Jesus in the Contemporary Universe Story
I have often been asked in the past twenty years “Where does Jesus fit into the new universe story?”
Renewed focus on the human reality of Jesus may well be the most important factor in inter-faith dialogue and for communities that gather in his name.
The Gospels are not my starting point, and Paul is the last person I would consult. Instead, I start with how I explore faith with adults today.
This exploration invites participants to bring 3 questions to any articles of faith, especially God, ourselves in relationship with God, revelation, death, Jesus, prayer and liturgy. The three questions are:
1. What are you asking me to imagine? Or, what had I been led to imagine as a picture of reality on this topic?
2. From where did this image of reality come? How did it originally emerge into a general picture or understanding,?
3. How does this picture of reality resonate with what I know in the 21stcentury about reality, that is, the age and size of the universe, our place in the universe and how life unfolded on this planet?
With “God” as the topic for reflection and discussion, the understanding that generally emerges from the first question reflects the God of the Bible, a male deity who lives in the heavens, who knows everything, has everything in control, hears our prayers, and demands to be worshipped and obeyed.
Most Christians know little about how this picture emerged into human history and almost nothing about how the Hebrew people opted for just the One Almighty God. This requires some input, as indeed, the second question requires for each topic. It is an adult educative process.
The third question on the topic of God explores, often with the help of the Hubble telescope and the general knowledge of most 5 year olds these days, the immensity of the universe and planet earth’s place in it being even smaller than a grain of sand in comparison with every grain of sand on the planet. Our knowledge today does not lead us to imagine a personal deity living “above” earth and controlling everything from there. Our minds our blown by what we know about the universe, and so our understanding of “God” is expanded. We are led to acknowledge a Power, a Mystery, way beyond what our Scriptures and our Church teaching ever led us to imagine. We look today for “pointers” to this Mystery, pointers that have universality and mystery, such as energy and mind that underpin whatever is happening anywhere in an expanding universe.
Personally, I do not care to use the word “God” anymore. The word is too tied to a worldview and a religious understanding of reality that is over. But I want to hold to what my religious faith has always told me: that this Mystery is everywhere, at all times active, coming to expression in whatever is there. Indeed, the universe is “charged”, as Hopkins put it, with the “grandeur “ of whatever “God” means for us today..
The key point here is that the new universe story iscompelling us to think anew about “God”, otherwise religion will continue to be put aside into the “out of date” basket.
I cannot stress enough that the task here is to be faithful to the new universe story, to what we know to be real today, and to work with this to understand the present and the past – and to lead us faithfully into the future.
Who are we, and how are we related to the mystery we called “God? Sharing on this topic often highlights how people were led to imagine themselves as exiles from God, “poor banished children of Eve”, unworthy, sinners to be saved. When the new story of the universe is presented, two important factors emerge.
The first is the scientific story revealing that every atom in our bodies was in an enormous cloud of gas and dust following the explosion of a supernova in our galaxy four and a half billion years ago. The scientific story reveals the absolute wonder and amazement of tracing the journey of those atoms to this planet and then transformation and transformation until they come together in us, and we give human expression to whatever drives the universe. This is the Wow! of human existence. We give the universe a way to reflect on itself!
The second factor is the faith perspective we bring to this story: we are not only the universe expressed in human form, we are the human expression of the Ultimate Mystery that underpins everything that exist.
Rumi expressed it beautifully: whatever is said to the rose to make it open is said to us; and we could add: whatever is said to us is for the flowering of humanity.
Again, it needs to be stressed that we our allowing the “new universe story” to educate us and lead us to new insights and understandings. And here, what we learn stands in stark contradiction to what Christian theology has maintained for centuries - that Jesus alone is the human expression of “God”. No, every human person, has been, is and will be the human expression of the Ultimate Mystery coming to human expression in and through what is there.
Working our way through the three questions brings us the realization that revelation is not as the Catholic Church officially teaches, that “God chose certain men to write what God wanted written and no more”. It is no longer an elitist matter of God “speaking” to one select group. The new universe story compels us to understand revelation not as a God in heaven intervening and revealing “himself” and “his” thoughts, but rather as emerging from the ground up, from within men and women all around the world. It is dependent on persons and their time, their place, and their historical and religious circumstances,. It is a voice, an impulse embedded in the human that seeks the flowering of humanity through non-violence, through care and compassion, through sharing, through creating healthy communities and through care for the earth that nourishes us.
Some of the best discussions I have been privileged to participate over the years have been on death. How did we imagine it? From where did that imagination come? What do you imagine now?
It is difficult to give an adequate summary of the discussions, but generally these points emerge:
- we do not have the answer anymore; but we believe death is not the end.
- we believe there is a “communion of saints”, ie there is some connection after death with those who have died before us, but we have no idea how this will be.
- there will be a transformation of energy beyond our 3 dimensional present mode of existence.
- there is no judgment; there is nothing to be feared.
- there is not a journey to “somewhere else” where God lives.
