Cosmic Communion: The Role of Creation in Our Journey with Christ (Part 1)
As a new contributor for Conciliar Post, it seemed proper that this opening article deal with a topic that is less distinctive to certain traditions and more centered towards the core of the fundamentally and uniquely Christian approach to God and how we as creatures relate with him. The Scriptures time and again reign us back to that central reality of the ultimate purpose permeating everything we are doing as Christians: the infinite and totally selfless love of God that we are invited to enter into—and assume—as creatures in his image and likeness. While the title may be deceiving, this article is an effort to explore just that reality, to consider the method of entering this infinite love that is, to my knowledge, totally distinctive to the historic Christian worldview.
The great world religions across history seem to have much in common in their pursuit of God, rituals, liturgy, worship, meditation, fasting, alms-giving, prayer, talk of the afterlife, and eternity in the presence of God and loved ones. These common elements are, of course, understood in different nuances and practiced for different reasons, but a common thread seems to segregate the worldviews of our global society into two central approaches to understanding God, the world, and the afterlife.
In the one camp, God is known as Creator of our universe, the great Spirit that exists outside of, and transcendent to, all the physical realm that we see—although he may intervene providentially in the course of nature and human events. Or, in some views he may be in control of the entire show, including the actions of his creatures. For example, some Eastern religions believe that all events of global history are probably only illusion, and its creatures only characters in the dreams of God. Since God is altogether distinct from the created order, the way one comes to know and encounter God, or true reality, is by seeking an escape from the physical world, by elevating the mind or spirit in this life to the true, spiritual reality where God is. This is done through meditation, contemplation, research, study of abstract theological concepts, or perhaps shutting one’s eyes and imagining a theoretical portrayal of God within a prayer closet. The culmination of this pursuit of God comes through bodily death, the liberation of the soul from the confines of material existence so that it can get out there where God, and true reality, exist.
The alternative to this approach is what has come to be termed as “secularism” or “atheism,” which claim to have no religious elements or belief in the Divine, although it is still a worldview that follows a distinct pattern in its approach to the world and pursuing the meaning of life. In this approach, as opposed to the first, the physical world is all that there is, rather than an irrelevant, temporary, or even illusory distraction from God. God, in this view, is one’s own person, free to do what they will in order to find fulfillment, success, and meaning. Avoiding harm to others is nigh consistently advised as a rule of thumb in the West these days to successfully meet this end. The physical world is not to be in any way bypassed or avoided in order to get to the core of ultimate reality and happiness, for it is by investing oneself fully in this physical world around us—in our earthly human relationships and the well being of our environment—that one makes the universe a better place. In this, one finds their destiny and fulfillment as a human being, even though they go on to pass completely out of existence upon bodily death.
THE SANCTITY OF THE COSMOS
In all my study of worldviews and religion, I have found one lone exception to these two consistent approaches to discovering true “reality” based on the way our universe is—the historic Judeo-Christian faith as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, exposited by the Church Fathers and Saints, and preserved in the Church of Christ for two thousand years.[i] In Christianity, the physical creation and the creaturely relationships therein are not understood to be distractions from God to be overcome, nor as being in and of themselves the ultimate objective and purpose in which humanity finds the meaning of life. No, in this worldview the physical universe and earthly relationships are understood as being created by God in an overflow of his own loving self-expression to enable his creatures, gifted with a physical makeup and physical senses, to encounter and learn to relate with him by means of encountering and learning to relate with his creation. To be sure, God is much greater than his creation and does not wish for his creatures to pursue impersonal relationships with “things” rather than a real, personal relationship with himself. The relating that is taking place between God and his creation revolves around that “self-expression,” around what God does with his creation and how that creature responds.
ESSENCE AND ENERGIES
Beyond that self-expression, God in his essence is unknowable and totally “other than” the creature; he is inconceivable beyond what he has conveyed and demonstrated through the course of history. This is a mystery that the Church Fathers attempt to articulate with the terms “Essence” and “Energies,”[ii] referring to God as “cannot be known” or as “can be known” respectively. The Fathers believed that in his core Being, God is invisible and unfathomable—or else he would not be God. Simultaneously, he has expressed himself in, through, and to his creation in a real way with which his creatures can interact. This was not intended to communicate the idea that God can only be known in an indirect, impersonal way, by relating to things or qualities that God creates, while having a real personal encounter with the One True God remains impossible. This latter idea came to the fore in the infamous Barlaamite vs. Palamite controversy in the fourteenth century, when those championed by Saint Gregory Palamas preserved the “Essence” and “Energies” understanding, while the more scholastic Western theologian named Barlaam argued that all Divine grace, love, Theophanies, miracles, and so forth that everyone has ever experienced were merely creations that God had made but were not actual encounters with God himself. This was traditional to Western scholasticism, where God came to be termed as “static,” “immutable,” or Thomas Aquinas’ “Unmoved Mover.” However, although God is beyond knowing in his Essence, his Energies are very real Self-expressions within time that entail actual experiences of the Uncreated God in his Person. This of course is easily understood in the way human beings function in their relationships. Everything about one individual cannot be completely known, thought, felt, and experienced by another individual, yet each individual is capable of expressing themselves in a real way to others, albeit in an inexhaustive way. The only way to totally and completely experience an individual is to actually be that individual in the first person. This does not mean that human beings are incapable of having real relationships, even though each relationship consists exclusively of each person’s expression of themselves to the other.
