Freedom, gender and transcendence

Of all the contributors to The Work of Love (see previous posts here and here), Anglican theologian Sarah Coakely is the most critical of the revisionist, “kenotic” picture of God. (Interestingly, she’s also the only woman contributor.) In particular, Coakely insists that “classical” theists have intelligent responses to many of the concerns motivating the other contributors. She cites, for example, Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe’s contributions in his book God Matters (a book I haven’t read, but intend to).

Her essay is subtle and nuanced, but I want to focus on her discussion of “libertarian” freedom as the lynchpin of many of the other contributors’ arguments. As she writes, “To most of the writers in this volume it is taken as an axiomatic good that humans should enjoy a type of freedom that places limitations on God’s power and foreknowledge” (pp. 204-5). She notes that this freedom is defined in an “incompatibilist” sense—that for humans to be genuinely free God has to “restrain his influence.”

Coakely suggests, however, that this picture of freedom is “gendered” in the sense that it portrays freedom as “an act of total independence from restriction, conditioning, or the admission of dependence,” a view that some feminist thinkers have characterized as “an intrinsically ‘male’ fantasy.”

An alternative, “compatibilist” view of freedom would evoke a “picture . . . in which I am most truly ‘free’ when I am aligned with God’s providential and determining will for me.” On a more classical view of providence, Coakely maintains, God can be understood—perhaps more maternally–as empowering rather than overpowering. Citing Julian of Norwich, she highlights “a notion of divine desire that finds its completion in human responsiveness rather than setting itself in competition with it” (p. 206). On a nuanced classical view, divine causality need not be thought of as competing with creaturely causality, but as making it possible.

Whether one agrees with Coakely on the “masculinist” nature of incompatibilist, or libertarian, freedom, I think she’s right to point to the pivotal role it plays in some of these “kenotic” accounts of God’s relation to the world. And I think she raises an important concern about some of the proposals developed by Ward, Polkinghorne, Fiddes and others. The concern is that when human and divine power are seen as locked in a kind of zero-sum game—such that for me to be free God has to “step back” or self-restrain—we risk putting God and creatures on the same “ontological plane” so to speak.

In the classical tradition—stemming from the “three As” (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas)—God is not a being among beings, but the source of all that exists. As such, God’s relation to creation is “radically other” than the relationships among created beings. Thus it can be argued that God’s omnipresent activity does not compete with the powers of creative beings, but rather sustains them in their very freedom. (Such a “noncompetitive” view of divine power has been articulated in modern times by Kathryn Tanner, Rowan Williams and William Placher, among others.)

I’m not sure where I ultimately come down on this. As I said in my previous post, the impassible God of classical theism can sometimes seem remote from the passionate, involved God of the Bible. But the Bible also affirms that God transcends any image we can make or comparison with created things. The classical tradition rightly upholds this sense of divine transcendence. However, it’s also true that the classical picture of God has sometimes been rendered in an omni-causal deterministic way that really does threaten to suffocate human agency and any sense of reciprocity with the divine. Maybe reading McCabe will help me sort this out.:)

Kenosis and pleroma

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been reading the volume The Work of Love—a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne that explore the idea of divine “kenosis” or self-limitation.

Keith Ward, in his essay “Cosmos and Kenosis,” provides what I think is a helpful nuance to the concept of kenosis. He notes that the Lutheran theologians who pioneered a “kenotic” Christology understood it in terms of the divine Word divesting itself of its divine properties in the Incarnation. Appeal in this case was often made to Paul’s “hymn” in Philippians 2. However, Ward says, it’s just as natural, if not moreso, to interpret kenosis here in a moral rather than a metaphysical sense. Moreover, we can see kenosis as characterizing not just the incarnation or the life of Christ, but how God creates and interacts with the entire world.

In particular, Ward argues that kenosis is not just a self-limitation on God’s part, but a means of actualizing certain potentialities in the divine being that would otherwise remain un-realized. How so? First, by creating finite creatures, God is able to attain “affective knowledge” of their joys and sufferings. This goes beyond simple propositional knowledge that a creature is, for instance, suffering; it encompasses an empathetic experience on God’s part. This is a limitation for God—God gives up the perfect, undisturbed bliss God enjoyed in eternity. But it also adds something genuinely new to God’s knowledge and experience. Similarly, by creating a world with its own relative autonomy and creativity, God permits new forms of value to come into existence, which God delights in, even though this limits God’s power and knowledge.

