The Revealing

We are celebrating these days the Christian feast of the Epiphany. I heard someone, I think it was George Hooke on Ireland’s Newstalk radio show, describe it yesterday as about ‘three fellas on camels following a star’. Crude, but broadly accurate. The Gospel indeed tells a story about three wise men who followed a star and came to the place where Jesus, as a tiny infant, slept in a cave. Who knows where this myth/story was originally crafted? Who knows who originally told the story around a campfire or at a table? Who knows what unknown scribe first copied it out on papyrus? Who knows what tiny echo of a primitive Gospel tradition lies behind it? So many known unknowns!

What is important, though, is the message that we, some two thousand years hence, can discern in this story. This message is available to us because, as Christians, we live within a tradition that allows us to glimpse the intention of the original storytellers.

The Epiphany message opens up for us the cosmic dimensions of the story of Jesus, what we frequently call, the Incarnation. God has become manifest as intentionally present within the history of the world, of the cosmos, of the Universe (even the multiverse). This is not a ‘fact’ of history. It is what emerges in the mystery of the world’s coming to be. But although a mystery, the story is underlining for us that it is a ‘knowable’. Why? Because there are people who witness to it, not as a brute fact of history, but as mystery that which makes history possible in the first place. First the shepherds, then the wise men of the East, and now the two thousand year old history of Christian belief.

But this this mystery is finding it increasingly difficult to speak its name. The closed world of contemporary secularism will have nothing to do with it. Why? Because it is clearly preposterous. This argument is not new. St. Paul encountered it in the Agora of ancient Greece when he preached a sermon in Athens. The hellenised elites of his day mostly refused to hear him. Witnessing to the mystery was, as we say in contemporary parlance, a ‘tough ask’.

T. S. Eliot in his beautiful poem about the Epiphany, Journey of the Magi, offers a reflection on this contemporary reality. He was writing as a committed Anglican Christian in the full daylight of contemporary secular liberalism. In the poem he speaks of the ‘folly’ of following the Star of Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher, in his monumental classic, The Star of Redemption (1921), invites us to penetrate the intense life-affirming truth that is offered by the Jewish and Christian understanding of the divine mystery. Rosenzweig essentially challenges us to see creation, revelation and redemption as the ultimate categories for thinking about the cosmos.

So, the feast of the Epiphany with its outwardly simple story, is, in fact, a profound statement about ultimate reality. Reality. as we encounter it in our histories and experience, is open to rational scientific investigation, but it is also universally open to the mystical vision of stargazers, shepherds, wise men, street crazies, poets, artists, philosophers, believers and saints. It remains closed to ideologies based on the human will-to-power.

The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
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All Things were Cast Down

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. If you live in Ireland, you will know that this was a traditional pre-Christmas shopping day. People from ‘the country’ (that is anyplace outside the M50 Dublin motorway!) got on the train to come to Dublin to spend the day shopping and, hopefully, get home in time for tea. It was a happy day, full of expectation and warm feelings about family. Mothers, of course, were on the frontline braving queues and armed with Santa lists.

Theological Considerations

But there is also the deeper and more tangled side of this Feast of Our Lady.

There was a time when theologically the interpretation of the feast-day biblical and doctrinal texts all cohered and made sense in a way that the traditional school catechism could explain so clearly. That is the ‘clarity’ of the old days that many conservative Catholics miss so keenly. What was the basis of this clarity? It all went back to Adam and the original sin. Sin is the overarching category that casts a long shadow on everything. According to the catechism understanding what we celebrate today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is the first sign of retreat of our ‘original condition of sin’ in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, the Saviour of the World, God Incarnate.

Today, words like ‘original sin’, ‘sin’, and ‘redemption’ are uncomfortable, to say the least. They drift through our minds like so much ancient debris from a great primeval flood.

Most of the time what we try to do with these concepts and ideas that seem no longer to fit is to either ignore them or refashion them into something more amenable, something less edgy. But they are difficult to set aside, especially, if, like me, you continue to pray in traditional forms, using traditional words, because they are familiar, because they have shaped one’s spiritual life, because in some inexplicable way they continue to nurture hope, faith and belonging. They are the words from our two thousand year old tradition. Still hanging around and unwilling to just drift away on the secular tide.

Anselm again, God help us!

This morning I looked at the texts from my Benedictine Daily Prayer with some trepidation, my mind expecting to fight with the words. But that did not happen. Instead, armed with all my recent reading on the story of the Universe, the story of evolution, my struggles with Richard Dawkins, and wonderful memories of time spent with John Feehan, geologist, botanist and author of The Singing Heart of the World, I found myself in a good space. To use contemporary hermeneutical speak, I began to pay attention to the text beyond the text. It was an opening to that ‘fusion of horizons’ which Gadamer described so well in his challenging work Truth and Method. When we see to understand something we alway bring to it our own ‘horizon of understanding’.

The Office of Readings has its first text the Discourse by Saint Anselm. I ‘bracketed’ my rejection of Anselm’s well-known atonement theory and allowed the text to speak within a new horizon, within the horizon of my awareness of cosmological time and of the evolutionary story of nature itself. Anselm had no clue of any of these things but probably had his suspicions.

Anselm says:

Heaven, stars, earth, day, night, and all that serves humankind has been raised up and newly graced in you, our Lady. All things died, as it were, for they had ceased to serve the needs and will of those who praise God, they were cast down and degraded to servants of idolaters.

All was cast down. Something has gone wrong with creation. Anselm goes on in the text to speak of Mary as the mother of ‘the new creation’.

