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This post is about re-situating the Christmas story in the context of the new Universe Story.
Back in post #28, when I talked about "Where I'm At," I described the three different directions I wanted to move in (all at once!) in sharing my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion. In that post I offered "snapshots" of those three directions. In this post I'm finally getting to share my thoughts about the third one. It's the Christmas story from a dynamic rather than static perspective: what the story of the coming of Jesus looks like in the updated context of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution offered us by modern science.
In the previous post, Convergence? (with the question mark), the main point I made was that "When we see that the real world is a dynamic process, and that the emergence of new things from previous things is the basic pattern to the process, we can see that the convergence of science and religion in the dynamic worldview of western science frees western religion from the centuries-old prison of static dualism."
My main thought there, and indeed in all my blog efforts over the last two years, is that far from being in opposition to religion, contemporary science serves the religion of the western world by rescuing it from its thousand-year prison of static dualism. Modern science greatly enriches western culture's religious tradition.
After the Dark Ages, western religion got trapped into thinking that the world is a prison. It lost its original understanding of reality as a dynamic process. For many today, it still comes as a surprise to know that evolution is at the core of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and the evolutionary perspectives of modern science can help western religion re-discover its own dynamic heart and soul.
As I spelled out in post #38 (Exodus), the western world owes its dynamic understanding of reality to the Hebrews. It began with the experience of the Great Escape from Egypt, and it continued in the subsequent reflections of the Hebrew sages in the Bible's Wisdom literature. I've spelled out those thoughts on Wisdom/Sophia in a number of recent posts (#40 to #45).
I've also frequently referred to the French philosopher of science, Claude Tresmontant, author of A Study of Hebrew Thought. As I noted in post #39, he makes the point that this dynamic-evolutionary perspective is in the greatest contrast to the static worldview that had previously prevailed for countless generations. As he puts it in the language of philosophy, "being itself is dynamic rather than static." It is the nature of whatever exists to be continuously evolving.
Tresmontant refers to this breakthrough in human awareness occasioned by the Exodus event as an "evolutionary metaphysics" and notes that, in humanity's cultural development, the Hebrew idea of creativity and newness is as significant as the discovery of fire.
I've also mentioned many times Teilhard's statement that the dawning of the dynamic-evolutionary worldview "is the biggest change in consciousness since consciousness first appeared on Earth several million years ago."
One of my main points in the previous post is that "it's not quite correct to say that the Judeo-Christian tradition began in the context of the dynamic-evolutionary worldview." Put more accurately, the dynamic worldview is the very essence of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
I noted in that post that the reason this still sounds like such a strange claim is "because we're not yet comfortable with the idea of a dynamic-- in contrast to a static-- worldview." So we need to keep in mind just what "dynamic" means. It is a synonym for the Latin word spiritus and comes from the Greek word dynamis. Both words mean power and energy. The first chapter of Genesis describes the divine spiritus-- "the dynamis of God"-- as "hovering over the surface of the waters at the beginning" and in the Psalms it is said to "fill the whole world, giving life to all living creatures."
The Psalms and Genesis were written long after the Hebrew experience of the Exodus. Those stories and poems are part of the wisdom perspective that pervades the Hebrew Bible. The entire wisdom tradition speaks of the dynamis-- energy and power-- of God creating us, guiding us, gathering us, providing for us. The whole history of the Jewish people is understood as being brought about by this holy spiritus.
And as Tresmontant notes, this dynamic-evolutionary perspective is the down-to-earth worldview of a people who were farmers and shepherds. Their Wisdom literature sees Divine Sophia, the Wisdom of God, not only delighting in the creation of the Earth and its children-- delighting in the world of human persons-- but also calling us to participate in her creative work in the world.
One other aspect of Hebrew thought which Tresmontant notes also is important to keep in mind here. Not only is the world going somewhere, there is also a unique type of personality in Hebrew culture who is especially able to see the direction in which the world is moving: the nabi (prophet). And the direction is peace, pax, shalom. "The wolf will lie down with the lamb," says the prophet Isaiah. Today we would call it social justice.
