with the Big Bang of contemporary cosmology and the resulting unimaginable diversity and interdependence of matter – from the billions of galaxies to the DNA in bacteria, and everything in between. It is a creation story that gives God greater glory than any other that human beings have ever told. It is a retelling of the creation story that underscores God’s awesome magnificence and power (God is reality) and our total dependence on God (as God’s body created to reflect God’s glory, each in our own way). It is story that can be imagined without sacrificing one’s intellect, although contemporary cosmology and evolution do not give special support to this religious tale. But this tale can “accompany” the contemporary worldview with minimum strain.
At an important point, however, this story makes a claim that the cosmological, ecological worldview does not: it makes a claim concerning the direction of the universe. This claim, for Christians, is focused on Jesus of Nazareth as the lens or model of God. His life, ministry, death, and appearances are the way that Christians look Godward, the way they dare to speak of the world not as a tragedy, but as a “divine comedy.” All of creation, this story says, reflects God, but at one place that reflection is seen (by Christians) in an especially illuminating way. In Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe they see what we are meant to be, and by implication, what we are not meant to be. If the purpose of all of creation is to reflect God, then the story of Jesus is the message and the means for how human beings can do so.
Life as it should be – salvation – is then, for Christians, christomorphic. It is becoming like God by following Jesus. “Following Jesus” is not principally a moral imperative, but a statement of who we are. We learn what it means to say human beings are created in God’s image for God’s glory by looking at Jesus Christ. “The importance of the confession ‘Jesus is the Lord’ is not only that Jesus is divine but that God is Christlike.” The focus of salvation, then, becomes living in a new way, the way of God’s abundance.
This is a deification, not an atonement understanding of salvation. It is an incarnation rather than a cross emphasis, a creation rather than a redemption focus, from the Eastern Christian tradition rather than the Western. It claims that we were created to be with God: creation is the pouring out of divine love toward that end; the incarnation in Christ is the reaffirmation and deepening of that love; the cross is the manifestation of the suffering that will occur, given sin and evil, if all creatures, especially the most vulnerable, are to flourish; and the resurrection is God’s Yes that, in spite of the overwhelming forces of sin and evil, this shall be so. We will, all of us, be one with God and with each other. It is an understanding of salvation, of the good life, that reflects and deepens the ecological, economic worldview, for it is communal, physical, and inclusive. It imagines God’s work for and with us as the enrichment and fulfillment of all forms of life, with special emphasis on the basics that creatures need for survival and well-being.
This is a different notion of salvation than is typical in most Western theologies. In the West salvation has usually been seen as redemption – God in Christ paying a price for our sins, or ransoming us from the forces of evil, or sacrificing the Son as a substitutionary atonement for us. The focus of these theologies is on redemption from our sin, not on our creation for the abundant life in union with God and others. The focus is on human individuals who are saved from evil (which is often equated with the world), rather than on the whole creation being invited into fuller communion with God and all others. The focus is on “Jesus doing it all” rather than on us, in partnership with God by following Christ, working toward a different way for all of us to live together on the Earth.
While the deification view may at first glance appear to take sin and evil less seriously than the atonement view, it actually takes them more seriously. It views them not simply as individual failings for which human beings need forgiveness, but rather as all the forces – individual, systemic, institutional – that thwart the flourishing of God’s creation. “Sin” is not mainly or only a personal problem, the solution for which is divine forgiveness. Rather, sin is living a life, living contrary to the way the christic lens tells us is God’s desire for all of us. “Evil,” in this understanding, is the collective term for the ancient, intricate, and pervasive networks of false living that have accumulated during human history. In the atonement model sin and evil are mainly individual, personal matters; in the deification view they are principally communal, worldly matters: one focuses on individual redemption from sin, the other on the forces, whether individual or institutional, that keep creation from flourishing.
This means, then, that the point of Christology for the deification view is not personal redemption but a “a conversion to the struggle for justice.” It means becoming “conformed to Christ” since he is, for Christians, the lens by which we know God. If, however, the goal of salvation is God’s glory – every creature fully alive – then becoming christomorphic will involve very mundane work. “Work, land, housing, health, food, and education become the very expression of the glory of God. Likewise, the glory of God is trampled underfoot in any person who suffers hunger, destitution, and oppression.” Deification, becoming like God or following Christ, means, then, becoming involved in such matters as ecological economics, the just distribution of resources on a sustainable basis. Deification, becoming like the incarnate God, means making the body of God healthier and more fulfilled. Salvation is worldly work. Human existence “in the Spirit” means working “in the body” so that it may flourish.
Do we do this? Can we do this? Some do, and they can do so only by being deeply, personally, profoundly grounded in God. The “saints” who work tirelessly for justice are spiritually alive. Persistent, lifelong cruciform living appears possible only through immersing oneself in God’s presence. Justice work and mysticism seem to be companions. To live this way is very difficult; it is, however, what I believe we middle-class North American Christians are called to.