evolutionDietrich Bonhoeffer, the Greman theologian killed by the Nazis, sketched out the way Christian theology had increasingly found the presence of God where human knowledge was incomplete, such as the origin of the universe, or where human strength gave out, such as in dying. He urged believers rather to find God in the achievements of human knowledge and in the strength of human living. If God was relegated to being a “God of the gaps” he said, then his significance would always diminish as human competence advanced.

For me, this means that the reality of God is not some strange supernatural substance present in the universe. God is not an object or force within the universe, but is beyond all worlds. I do not see a different universe from that discovered by the sciences; I learn from the sciences how to understand the vast, intricate web of galaxies which is still developing and still partly unknown. When I say that God is the creator, I do not mean that God acts like some extra- powerful force, but rather that God is the source of all forces and all energies and all life as a mother is the source of life for her unborn child ( yes, yes,  I know I’m sidelining the dad, but stay with me); and that  God is present to creation as a mother is present to the child in her womb: it is within her and dependent on her for its growth, but she does not directly influence its progress. I guess people may ask why on earth I invent such a  complicated picture. If the thing works without a God, why introduce one?

The answer is that the Christian tradition tells me a story which chimes with my own experience, that although the universe and I have come about by a mixture of ordered development and accident, I am neither an accident nor merely the result of cosmic process, but intended with all creatures  to be an expression and sharer of God’s goodness. I see the same universe as the scientist, but I see it and my own life as a gift and a responsibility. Indeed, as in my own lifetime human knowledge of the universe has been hugely increased, so also has my faith in the creator God, because I have become more aware of what has been, and is still being, created.image

The stimulus for this way of thinking about God is the Council of Chalcedon 451 CE, which described the person of Jesus Christ to be of two natures, divine and human, without “confusion, change, division or separation”. Jesus is not half man half God, but rather wholly human and wholly God. If he is able to heal people, that is not because he has godlike abilities; if he suffers that is not because he is merely human. There is no confusion and no separation. When the son of God heals people we know that God heals. When the son of God suffers we know that God suffers. But the healing of God is not separate from this human healing; this is how God heals. Nor is the suffering of God separate from this human suffering; this is how God suffers. God is not in Jesus like the genii in the bottle. He is Jesus without ceasing to be God; their lives are completely shared in the inter-being that is the Holy Spirit.

This is the model for thinking about God: the eternal Father/ Mother is known in the human son Jesus. The Creator of all worlds is known in his/ her creation. The Holy Spirit is known in the openness of creatures to God’s life. God is not known as another fact to be added to the encyclopaedia of the universe; but rather as the person within whom all creatures live and move and have their being, whose life we shall come to share in love.

I know this because God is revealed in the midst of the world, in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But I must never forget that God is the “beyond” in the midst of the world. God never ceases to be the one beyond all worlds, who cannot be used or defined or tested. I must approach this One with humility and reverence but also without the smelly trappings of religion. All the mumbo-jumbo of religion is invented as a way of getting to God and getting God on my side. This is totally unnecessary for the God who in love has come to me.

pig
Live boldly in the world as it is

That neatly brings me back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke of “Christianity without religion” by which he meant a faith that doesn’t try to carve out a special religious realm for itself but lives boldly in the good and evil of the world as it is.

 

I  love a Spanish- American hymn for use in the Eucharist:

Santo, santo, santo

Mi corazón t’adora;

mi corazón te sabe decir:

“Santo eres, Señor ”

Holy, holy, holy, my heart adores you; my heart knows how to tell you,’You are holy, Lord”image

I have been arguing in recent blogs, that although the human intelligence is a pointer to its creator, it must not be narrowly conceived as merely mind, but crucially as the heart  also, the maker of relationships. For it is through the opening up of individual life to other life that the processes of evolutionary and spiritual growth take place. The creative spirit of God, I have suggested, is to be found at work in what Christianity calls “communion”, that is, in the place where individual identities are joyfully, if painfully, surrendered so that separate existence is fulfilled in “inter-being”, a term borrowed from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. This thinking suggests that God’s spirit is present in the processes of evolution, but insists that certain misunderstandings have to be avoided:

