Cosmic Communion: The Role of Creation in Our Journey With Christ – PART 2
In a previous article I endeavored to outline a central uniqueness of Christianity in that it holds to neither a belief that the natural cosmos is all that there is, nor a denial of the material world as an irrelevant distraction or illusion from one’s spiritual life with God. Rather, the Christian faith is a sacramental life of pursuit of God through the utilization of physical matter according to God’s expression to His creatures and desire to interact with them. To be sure, study of theology, Scripture reading, and prayer are vitally important, enabling one to know more about God, who He is and who He is not. But contemporary Christianity has largely forgotten that there is a very real, tangible dimension to the spiritual disciplines – a physical side to being spiritual – as human beings are uniquely a symbiotic unity of the spiritual and physical realms of God’s creation; body, soul, and spirit. If one desires to know God directly, this simply cannot be read in a book; rather, He must be encountered by means of how He has revealed Himself.
JUST WHERE IS THIS “SPIRITUAL REALM”?
Modern entertainment has filled the minds of society with pictures of “the spirit world” as a separate entity from our physical existence, as another place altogether that may occasionally accidentally cross paths or enter into our world. The classical Christian understanding is that the spiritual realm is inextricably linked in a direct cause and effect relationship with the physical realm.[i] St. Paul contends that when pagans worship their man-made idols, they are unknowingly worshiping and giving dominion to demons.[ii] The physical presence of the Ark of the Covenant enabled the Israelites to be successful in battle against their enemies. St. John of Damascus stated that with holy icons “of God incarnate, and of His servants, and friends . . . we drive away the demonic hosts.”[iii] This is why the author of Hebrews, in describing what is occurring upon one’s entering a place of Christian worship, contends that
“. . . you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel,” (Heb. 12:22-24, NKJV).
The ancient Church believed that when one stepped over the threshold into the nave of a Church, they were literally stepping outside of the chronos time of earth and into kairos time, the “eternal present” of the Kingdom of Heaven. They then literally stood in the presence of all the heavenly hosts, saints, angels, and the very throne of God. This concept of directly experiencing the heavenlies within time and space now, rather than waiting for bodily death and escape from materiality before at all discerning and experiencing the spiritual realm, is all but lost in contemporary Western Christianity. The mega-churches of American culture today simply do not retain the same concept of such encounters in corporate worship and prayer, thus accounting for “coffee shop” atmospheres replacing the reverence and mystical awe once present in every early Church. But the reality is that the veil separating the physical from the spiritual is quite thin in the historic Christian view. This barrier becomes more and more transparent as one matures in Christ, begins to see the world as He sees it, and as they enter contexts conducive to such realizations of that which is beyond the mere appearance of things. Early Christians believed churches, icons of Christ and the saints, and generally holy areas – such as Jerusalem, the Catacombs, or the tomb of Christ – to be “windows to heaven” or “thin places,” because entering that sacred space, if one’s heart was right, allowed for a thinning of that veil and discernment into the deeper spiritual reality behind it all. This is much different from the development of what Father Stephen Freeman calls the “two story” universe in the contemporary mind, where all that is profane, carnal, and irrelevant or harmful to one’s faith exists materially but that which is sacred, spiritual, and the goal of one’s faith exists “out there” abstractly and immaterially. He explains:
“. . . the Church, like so many other realities of our faith has by some been relegated to a second story, to a place far removed and imaginary, a convenient place to store things that can be spoken of in ideal and abstract terms, but which are preferred not to litter the landscape of the secularization of the first story in which we live. Thus, the church that inhabits this first story is constantly being ‘reformed,’ in order to conform it closer to the theoretical model that mystically hovers above us all. Thus such two story Christians never attend a real Church [since “the Church” is invisible and abstract], only a human institution; all relationship with God is second story and theoretical [quite literally, ‘the Man upstairs’!]. Though certain events, such as the cross, are recognized as historical, even they become removed to a second story where they can be more conveniently discussed in abstract terms. Thus second story Christians will sing about the cross of Jesus, but would shutter at the idea that there might still be relics of that true cross among us; indeed if confronted by such a relic, they would gladly choose the abstract over the hard wood in front of them. This second story Christianity is ‘disincarnate.’”[iv]
Indeed it has become the universal practice of contemporary Christianity to pray with one’s eyes closed, attempting to focus on and discern God by altogether shutting out His creation.
THE IMMANENCE OF GOD
While keeping God in a ‘second story’ category is inappropriate, this is not to say that He must be brought altogether out of the category of transcendence and made into an impersonal equation with the “things” that make up the universe. The ancient Church would most certainly not follow Oprah in using the terms “God,” “Jesus,” “Universe,” and “our greater energies” as synonyms.[v] Christianity is not pantheistic, which understands all of nature to itself be God.[vi] The closest “theist” term that could be used to describe the historical Christian approach to God and His creation would be something like “Panentheism.” God is very truly and literally immanent and within, while simultaneously transcendent and beyond, all things.[vii] The pantheist would look at a tree and contend, “this tree is God,” while the Christian would look at it and contend, “I see God and all His majesty in this tree.” St. Paul said that while God “is before all things,” nonetheless “in Him all things consist/hold together,”[viii] that “in Him we live and move and have our being,”[ix] and far from being removed to an abstract second story, “He is not far from each one of us.”[x] The Old Testament contends,
“How could anything continue to exist
Unless you willed it?