This is the dynamic evolutionary context in which Jesus was born and in which the first communities of his followers were formed.
That dynamic context is quite explicit in the gospel stories. We easily miss it, because, as I've said, "we're not comfortable yet with the idea of a dynamic-- in contrast to a static-- worldview."
The dynamic consciousness, for example, is the focus of the story of Jesus' baptism. Christians nowadays don't pay much attention to that story, but in the early days of Christianity Jesus' baptism in the Jordan was considered the central event in his life. It was of tremendous importance to his followers.
And although this will sound very odd, it is the baptism of Jesus, not his birth, that was the original Christmas story.
The second century Christians in Alexandria-- the cultural center of the Mediterranean world at that time-- selected the Egyptian date of the winter solstice and the start of the new year to celebrate the baptism of Jesus. The date was January 6, a high point on the old pre-Christian Egyptian calendar celebrating the manifestation of divinity as the Alexandrians saw it. So it was good choice for the celebration of the manifestation of the divine spiritus in Jesus.
Except for Easter, January 6 was the only feast day on the Christian calendar at that time. A day to mark the birth of Jesus came later. That was added by Christians in Rome-- the political rather than cultural center of the empire-- and they also selected a pre-Christian winter solstice festival, which in Rome was understood to occur on December 25.
Even today, January 6 is a major date on the Eastern church calendars, and it still has the original word "manifestation" in its name; they call it Theophany. The western churches call it Epiphany. The "phan" (or "fan") part of those words literally means "showing"-- just like what a fan-dancer does.
In the Western tradition two other events were also understood to be epiphanies of the dynamic spiritus manifesting itself in Jesus: the visit of the Magi from the east and Jesus' first "sign," as the gospel calls it, his turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. On the western calendar the story of the Magi's visit eventually became more important than the baptism, but for many centuries the baptism continued to be celebrated on the octave, eight days later.
Today, on the Roman calendar used in English-speaking countries, the feast of the Three Kings has been moved to a Sunday near January 6 and the baptism is still remembered eight days later, on the following Sunday. (But the wedding feast story is read as a gospel only every third year.)
The Eastern churches, however, both Catholic and Orthodox, still celebrate the baptism of Jesus on January 6. And there is one national church, Armenia-- the very oldest Christian nation-- that never got around to adding December 25 to its calendar. They still celebrate Christmas on January 6.
I've given all this seemingly trivial information because it helps us to see that the original Christmas story is the baptism, rather than the birth, of Jesus. If we're still functioning in a static and dualistic rather than dynamic worldview, we can easily miss its significance.
That the baptism of Jesus was about the manifestation of the dynamic spiritus which fills the whole world is clear from the ancient Eastern church custom of blessing a body of water each year on January 6. (The Roman church also had a blessing of water on that date, but it had been unused for centuries and was dropped from the books around 1900.) The blessing of water is still a central event in many Eastern churches, Catholic as well as Orthodox, when on the morning of January 6 parishioners go to the nearest stream or river or ocean to bless the waters of all creation.
Water here is understood to be the primal element-- the very substance of the world-- filled with the Dynamis of God. Jesus' descent into and immersion in the waters of the Jordan is an image of the divine energy filling the whole cosmos.
The fact that these customs have been lost to western Christianity is a clear indication of the extent of the loss of the dynamic worldview which prevailed for the first thousand years of Christian tradition. My point in all of this is that, with the help of modern science, the evolutionary perspective at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is being recovered once again in our day.
When we see the world as a dynamic process, then the core of western religion makes good sense. But to see the Divine Dynamis as the cosmic evolutionary spiritus it's important to keep in mind the basic pattern of the evolutionary process: when the material of the world reaches a certain level of complexity, new things emerge. "Matter, life and mind" is the underlying structure to the entire cosmic process as we Earthlings experience it.
In a static context, individuals feel themselves imprisoned in an alien world from which they need to escape. In an evolutionary context, we experience ourselves quite differently: we experience ourselves as related to all things and blessed to be free participants in the cosmic process.