  1. The process of evolution must not be misconceived as a movement upwards from  amoeba to Homo sapiens as if the latter were the goal of evolution, which must rather be seen as a growing complexity and flourishing of interdependent beings.
  2. The processes are rigorous and unforgiving in that species which cannot adapt to changes in their environment will die out. That is a consequence of the fact that the creator has permitted life to be independent of her will, to have the real freedom of its own development from organic matter which remains its source of energy. But the processes themselves are not “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson suggested. All creatures die anyway. The death of a species is no crueller than the death of a beetle.
  3. We will remain ignorant of much of the process of evolution until we are able to compare what has happened on this earth with life on other planets in the universe. Recent discoveries of earth-like planets in other star systems may bring nearer the time when we can do this. Dogmatic theologies, rooted in a time when life on this planet was thought to be the only life, will have to repent their certainties and learn to be more humble.image
  4. If God’s spirit is seen as present in evolution it must not be seen only in the the “successes” of evolution but also in its “failures”. Indeed all talk of successes and failures should be abandoned. I recently looked at images of the preserved body of a baby mammoth, a thing of astonishing and moving beauty. Was the mammoth an evolutionary failure? Surely not, but we can imagine the painful process by which mammoths perished in an increasingly hostile environment in which human beings were a new enemy. William Golding in his “The Inheritors” portrayed the pain of Neanderthal people as they were wiped out and superseded by Homo Sapiens. God’s spirit shares the pain as well as the happiness of creatures.
  5. Human beings are different from all other creatures in the degree of self-determination their intelligence gives them. This means that all other animals are naturally children of the creator, whereas human beings can choose whether to become so or not. Those who close themselves to other life are spiritually dead, while those who open themselves to other life are enlivened by God’s spirit of communion. The ecumenical community which results from this communion includes the natural world and all its creatures, as well as human beings.
  6. Although the experience of shared life in God’s spirit is free and joyful, wise teachers, who have understood the wisdom of the spirit have given guidance about the kind of behaviours that close people to the spirit, and the kind that open them to it. These wise rules are found in the traditions of the great teachers,  like Confucius, The Buddha, Jesus, the Gurus of the Jains and the Sikhs, Mohammed and Gandhi. Rules are not the final stage of spiritual development, but they are a necessary preparation for it. image

Some readers will have noticed that I have left unanswered a crucial question:

What do I mean by the spirit’s “presence” in evolutionary or spiritual development?

Is it a force of some kind? A supernatural influence? An unsubstantial gloop that is somehow real?

Somewhere in my writings, ( I can’t find it for the moment!) I described a “house of God” as a being or community of beings from which God is absent as a mother is absent from the womb that contains her child. Remember, this is a metaphor! But:

  1. The womb and the embryo are within the mother. The universe is within God.
  2. The mother’s life nourishes the embryo without interfering with it. God nourishes living beings from her own life.
  3. The mother cannot alter the development of the embryo at will. Nevertheless  her health contributes to its health, and its illness will cause suffering to her.
  4. The life of the embryo is not static, but is developing into a child. The human being open to the spirit is also developing into a child of God. image

The inclusive, interdependent, developmental presence of the mother to the embryo is my model for the presence of God’s spirit in the life of the universe. It could be described as purposeful communion.

This is already more than enough. I will continue this exploration on future blogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

image

This splendid cartoon  is from “Jesus and Mo” a weekly cartoon which brings a healthy scepticism to all religious beliefs and practices. It suffers just a little from what I call “Dawkinsitis” which overestimates the truth of science, but it is otherwise shrewd and funny about both Islam and Christianity. The cartoon above ridicules Mohammed but it could as easily have been put the other way round, as you can see from the quotation from the Gospel of John in today’s title.

I have no doubt at all that the words quoted were invented by the Gospel writer or his community and put into the mouth of Jesus, although the record of Jesus’teaching in all the gospels leaves little doubt that he wanted his followers to obey the commandments he  gave. But I do not think he saw himself as the perfect, sinless example of how human beings ought to live.image

“Why do you call me good? Only One is good.” That’s a crucial saying of Jesus which his followers are unlikely to have invented. He pointed people towards God, but nevertheless encouraged people to see the goodness of God in his own ministry.

