I have quite the habit of collecting books. I’ve been doing it ever since I began studying in my 20s, and because I was a student, I was forever foraging in used bookstores. I’d even stop in small towns while driving through BC, and comb through the local thrift store, just in case there was a good volume to be found amongst the Danielle Steele and the old cook books.
One time, I can’t remember how long ago now, maybe 15-20 years, I found this little blue hardcover with a curious title- The Unfinished Universe. On the inside of the dust jacket it said, “A great creative process is taking place in the universe, one in which we take part, for mankind is not only a witness but also a participant”. I thought that sounded intriguing enough, so I bought it and stuffed it away somewhere on my growing wall of IKEA bookshelves, not to open it again for many years.
Little did I know that this new understanding of cosmology- which The Unfinished Universe, published in 1986, would be among the first to herald- would one day become a big part of my intellectual and spiritual life. Little did I know that one day I would walk into a church where the pastor was doing a version of Christianity based on this new cosmology, and that I would be inspired to go into ministry, changing my life forever. As it turns out, this little blue book was an omen glowing in an old brown box, whispering to me from my latent future.
Today I want to talk about this new cosmology and the theologies that are embracing it. Over the course of May and June, I led a small group on this topic here at St. George’s. It was a good group- which included Katarina, Margo, Alana, Deb and Ula- and I think everyone got something out of our time together. What I wanted to do today is tell you a little bit about what we learned, so we can feed our experience back into the life of the congregation. So hang on to your hats- we’re about to take a wild ride through the new movements in theology that are embracing cosmology and evolution, and talk about what this means for how we understand God, Jesus, and the future of life on this planet.
The new cosmology tells the story of a universe that came into being 13.8 billion years ago, and has been evolving ever since. After the big bang there was only hydrogen gas, but over vast scales of time particles formed, then galaxies, then stars, then planets, then cellular life on planets, then the biological world emerged, and eventually humans and human culture came into being. There are two main things to note about this story, for our purposes today. First, there are observable patterns to what the universe has been doing throughout this vast cosmic history- and this includes moving towards increasing order, increasing complexity, and increasing consciousness (or the increasing depth of self-awareness in beings). One saying in our small group readings that we were struck by, and one that takes a long time to really take in, is that in human beings the cosmos has become conscious of itself. The interior conscious dimension of the universe has now developed to such a degree, that the cosmos includes creatures that can contemplate the cosmos as a whole. That’s a pretty amazing and mind-bending thing to consider. But the important point is that the universe is not just a bunch of stuff randomly smashing about, but is following patterns of self-organization over time. The universe is up to something, and we can track its patterns.
The second main thing to note about this cosmic story is that it’s not deterministic. There wasn’t some clockmaker God who wound the thing up, and then let it run according to a predetermined plan. No, the universe contains truly novel things that could not have been predicted from what came before it. Although we see patterns in the evolution of the cosmos, as we just said, the future of the cosmos is unknown. It’s unfinished, to the use the title of that book I found. The scientific word for this non-determined dimension of cosmic evolution is emergence. Things emerge in the process of cosmic evolution that are truly new, and not just combinations of what came before it. The universe is alive and unfolding in creative new ways, and because of this we can never know what the future holds. The future is unwritten.
So how does this all relate to God and Jesus and our own spiritual lives? Much of what I’m about to tell you comes from the growing field of theology called Open and Relational Theology. That’s an umbrella term for theologies that are embracing the cosmic story I just described. The term open refers to what we just said- the future is open, not even God knows the future. This might seem startling to some who grew up with the classical view of God as omniscient, or all knowing. A supreme being must know everything, including the future right? That’s what Calvin and Luther thought. But this new theological understanding rejects this. In a universe that’s free and unfolding, like the one science is discovering, there’s no pre-existing divine plan for creation. God knows all of the possibilities for the future, but doesn’t know which way creation will choose to go. The cosmic novel is being written in real time.
So how does God relate to the world then? In an open and relational view God does relate to beings in an ongoing and intimate way. God’s not some distant sky God, totally different and separate from the cosmos. In this view God’s primary nature is understood as love, as the Bible says. But the nature of love, if we reflect on it, is to not be controlling or coercive. We don’t love someone by controlling them. So God gives birth to the cosmos, and sustains it on a moment-to-moment basis, but does not control it or intervene in it. The cosmos contains genuine free will. So how does God relate to us, if God cannot intervene in that Monty Python hand from the sky kind of way? God is omnipresent, or present everywhere in the universe. God is within everything, wooing us, whispering to us to choose the more beautiful future that God wants to come into being. Jesus called that future the kingdom of God, a world in which love and justice and equality would reign. But God can’t force or strong-arm that future into being. God must allure creatures like us to participate with God in bringing about that future. There’s a line in the Talmud that says, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers: ‘Grow, grow’”. That’s how God relates to us, always alluring us to grow in the direction of love.