THE MYSTERY OF SACRAMENT
I digress here for a necessary clarification in order to dig deeper into the uniquely Christian understanding of relationship with God by means of his creation. This mystery is the very reason why the Church has historically viewed all of life as sacramental in nature. The Latin word Sacramentum was developed and attributed to the practices of the Church to communicate primarily the idea of one’s making a sort of contract with, or commitment to, God.[iii] This word, however, which may suggest a more legal or juridical nuance as an “ordinance”, was not the original term used to refer to the intimate connection between God and humanity as expressed through created matter, specifically that which is administered by the Church. (I plan to explore more in depth some of these particular graces of the Church in a subsequent article.) The original word for the sacraments was μυστέριον (mysterion), literally, the “mysteries.”[iv] The experience of the grace of God in the sacraments was from the beginning approached as a mystical and yet real experience of God in, through, and by means of the sacrament itself. It must be remembered here that the Christian understanding of a human being is not an immaterial spirit trapped within, and awaiting liberation from, a physical body—which is actually not real, or possibly intrinsically evil—but as a unity of both God’s physical and spiritual creations within one single person. This is why Saint Maximus the Confessor described the human being as a “microcosm,” summing up in his or her very existence the entirety of God’s creation in both its physical and spiritual dimensions, and possessing the climactic task of uniting the two.[v] I must quote the Golden-mouthed preacher Saint John Chrysostom here, as he so poetically articulates this blessed mystery of the unity of the physical and spiritual realms within the Christian faith—as it is realized ultimately as a human being encountering his Creator in the Church:
“When the word says, ‘This is My Body,’ be convinced of it and believe it, and look at it with the eyes of the mind. For Christ did not give us something tangible, but even in His tangible things all is intellectual. So too with Baptism: the gift is bestowed through what is a tangible thing, water; but what is accomplished is intellectually perceived: the birth and the renewal. If you were incorporeal he would have given you those incorporeal gifts naked; but since the soul is intertwined with the body, he hands over to you in tangible things that which is perceived intellectually. How many now say, ‘I wish I could see his shape, his appearance, his garments, his sandals.’ Only look! You see him! You touch him! You eat him!”[vi]
There is a tendency in contemporary Christianity to forget about the physical aspect of our faith in pursuit of cerebral “Bible study” or emotional pursuit of the “Spirit” apart from the world around us; to see things like prayer ropes, incense, bodily prostrations, making the sign of the cross, holy icons, anointing with oil, holy water, clerical regalia, lighting candles in prayer, or preserving the miracle-working relics of Saints as, at best, distractions—and at worst, demonic [cue Stevie Wonder’s Superstition song]. While mental and emotional aspects of the faith are important, pursuing them to the exclusion of the physical side of our spirituality seems to greatly impoverish the Christian faith, making it more and more in unison with the world religions approach described above, which are quite Gnostic and “anti-matter” in nature. The Apostle Paul says that it is our bodies, not just our minds or emotions, that we must offer as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, and that “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit . . . therefore, glorify God with your body.”[vii]
All of this ultimately brings one back to the fundamental distinctive of Christianity juxtaposed with every other belief system known to mankind: the incarnation of God Almighty. A Christian must continually bring to mind and consider amongst the madness of modern society, “Do I really believe in the Incarnation?” Has God truly become human in every single quality of what it is to be a human being—along with all of its tangible dimensions—in order to redeem and sanctify it as holy? This central doctrine utilizes the word carne. God became “meat,” “bone,” or “matter.” “. . . a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have,” (Luke 24:39). It was his bodily lungs that breathed the Holy Spirit onto his apostles to guide them into all truth in leading the Church. His resurrection as “the firstborn over all Creation”[viii] is the beginning of the deliverance of the physical realm from its corruption. For, having assumed it in its entirety, and filled it with himself, he has glorified it—it anticipates total renewal, not annihilation and replacement with the spiritual.[ix] God has come not to make all new things, but to “make all things new.”[x] In my next article I would like to delve deeper into what this approach to union with God’s love—so central and distinctive of Christianity—implies, and how it impacts one’s approach to the world and their relationships.