There is a problem here. If Christians believe that the unseen God is revealed in Jesus, how can we doubt the perfection of Jesus’ life and example? But if we make his perfection an article of faith, how can we avoid falling into the circular moral reasoning that the cartoon exposes so well?

if we start from the beginning we should admit that we choose to be Christian believers, or continue as believers, because we like, admire, love, the character, actions and sufferings of Jesus. To put it at its simplest, we think he was right most of the time. That doesn’t mean he appeals to our moral prejudices, but rather that he contradicts our prejudices and confirms our better insights in ways that we trust. The figure of Jesus represents the best we know. That doesn’t mean we have to think of him as sinless or that everything he did has to be taken as an example to humanity. We also have to admit that a very large percentage of what he actually did and said is unknown to us, because it is not recorded, and that some of what is recorded was never done or said by him.

But doesn’t that expose our faith to so much uncertainty, that it would be better to forget the human character of Jesus altogether and see him only as the human sign of God’s forgiveness of our sins, as some theologies have done?  I don’t think so. If we give up the human person Jesus we give up everything that distinguishes our faith from a mere myth of salvation.

We don’t need to make Jesus sinless; we can follow scripture and admit that underwent a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1). We can also see in the gospel record, instances of Jesus’harshness towards his own mother and his anger against his religious opponents, whom he threatened with hell. But if he was the son of God, how could he ever go wrong? We should remember that “son of God” is just a Jewish way of talking about relationship with God, and that neither the nation of Israel nor its kings who are called sons of God in the bible, were sinless.image

The reticence of the Christian tradition with regard to Jesus’possible imperfection is due to a ridiculous anxiety about salvation: how can we be absolutely certain of our faith unless it is guaranteed by an absolutely sinless saviour? To which I am happy to reply, “why do we need to be absolutely certain?” I may be odd, but a strong likelihood is good enough for me. I don’t need Jesus to be perfect; I am happy to revere him as the extraordinary man whose story is told in the bible, as a passionate, loving, wise, humourous, just and ferociously good person who points me to the One he called Father.

Let’s take an example from Mark chapter 7.

24 Next, Yeshua left that district and went off to the vicinity of Tzor and Tzidon. There he found a house to stay in and wanted to remain unrecognized, but keeping hidden proved impossible. 25 Instead, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit in her came to him and fell down at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, by birth a Syro-phoenician, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and toss it to their pet dogs.” 28 She answered him, “That is true, sir; but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s leftovers.” 29 Then he said to her, “For such an answer you may go on home; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 She went back home and found the child lying on the couch, the demon gone.

This is taken from the Complete Jewish Bible version.

This story has been the subject of weasely interpretations by commentators who are incapable of admitting that Jesus’ initial behaviour is appalling. They say that Jesus was just “testing the woman’s faith.” Would they say that if he’d been faced by a black woman and called her nigger? No, Jesus compares the foreign woman and her child to “dogs” which is an expression of racist abuse. Jesus expresses his view that God wants to feed Jewish people first and foremost, and that it would not be right to divert his provision to Gentiles. In this he was expressing the carefully nurtured belief of his people.

But look at what happens in this story! The needy person, the woman who is a foreigner, conquers the prejudice by adopting its terms as her own. Out of love for her child, she plays the part of the dog, and by her own wit, shows Jesus that she is a human person whose daughter is in need of help. She forgives the prejudice and thereby liberates Jesus to learn from her love and to answer her request. image

So what about Jesus’ perfection and sinlessness?

The perfection we see here is not that of a man who cannot go wrong, but rather the goodness of a man who when he has gone wrong, is always prepared to learn. He could doubtless have done himself no harm in the eyes of his prejudiced disciples if he’d maintained his racial arrogance, but he chose to acknowledge his fault and respond to the human need. For Jesus, God speaks through this resourceful woman.

