Updated: Apr 24
From the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, powerful forces were arrayed against him and his mission (Luke 4: 14 – 30): “He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read…’The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Is. 61: 1 – 2)’… (then) He said to them, ‘Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing’…When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.”
Fortunately, they did not succeed, but throughout the remainder of his ministry, Jesus was constantly fending off attacks from Pharisees and others: he blasphemes, he does not keep the Sabbath, he consorts with tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners, etc…
In the end a conspiracy involving both civil (Roman) and religious (Jewish) authorities led to Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution. But even then, the persecution did not end. His apostles were hunted, St. Stephen was stoned; and in Rome, his followers hid and celebrated liturgy in catacombs beneath the city.
Fast forward a millennium and a half. Not much has changed. Less physical violence, more intellectual challenge! The emerging science of mechanics (Newton et al.) led to Pierre-Simon Laplace (c. 1800) and the doctrine of determinism: the universe is a giant machine and we are all cogs in that machine. We imagine we have free will but in fact all our actions, even our thoughts, are causally determined. Therefore, there is no such thing as personal responsibility and so any notion of accountability is impossible. We are purely physical beings with no spiritual dimension whatsoever.
(Quantum Mechanics has delivered an intellectual death blow to determinism and yet a large segment of the population still clings to remnants of this 19th century superstition.)
Fifty years later, Charles Darwin and others developed the Theory of Evolution: humanity is no longer special; we are just another species of animal. We evolved from other primates; we are not descended from Adam and Eve.
A hundred years after that, Fred Hoyle proposed the Big Bang Theory (that’s a cosmological theory, not just the pilot for a TV sitcom). Not only does humanity no longer need a “creator”, neither does the Universe. Big Bang replaces Fiat Lux!
So much sound, so much fury! I am reminded of the Ali-Forman fight (1974), the so-called ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. For 8 rounds Forman’s fists flew wildly; Ali crouched, apparently defenseless, in the ropes. (He later called this strategy ‘Rope-a-Dope’.) Toward the end of Round 8, Forman was exhausted; he had punched himself out…without landing any serious blows. Forman could barely raise his arms and Ali knocked him out easily.
The stoning of St. Stephen (and other martyrs) took a terrible toll; everything else is just Ali-Forman. The Enlightenment’s attacks on Christianity (above) demolished ‘misunderstood Christianity’ but they did not lay a glove on the real teachings of Jesus as reflected in Scripture and Tradition.
To some extent, the critics of Christianity have given up their efforts to discredit the message; they are now attempting to discredit the messenger. In 1965, The Passover Plot suggested that Jesus resurrection was faked. A few years ago a series of books suggested that Jesus might somehow have survived crucifixion and moved to the south of France. (No kidding)
The latest and most ridiculous of these efforts claims that Jesus did not even exist – that he is a purely mythical figure created by mashing-up the biographies of other eastern Mediterranean “god-men’: Osiris, Dionysus, etc… The underlying justification for this outrage is the notion that there is nothing new in Christian theology/cosmology, that it is just an eclectic mix of Eastern theologies and Western mystery cults.
These later day Philistines have noted certain overlaps between Jesus’ story and the stories of various mythological ‘god-men’, Jesus’ teachings and the teachings of other religious traditions, Jesus’ sayings and the sayings of other sages down through the ages. How could there not be? Taken out of context, Christianity shares ‘material’ with every other major religious tradition on the planet. The first mistake these modern Philistines make is to assume that these incidental overlaps reflect a conscious effort to borrow and co-opt other biographies and other theologies to forge the so-called “Greatest Story Ever Told”.
The larger mistake is to ignore the fact that the story of Christianity, including its fundamental doctrines, is totally unique and without parallel anywhere in the intellectual history of Planet Earth. It is the mission of this essay to point out that uniqueness and its crucial theological and cosmological significance.
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good. God then separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis: 1: 1 – 4)
The rest of the creation process follows the same model. God says, “Let there be”; He sees that it is good; and He separates one thing from another. “On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested…” (Genesis 2: 2)
Pretty plain vanilla, huh? Not so fast! Let’s dig deeper. First, God says, “Let there be”; He doesn’t say, “Be” as a magician would. God is Being; ‘Being’ includes the potential actuality of all that is, all that might have been, and all that might still be. When God says, “Let there be”, He allows something that otherwise is mere potentiality to participate in his actuality. Then God assesses the results. In Genesis, He finds those results “good” and so they endure; had they not been ‘good’, they could never have fully achieved actuality because Being is Good.
The real creative process is the ‘separation’ of what is from what is not. ‘Darkness’ is the absence of light. “God separated the light from the darkness.” Creation is the separation of what is good from that which is not good, of what is from what is not.
Let us return to Genesis (1: 1): “…God created the heavens and the earth…” The key word here is ‘created’. God did not ‘imagine’ the heavens and the earth, He did not ‘dream’ then, He did not ‘conceive’ them, He ‘created’ them. And what does it mean to be ‘created’. It means to be independent of one’s creator, totally and ‘permanently’. It means to be ‘free’, not controlled and certainly not determined.
In early adolescence my friends and I were overflowing with wisdom (not sure where it went). When we wrote a letter to someone (yup, there was still such a thing as a letter), we would smartly write a return address such as “David Cowles, 25 Redgate Road, West Roxbury, Mass (no two letter abbreviations yet and no zip codes), USA, Planet Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Universe, Mind of God.
We were wrong! (Surprise, surprise!) If God truly did create the heavens and the earth, if we are to believe Scripture, then the cosmos must exist independently of God. Ask any artist!