Thus, on Ward’s account, kenosis—God’s self-limitation in giving up perfect bliss, as well as total omniscience and omnipotence—is not sheer self-abnegation. Rather it is for the sake of genuinely new values and experiences that would have been unavailable to God otherwise (scandalous as that may sound). In Ward’s terms, kenosis (self-emptying) leads to “pleroma,” or greater fulfillment:

God limits the divine properties in order that a cosmos of free finite agents should exist. But God thereby realizes new aspects of the divine nature as God enters into real relationship with creatures. God not only suffers new things. God also enjoys and delights in new things. And in the end all those good things are to be conserved in God, and perhaps shared with creatures, for ever. There is an addition to the divine being as well as a limitation of it, and the two are essentially bound together. So if we can speak of a kenosis in God, a renunciation of his absolute and unmixed perfection, we must also speak of a pleroma, or fulfillment, in God, by which new forms of perfection are added by creatures to the divine being. (p. 160)

This is obviously at odds with the classical view of God, in which God cannot be changed or affected by what creatures do, and nothing can be added to or taken away from the divine bliss. It could be argued, however, that what Ward calls this “more relational and participative view of God” is supported by certain passages in the Bible which portray God in more relational and passionate terms.

In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if God’s love should necessarily be portrayed strictly in terms of disinterested agape without a trace of eros. Does God not long to be united with God’s creatures? Does the existence of creation really add nothing to God’s happiness? As Ward says, it would be presumptions to claim certainty about what is essential to the divine nature, but on the face of it this movement of divine kenosis and pleroma seems to resonate with large parts of the biblical portrait of God.

It can be—and has been–argued that God’s love can only be truly self-giving if creation is utterly gratuitous and God gains nothing by the existence of creatures. However, this isn’t how we usually think about love between humans. If I claim to love you but remain totally unaffected by you and get nothing out of our relationship, you might reasonably infer that my love was less than genuine. Of course, God’s love should not be thought of as exactly like human love. But if our language is to point–however metaphorically or analogously–to God, we may well wonder if God can be said to truly love creation without being affected by it in some way.

Was St. Paul a Christian?

Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not a Christian (thanks to Matt Frost for the recommendation) makes a nice companion volume to Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew. Like Levine, Eisenbaum is a practicing Jew who studies Christian origins and thus brings an important and distinctive perspective to bear on the subject. In some ways, Eisenbaum has the harder task: While nearly everyone at least pays lip service to Jesus’s Jewishness, Paul is widely regarded, even by Jews, as “the first Christian”–someone who broke decisively from his ancestral faith to effectively lay the foundation for Christianity as we know it.

Eisenbaum sets out to show, however, that throughout his life Paul remained firmly planted in the soil of Judaism. She does this through a two-pronged approach: first, by providing background on Second-Temple and Hellenistic Judaism to show that Paul’s ideas are not as far outside the Jewish mainstream as they’ve been made out to be; second, by looking closely at key passages in Paul’s letters,* with the controlling assumption that their intended audience is almost exclusively Gentiles. Paul was first and foremost, Eisenbaum argues, an apostle to the Gentiles–someone who believed the long-foretold time had come when the God of Israel would gather all the nations of the earth into the Abrahamic family.

The argument of Eisenbaum’s book owes a lot to the so-called new perspective on Paul, associated with E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright and others. But she goes beyond the new perspective toward what she calls a radical “new paradigm.” In Eisenbaum’s account, there is not a “problem of the law” that needs to be solved by Jesus, at least not for Jews. Even new perspective authors, while toning down the anti-Judaism of traditional Christian interpretations of Paul, still see Jewish “works-righteousness” as something Paul is fighting. On this account, excessive Jewish pride in belonging to the covenant and having the Torah led to xenophobia toward Gentile Christians; Paul’s emphasis on justification by grace is thus his means of breaking down the barriers between these two groups. For the new perspective version of Paul, Both Jews and Gentiles stand on the same ground, namely the grace of Christ.

Eisenbaum argues, however, that Paul’s concern about “works of the law” is directed exclusively at Gentiles. The problem isn’t Jewish smugness; it’s how Gentiles can be brought into God’s family now that the end times are at hand. For Jews, Eisenbaum argues, Paul regarded covenant-belonging and keeping Torah as sufficient to remain in good standing with God. Jews belong to the covenant by grace, and there are provisions in the Torah for making atonement for their sins. But Gentiles, who have been outside the covenant, need something else.

