The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber famously distinguished two fundamental types of relationship in human experience, which he entitled “I – Thou” and “I – It”. In the former a person encountered another person and saluted him/her as the “other” , as a being transcending one’s own being. In the latter, the human person recognised some-thing which could be admired or studied or bought or sold, that is, as a being outside oneself but subject to one’s understanding or will.

Obviously human beings could deal with their fellow human being as both Thou and It, although Buber insisted that all profound relationships involved saying ‘Thou’ to the other, whether human, animal, vegetable, mineral or divine. Authentic religion in his view should never treat God as an “it” to be manipulated for one’s benefit, but always as the THOU encountered in and through every “I – Thou” relationship.  Blaise Pascal in the account of his conversion exclaims, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not that of the philosophers and scholars!”

The Theology of Karl Barth is founded on a distinction between the transcendent, personal God revealed in Christ, and the human, all too human constructs of natural theology and philosophy.

All the above have led me throughout my life to imagine a personal God (“God may not be a person, but he/she is personal.”), and to consider impersonal images of God as inferior and wrong. More lately I’ve begun to reconsider this using the first chapter of the book of Genesis as a sounding board.

Human beings are there said to have been created in the image and likeness of God, which is of course a justification for thinking of God as personal. But, as advocates for animal rights have asked, “Is there anything in animals which corresponds to the creator? Or anything in God which corresponds to say, the tiger?” To answer that question affirmitively is to depart not only from Genesis but also from the classical interpretation of the Bible as a whole.

Certainly to go further by asking if there is anything in the physical universe which corresponds to the creator, anything in God which corresponds to a black hole, is to open oneself to the charge of being zany.

Yet what about this?

Tyger, tyger brning bright / in the forests of the night

what immortal hand or eye/ dare frame thy fearful symmetry? ( Blake)

or this?

my will and my desire were turned by love

the love that moves the sun and the other stars (Dante)

For Blake the tiger is made in the divine image and likeness; for Dante the physical universe can co- respond to the love of God.

Surely these poetic examples remind us of occasions when we have seen the image of God in an animal, or understood that the heavens are telling tue glory of God. This last phrase from Psalm 19 reminds us that the Bible also says that animals and the physical universe speak of God. Well, yes, of course orthodox scholars will reply but they only do so as creatures or created things, not as bearers of God’s image. I invite the reader to enjoy reading chapters 39 and 40 of the book of Job, and to deny that its author has learned something about God from the goat, the ostrich and the hippopotamus, and that he is consciously questioning the notion that only human beings carry God’s image and can therefore understand his purposes. Perhaps many will accept animals as honorary humans, for after all we often do relate to them as Thou and not it.

So then we are left with the question, “Is the universe, its processes and history stamped with the creator’s image or not?” To answer this question I want to return to orthodoxy which insists that any discussion of the image of God must start with Jesus Christ, in whom it is perfectly seen. Barth would say the discussion stops there as well: nothing can be added to Christ, but orthodoxy would say that in the light of Christ, the universe becomes intelligible.

The story of the  virgin birth of Jesus is a way of saying that he is at once the child of God and the product of the universe.

He is the child of God through the love and faith of his family and people in which he is nourished, and through his own faith in which he offers himself to God. Another way of  saying that is to define the actor in all these events as the Holy Spirit, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

He is a product of the universe in respect of his mind and body, which are wholly human. He does not have a son of God implant. His body is a product of the basic processes of the universe such as gravity. It obeys the physical laws of energy and the chemical laws of atomic and molecular interaction. It has developed from the first forms of life on earth, especially the developments of the eukaryotic cell, of multicellular animals, animals with backbones, life on land, the death of dinosaurs and the success of mammals, the emergence of apes and the naked ape called homo sapiens, all these provide the human dna of Jesus which is determined by the mating of Mary and Joseph…..

! But you said it was a virgin birth…??

The virgin birth is a truth of faith and not a bioogical fact. The ancients seem not have known about the ovum, so imagined the female tending the seed of the male. In the case of Jesus this doctrine says that Jesus’ identity as child of God is more important than his human seed: The Holy Spirit takes the place of the male. It’s a clumsy way of explaining the uniqueness of Jesus as a child of God. John’s Gospel rejects it and substitutes the phrase, “The logos became flesh and dwelt among us”, which is simpler but just as mysterious.