That’ll do for me. Absolute perfection would not speak to me so meaningfully as Jesus’ human imperfection and readiness to learn. The gospels present Jesus as a person who was forever challenging prejudice within his own society, so when I judge him to have been prejudiced in this instance I am judging him by his own standard. But I am not placing him on the same level as myself, for when I am caught in my own prejudices I respond with anger and bluster. He on the other hand, learns his lesson and mends his fault. The artist Rembrandt is incomparable in his depiction of this story, where he puts the woman on her knees, miming a dog.

Jesus incarnates the goodness of God, of the One who is beyond all worlds. His historical example is always with me, but it does not become a religious law for me. If I trust in him, I do not become a Jesusite, but rather a child of God like him, with my own responsibilty for living in the goodness of the Father.

Genuine Islam sees Mohammed not as a perfect example of morality, but as the Prophet who transmits the truth of Allah. The criticism made by the cartoon is shrewd but it does not touch genuine Islam or Christianity.

 

 

Thich Nhat Hanh, known to his community in France as Thay, is an 88 year old Buddhist monk who has been an inspiration to me, since in the middle of the Vietnam war he went to the USA to make known the suffering of the Vietnamese people and to encourage peace. He met Martin Luther King and became his spiritual brother. In his later life he founded the Plum Village Community in France, where he has taught the truths of Buddhism from a Zen perspective. He is known throughout the world. Recently he suffered a severe stroke from which he is gradually recovering.image

For me, although his personal example of humility, courage and integrity  goes beyond all his other teaching, his exploration of what he calls “interbeing” has helped my understanding of the Christian doctrine of the “communion or partnership of the Holy Spirit.” (see my previous two blogs on this site)

Thay teaches that what we consider as our personal identity is “empty” – meaning that when we come try to determine its content – is it our body, our brain, our personality, our social position-  ?  we realise that it is none of these and cannot be all of them. What we are cannot be defined and is not fixed. We do not end at our finger tips: the molecules of our skin are contiguous and continuous with the molecules of the space in which we move or the molecules of the hand of the person we are greeting. Conventionally of course we see ourselves and other as discrete beings, and this convention is not harmful unless we take it too seriously, as  for example when we think we can damage others and our fellow creatures without damaging ourselves. For Thay, nothing that exists has self- identity: the world is empty – of substantial selves, empty and marvellous. He means that we are not fixed, static, separate entities, but rather changeable, mobile, communal entities in a world of relationships. If we try to hang on to our individual identity and see everything from the perspective of our individual interests, we perpetuating an illusion and causing suffering to ourselves and others. By means of disciplined meditation we need to waken up to the shared life which is available to us NOW, in this present moment, as we walk along the street or sit at our desk or care for our cattle. This dimension of awareness he calls “interbeing” because in it we realise the life we share with all the elements of the universe. He sees this awakening to life, this enlightenment, as the aim of the Buddha’s teaching – and of Jesus’ teaching too!

image
Enlighten mention the Buddha

It doesn’t sound much like Jesus, does it?  But perhaps if we call to mind Jesus’ teaching about the self:

the one who tries to save his self will lose it

unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit

deny self and take up your cross and follow me

not to mention his words on interbeing:

Abide in me and I will abide in you

– we may be able to see a point of contact.

I consider that there are real similarities between what Thay calls interbeing and what the Christian tradition calls the communion of the Holy Spirit. The Buddhist teaching works if you like, downwards, by denying the individual self to reach a world of relationships, whereas the Christian teaching works upwards, accepting the individual self but linking it to a world of relationships. The Buddhist teaching makes the individual self unreal; the Christian teaching insists that the communal identity, experienced in the assemblies of Jesus, is the true fulfilment of the individual. Both reject the conventional view of individual identity in ways that can seem alarming and painful. For the Buddhist interbeing is truth, for the Christian it is God’s Spirit; for the Buddhist it is the sangha: for the Christian, the church; for the Buddhist it involves an acceptance of personal death; for the Christian it is a rebellion against death and the hope of eternal life; the Christian teaching is more theological, the Buddhist more ecological. For both however, communion, interbeing, as opposed to the individual ego and all its desires, is a saving reality.