There is one more point, one which western culture still finds difficult to accept: that the evolutionary process doesn't stop with the emergence and development of individuals. There is what I called in post #22 "The Other Half of 'Person'." It's the idea that our personal relationships and our communion with all else is also an aspect of the evolutionary process.
With the strong sense of individualism that's part of western culture, it's not easy for us to see that the evolution of the universe continues not just in the development of conscious individuals but also in the emergence of communities of persons.
The essence of the New Cosmology is that the developmental sequence of the cosmic process is matter, life, mind and communion. Biological evolution continues beyond the personal level in our connection with all things and specifically in our relationships on the human cultural level.
The fact that humanity's cultural development is an aspect of the cosmic process has become much clearer in our day with the growing awareness that we live in one world, "spaceship Earth," where all of us are mutually inter-dependent.
When we look at western religion from that dynamic perspective, we can see not only that humanity's awareness of the process began with the Hebrew slaves' escape from Egypt and that it continues in the teachings of the sages and the sayings of the prophets, but also that it continues right into the new testament stories of Jesus and his early followers.
The early Christians saw the world as a process; they also saw Jesus as the embodiment of the divine dynamism of that process; and they saw themselves as the embodiment of Jesus.
To make clear what I mean about "re-situating the Christmas story in the context of the new Universe Story" I need to say a few words about each of the three parts of that sentence.
They saw the world as a process. Obviously Jesus and his early followers didn't know anything about DNA or natural selection, but the very essence of his teaching was that something was in process in the world. When his followers asked him how they should pray, he told them to say, "thy kingdom come!"
We still call it "the Lord's Prayer" and it's said a million times each day on the Earth. But the words are so familiar that, understood in a static worldview, we miss their meaning. In a dynamic perspective, "the prayer that Jesus taught us" is clearly a prayer for the success of the cosmic process at the level of human relationships.
"Thy kingdom come" is a prayer for the coming of justice and peace-- pax, shalom-- when "the wolf will lie down with the lamb." It's a prayer for communion of persons and for personal relationships-- for the new creation which, thanks to the divine dynamis, emerges at the communal level of human development.
They also saw Jesus as the embodiment of the divine dynamism of the process. The early Christians saw Jesus as the embodiment of the wisdom and the power of God. While the words sound unfamiliar in a static context, they are stated as explicitly as possible in the earliest Christian writings. At the beginning of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for example, Paul describes Jesus as "the dynamis of God and the sophia of God." (Those Greek terms aren't a translation; they are the words used in the original.)
We still hear this understanding of Jesus as the dynamis and sophia of God at Christmas time-- in readings and stories, verses from Isaiah on Christmas cards, for example-- but once again it's easy to miss if we hear it in a static context. One especially good example is found in Paul's letter to Titus that is still read, as it has been for centuries, at the Midnight Mass of Christmas. "In him," says Paul, "the charis (grace, love) of God has been manifest to us." The Greek for "has been manifest" is epephane. In a non-evolutionary context, we just don't hear it.
A much more familiar example is the ancient Advent hymn, "Come, O come, Emmanuel." The very first verse begins, "Come, O come, thou Wisdom from on high." In a evolutionary context, we would hear something like, "Come, O come, Sophia from on high."
And they saw themselves as the embodiment of Jesus. The communities of Jesus' followers understood themselves to be the continuation of his work. They saw themselves as a new kind of community in humanity's cultural development-- at the very growing edge of the cosmic process-- helping to bring about the coming of the kingdom-- the reign-- of divine Sophia.
In the previous post I emphasized the importance of the idea of emergence in understanding the cosmic process. It's also the key to understanding the story of the coming of Jesus and the founding of the communities of his followers in the dynamic-evolutionary context.
A contemporary Jewish source expresses this understanding of the emergence of new communities well. The prophetic American rabbi Arthur Waskow captures precisely this sense of the formation of new communities in the dynamic process of human cultural development. In a letter about the 2008 presidential elections, he says the world is in such a mess that it's like living in an earthquake-- "God's earthquake," he calls it-- and that we have to learn "to dance our way to a new world from the earthquake of the old."
