Section 1 - Implications: A First Circle of Connections

Section 2 - A Second Circle of Connections: Contexts

Section 3 - A Third Circle of Connections: The Logos in the Cosmos

Section 4 - A Fourth Circle of Connections: From Within Creation

Section 5 - A Fifth Circle of Connections: Human Being

Section 6 - A Sixth Circle of Connections: The Trinity

Section 7 - A Seventh Circle of Connections: The Eucharistic Universe

Section 8 - Dimensions: Death

Section 9 - Dimensions: Love and Sex

Section 10 - Conclusion



Faith in a World of Connections

Anthony J. Kelly CSsR

Jesus the Logos

Section 3


In this next circle of connections, we turn to distinctive Christian and theological elements in the spiral of our reflections. First of all, then, a note on the Word incarnate, the Logos uttered into the cosmos of our experience: ‘… the Word became flesh and lived among us' (John 1:14).

Experiencing the Word

At first glance, given the cosmic tone of its primary sources, especially in the Pauline and Johannine writings, it would appear strange if Christian faith were deaf to such resonances. Admittedly, the remarkable biblical renewal this century has in fact not been notably interested in interpreting the biblical documents in the context that concerns us here. You can't do everything all at once; not even biblical scholars. Their main challenge, met with enormous erudition, was to establish, not the cosmic, but the historical connection of the Christian faith. ‘The Historical Jesus' has been, up to the present, the object of meticulous examination of the biblical documents. This has been further extended into a deeper literary appreciation of the narrative quality of Christian sources.

It may sound ungracious to suggest that the very skills and expertise shown in this area of Christian investigation has tended to close it off from more cosmic considerations. [1] But, as I say, no one can do everything all at once. Moreover, both the historical connection and narrative form put us in the position to give a new hearing to the larger story of creation in more critically real terms. The critical historical placement of ‘the Jesus Event' can only bring an added realism into the consideration of his significance at this present juncture of the history of Christian faith in its efforts to engage a world immeasurably more vast and intricate than the ancients could have imagined.

The scope of the Christian horizon can be quickly suggested by referring to some key passages from the prologue of John's Gospel: [2]

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  (John 1:1-3)

Such a passage brims with promise as we read it in the current context. How might this Logos embrace in its meaning all the other logoi (meanings) of our human explorations – ecology, cosmology, and all the dia-logues that result? For John it seems clear enough that there is an inexhaustible original relevance in the Word. The divine self-utterance is all-creative: ‘all things' came into existence through him, and depend on him in their origins; all meaning is a resonance of this original divine meaning.

Indeed, in the Johannine context, the Word conjures up numerous associations with a variety of other biblical and philosophical understandings of ‘word', in Greek, logos, in Hebrew,  dabharLogos, for instance, it was a pervasive term in Greek philosophy, and Heraclitus of Ephesus (where John possibly wrote the Gospel) introduced it as a philosophical principle six centuries beforehand. In later Stoic philosophy the Logos figured as a quasi-divine cosmic principle of order. Philo, bringing together Greek and Jewish thought, used the term over a thousand times in his writings to designate a kind of created intermediary between God and the world.  The divine image is mirrored in the coherence of the cosmos and in the human soul itself. Later Gnostic thinking stressed more the divinity and immateriality of this word.

No doubt, all this was part of a rich context of association. Nonetheless, it is now agreed that the dominant influence on John's theology of the Word is Jewish theology, where the divine word was understood in more active and concrete terms, and intimately connected to the Spirit or Breath of God, as God acted in history. For example, like the divine utterance of Genesis, John's Word is ‘in the beginning'; it is all-creative; it overcomes the darkness of chaos, and gives life. It is also linked to the personified ‘wisdom' of the Sapiential literature. This concrete, historical emphasis culminates in the prologue itself as the Word becomes ‘flesh to dwell amongst us'.