Of course, the cosmos exists via Being, which is God, and via the Good, which is God and Being; but beyond that, it is like a painting or a musical composition or a work of literature. Once ‘created’, once endowed with whatever goodness its creator could impart, it enjoys an existence all its own. It will be displayed, performed and interpreted in all sorts of different ways over which its creator has no (legitimate) influence. A true ‘creator’ will gladly stand aside to see how his creation fares and even evolves.
What does it mean to be a creature of God? Of course, it does not mean to be divorced from God, but it does mean to have an existence independent of God. It is what we mean by “free will” and that concept needs to be applied not only to the volitional acts of human beings but to the evolution of the entire universe.
Anything less than this would be unworthy of God as we understand him. God created the heavens and the earth and ultimately human beings within them so that He could have a real relationship filled with real love. A real relationship, real love, requires a real ‘other’. The childhood ‘relationships’ had with our imaginary playmates were not real relationships.
God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1: 26). To be the image and likeness of God means to enjoy the same ontological status, independence, that God enjoys.
This understanding of ‘creation’ leads directly to the doctrine of ‘freedom’. If the heavens and the earth enjoy independence, then they must also enjoy freedom. We often talk of ‘free will’ but we normally apply that to humans only. However, if we follow our reasoning to its logical conclusion, then it cannot be just humans that enjoy freedom; all creation must! Of course, that ‘freedom’ will manifest itself differently in an electron than it does in a human…but the concept is the same.
Unique and powerful as our doctrine of Creation is, it leaves us open to the charge of ‘deism’. But this apparent imbalance is quickly corrected by another doctrine, even more unique and powerful: Incarnation.
The Gospel of John tells the story: “In the beginning was the Word…all things came to be through him…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”
Today, “talk is cheap”; we tend to hold speech in low esteem. In Biblical times, it was understood that a word was independent of the one who uttered it. It was in fact a form of ‘creation’ (above). In African ontology, to utter the name of something (or someone) is to conjure that thing/person into existence/presence.
Genesis 2: 19 confirms this: “So the Lord God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man (‘Adam’) to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.”
That’s also why Moses was so intent on learning God’s name (Exodus 3). Had any of us been addressed out of a burning bush, I doubt that our first question would have beem about the speaker’s name. But learning God’s name was everything to Moses. So what’s in a name? Apparently, everything!
Words mattered back then; and they still do! Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “Words are deeds.” Although God created the heavens and the earth to be free and independent of Him, he did not leave us orphans. God continues to act in the world through Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, the Word of God.
When we speak of ‘universe’, we speak of a proper set that contains the totality of everything that constitutes the world. On the other end of the spectrum, when we speak of ‘quantum’, we speak of the smallest unit that is not simply the sum of its parts, but that cannot be further sub-divided without losing its essential character. Today, we use the term ‘quantum’ to apply to electrons, photons and quarks, etc… But we can apply the concept to chemical elements (a jumble of electrons and quarks does not constitute oxygen) and to biological cells (a bundle of DNA and RNA does not constitute a unicellular organism). In this spirit it is perfectly proper to apply to concept of quantum to a human individual.
Via the doctrine of Creation, we learn that the world came to be, independent and free, in the context of God; via the doctrine of Incarnation, we now learn that God ‘came to be’, independent and free, in the context of the world. That is what we mean when we call the Virgin Mary, ‘Mater Dei’ (Mother of God) in the Ave Maria aka Hail Mary. God is not merely the transcendent creator of ‘the heavens and the earth’. He is also immanent in that world, but not as God per se; rather as one of its creatures. As one who ‘dwelt among us’, God ‘can and may’ participate in the course of history, in the unfolding of events.
Therefore, Jesus could change water into wine at Cana and wine into his Most Precious Blood at the Last Supper!
But what of God’s intervention in Old Testament history? If the Incarnation is God’s window on the world, how could He play a role in world history before Jesus was even conceived? For this it is important to understand how God’s knowledge of the events is different from our knowledge. We see events spread out over billions of years; God sees the entire history of the world simultaneously. For God, there is no time, no past, no future, just an eternal present. Scripture is quite clear on this:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…He was in the world and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.” (John 1: 1-10)
So God does not act in the world on account of the Creation but on account of the Incarnation. No other theological tradition contains a doctrine parallel to this!
“Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.” So says line #3 of the Roman Catholic prayer known as The Divine Praises. Upon close analysis, other mythological ‘god-men’ turn out to be incompletely human or incompletely divine. Only Jesus the Christ is fully God and fully man.
To be a human being is first and foremost to be mortal. From the moment of our conception we live under a death sentence. For decades, we are for the most part barely cognizant of this immutable reality. As we age, mortality begins to occupy an ever bigger place in our thinking. Finally, we get to a point where we think of little else.
For most of us, death is not a ‘joyful passage into eternity’; it is preceded by a long period of infirmity and, often, incapacity. For most of us, the process of dying is accompanied by abject terror and intense pain. The process of dying has often been described as the mirror image of the process of giving birth. Unfortunately, though, the process of dying, for most of us, is much more drawn out and even more painful. That’s what we call ‘the human condition’.
Since Jesus was completely human, he could not escape this fate. From the beginning of his public ministry, if not sooner, he knew that that ministry would end in premature death. For at least three years, he lived every day under this cloud. As the date of his death approached, awareness of it played an ever deeper role in his thinking; he spent his final evening in agony, praying desperately in the garden of Gethsemane.
The reality of the Incarnation required Jesus to undergo a humiliating, excruciating and unjust death…just exactly the sort of end that every one of us dreads. On Good Friday, Jesus died, nailed upon a cross. What other mythological ‘god-man’ went through this?
Because Jesus was fully human, his death was inevitable. However, Jesus was also fully divine. By its essential nature, divinity is eternal and therefore ultimately not subject to mortality. Just as Jesus’ death was inevitable, so was his resurrection. Sure enough, three days after Jesus’s died and was buried, he rose again fr