Because Gentiles have not had the advantage of Torah, they have heaped up a massive debt of guilt due to their sins, idolatry chief among them. The death of Jesus is thus the means by which God cancels this debt and makes it possible for Gentiles to turn from idolatry and become progeny of Abraham. What this looks like for Gentiles is not Torah observance, per se, but imitation of Christ’s own faithfulness. Thus, Eisenbaum maintains, for Paul, Jesus is a solution to a specifically Gentile problem. The seemingly negative things Paul says about the law are aimed at Gentiles who (mistakenly) think they have to become Torah-observant. This doesn’t mean that Paul’s gospel has no implications for Jews, though: They are called to recognize that the end of time is at hand and God is acting through Paul’s preaching to reconcile all the nations to the one true God.

I learned a lot from Eisenbaum’s book and find much of it persuasive. It’s certainly a bold step beyond the “new perspective.” However, I couldn’t help but wish she’d addressed some nagging loose ends. For example, she says very little about Paul’s own religious practice. Did he remain a Torah-observant Jew? What about the position of Jewish Jesus-followers more generally?

More broadly, I’m not sure Eisenbaum fully accounted for just how important Jesus was to Paul. What I have in mind here is what’s sometimes referred to as Paul’s “Christ-mysticism,” or his sense of being “in Christ.” There’s also his notion that Christ is the new Adam–the source and paradigm of a renewed humanity. These elements of Paul’s thought suggest, to me at least, that Jesus is not only (mainly?) the mechanism by which God brings in the Gentiles.

That said, Eisenbaum’s argument (which I obviously can’t do full justice to in a blog post) definitely seems to move the ball forward. She has provided a credible anti-supersessionist reading of Paul, which, she notes, has implications for contemporary discussions of religious pluralism. Whether or not she has done justice to the centrality of Christ in Paul’s religious thought, I’m less sure of. But I highly recommend the book.

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*Eisenbaum generally limits her discussion to the seven letters whose Pauline authorship is undisputed by scholars: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Does God need us?

I’ve been reading a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne called The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis. It includes some pretty heavy hitters: Polkinghorne himself, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Paul Fiddes, and Sarah Coakley among others. The general theme is the “self-emptying” or self-limitation of God in relation to the created world. The collection arose out of discussions of the work of Moltmann and Anglican clergyman and theologian W.H. Vanstone (who, sadly, passed away between the conference and the publication of the essays).*

One of the essays I’ve found most stimulating is by British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, who argues that there are far-reaching implications to the idea that God creates “out of love.” If we take the analogy of divine and human love with full seriousness, Fiddes says, we should reject the traditional view that God doesn’t need the world.

Fiddes considers three characteristics of love that lead to this conclusion. Love as we know it is receptive: it doesn’t “refus[e] to receive anything” from the beloved. Indeed, such a “love” might be deemed unfeeling, or even pathological. Analogously, we can suppose that God delights in the gifts and praise offered by God’s creatures. Similarly, love suffers, both in solidarity with the suffering of the beloved and when it is rejected. Thus, Fiddes sides with many contemporary theologians in rejecting a strict impassibility in God. Finally, love is creative, seeking to realize new possibilities for goodness. God’s creativity is not actualized “all at once,” but over the course of history as new possibilities are actualized, the outcome of which even God does not know. Understood this way, genuine love implies a relational give-and-take between God and creation, in contrast to the deity of classical theism who is unaffected by the world.

To say that God is not self-sufficient doesn’t mean that God is not self-existent, however. God is ontologically independent of creation, but God freely chooses to be in relation to creation, which means that God can change, at least in some respects. Following Karl Barth, Fiddes suggests that God’s will is prior to God’s nature. That is to say “we might regard creation as being part of God’s self-definition, an integral factor in God’s own self-determination, since God chooses to be completed through a created universe . . . God needs the world because God freely chooses to be in need.” To use biblical language, we might say that God makes a covenant with creation, which makes the success of God’s purposes partly dependent on creaturely response.

In the final part of his essay, Fiddes considers how the God who enters into a genuine relationship of love with creation can be said to act in the world. He suggests that the manner of God’s action “cannot be coercive or manipulative but only persuasive, seeking to create response.” Creatures are “caught up” in the patterns that characterize the movements of the divine life and can come to cooperate with God in realizing states of greater goodness. This is similar to the view of process theology, though Fiddes prefers to see the conceptual categories of process thought as one set of metaphors among others for pointing to the call and response between God and creation.

But if God’s action is persuasive and attractive rather than unilaterally determinative, this implies a certain risk. God takes the risk that the divine purposes may be hindered by creatures’ failure to respond to the divine lure. This doesn’t mean that God’s purposes can totally fail, though: In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that God’s love works in and through suffering to reconcile all things.