Nothing in the story of Jesus denies that he is a product of what we would call evolution, as well as of God’s spirit. St. Paul calls him the second Adam. That’s a momentous fact because it gives biblical writers permission to imagine Jesus as the purpose of creation, and ultimately as a participant with His Father in creation, like Lady Wisdom in Proverbs chapter 8. “All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.” This links together the material process of the universe and the divine process of overcoming human evil and perfecting creation.

Jesus God’s child is also the natural process the Bible calls flesh which is shared with all living things. This dimension of Jesus is not a person to whom we can say, Thou, but the set of natural functions we know as human body-and-mind, an IT in Buber’s terms, which is nevertheless God. In this crucial instance, that of the Son of God, the express image of God’s being, a process of evolution becomes an image of God. Something impersonal composed of the same energy, matter and processes as the remotest galaxies, has become an image of God.

Is there a theological case for claiming the whole cosmic evolution as a divine image?

More in next blog

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My daughter drew my attention to some remarks, published in the Guardian, by Elena Ferrante about Christianity and the Gospels, which seemed to me unusual and full of insight:FBCF6EF2-043C-4074-A683-09BFE660094F

“It happened when I was around 16. I read the gospels one after another, and the entire life of Jesus seemed terrible to me. The resurrection itself I found terrifying: not a comforting conclusion. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to recount that adolescent experience of reading in detail. Here I will say only that the story of the gospels seemed to demonstrate at every step that human nature, beyond some arrogant declarations of its centrality, was depraved, devoted to either crucifying its own kind and all other living beings, or getting crucified.”

I do not have this experience of the Gospels, but I can imagine the impact they might have on a teenage girl full of hopes for her life, and perhaps guided in her interpretation of them by a Catholic penitential perspective. There’s nothing in them about ordinary living and work, about growing up, exploring relationships, sexuality and talent; nothing about music, literature and art; nothing about travel, nature, culture and the planet. But they do present human beings as tested by the presence of God, by exposure to the perspective of the eternal foreigner. Ferrante’s comment that human nature is presented as depraved, “devoted either to crucifying… or getting crucified….” is a shrewd recognition that the gospels tell the story of Jesus as an ultimate conflict between God and the powers of evil, in which “ordinary living” is given very little room to breathe. They offer only the choice between the crucifiers and the crucified, and yes, the resurrection is terrifying precisely because even after the crucifixion, the disciples are not allowed to accept the defeat of Jesus, and return to ordinary life: he’s back, alive, and resumes the conflict with evil, through them.

There are no shades of grey in the Gospels, no subtleties of character such as would interest a young woman gifted in the depiction of character. Here there are only needy people who know their need, powerful people who know their power,  and Jesus with his band of disciples committed to meeting the need and facing down the powerful. Human life is a battlefield on which the powers of evil have all the big battalions, while the forces of goodness must rely on rescue coming from a God who will not however, rescue his own dear son. Ferrante’s right, it’s not an attractive picture.

But none of the Gospel writers speak in the tones of extremism or hysteria: their tone is always sober and matter of fact; this is the way things are. They are not popular reading with people whose lives are relatively free from suffering and oppression, but make immediate sense to the millions whose lives have always been under the cosh of their own weakness or the wickedness of others. Relatively comfortable believers like me, who appreciate the benefits of reason, law, democracy, not to mention music, wine, laughter and the quiet of mountains, think that the availability of all good things still depends on taking sides in the battle against wealth, arrogance, greed, selfishness, self- righteousness and intolerance in oneself and others. Read from that perspective, the Gospels are a story in which I always find myself, usually in the character of a cowardly disciple.

E0D3DEA3-5939-4457-B603-B35FF431B1D5All of this is not a dismissal of Ferrante’s reaction. Christianity does have an issue with the starkness of its fundamental narrative. It is the issue wonderfully depicted by Dostoevsky in the episode of the Grand Inquisitor, who succeeds in convincing Jesus that an institutional church with manangeable rules, rituals and rewards meets human need much better than the wild gospel proclaimed in Galilee. You don’t need to agree with the Inquisitor to wonder how some of Jesus’ terrible words can make sense to say, the young, able, single mother with two children, whom I met at a church family event last week. Yes, she knows a bit about betrayal, but above all she wants to put that behind her as she learns the arts of survival, for herself and her children, in the world as it is. And yet there she is, drawn to make contact with the body that acts in the name of Jesus.