image
Baptism of Jesus

In the Plum Village this teaching and its accompanying disciplines are an every day matter. In many Christian churches the communion of the Holy Spirit has been relegated to special occasions or to the prayer meeting. A comparison with the assemblies of Jesus depicted in the Acts of the Apostles, in which the Spirit is a constant companion, shows what some contemporary churches have lost and what attracts people to Pentecostal fellowships. As I do not find Pentecostalism either honest or attractive I hope for a renewal of spiritual practice in my own church. The Buddhist teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh about interbeing suggests some ways forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today a fierce storm whips up waves in Oban bay, on which I look out from the window of my rented house, where I am on holiday with my family for a few days. Yesterday was cold, sunny and clear, but today I can hardly see beyond the near island of Kerrera; and I can hear a constant rattle of rigging from the yachts moored offshore.image

I love warm sunshine but prefer the climate of Scotland to those that have less variation. Our adult acceptance of rain is a recognition of our partnership in an ecosystem. We have evolved with a need for water which we share with many other creatures. The shapes of this landscape which give me such pleasure have been sculpted, eroded and smoothed by the movement of water over millions of years. Indeed when recently I saw a photo of a Martian mountain clearly fashioned by water descending under the force of gravity, I felt for the first time a sense of kinship with that planet. On the other hand, when climbing a mountain in Spain called Mulhacen in early autumn, I found the arid ground of its upper slopes, where only a kind of spiny grass can grow, utterly alien and slightly repellent.

Water is a signature of the kind of life we are, which is why we search for its presence on other planets. That’s one of the reasons why global warming is such a threat, desertifying whole countries. Pessimists like me do not envy our great grandchildren the water wars which will surely erupt in their lifetime. Only a disciplined recognition of our fundamental partnership in a planetary ecosystem will enable them to survive.

When Jesus wanted to illustrate the impartiality of God he spoke of him sending sunshine and rain on the just and unjust alike. Human beings may not honour the basic partnership of creatures, but the creator always does.

imageAnother ecological necessity we share with other creatures is death: the arrangement of molecules which permits life does not last forever. The fingers that type these words have been around for 74 years today, and have been useful, but already they are neither as agile nor as strong as once they were, and like the brain that articulates these thoughts, they have a term. If biological organisms are programmed to survive, while being made of perishable stuff, reproduction allows the mortal organism to project its life beyond its own death. Indeed, the organism may have done all that it is programmed to do when it has reproduced. Creatures die when they are no longer able to adapt to the changing environment of each new day. Species die when they can no longer adapt to a changing ecosystem, although altered or mutated versions of them may survive, as for example, a smaller sort of cod is proliferating because its human predators want big fish.

In the diversities of birth and death we can detect no invisible hand that nudges the system in any direction, no intelligent design that favours the continued existence of Homo sapiens. It’s as if the creator, if there is one, trusted the process begun by the Big Bang to do its own work. So where in this process are there signs of the divine spirit at work, and how can the communion of mortal creatures have any real meaning?

Alfred Tennyson faced excatly these issues as he mourned the death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam whom he honoured in his “In Memoriam”. He struggled not only with the mortality of his friend but also with the growing evidence of the ruthlessness of evolution. The struggle led to a creative breakthrough:

“If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep

I hear a voice,’Believe no more!’

and heard an ever-breaking shore

that tumbled in the godless deep-

A warmth about the heart would melt

the freezing reason’s colder part,

and like a man in wrath the heart

stood up and answered, “I have felt.”