Like many of the other contributors to this collection, Fiddes rejects aspects of the classical view of God, particularly the metaphysical attributes of timelessness and impassibility. But he also manages to avoid some of the pitfalls of, e.g., process theology by affirming God’s freedom and metaphysical ultimacy. He does this in part by making the analogy of love, rather than a particular metaphysical scheme, the central motif of his doctrine of God. I don’t know if I’m fully persuaded, but I was intrigued enough to order a copy of his book on the Trinity.

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*Vanstone’s best known work is Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, also published under the title The Risk of Love.

Trump’s politics of fear vs. the pope’s politics of solidarity

There’s something fitting about Donald Trump’s feud with Pope Francis. The public personas of the two men could hardly be more different. Francis exudes openness, compassion and humility, while The Donald is all vulgarity, braggadocio and sneering contempt. But even more, Trump’s brand of politics represents much of what Francis has spent his pontificate opposing.

Trump’s appeal is based largely around fear: fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of Muslim immigrants, etc. And his proposed solutions are just as blunt and indiscriminate: build a wall, “bomb the shit out of them.”

Francis, by contrast, has spent much of his tenure outlining and exemplifying a politics of hope and solidarity. Solidarity with immigrants, with the poor and with the natural world. In Francis’s view, our well-being is inseparable from the well-being of our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman. This is the context in which to understand the pope’s comment that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Jesus crossed boundaries between people and broke down walls, so Francis is in good company here.

This isn’t to say that Christians can’t disagree in good faith about politics–including immigration policy. But when politics is rooted in fear and demonizing others, it should forfeit its claim to Christian support. All politicians traffic in fear to some extent of course, but Trump has elevated it to the animating principle of his campaign. His candidacy has been almost entirely bereft of any appeal to the better angels of our nature, something the Republican Party used to know a little about.

Yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God

Since this topic is back in the news with the suspension of Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins, I’ll go ahead and re-link this post of mine from a few years ago.

Theologian Miroslav Volf argues here that this is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology. His book Allah: A Christian Response is well worth reading.

Prayer and action

God always and already does everything for all of God’s creatures (including us) that it is possible and appropriate for God to do. However, here we have to pay the price of saying that God is not one finite agent among and alongside others. Finite agents (such as you and I) can do things that God cannot do. We can make a peanut butter sandwich. Can God? We can take the peanut butter sandwich across the street and give it to a hungry person. God cannot. Here’s the principle: If it’s the sort of thing that you and I can do, then we’re responsible for doing it. (Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, p. 130)

“We do not know how to pray as we ought,” said Paul, which is why “the Spirit aids us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26). Asking God to do things that we are readily capable of doing is a good example of “not knowing how to pray as we ought.” God is always doing for us everything that it is possible for God to do for us, such as love us. Praying for God’s love, then, makes perfect sense, as long as we understand that asking for it is a condition of our receiving it, not of God’s offering it. Love is a strange kind of gift–it has to be wanted to be received.

Another way to not know how to pray is to fail to see the connection between praying and doing justice. A life of prayer divorced from a life committed to working for justice for the neighbor, a life spent in doing what the rabbis called “deeds of loving-kindness,” is inauthentic. One major purpose of prayer is to make us more open to God’s intent to convey blessing and well-being to God’s creatures. A life of prayer requires accompaniment by a life of usefulness to the neighbor. A life of usefulness to the neighbor is a life or prayer, some moments of which we spend on our knees. (ibid., pp. 293-4)

These quotes provide what I think is a helpful way of looking at the relation between prayer and action–something that has come under scrutiny in the wake of the latest horrific mass shooting. Prayer isn’t magic and God doesn’t do for us things that we are responsible for doing ourselves (like establishing a just society). Politicians who call for prayer but not action are not “praying as they ought.”

But at the same time, prayer is, as many seekers of justice attest, a powerful fount of committed activism. In Williamson’s terms, prayer is a channel through which God’s love and will for creaturely well-being flows into the world. True prayer leads not to resignation in the face of preventable evil, but to a life of service to the neighbor, which includes establishing justice in society.

Between inclusivism and pluralism

In a recent Christian Century article, theologian Charles Hefling provides an argument for the salvation of non-Christians that seems to sit somewhere between “inclusivism” and “pluralsim”–at least as those terms are often defined.