A New Horizon of Understanding

Of course, the reflexes of my youth would prompt me to make a smooth transition to ‘catechism language’ but my new horizons allow me to see the new text emerging from behind the words. The text behind the text. There is always a text behind the text. And even a text ‘before’ the text, the new horizon of meaning.

I can sense Anselm’s joy in reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation and Mary’s role in it. He summons a cosmological perspective, one limited by his own cultural and pre-scientific knowledge. Within that he intuits that something momentous is at work. He perceives it happening in the miracle of the Incarnation and the work of redemption. Everything is transformed, including nature itself. That perspective is one that Paul takes up in Romans 8 and it has informed Eastern theology ever since.

For me, as I read, I am aware of the struggles in Paris at the COP21 conference and I can still hear the fading murmur of Storm Desmond passing over Ireland. Anselm presents a picture of a fundamental alienation from the cosmos, from nature, and, indeed, from ourselves. Nature, he perceives, has become degraded, become simply an instrument for ‘idolators’. It is we humans, our human consciousness, that enslave the natural world and its species. It is our ‘degraded’, ‘unredeemed’ consciousness that is bringing about the death of the natural world.

Towards an Emerging Understanding

Were Anselm alive today I have no doubt that he would read the biblical texts with a different mindset. He would understand the absolute necessity for a new redeemed relationship with nature itself, one that cannot wait for the ‘end times’, but must take place now and be given expression now in the birth through a new ecological awareness of a new appreciation of our graced relationship with the totality of the natural world, and, indeed, with the universe itself.

This is a cosmic vision on a grand scale. In this feast of Our Lady we celebrate the possibility through the Incarnation of just such a new world. But we need to shed the prejudices and naïvetés of the past.

This is what John Feehan, along with Thomas Berry and others, articulates so beautifully and so clearly in The Singing Heart of the World. What is important is the new horizon of meaning that we bring to the text, from whatever age the text comes. Gadamer was correct when insisted on the inevitability of the hermeneutical challenge. Our texts remain at once both wonderfully original and provisional. And that is the reason why they can prompt a re-calibration of our own mindset.

In the Beginning was Fire

In the Beginning was Fire

We learn from the astronomers, astrophysicists and the cosmologists that the universe probably began about 13.7 billion years ago in a “Big Bang”, what Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry refer to as a “Flaring Forth” of cosmic matter that eventually evolved into the universe we know today. Cosmologists argue that every particle of matter, including the physiological particles that constitute the physical being of each one of us, was present in that initial moment of the “Big Bang”.

What is not clear is whether at that moment consciousness was present? Was matter already conscious? Or potentially conscious? To paraphrase Brian Swimme, at what point did the universe learn to “sing opera”?

The bible tells us in Genesis that the “Spirit hovered over the waters”. So there is a firm conviction in the biblical mind that consciousness was present from the very beginning, in some inchoate form that is unknown to us. The divine and the material world were intertwined from the beginning it would appear.

A Used Book Find

In one of my rambles across the city yesterday I popped into a second-hand bookshop where I was hunting around looking for a biblical commentaries. I have a high regard for some of the older non-Catholic biblical scholars, people like Lightfoot, Hoskyns, Dodd, and Nineham, as well as Catholic scholars like Meier, Brown, Murphy and Fitzmeyer.

This particular second-hand bookshop happens to be a favourite repository for books that once reposed on the shelves of clerical libraries. But yesterday there was nothing. However, I spotted a copy of Teilhard de Chardin’s, Hymn of the Universe, in a hardback edition and in excellent condition. It was once owned by The Hospital Library Council (1937-1967) in Dublin, a voluntary organisation that supplied library trolleys to Dublin hospitals (could you imagine that happening now!!).

This particular copy still had its library docket in the a pocket on the inside cover. The book had had four readers in its Hospital Library lifetime. two in 1967 (it was published in 1965) and two in 1971. After that the book disappeared into the holdings of the National Library and eventually found its way to my little second-hand bookshop. Needless to say I purchased it for the modest sum of some small loose change in my pocket.

It is an excellent book because unlike some of Teilhard de Chardin’s other books, it offers a beautiful reflection on evolution, cosmology, and the story of the universe. It offers a glimpse into Teilhard’s own spiritual life and the thinking which enabled him to integrate his cosmological insights with his deep religious faith. He understood that much of what we call religious doctrine is ultimately a metaphor and poetic account for the world of being and its relationship to the divine. His poetic imagination allowed him to see that biblical language, doctrinal language and religious language generally, are simply our inadequate attempts to give voice and image to our consciousness of reality. The ultimately real is beyond the language of the sciences and religion. T. S. Eliot once remarked that “Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed.” This statement might not find favour with the Vatican but it is a fairly accurate assessment of the task of Christian theology in the contemporary world.

In the Beginning ….

Here are some quotes from some early pages of Hymn of the Universe:

Fire, the source of being: we cling so tenaciously to the illusion that fire comes forth from the depths of the earth and that its flames grow progressively brighter as it pours along the radiant furrows of life’s tillage. Lord, in your mercy you gave me to see that this idea is false, and that I must overthrow it if I were ever to have sight of you. …

In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was Fire. This is the truth. …

So, far from light emerging gradually out of the womb of our darkness, it is the Light, existing before all else was made which, patiently, surely, eliminates our darkness. As for us creatures, of our ourselves we are but emptiness and obscurity. But you, my God, are the inmost depths, the stability of that eternal milieu, without duration or space, in which our cosmos emerges gradually into being and grows gradually to its final completeness, as it loses those boundaries which to our eyes seem so immense. Everything is being: everywhere there is being and nothing but being, save in the fragmentation of creatures and the clash of their atoms.

From Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (1965), London: Collins, pp. 21-22.

The Story of the Universe