But we must choose it. In every decision we make, we have multiple options in front of us. We can choose on a spectrum from love to full blown evil. Of course we’re never fully free in our choices. We’re influenced by our culture, our biology, our moment in history, our family, etc. But we do always have some modicum of free will despite these restrains, and God’s constantly wooing us to choose the next right thing. That’s the heart of our spiritual practice, this moment-by-moment choosing to act a little more in the image of God. And of course we often fail, or stray off course. We are, after all, human, all too human. But when we stray off course, we turn back, and try once again to choose actions that bring about a little more of the kingdom of God. And of course things like prayer and worship and reading scripture can help us become more capable and primed to choose the direction of love.
Our exemplar for this life lived in the image of God is of course Jesus. Jesus is the Word made flesh. What does this mean? The Word is the Logos or the mind of God, what in the Old Testament was referred to as Wisdom. In many places, including our readings today, the Bible asserts that the mind or wisdom of God is working throughout all of creation. It’s God’s active power in the physical world, alluring all things to evolve in its image. For those who like to read in other religions, this wisdom or logos is very much like the Tao in Taoism. The Tao is seen as the eternal Way that flows through all things. The Taoist master is one who aligns with this Tao and embodies it fully. This is what Jesus does in the Christian tradition too. Jesus is the human being who fully opened up to the logos or divine wisdom. As Jesus says, “Anyone who sees me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). If we wanted to see what the divine looks like when fully aligned with the human form, we can see this in Jesus.
But when we look at Jesus from a cosmic perspective, from the deep time perspective of 13 billion years of cosmic evolution, we can see two additional and important things about who he was. We can see that Jesus is not some supernatural being who flew down to earth and did his thing, only to fly off again when done. No, Jesus is the product of this epic story of cosmic evolution. This is how the theologian Ilia Delio puts it- “The body of Jesus, like every human body, is made from cosmic dust birthed in the interior of ancient stars that long predated our planet and solar system. The iron that ran through his veins, the phosphorus and calcium that fortified his bones, the sodium and potassium that facilitated the transmission of signals through his nerves- all make the Incarnation a truly cosmic event”. Jesus comes up out of the cosmos, and it took millions of years of evolution to create the conditions for his emergence. Jesus is thoroughly an inside job.
But even more than this, Jesus tells us where this cosmic story is headed. Paul called Jesus the “firstfruits of a new creation”. In Jesus we get a little taster of what’s possible, of where cosmic evolution might go if creatures choose it. He’s a herald, a sign, an indicator of what the future could be if we listen and respond to God’s perpetual allurement. But there’s no guarantee we will, because real freedom truly exists in the cosmos. And life is pretty touch and go on this planet at the moment, as we all know. The story written here on earth might turn out to be a tragedy. But it might not. We don’t know, because the future is unwritten.
And I think that’s one of two important takeaways I wanted to leave folks with today, from this new theological and cosmological perspective. I know there’s a growing amount of depression and resignation about the future of life on earth. I read an article the other day that said “‘Climate Despair’ Is Making People Give Up on Life” (1). The article says that it’s “Super painful to be a human right now at this point in history”. I had a minister friend tell me last week that her two teenage daughters don’t even think about what profession they might go into, because they assume there’ll be future at all. What’s the point of even thinking about these things then? This is heartbreaking stuff to hear. And I understand it. But we need to realize that the future is open. Nothing is set in stone, nothing is predetermined, including total planetary disaster. Sure, the heat is on, and the walls are closing in, I’ll grant that. But nothing is certain! Let’s not give up hope on a story that’s still being written.
And even more importantly, God needs us to co-create the future. God can’t do it alone. God’s eternal and undying love means God has let creation be truly free, so God needs creatures to participate in bringing about the world God desires. That’s why in the Bible God is constantly seeking out human partnership, coming to Abraham and Moses and Jesus and the other prophets, making a covenant with the Israelites, enlisting everyone from wise men to shepherds to work on God’s behalf. God’s always seeking out creaturely partnership to bring about the kingdom of God. If we give in to despair now, we guarantee there’ll be no future worth living, because it can’t be done without us. And this might seem like a daunting responsibility, a heavy burden. But I think it’s exciting. It imbues life with an incredible amount of meaning and purpose. We matter to the future of life on this planet. Our actions affect the course of cosmic evolution. Of course, we need to be careful about falling prey to hubris, and allowing our human egos to direct this story. But if we spend time in prayer and silence we’ll become more capable of hearing where God’s calling us. We’ll better discern what needs to be done.
So friends, let’s stay the course and keep fighting the good fight. The beautiful future Jesus revealed is still calling to us. Let’s keep trying to choose love in each next moment. Let’s reject those forces that are constantly trying to divide and conquer us. Together we are strong. As the Bible tells us many times, if we partner with God, anything is possible. Anything. Let’s stick that divine promise in our cosmic hat, and together unveil the glorious future that’s waiting for us on the other side of the storm. May it be so. Amen.
(1) “‘Climate Despair’ Is Making People Give Up on Life”. Vice. June 11, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/j5w374/climate-despair-is-making-people-give-up-on-life?fbclid=IwAR0g3OiYvccdAKWLIx7MpcIWPGn8mTHV9Uy9QFPMetPoewn3DDVaBen0-b0