Inclusivism, though it admits of many variations, typically means that people are, or can be, saved by Christ without formally being Christians, even without ever hearing the Christian message. Meanwhile, pluralism is usually taken to mean that all religions (or all “major” religions) can act as vehicles for salvation in the broadest sense. Christian inclusivism, though a softer position than exclusivism, still locates salvation in Christianity; pluralism, by contrast, puts all faiths on roughly equal footing.

Hefling’s account leans heavily on the role of the Holy Spirit as the person of the Trinity who directly moves people from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. He says that this can–and manifestly does–take place in people who have no knowledge of, much less explicit faith in, the incarnate Word.

Ordinarily, you can’t love someone you know nothing about. But in this case the invitation is anonymous. The Spirit, who unlike the Word has no proper name, arrives incognito. Christians, of course, claim to know something about this arrival; it was one purpose of their Lord’s advent to disclose in human terms how best to respond to the gift that arrives, what the indwelling love of God requires of anyone who does not refuse it, what being drawn by the Father implies for human living and dying. Yet people do find themselves being moved to transcend themselves, drawn beyond themselves, grasped by ultimate concern, even when the Christian way of conceiving what they have found is faint or ill defined. They respond to strangely heart-warming love, without understanding whom they are in love with.

This sounds like standard inclusivism, but Hefling insists that non-Christian religious traditions may also have this experience of the Spirit at their core. “It is because of this lavish bestowal of God’s self-gift that there is such a thing as religion—not only the various Christianities, but also the many more or less stable combinations of ‘creed, code, and cult’ for which ‘world religions’ is the conventional umbrella name.” Both Christian and non-Christian religions may be a response to a common experience of the Spirit.

What about Jesus, though? Doesn’t this theory threaten to pry apart the work of the Spirit and the incarnation of the Word?

Hefling says that we need to understand what it is that God does in Jesus:

[N]othing in this essay contradicts the teaching that anyone who is saved is saved through Christ the Son of God. To repeat, it is he who sends the Spirit, whenever and to whomever the Spirit is sent. Nor, secondly, has the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation been denied in any way. God has spoken “in many and various ways,” but only once by a Son.

At the same time, however, this argument does assert that speaking is not the only thing God does, and it certainly implies that what God spoke by speaking his eternal Word at a particular time and place is not so unique as to be totally at variance with the utterances of holy persons who have responded in love to God’s other self-gift, without themselves being God incarnate. Moreover, this last point goes hand in hand with a certain way of understanding Christ’s role in the “economy” of salvation.

It is a mistake to constrict that role to one isolated event, Christ’s death, construed as a kind of decoy that fooled the devil or a kind of lightning rod that deflected the wrath of God. Better to take the cross, together with the rest of Christ’s life and teaching, as a word, a communication of what loving God and neighbor consists in and calls for in a thoroughly messed-up world. The claim that other religious traditions have no clue that this is how God deals with death-dealing malice and wickedness is simply not believable.

As the incarnate Word, Christ gives us the paradigm of self-giving love. But it is the Spirit who moves us to replicate that love in our own lives, and this can happen even for those who are not acquainted with Jesus. Moreover, the image of self-giving love can be present in varying degrees in the teachings of non-Christian traditions, thus providing material for the Spirit to use in moving people from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. So understood, Hefling’s view provides for a more positive assessment of these traditions than the textbook version of inclusivism, which seems to move it closer to (a form of) pluralism.

God loves Homo naledi too

Reading this fascinating account of the recent discovery of Homo naledi–“a baffling new branch to the [human] family tree”–I couldn’t help thinking that Christianity hasn’t really come to terms with the history of human (and proto-human) existence as it’s increasingly being revealed to us.

When evolution first began to be debated in Christian circles it was possible to accept evolutionary theory but still draw a bright line between humans and the rest of creation. Sure we may have developed from “lower” forms of life, but we possessed unique capacities that set us apart. We had a “soul”–perhaps divinely infused at conception or some other point during our prenatal development; we had “free will”; we could reason about abstract concepts; we could respond to God’s will and commune with the divine, etc. Other animals, particularly higher primates, might appear to possess some of these abilities in rudimentary form, but it wasn’t much of  stretch to still see humans as standing on one side of a great divide, with the rest of animal creation on the other.

However, as paleontologists have started to fill in the blanks in the evolutionary record, a murkier–and stranger–picture has emerged. Various kinds of proto-humans existed–most of them for much longer than Homo sapiens has so far. Some of them–Neanderthals and now possibly H. naledi–coexisted (and interbred) with us. Some of them seem to have possessed at least some of the capacities we have traditionally identified as uniquely human. For example, the discovery of the remains of over a dozen H. naledi in a deep cavern in South Africa may indicate a ritualized burial.