Later Christian theology was not slow to exploit a whole range of analogical references to the Word. For example, by linking the generation of the Son to the utterance of the Word, early Christian thought was enabled to repel the charge made by cultured adversaries that it was a regression to the naively mythological. The divine generation happened, not by physical generation, but by a spiritual conception or emanation. Similarly, it served in relating the eternal genesis of the Word/Son within the divine realm to the genesis of Jesus the Incarnate Word and Son within the world and time. Most importantly, the Word became a principle of Christian conversation with a number of forms of the human culture. The Word that has been finally revealed in Christ had previously enlightened both the prophets of Israel and the sages of antiquity. And in current understandings of the Church's mission to the world, the notion of transcendent incarnate Word underpins all the forms of dialogue, the unending challenge of listening to the Word through the many words of human science, scholarship and religious tradition.

Though the notion or symbol of the Word is of such fundamental biblical importance, it is striking how often it is linked to the symbol of light. [3] The life of faith in Christ is expressed as an illumination that comes through receptive listening. The radiance of the Word places believers within a divinely wrought universe. Human existence becomes translucent as an experience of the Word-shaped world. As the Word is definitive and irrevocable in its meaning, it is a light that cannot be extinguished: ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it' (John 1:4-5).

As faith approaches the mystery of the universe created in the Word, it has a sense of all history as a progressive, universal illumination. We are involved in a great luminous field of meaning: ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world' (v. 9). This process culminates at the point where the Word enters the human conversation as a distinctive presence, to be embodied in the communicative reality of our world: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us' (v. 14).

The originality of Christian faith is underscored in Augustine's remark: he had found the equivalents of most Christian doctrines in pagan authors, but what he had never found was that the Word became ‘flesh'. [4] Life is transformed in the light of ultimate meaning; human consciousness now expands in a new luminous horizon; The Word has become a participant in the human conversation. The self-expression of God is from this point irreversibly linked not only to the transcendent capacities of the human spirit, but in the Word's becoming human, is immersed in the physical, chemical, biological, psychological and cultural dynamics of human emergence, namely, ‘flesh'. The identification of the Word with the realities of created existence must account, in some measure, for Christ's self-identification as ‘living bread' (John 6:6: 51ff), ‘the door of the sheepfold' (John 10: 7), ‘the good shepherd' (John 10:11), ‘the true vine' (John 15:1). His use of the  earthly symbols of eating and drinking, of sowing and harvesting, of fishing and tending flocks, of water, light, wind and flame, tend to present nature as a great parable of Incarnation.

The plenitude (pleroma) of divine self-utterance into the world is the decisive mutation in human history: ‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace' (v. 16).  But despite such intense expressions of Christian experience as addressed, illumined, enlivened and accompanied by the Word, the ultimate mystery is not diminished or contained by human intelligence. The Word incarnate mediates the inexpressible ‘more' of the Father. The silence out of which the Word is spoken, the radiance out of which this light has shone, remains. God is the abiding mystery, the all-encompassing reality of that love which, beyond the categories of this world, welcomes creatures into ‘his house of many rooms' (John 14:2). The distinctive chiaroscuro of Christian experience is expressed in these words of the Word: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known' (v. 18). If John's Gospel begins with the shining promise of the Word dwelling amongst us in the flesh, it concludes by supposing ‘that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written' ( John 21:25) in any attempt to grasp the full significance of what has happened.

The Johannine prologue is not unlike a great classic poem, demanding ever deeper reflection, yet inexhaustible in its potential range of reference. It draws the believer into a luminous space within an horizon of limitless exploration. Within that space, Christian history has to keep trying to word the Word in ways that illumine the darkness of the successive crises of history. As the Gospel unfolds, the Word, by becoming flesh, becomes a story, a conversation, a question, a theology, a prayer and a promise – eventually a silence, in death and in resurrection, before which all words must fail. But there are pauses in the conversation when the believing mind can recollect itself and pose new questions. How does such light illumine our planetary co-existence? How can such a culminating instance of God ‘so loving the world' (kosmos in the Greek)  find new expression within the astonishing dimensions of the cosmos of our knowledge today?