Perhaps the answer to my question is to be found in Ferrante’s other criticism of the Gospels, that they see the welfare of human beings as all – important, to the neglect of other living creatures and the planet itself. That’s true, and it shows why the church has always said that the Gospels are only part of its scripture, which includes the whole of the Jewish bible, with other prophetic voices like that of Jesus, but also with voices which announce the wisdom of God’s creation, as Jesus did too. He praised the wisdom of the creator in making the sun rise on the just and the unjust. He placed his own mission within the will of the creator to perfect his creation. In the church’s theology the rescue of humanity is placed within the story of the creation of the universe, the Son comes to do the will of the Father.

There is room here for some hard work by the church, to formulate a doctrine of creation, in terms that use the best science available, placing human life in an ecological and universal context. Indeed, that is exactly what the author of Genesis did in his/her time, with a radical story of a God who has to learn enough humility to work with human -all -too – human beings in the rough and tumble of their chequered lives, rather than imagining he can solve the problem with a flood. The great stories of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Joseph and his brothers are full of the nitty gritty of human families, living along with their flocks and crops, while struggling with their creator. 7F22F303-69F4-4212-80D3-DE171FE04DDE

This presentation of Christian faith might help Elena Ferrante and many others, to put the Gospel story in a wider context which does justice to all life and not only to God’s splendid, disobedient and often destructive human children.

 

A story from Twitter

Dylan was a USA soldier in Iraq. During his tour there he befriended a young Iraqi Brahim, who became an interpreter with Dylan’s patrol, saving their lives many times because of his understanding of the local situation and people. When Dylan finished his tour he said goodbye to his young friend, in the expectation that like most intepreters he would be killed.

Five years later Dylan was flying into Arizona suddenly because his beother had been murdered there. He got off the plane and took a taxi, whose driver told him that he was from Kirkuk, Iraq, where Dylan had been stationed. When the driver then became silent and tense, Dylan imagined that maybe he was related to someone he’d killed; and when the taxi went off route and pulled over, his hand was on the door handle, ready to jump. 

Instead the driver leant over and said, “ Don’t you recognise me Dylan, it’s Brahim!”

Dylan could only reply, “What the fuck are you doing in Arizona, buddy?”

Brahim explained that he’d completed his contracted 4 years as an interpreter, still alive, and taken advantage of a USA offer to be settled in the States. When he was asked what part of the States, he said any part where the weather was like Iraq. So they gave him Arizona.

Dylan dragged Brahim out of the car and the two men hugged and cried in the rain.

”I came there for the loss of a brother,” Dylan says, “and I found one.”

A story from the Bible

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[f] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.[g] 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19 He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[h] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[i] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25 Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[j]should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us[k] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. ( Luke   Chapter 24)

When I heard the first story on the radio, I immediately thought of the second, which also features a stranger who reveals himself as a brother. The Emmaus story will be well-known to readers of this blog, as it is to me. The first story illuminates the second for me, in profound ways that would be trivialised if I were to describe them. I can only invite readers to read them together, and to let their own imaginations make the connections.

 

I’ve just been listening to a very moving programme on BBC Radio 4, in which a man who had blamelessly killed another man in a car accident, recounted his own trauma and his journey towards some degree of healing. I hadn’t fully considered the terrible shock, grief and shame that a decent person would feel in such a case. The programme’s revelatory moment for me came when an American woman who had killed a young boy when he ran out into the path of her car, said that she had always been reluctant to accept that no meaning could be given to such an event; that “accident” means something that nobody willed or caused. She said that most of the time we cannot bear this knowledge, pretending that we and other human or divine beings are in control. The idea that ultimately nobody is in control is too frightening to contemplate.

Much of our contemporary culture is based on the illusion of control: life ought to be predictable. But science, surely, discovers the regularities of the universe, and successfully predicts events in it? Of course that’s true, but regularities are not controlled; like accidents they happen. And scientists now tell us that their capacity to predict is always partial, and that the more accurate their prediction of some aspect of a event, the more other aspects escape their grasp.

The desirability of control is part of the ethics of capitalism. Business people want stable markets, taxes, technologies and labour so that they can plan for steady profits, but in truth such conditions are rarely available in full and sometimes not available at all. The stock markets reflect this distressing freedom in the rise and fall of share prices. Because good capitalists recognise how little they can control the world, they are all the more insistent on rigid forms of control within their corporations.