Or how could anything be preserved
Unless it was called into existence by You?
You spare all things, because they are
O Master who love human beings.
For Your immortal Spirit is in all things.”[xi]
“If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!”[xii]
At the beginning of every Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church the priest prays the ancient Christian prayer to the Holy Spirit:
“Oh heavenly King, the Comforter,
The Spirit of Truth,
Who art everywhere present
And fillest all things,
Treasury of blessings
And Giver of life,
Come and abide in us. . .” [emphasis mine]
God is so immanent in every part of creation that He does not merely intervene every now and again; He is literally the Life force allowing everything to continue in its existence. Our God was not only fully present among His people as the man dying on a wooden cross – He was also the very energy holding the molecules of that wood together in order for Him to hang upon it.
SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH HEAVEN’S EYES
Nonetheless, God’s immanence everywhere is still not in the same degree everywhere. The ultimate and climactic apex of God’s self-revelation is the God-Man Jesus Christ, for He alone is “the image of the invisible God,” “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,” in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”[xiii] The Incarnate God as human, possessing every quality of humanity, is the highest degree of His immanent self-revelation, and until His eschatological return the Church has always held the next greatest revelation of His immanence within creation to be the Eucharist, the body and blood of the lamb offered upon the altar in Christian worship; “for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”[xiv] But apart from these highest degrees of communion, it still remains that all of earthly life has always intended to be a sacramental reality in which we encounter the glory of God personally and intimately by means of His creation, His expressive Self-revelation. As Father Alexander Schmemann articulated it, the created world
“. . . not only ‘posits’ the idea of God as a rationally acceptable cause of its existence, but truly ‘speaks’ of Him and is in itself an essential means both of knowledge of God and communion with Him, and to be so is its true nature and its ultimate destiny. . . It is the ‘natural sacramentality’ of the world that finds its expression in worship and makes the latter the essential ἔργον [“work”] of man, the foundation and the spring of his life and activities as man. Being the epiphany of God, worship is thus the epiphany of the world; being communion with God, it is the only true communion with the world; being knowledge of God, it is the ultimate fulfillment of all human knowledge.”[xv]
The twentieth century novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, known for revolutionizing the “fairy story” and fantasy literature, devoted a great effort into “sub-creating” or “discovering” [his terms for fictional authorship] a world in which every element in this creation was very much alive and person-like in its own unique and enchanting way. Middle Earth is not all bliss – the dangers of “the Wild” are very much a reality in Tolkien’s world – and its creatures struggle to live peaceably alongside one another. A primary motive to Tolkien’s “sub-creating” was to enable his audience to rediscover their own world and recognize the incredible stuff of fairy story therein; for if only people would open their eyes to what they have allowed to become ordinary and common place they would begin to see the Glory that surrounds them. I for one can no longer look at an old tree and not see the enchantment of the Ents; nor see a horse in a field and not behold the majesty of Shadowfax; nor squish a moth for fear it may be Gandalf’s rescue messenger; nor notice a circling buzzard and not want to say, “the Eagles are coming!” In Tolkien’s words:
“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity – from possessiveness . . . This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, of their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them . . . By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory . . . It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”[xvi]
THE CALL TO NURTURE THE PHYSICAL WORLD
In saying all this concerning a sacramental view of the world, I would be remiss to not include a plug for proper care for nature, for God indeed gave to human beings the task of having “dominion” over it; although this often misunderstood word envisages not mere “domination” as understood today but primarily of taming, of caretaking, guardianship, and cultivation among the wild things. Just as Faramir exclaims that “The Shire must truly be a great realm, where gardeners are held in high honor”[xvii] (referring to Sam), humanity must rediscover and recapture its prestigious – though seemingly humble and subservient – role as the gardeners of creation; this is, after all, man’s initial God-given vocation. In doing so mankind will begin its return to the image and likeness of Him who is THE Gardener; for when Mary Magdalene thought Him as such outside His tomb, she was not at all mistaken. If what has been described in this article properly depicts what we should see in the cosmos around us, then it should at the least compel us to use it and treat it much more considerately. Christians – myself included – need to cease their subconscious understanding and expression of “ownership” of the world as mere resources existing solely for human use. The Christian must look at the trees, the grass, the birds and insects, the woodland animals, the rocks, the mountains, the oceans, the fish, and see not “resources” to be used responsibly, but creatures in their own right who are in fact created by, belonging to, and manifesting the glory of God Himself. While modern society seeks to solve the problem of “resources” for “consumers,” Christians, to be true to their faith, must constantly ask themselves: is this a proper situation to put an end to a manifestation of the glory of God by this “consumption,” or is it merely superfluous?
There is one last article on Cosmic Communion to follow, where I intend to discuss God’s program –and the Church’s role therein – to rescue humanity, along with its dwelling place, from the unnatural corruption into which it has fallen prey.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen Unwin, 1983. pp. 146-147.
Orig. published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, Oxford University Press, 1947.[xvii] The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Dir. Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2002. Film.