Wording the Word

It would be rather fundamentalist to expect to find in the New Testament instructions on modern ecological concerns or on current cosmological theory. For that reason, I have emphasised more the horizon, or the background radiation, you might say, in which such matters might be assimilated into Christian awareness. This can be made more specific by noting the movement of Christian response to the Word, as it is instanced in three major arcs of meaning. [5] The New Testament documents communicate not the conclusions we might reach in this much later age, but open-ended ways of thinking and speaking suitable for integrating the range of each age's experience into the mystery of Christ.

The three major arcs of meaning inspire three kinds of rhetoric, namely, the rhetoric of fulfilment, that of participation, and that of cosmic extension. I use the word ‘rhetoric' not, of course, as something akin to ‘mere rhetoric', but in a more classical sense: the creative effort to bring experience to expression, to word reality in the most telling way; in this case, to seek for words, for ways of speaking, ever more worthy of the Word.

The first rhetoric, then, deals with fulfilment: the Word incarnate fulfils the prayers and promises, the hopes and anticipations of what preceded him: ‘The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ' (v.17).  In Christ ‘we have obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will' (Eph 1:11). For ‘long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son' (Heb 1:1f). This kind of fulfilment is present primarily in the scriptures as a fulfilment in history, above all that of the hopes of Israel awaiting its messianic deliverance; and beyond that, the hope that the good creation of God's original intention would reach fulfilment in the New Adam.

Later patristic theologies, such as those of Irenaeus of Lyons and Origen, would further explore the all-fulfilling role of Christ. The Scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, with its notion of Christ as the perfect divine image, would set such a moment of fulfilment in a metaphysical universe. However, even for the great Scholastics, the movement of history took place within a universe of fixed natures, a vertically arranged ‘chain of being', so to speak. Today the notion of fixed universe has changed dramatically to an evolving, emerging cosmic process.  The chain of being is horizontally linked, holding matter, consciousness, spirit together as ever more complex phases of universal becoming. This new understanding of the universal process has enabled theology to present the mystery of Jesus Christ less in terms of the Word ‘coming down from heaven', or of God ‘sending his Son' into a fixed world of creation. The emphasis now is on God as the creative force enabling the continuous self-transcending process of the world, until it finally reaches the point of being able to receive the fullness of its original mystery.  In the consciousness of Christ, there is realised the moment of creation's acceptance of God as the ultimate dimension of its life, and the moment of God's acceptance of creation as personally his own. Hence, Christ represents a decisive mutation offered to human consciousness. A new creation, life to the full, a transformation of all things has begun.

The second rhetoric is that of participation. It deals with our common connection in the reality of Christ: ‘in him was life' (John 1:4) and ‘from his fullness we have received...' (John 1:16). He is the vine, we the branches (John 15:5f; Cf. also John 14: 6; Mat 11:27; Ac 4:12). The universal is made available to us in the particular: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6).  Contemporary theology explores our common participation in God's self communication in Christ in new ways. Teilhard, for example, sees Christ as the finality of creation already present. The whole meaning of the process of the world's continuing development is to incorporate all into the incarnate mystery of Christ. Every moment of time is impregnated with his presence. The whole cosmic process is Christ-bearing: ‘The prodigious expanses of time that preceded the first Christmas were not empty of Christ, for they were imbued with his power'. [6] Material creation is not left behind, for it too finds its destiny by being incorporated into his transfigured Body: the whole of creation, physical and spiritual, is like a eucharistic host, offering itself to be consecrated, and thereby transformed into the Risen Lord.

 The third rhetoric is that of cosmic extension. It elaborates the meaning of the mystery of Christ as one of universal inclusiveness: ‘all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being' (John 1:3; Cf. Gn 1:1; Prov 8:27-30; Heb 1:2). He is the focal element in God's ‘so loving the world'. In him is inscribed the ‘whole story', for it is God's intention ‘to gather all things up in him, things in heaven and things on earth' (Eph 1:10), just as he is ‘before all things, and in him all things hold together' (Col 1: 17).  This kind of biblical rhetoric inspires a variety of current spiritualities and theologies centred on ‘the Cosmic Christ'. [7] The wider the extension and the deeper the inclusion of the ‘all' of present experience, the richer the apprehension of the Christian mystery. Conversely, the more intimate our union with Christ, the more the ‘all' becomes a universe of grace.