Small wonder then that in this culture the prevailing image of God, if there is one, is as a fat controller of the universe, whose purposes may not be understood by human beings, but who controls the universal process as surely as the Chinese Communist Party controls its nation. Even when someting awful occurrs, people take comfort to themselves in imagining that the fat controller had a hand in it. “God needed another angel so he took our wee Jimmy.” If that sounds a pretty arbitrary act of God, we should realise that it is put forward to reject the more appalling possibility, that wee Jimmy’s death was an accident, having no meaning in a universe where nobody and nothing is in control.

I believe in a God who has abdicated control of creation. That’s an odd expression suggesting that this God did control the universe once upon a time and subesequently renounced control. That’s not my meaning. I believe that renunciation of control defines the nature of God. God is the opposite of control, namely persuasion. Having given total freedom to the creation right down to its fundamental particles, God wants to persuade it towards perfection. So when I say that the universe is out of control, I mean that God has given it the freedom to evolve according to its own laws. The result is the process of universal evolution which we partially know and of which we are a product. I can imagine how God’s persuasion works on humanity but am utterly ignorant of how it works on the rest of creation. Dante wrote of the “love that moves the sun and the other stars,” and I am happy in my ignorance to adopt that expression.

The story of the crucifixion of God’s Son is the perfect image of a universe out of control yet subject to the profound persuasion of God’s love.

So, the “ incidence of accident” does not destroy but rather constitutes my faith that the fat controller of the universe is a myth, and God, on the other hand, is real.

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I have always recognised that all the Resurrection stories in the Bible are not presenting a blow by blow account of historical events. I do not think an angel rolled the stone away or that Jesus’ corpse was magicked from his tomb. The bones of Jesus are in Palestine. Whatever skills are used to persuade me that these stories are evidence of a physical or metaphysical miracle, I remain stubbornly unconvinced, and not only out of respect for historical probability. I also think that if God had to suspend the usual laws of the universe in order to raise Jesus, then the game’s a bogey, as we say in Scots. If salvation only comes through a suspension of historical reality, then either salvation or historical reality is irrelevant. Why should I labour for personal holiness or divine justice, if in the end of the day God will sort it all out by miracle? And why would God bother putting his son into the restraints and pains of worldly life, if he is prepared to intervene by force majeure to reverse the outcome of worldly events?

So do I think that the resurrection stories are a lie? That’s a serious question, for if, from whatever motive, they are saying “the thing that is not” then we can rightly accuse their authors of perverting the faith of millions, and of dishonouring the historical Jesus. The usual defense of the stories, that they were written and treasured by people who were prepared to die for them, is not convincing, once we have seen the readiness of Daesh warriors to die (and kill) for a story about virgins in the sky.

I do not think the stories are lies, nor do I think that, as many liberal Christians do, that they are symbolic narratives, which represent the continuing influence of Jesus on the lives of his disciples. We have to ask such believers if they are talking about the influence of a dead Jesus, and if they answer “yes” we have to commend their honesty, while wondering why they don’t say more simply, that the stories are lies.

I think the stories are, like much of the Bible, narrative doctrine. Of course that means they are theology also, but I use the word doctrine, because I think they insist on specific truths about what happened to Jesus:

1. Jesus was really dead and now he is really alive. He has not been absorbed into divinity or the Holy Spirit, but is distinctively Jesus.

2. He is not disembodied. God has given him a new body, which, as St. Paul insists, is not subject to decay, nor is it exclusive, as human bodies seem to be: it includes all who want to continue his ministry. ( Paul’s “body of messiah”) He shares, that is, in the divine love which includes all who respond to it.

3. His suffering and death are not left behind, as if they were now irrelevant, but are incorporated (as visible wounds) into his new life.

4. He reveals nothing about a supernatural world, but rather new facts about this world: that earthly powers are only apparently in charge, whereas God’s rule, exercised in his ministry continued through his disciples, is in fact victorious. As the book of the Revelation puts it; the Lamb is on the throne.

5. In his resurrection as in his ministry Jesus shows the “intelligence of the victim” the tough love of one who has suffered, yet forgives all sinners for the sake of what they will become.

6. All this is possible through the goodness of the One Jesus calls his Abba, his dear father, whose persuasive love is active in the world, for those who trust in it.

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None of this compels faith or disrupts the laws of nature, although is may be relevant to the believer’s understanding of them. Those who trust the import of the stories will have no visible proof of their truth, because they are “evidence of things unseen.” They are left to live and act according to their trust, but God is not “ashamed to be called their God since he/she has prepared a city for them.”

If we do not articulate some such interpretation of the resurrection stories we leave people with magic ….. or lies.