The upshot is that modern humans are increasingly shown to be deeply woven into the fabric of nature–more so than most traditional theology has admitted. And in geological time (never mind cosmic time) the duration of our existence and prominence on Earth is less than a blink. Nonetheless, it’s still hard for us not to see ourselves as the pinnacle of life and the center of history.

But if, as Christians are supposed to affirm, God loves and cares for all of creation, what role do proto- or other-humans play in God’s economy? Are we so sure that God’s most important dealings with human-like creatures occurred during the handful of millennia covered by the Bible? (As a thought experiment, one can extend this in the other direction: our far-distant descendants may differ radically from us in any number of ways and may, for all we know, be spread out through the galaxy, interbreeding with other species to create previously undreamt of forms of life. Are we sure nothing of equal religious significance will occur during that time and under such radically different circumstances?)

In principle, adjusting to the idea that we aren’t at the center of human (or quasi-human) history isn’t that different from absorbing the notion that the Earth isn’t at the center (spatially or temporally) of the cosmos, or that other creatures have value independent of us. But I don’t know that Christianity (or maybe any of the world’s religions) has really incorporated the implications of this in its theology, not to mention its piety, liturgy, and ethics. Our worldview–at least the one that’s presupposed by much of the church’s teaching and practice–still seems to put all the big events in the past, and it assumes that things will continue in essentially the same manner till the end of time. But given how briefly humanity as we know it has existed, what reason is there to think it represents the “normal” state of affairs?

I certainly don’t know what changes in our thinking and practice (if any) are called for. But it may be that the radical contingency of human existence as we know it has implications we’ve barely begun to consider.

Cosmic piety

There’s a lot going on in Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants–much more than I’m going to be able to cover in a blog post (or several). But as I’m nearing the end of the book, I think what will stick with me most is Ottati’s insistence on a cosmic theocentric piety.*

What does this mean? Mainly it’s about adjusting our theology and piety to the size and scope of the universe as modern science has revealed it. Christians often pay lip service to this, have we really adjusted our worldview accordingly? Many of us still think of humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, if not indeed the very reason for the creation of the entire cosmos. And we think of God’s activity as centered on the human race.

But this just isn’t realistic given what we know about the universe and our place in it. The universe is billions of years old and contains probably hundreds of billions of galaxies, themselves containing countless trillions of stars (the Milky Way alone contains something on the order of 400 billion stars) and, potentially, life-bearing planets. Add to this the fact that in all likelihood the human race will go extinct (quite possibly as the result of a self-inflicted wound) long before the universe itself winds down into a heat death or some other unimaginable final state. Taking these facts into account, it’s very heard to see humanity as particularly important to the cosmic drama. As Ottati puts it:

If all the cosmos is a stage, then it is far too vast and complex for us to plausibly consider it the stage for human history alone. Indeed, given the vast expanse of the cosmos, the staggering cosmic time frames, the astounding number of stars, planets, and meteors, the gases, chemicals, ice, and dust scattered through space, and so forth, perhaps the appropriate analogy is not a single stage but a world with many different venues, theaters, stages, and shows in many regions, cities, hamlets, and towns. (p. 227)

For Ottati, God is both the ground of the universe’s existence and the source of the processes that give it structure and coherence. And within this cosmos, humanity may be one of many “players,” and not a particularly central one. What we should hope for, he says, is a “good run”–we have our “place and time” to live out as participants in a vast, complex, cosmic ecology.

This prompts the shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective. If humans are displaced from the center of the cosmic drama, the cosmic ecology as a whole can nonetheless be seen as having value for God and as being a product of the divine creativity. This doesn’t mean that human beings don’t have a special value, but it’s as “good creatures with distinctive capacities,” not the “fulcrum . . .  of all creation.” The proper religious response to this is to understand ourselves as participants in the cosmic ecology and ultimately as dependent on God as its mysterious ground and source. As Ottati summarizes it, the “chief end and vocation of human life” is “to participate in true communion with God in community with others” (p. 306).

The second, yet-to-be-published volume of Ottati’s theology will cover the traditional topics of sin, redemption, and eschatology. I’m intrigued to see how he reconciles these more down-to-earth (so to speak) topics with the wider, cosmic perspective he develops here.
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*By “piety” Ottati means a pattern of sensibility or a general orientation toward God, self, and world.