Admittedly, the challenge today is to integrate into the intimacy and universality of faith not only the fifteen billion years of the world's emergence, but also a capacity to cherish as God's creation the varied commonwealth of life in which we share. Whatever there is yet to occur in the world of our experience, whatever dimensions or dynamics there are in the cosmos of our present and further exploration, Christian faith must find its focus in him who is the consistency and coherence, the first-born and the end of all creation. As Teilhard reminds us, ‘Christ must be kept as large as creation and remains its Head. No matter how large we discover the world to be, the figure of Jesus, risen from the dead, must embrace it in its entirety'. [8]    

Such, then, is a brief outline of three fundamental arcs of Christian rhetoric. Each suggests a fundamental way of thinking, not only for New Testament authors, but also for theologians of every age. This is not to say the creativity of the biblical trajectories was ever fully incorporated into later doctrinal councils and theologies. Official doctrines were limited to particular contexts.  Creativity had to give place to other responsibilities. It should not be forgotten, however, that even the most austere doctrinal definition can be understood only as a more or less successful effort to objectify some dimension of Christian experience that was under threat. The full Christian fact resides in the whole life of the Church. Doctrinal definitions emerge out of that life and to return to it, to contribute the distinctive energy that precise clarification inspires. The liberation of the heart and the confident momentum of life cannot long endure without the objectifying, clarifying, position-taking activity of mind.

But whether we speak of the creative rhetoric of faith, or the more precise articulations of belief regarding the Incarnation of the Word in our world, Christian thought is now confronted with an enormous challenge and opportunity. As this third millennium unfolds, Christianity must both retrieve and rework its most basic doctrine in the light of the awe-inspiring dimensions of the world as they are emerging. The divine coming-to-be in the world must now be meshed with the manifold processes of the world's emergence. This will remain one of the most energising issues for Christian thinking in this new era. [9]

Incarnation: from Answer to Question

Some dimensions of both the challenge and the resources with which it can be addressed can be suggested by delaying briefly on the classic doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon (451). I will try to indicate what it achieved, and the questions it now faces us with. The relevant section of the conciliar definition is as follows:

One and the same Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divinity, perfect in humanity, the same truly God, and truly man with a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father according to his divinity, consubstantial with us in his humanity, like us in all things except sin, begotten of the Father before the ages in his divinity, but in these last days, for us and our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in his humanity, in two natures without confusion or change, without division or separation, the distinction of the natures not being abolished by the union, but on the contrary, the properties of each nature remaining intact, and coming together in the one person or hypostasis, not by being split or divided into two persons but one only unique Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, as formerly the prophets spoke of him, as Our Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, as the symbol of the Fathers has handed down to us.

In this complex grammar of the meaningfulness of Incarnation, there are certain things to be noted:

First, the concentration of faith bears not on a theory, nor on a theology, but on the singular, concrete reality of the person, ‘One and the same, Our Lord Jesus Christ'.  The one who is spoken of as the ‘he' of the Gospels, the ‘you' addressed in prayer, the ‘I' that summons forth faith, is the all-meaningful datum. Christian consciousness is focused in a living relationship with Jesus Christ, just as he is understood only in relationship to the One from whom he came, and in relation to the world for which he came. The focus of faith is on the concreteness of the relationships that Jesus embodies. It places us in a cosmos of ultimate relationships and mutual presence.

