People around the globe, both Christians and non-Christians, recognize the historical figure of Jesus Christ as the teacher, healer, and preacher whose actions and words led to the formation of a world religion. Centuries of reading and praying over scripture have informed Christians’ understanding of their faith in Christ as the Son of God, but cultural and intellectual expressions of that understanding have changed over time. See, for example, the excellent survey by Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, which explores how that understanding as found in images of Jesus varied through a succession of historical periods.
Despite the tendency of many religious folk to regard their beliefs as eternal, unchanging truths, any history of Christian doctrine will show that there has never been a single unified theology but rather a variety of schools of thought often at odds with each other. For example, the basic question “why did God become a human being” has received various theological explanations. What did Christ’s life, death, and resurrection accomplish? In Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril, Elizabeth Johnson argues that historically the most influential explanation was articulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE). In Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became a Human), he argued that Christ died on a cross in order to reconcile God and sinful humanity. The breach between human and divine realms was so deep and profound that only Christ’s crucifixion could erase it. Here is Johnson’s take on how dominant Anselm’s view, sometimes called the satisfaction theory of atonement, has been:
I sometimes think that Anselm may well be the most successful theologian of all time, for what other theory has dominated theology, preaching, and liturgical practice for almost a thousand years? Joseph Ratzinger, a critic of this treatise, comments on its influence in words that are beyond dispute: it “put a decisive stamp on the second millennium of western Christendom, which takes it for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offence that had been committed and in this way to restore the order that had been violated.” (CC, Introduction)
But Anselm’s focus on the need for reconciliation between humankind and God invites the kind of criticism summarized in a previous post. According to Lynn White, the human species should not consider itself as exceptional but part of “a democracy of all God’s creatures.” Does a focus on the human in the Christ story mean that God is unconcerned about the rest of his creatures? Au contraire, according to Johnson. All you need to do is to read scripture, this time with contemporary environmental concerns in mind, to see a more expansive view of God’s purpose in Christ. Johnson invites her readers to consider a scripture-based theological approach more appropriate for our times.
I invite you to explore an alternative to Anselm’s influential theology. Drawn from a wide range of biblical sources, this alternative envisions the living God actively accompanying the world in its evolutionary and historical breakthroughs, its human sinfulness, and its universal suffering and death, with overflowing mercy that endures forever. Such a theology of accompaniment is but one way to understand redemption that will support planetary solidarity and work for ecojustice. (CC, Introduction).
While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to survey the many excellent points made in Creation and the Cross, perhaps a few excerpts can suggest its value for spiritual reflection in a time of climate change.
Among the prophets Second Isaiah makes the most extensive use of God as Creator; citing one or another verse from this poetic scroll would hardly do justice to its interweaving of YHWH’s creating and redeeming work. The key motive is identifying Israel’s Redeemer with “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28) in the effort to encourage trust. The Holy One of Israel who is coming to free them is the very same God who created the heavens and the earth and all that dwells therein. (CC, 2.5)
The link forged between the creating and redeeming activities of God opens the door to bringing the natural world into the text in an organic way. It amazes me how many creatures are mentioned: the rising sun; all forms of water such as roaring waves, rivers, streams, and fresh springs; mountains and hills; deserts, rocks, and fertile earth; fish and all kinds of wild animals; jackals and ostriches; and a gorgeous array of trees; cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive, plane, and pine together. All are party to the glad tidings of salvation. (CC, 2.5)
Jesus’ whole ministry was centered on the coming of the reign of God. Given that this God is the Creator who loves the whole world, this means nothing less than the flourishing of all creation. Since the reign of God is especially attentive to the needy and the outcast, Jesus showed a partisanship for suffering people that we can today interpret as extending to encompass the earth and its myriads of distressed species and ecosystems. His ministry reveals a wideness in God’s mercy that includes all creation. (CC, 3.4)
It is enormously helpful to see the way early Christians connected resurrection with creation. The logic of the connection allows this impossible hope to make more sense. Paul forges this link in a quick line: God “gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). There it is. Just like that, you can see that if the living God can create the world to begin with, then God can create anew in death. (CC, 3.9)
In the tangle of our lives, graced fragments of personal, social, and ecological flourishing give foretastes of this blessed life, the fullness of which is still to come. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil employs a wealth of symbols to point to this joyful truth: new fire struck from darkness, the paschal candle lit, the flame spreading throughout the community, an exulting song, ringing bells, green branches and flowers, water of baptism, oil of confirming, bread and wine of Eucharist. God raised Jesus from the dead, and the gift to this one historical person gives assurance of what lies ahead for all creation. (CC, 3.11)
God covenants with all creatures of flesh, as we saw in the Noah story with its covenant sign of the rainbow. Made of flesh, animals are vulnerable to pain and death, in need of God’s redeeming care. One psalm makes this explicit in startling language: “You save humans and animals alike, O YHWH” (Ps 36:6) (CC, 6.5)
Given that one of the sources of inspiration for this blog has been Teilhard de Chardin’s thought, it’s interesting to note that he found little in the Jesus narratives of the New Testament that was relevant to his thought and therefore didn’t pursue the kind of scripture-based scholarship modeled by Johnson. In his words,
. . . the face of the historical Jesus, embroiled in all the historical improbabilities and moral inadequacies of the Gospel, becomes less clear and distinct for me. My basic disposition? What is past and dead no longer interests me. (Quoted in CM, 125)
But I think Johnson’s “theology of accompaniment” is in some ways close kin to Teilhard’s mystical vision of Christ deeply present within an evolving world. Moreover, I consider Creation and the Cross to be a contribution to the New Story project that Thomas Berry called for in his seminal essay cited in an earlier blog post. It can be seen as part of a worldwide endeavor by religious scholars mining their traditions with renewed energy to uncover spiritual resources for dealing with the environmental crises facing us all. See, for example, Overview of World Religions and Ecology by two former students of Berry’s, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology.
But scriptural scholarship and theology can only takes us so far. According to Johnson,
As with any theology, the path laid down here will prove its worth if the faith convictions it generate motivate individuals and communities to passionate, ethical, practical commitments to the natural world in tandem with all the earth’s poor and marginalized people. (CC, 6.7)
FYI: Elizabeth Johnson spoke on similar themes at Boston College earlier this year. A video recording of her talk is available.