"Modern' civilization is devouring itself," says the rabbi, "turning its towering control of the world, of the earth itself, into self-destruction. The certainties of Modern life are quaking, and our country as a whole does not know what to do." He notes that while some seek to hang on to the old certainties, it "takes even more courage than in the past to renew the ancient bubblings of Truth and Transformation." It means, he says, "jumping off into a world we cannot remember."
"To shape these new communities, broader and deeper than we have known, will take not force of arms but hearing of the heart. Maybe only 'YHWH,' the Interbreathing of all life that appears in every human language and in the lives of every life-form, can do it."
Rabbi Arthur's main point is that "God's Great Dance is between Control and Community, A great leap forward in Control must be followed by a great deep warming of Community." And that, he says, "is what happened when the West-Semitic tribes faced the power of Imperial Egypt and Imperial Sumeria: They went deep into the Spirit, and arose with Torah, a new form of community. That is what happened when the conquered Jews faced Imperial Rome: they went deep into the Spirit, and arose with Talmud and New Testament, two new forms of community."
Notice where those new forms of community come from, when we're caught in the earthquake of patriarchy suppressing everything new for the sake of power and control. Rabbi Arthur says it twice: "They went deep into the Spirit." New community emerges from the dynamism (spiritus) of the cosmic process. (It is a good letter. If you'd like to be on the rabbi's mailing list, you can send him a note at The Shalom Center: www.shalomctr.org.)
Once again, it's the idea of emergence that's the key to understanding what the coming of Jesus and the founding of the communities of his followers looks like in the evolutionary context. In the emergence process we see that at the biological level, DNA can do things that its chemical components can't; and at the neurological level, a human being can do things that brain cells can't. In exactly the same way, at the cultural level, human communities can do things that individuals can't.
Historically, communities have used words like "gathering," "assembly" and "meeting" to name themselves as something more than individuals. Buddhists still use the Sanskrit word sangha. Greek Christians used the word ekklesia.
The main point of this post is that the formation of such gatherings is the growing edge of the cosmic process on Earth, and that, in the context of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution, the essence of the Christmas story is our awareness of the Growing Edge.
The very earliest Christian communities saw themselves this way. At first they were exclusively Jewish. (Remember their question I mentioned in post #37: Would non-Jewish males who wanted to become Christians have to be circumcised first?)
But those Jewish communities fairly quickly opened themselves to anyone of good will who wanted to join, women and men, circumcised or not. And it wasn't long before they began to use the Greek word katholic to describe their gatherings; they saw themselves as world-wide or universal. Probably the best words today to express what they intended by katholic would be "global" and "all-inclusive."
And at their best, the contemporary expressions of those communities still understand themselves as a generative force in the world. At their best, they still see themselves, as the early Christian communities saw themselves, as continuing the work of Jesus in bringing about the new creation of peace and justice. At their best, they exclude no one. (At their best.)
So, here's the Christmas story in the context of cosmic evolution:
Once upon a time, long ago, the growing edge of the cosmic process was the formation of galaxies, stars and planets. Later, when planet Earth was new, the growing edge was the formation of living things and their development-- from sponges, worms and fish to birds, mammals and primates-- by way of natural selection.
Two million years ago, the growing edge was the emergence among the primates of self-reflective consciousness. And twenty-five centuries ago, the growing edge was the emergence among the Hebrew people of an awareness-- "as significant as the discovery of fire"-- of the cosmic process itself; their sages saw it as the manifestation of the energy and wisdom of God.
Two thousand years ago, the earliest followers of Jesus saw him as a personal embodiment-- and saw themselves as the communal embodiment-- of that same wisdom and power.
And today, we are coming to recognize that every gathering of good-willed persons working for peace and justice-- even if it's just two or three, as Jesus himself said-- is an embodiment of that Energy of God which moved over the face of the waters at the beginning of creation.
I think the best thing about re-situating the Christmas story in the context of the New Cosmology is seeing that it's not something that happened long ago. It's going on right now.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008