Secondly, this realm of relationships is elaborated in a quasi-philosophical language. The more figurative and rhetorical scriptural expressions are transcended in the interests of affirming the reality of Christ to meet the demands of philosophically differentiated culture. The task of precisely denoting objective aspects of the Christian fact precludes an appreciation of the whole range of tacit connotation. As a result, we are presented with the austere duality of divine and human ‘natures'. Nonetheless, ‘nature' is employed as an open-ended kind of notion.  It is designed to mean whatever the divine or the human are, or can be. There is little effort to define either, except to this extent:

First, with regard to God, the dogma recognises that there is a generative process, a vital coming- to-be within the divine realm.  Christ is Son, Word, begotten of the Father. This divine realm of genesis, is beyond time: ‘before the ages'. And yet, it decisively modifies the meaning and quality of time, to condense it into the finality ‘of these last days'.

Secondly, with regard to the humanity concerned, Chalcedon stresses the realism of Christ's human being (with a rational soul and body, and of human birth at a particular time).  The Word made flesh is a distinct presence in the world.  He is embodied in its processes, consciously communicating within it, brought forth by it, in the womb of a human mother. 

Thirdly, the focus of the definition reaches a special intensity in affirming that Jesus Christ is truly what God is (consubstantial with the Father) and truly what human beings are ( consubstantial with us, like us in all things except sin). Within the horizon of human experience, the mystery of God and the reality of the human have come together in a unique, irreversible manner.  This was later termed the ‘hypostatic union'. God has communicated the God-self to the human, to be self-involved in its ultimate genesis.

Fourthly, the resultant identity of Jesus Christ as Son of the Father and as a member of the human race, does not confuse the duality of the natures. Communion, not dissolution, is the goal. Humanity is not changed into something else.  Neither is the divinity reduced to some anthropomorphic form : ‘the distinction of the natures nor being abolished by the union ... the properties of each nature remaining intact'. Consequently, Jesus is not a fusion of the divine and the human, neither a demigod nor a kind of centaur.  Nor is he two persons, one human and one divine. The divine and the human, the creator and the creature, are what they are.  In the unity of his identity, Jesus is both God and a man – God uniquely given into the human world, and the human uniquely identified with God the originator of the world. The divine and the human come together in him ‘without confusion or change, without division or separation'. In Jesus Christ, the world is drawn into union with its original mystery. In him, that original mystery becomes part of the history of the world.

Fifthly, there is the decisive phrase, ‘for us and our salvation'. The rather objective, philosophical terms of the definition are brought back to their primary focus.  God is radically ‘for us', not in terms of theological information or as element in metaphysical system, but in terms of a divine self-engagement with human beings in their search for true life.

The four and half centuries of Christian reflection culminating in such the definition of Chalcedon occupies a classical position in Christian thought. But times change and other worldviews develop. It is customary today to allow for the inadequacy of the philosophical terminology involved.  The meanings of ‘person' and ‘nature' have changed through the centuries to have almost an opposite meaning compared to past conciliar usage.  Moreover), a huge change has occured in the basic apprehension of reality itself. Here, the following points can profitably be made. [10]

First, there is the basic problem of the notion of God itself. Former cultures, right up to the modern era, were theistic. A notion of the divine was part of the worldview, either in its popular or sophisticated forms: God was the transcendent beginning and end of all things. A generalised religious, intellectual, and moral conception of a divine absolute was a presupposition in any reasonable discourse. Ironically, Christianity, in its effort to articulate its own distinctive trinitarian apprehension of God, had to struggle against a number of such cultural notions of God, and still continues to do so, inasmuch as they survive in latent forms.  But, to speak generally, any theistic presupposition is absent for the dominant culture. [11] Contemporary culture, profoundly affected by the great atheistic masters of suspicion – Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud – has unfolded in a religious void. What was previously a culturally legitimated concept of the divine has yielded to a culturally legitimated denial of God. The religious void of modern consciousness leads to a world without ultimate meaning and purpose.  The universe is indifferent to human achievement or moral value. 