Now this is not, as some of Tennyson’s critics have thought, an appeal to emotion over reason, but an insistence that reason should take account of human emotions and relationships. Tennyson loved his friend so much that he felt crippled by his death. He was not merely the selfish product of a selfish gene but a living person who had opened his life to another person. He takes his stand that this openness of one mortal life to another is the point from which an understanding of life must begin. When pushed to account for his own significance in the face of death he says, “I have felt.” Not I have achieved, or I have earned, or I have conquered, or I have had sex, or I have thought, or I have survived, but I have felt, I have opened myself to another life, I have communed. image

If we start from there maybe we can see even in the simplest forms of life some signs of this communion. As for example, when the amoeba divides, does it not open itself to another life? Or when single-celled organisms cooperate in the creation of multicellular animals, do they not open themselves to another life? And in the processes of sexual reproduction, in conception and parturition, do the partners not open themselves to another life? I say that they do, and that moreover this realm of the in-between, this annihilation of biological independence, this being-in- relationship is also a partnership in the divine spirit. I do not mean that the Spirit is some ethereal gloop added to the experience of communion, but rather that it is precisely this emptying of self and opening to another; it is communion experienced as a gift.

This picture of the divine spirit allows us to talk of God’s creative involvement in the process of evolution, opening up new partnerships while sharing the pain and mortality of living things, doing justice to biblical theology and scientific truth. Readers will rightly ask for more justification of this claim, and I will attempt in subsequent blogs to provide it.

 

 

 

This week I am on holiday with my family in Oban on the West coast of Scotland. I suppose over the years I have been on more holidays here than I can easily remember, as a result of which it is populated for me not only with indigenous Obanites but also with dear people who shared these holidays with me, some at a distance, some gone from this earth.image.jpeg

From my window I can look out over Oban bay towards the island of Mull, with its mountains, which are a little misty this morning but showing glimpses of their snowy summits lit by the sun. The sea is calm, light grey in colour; the Calmac ferry with its red funnel crosses my line of vision heading north and west to the islands. All is well. God lives here.

For me this is God’s own country because it’s my own country. I grew up in the west of Scotland, in Glasgow, from where as a child and a teenager I explored the west coast on bicycle and bus. For that reason I could tell I was in the west even if I was blindfolded, from the scent of the air and its softness on the skin. I am used to its mild, wet, climate. And its characteristic landscapes of water and mountain; its intimate glens and creeks, its acid soils with surprising patches of green and small wildflowers, are for me both familiar and heart-breaking. This is the earth I will leave reluctantly when I die.

All of this comes about because I have been moulded by this ecosystem and am therefore better adapted to it than to any other. If this has happened in my short lifetime, what is it like for the common gull that sits on the roof of the house across the road? Here is a creature which has evolved over millions of years to survive in this ecosystem, and has particularly adapted to the presence of human beings and their trash. What, I wonder, does the gull sense when it moves around this town? Does it feel pleasure in familiar sensations, does it have its own memories, its own God?  I shall never know because it cannot articulate its thoughts to me, but I know that I share much of its DNA, and some of the useful inventions of evolution, like eyes and gut and brain. I may imagine my brain is superior, but perhaps it pities the limited mobility which forces me to go through the whole pantomime of taking a boat to Mull, which it can reach in a few flicks of its wings.image.jpeg

Just as I cannot imagine that my own adaptation to the west of Scotland ecosystem is irrelevant to the purposes of the creator of ecosystems, no more can I imagine that the adaptation of the gull is irrelevant. Life is not a single project, however much human beings wish to imagine that all ecosystems are simply made for them. If,as Nikos Kazantsakis thought, ( see my last blog on this site)  the great cry of the creator pushes humanity to evolve beyond the constraints of biological life, we should not judge that all other forms of life are merely discardable stages on this quest. From the microbes that inhabit our gut, to the gull, which in one swoop now crosses the streets to the waterfront, we are partners in the one project of life on this planet, and may have other partners we have yet to meet from other planets. It is mere arrogance that allows human beings to define evolution by its supposed end point, namely ourselves. The spirit of creation, which has inspired evolution is not competition but communion. And we only know its life-giving energies when we see ourselves as part of a communion with all our fellow creatures, of all life, yes, even of the forms of life which are extinct: a partnership of all the living and all the dead.image

This conviction requires more precise definition and more ample illustration which it will receive in subsequent blogs.

 

 

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath-a great Cry-which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urglng me to do-You are demanding the impossible. But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shout- ing, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”

It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.

Animals appeared-worms-making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine here,” they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”

But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters ! “

We don’t want to! We can’t!”