- in some mysterious way we will be ONE with everything.
- we are not sure whether we will still be conscious of ourselves in the personal, individual way we are today; it will probably be far bigger and better than that.
At the end of such sharing I often pose the question: Granted your present day thinking about death – when I hear no one talking about going up to heaven – what do you imagine happened to the Australian aboriginal people who died 30,000 years ago? The unhesitating response always is: it would be no different from what we have just shared. And the Buddha who died centuries before Jesus? No different, is generally the response.
Now let us turn attention to Jesus through the lens of this new universe story.
Being faithful to our belief that this story depicts reality for us, we explore the question: from where does Jesus come?
The clear answer is that he is the human expression of the Ultimate Mystery that underpins everything that exists – just as we established that we all are.
We also believe, in light of what we have explored and discussed, that he, too, was “charged” with the “grandeur of God”. He used the language of his religion and his time, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me” to express the same reality.
Now, let us look at the scriptures and see what most concerned this first century Jewish man. It had nothing to do with a God locking people out of heaven; nothing to do with getting people into heaven; nothing to do with changing God’s mind about anything; nothing to do with God withholding forgiveness. Rather, it was about the mess in which his people and humanity in general found themselves. It was about society ruled by violence and domination and greed; it was about people feeling hopeless to change anything; it was about people being fearful of their God and thinking their God was not close to them, it was about leadership in his own religion being unfaithful to the call to create a community that reflected God’s presence among the people.
At the heart of Jesus’ preaching was the desire to see the “kingdom of God” established here on earth. In present day language we would say it was about creating social, commercial and political interactions that clearly mirrored God’s presence among people.
Through the lens of the new universe story and our reflections on it, there is clearly no need to see Jesus as a drop-in from outside earth come to heal broken relationships with an external deity or to bring the presence of that God to earth in a new way. Our contemporary story points to the Ultimate Grounding Reality being always present, always active, everywhere for billions of years before the human species came into existence on our tiny planet. Jesus clearly did not believe in a deity withholding forgiveness from people; nor did he believe that the “Spirit of God” was absent from people in their daily lives. What Jesus clearly desired was that people listening to him would – by turning their religious thinking and imagination upside down – come to experience “the spirit of the Lord God” in themselves as clearly as he experienced it. Only in this way would they undertake the task of creating “the kingdom of God” on earth. He devoted all his energies to this task.
In the light of the new universe story and our reflections on it, the most thought-provoking and challenging question arises: what happened to Jesus when he died?
Following on from their reflections on the new story, most people readily acknowledge that what happened to Jesus would be no different from what happened to the Buddha or anyone else at any time in human history. But no, Christian theology immediately abandons the path or the pointers from the new universe story and declares another path must be followed. This is the pathway of Paul where first century Jewish messianic expectations coupled with Greek religious belief in the soul needing to find a way to the heavens. Worse, this pathway was cemented with belief in God who locked people out of heaven and made access unavailable to all humans, a God who withheld forgiveness, a God who made the sending of his Spirit upon people conditional on the unique resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his ascension into heaven. This is Paul’s “Christ” – light years removed from any notion Jesus would have held about being “anointed” by the Spirit of God for an earthly task.
Anyway professing to be consistent in following through with the new universe story should be able to recognize that Paul’s “Christ” is myth, and that to literalize this myth is a serious mistake – every bit as serious as literalizing the Adam and Eve myth. Jesus was real. Paul’s belief that without the resurrection of Jesus and his anointing in heaven as the “Christ” we would all be still “dead in our sins” and not have God’s Spirit with us, not able to call ourselves “children of God”, still locked out of heaven, is non-sensical today.
It is time to be critical of Teihard de Chardin’s acceptance of Paul’s Christology:
“I tried to place at the head of the universe which I adored from birth, the risen Christ whom others have taught me to know .”
“The Universal Christ in whom my personal faith finds satisfaction, is none other that the authentic expression of the Christ of the Gospel.”
“The more I have thought about the magnificent cosmic attributes lavished by St Paul on the risen Christ … the more clearly have I realized that Christianity takes on its full value only when extended to cosmic dimensions.”
It is time to be critical of statements such as:
“A Christological model in which the resurrection takes priority over the historical life of Jesus relates Christ to the cosmos not in terms of causality and historical fact but of teleology and eschatology. “
“In Christ the Christian is alive to God; she or he receives eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. In the resurrection the dead shall be made alive in Christ. Christ is not only the agent through whom new life is conferred; he is also the sustaining cause, the principle by which new life endures.”(Elia Delio)
It’s time to be critical of writers who want to make “Christ” mean whatever they want it to mean instead of meaning “anointed”.
It’s time to stop talking about the “cosmic Christ” and to put into simple language what is meant without using the word “Christ”.
And most importantly, it is time to put the human reality of Jesus - within the new story of the universe perspective - at center stage for future religious dialogue with other major religions and with the non-religious.