“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”

And lo! after thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.

The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard. He is also fighting-this is his new struggle-to draw himself out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair, “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss.” And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!” evolution 1

I promised to write about the Holy Spirit, yet here I’ ve quoted from the work of Nikos Kazantsakis a passage which is in many respects not Christian at all. But it is a magnificent piece of writing nonetheless and has one great virtue: it links the divine spirit with evolution. The theory of evolution is always developing and cannot be regarded as simply the truth about life on Earth, but it is supported by millions of bits of evidence, from Darwin’s Galapagos finches to more recent data on the evolution of antibiotic-immune bacteria. Any doctrine of the divine spirit which ignores its relationship to evolution is simply failing to engage with reality.

Even in modern times theologians have ducked this issue, not only because there’s nothing in the bible about it, but even more because the process of evolution seems so accidental: this or that change took place in the environment favouring the development of this mutation and the extinction of all members of the species that lacked it, not to mention events in which millions of species were exterminated by catastrophe. It doesn’t sound like the orderly creation pictured in Genesis chapter 1. But then, the present and predicted course of global warming doesn’t sound much like Genesis 1 either. Any doctrine of the spirit which has no relation to evolution will also have no relation to our current ecological crisis.

Kazantsakis’ imagination is bold enough to take on the issue of evolution. Indeed he interprets evolutionary development as the process by which the divine spirit creates a true humanity, perhaps even a super- humanity. God’s spirit ruthlessly draws humanity further and further away from the primal soup. At first sight this seems to offer nothing to Christian thinking, as it accepts the cruelties of the process as justified by its purpose and exempts the ‘cry’ itself from bearing any of the pain of its creatures. But it has clear virtues:evolution-2

  1. It comes to terms with the processes of evolution and thereby makes links with the sciences and with the facts of life in the world. Yes, it gives a very anthropocentric theory of evolution, but at least it dares to deal with it.
  2. It recovers for the divine spirit something of the ruthlessness evident in the biblical picture which Christian theology has downplayed. The still small voice that speaks to Elijah does not as in the hymn bring calm but sends him off to arrange a series of assassinations.( 1 Kings 19)  The spirit that animates the prophets threatens wrath and disaster. The vast vision of the book of the Revelation depicts earthly and cosmic disaster. And gentle Jesus? He’s the one who tells his disciples that they have to hate their parents, that it’s better to maim themselves than be led into sin, and that many catastrophes will precede God’s Rule and only those who endure to the end will be saved. These are not texts that were ever memorised in Sunday School. Without doubt however there is real ruthlessness about the Jesus of the Gospels, which perhaps only the sterner forms of Calvinism have preserved. “Ah but Jeannie,” said Elizabeth to her sister who was denouncing her neighbour for whistling on the Sabbath, “Even the Lord himself broke the Sabbath rules.” “He did so,” replied Jeannie, “And I dinna think the better of him for it.”
  3. While I disagree with Kazantsakis about nature and goal of the Spirit’s persistence, I welcome the rigour he brings to the character of the Spirit, which has been travestied by ecstatic babbling with fake cures of fake illnesses on the one hand, and the moribund sweet calm of English evensong spirituality on the other. The Early Greek Theologians insisted that the Spirit is an “eschatological gift” using a Greek word meaning “the end”. The Spirit directs human beings towards what they are meant to become at the end of God’s creation. And if the Spirit commands it also enables this development, and of course it needs the consent of the person; but it is as impatient with excuses and contemptuous of evasion as Jesus was. Forgiveness is offered for the sake of the person we shall become not the person we have been. Nothing is more obvious in Luke’s account of the first assemblies of Jesus in the book of The Acts, than the savage decisiveness of a church led by the Spirit. Those who fail to move are left behind or in the case of Ananias and Saphira, wiped out. The Spirit is not to be trifled with. As they say in my home city of a hardman, ” He disnae miss.”evolution

I have left unanswered the question of the spirit’s true relationship to evolution. I will return to this after I have looked at the biblical language about the communion or partnership of the Spirit in my next blog on this site.