Responses have been many and various. Fundamentalism thrives and New Age spiritualities emerge.  At the same time, theologies of liberation or mysticism criticise the idolatries of the past, and find new opportunities for affirming the lost sense of shared mystery either in solidarity with the poor, or in the cultivation of contemplative experience.  Most strikingly, the question of God has emerged in science itself. What is the ultimate reality intimated in the vast self-organising cosmic process in which we are involved? Yet in each case, the notion of ‘God' has ceased to be present as a culturally available answer. It has moved into the form of a radical questioning. What kind of God might be acknowledged in a cosmos conscious of itself in human minds and hearts, in all its chaos and entropy, yet in all its connections, self-organisation and novelty? How, in such a context, then, is Christ the revelation of God?

Secondly, there is a basic problem with the notion of a human nature. In previous times, the human was defined, following Aristotle, as zoon logikon, animal rationale.  In the human, the genus of ‘animal' enjoys a specific difference; it a rational animal.  The human has the capacity to use reflective thought and to communicate in speech. The elemental richness of this definition of the human, as in the Chalcedonian doctrine, was usually reduced to the requirement of having a body and a soul, the material component and the spiritual. Even if Aristotle and Aquinas, in different ways, overcame the Platonic tendency of seeing the soul more or less imprisoned in matter, popular conceptions were as a rule dualistic.

Today such dualism yields to a more concrete empirical exploration of the human.  The human is not a fixed, philosophically defined nature.  Psychology explores it as a mode of consciousness.  Anthropology considers its social and cultural forms.  Biology locates its emergence at the end of a long evolutionary process.  History studies the human as it freely forms itself through the course of the centuries.  Sociology studies its social organisation and structures.  Cosmology may even pause to ponder on how in the human phenomenon the universe has become conscious of itself beneath the stars. From these, and many other points of view, contemporary reflection on the human offers no simple definition of the human, but rather examines all the varied data in different and often in merely juxtaposed contexts.

The traditional philosophical definition of the human as animal rationale, and the consequent popular schematic description of the human as a composite of body and soul, have obviously been displaced by a larger problematic. What is more, our historical experience of the problem of evil, in all ecological, political, economic dimensions, the meaning of the human is not so much an answer but a question: What are we to become? The older classical culture, with its precise philosophical definition of what it was to be human, has now yielded to an empirical notion of culture, and the fact of many cultures.  This new appreciation of plurality makes us ask, What are we to make of ourselves, globally, in the exchanges of many cultures, with the corresponding ways of being human they represent? Given the manifold potential of human freedom, what should we decide to be? What are the limits to such self-determination? What values should sustain it? What might we hope for? What do we ultimately share? How, finally, is Christ ‘consubstantial with us' in such a complex humanity?

Thirdly, a question emerges regarding the connection between the two ‘natures' in which the person of Christ subsists. Where before, Chalcedon could simply state the basic Christian fact in terms of Jesus Christ being one person in two natures, the divine and the human, current  reflection has concentrated on the reasons for this mysterious union. What is there about the divine reality that inclines it to express itself in the human through the incarnation? Why should the creator of all enter creation in this way? Is the advent of the Word to the world an arbitrary decision of the divine? Or, is the deeper possibility to be considered, that the divine vitality is ever one of self-communication, intent on uttering itself into what is other?  It appears that the divine communion of life that is Trinity has involved itself in creating a universe so that it might be drawn into a realm of endless life and communion – so that ‘God may be all in all' (1 Cor 15:28).

Fourthly, there is the related question dealing with human existence itself. What is there in human existence that can greet the event of God's becoming human, not in dread as something destructive of our humanity, not in mere wonderment as a divine visitation, but as a transforming event, a mutation in the genesis of the human?  It appears that grace heals, perfects and transforming human nature, along with the whole cosmic body of our co-existence.

Fifthly, the universe envisaged in the Chalcedonian definition is a quite limited. The implicit worldview is one of fixed, hierarchical arrangement. The universe is characterised by a certain ordered fixity. It is a cosmos of definable entities and intelligible order. It is structured in a gradation of natures and capacities. It knows its problems and knows its needs.  The chief among these is salvation and union with the absolute beyond all the fragmentation and flux of time.  The One who is above comes to draw humankind into its own immortal and eternal sphere. The destiny of the human is to be divinised. In contrast to such a worldview is that of contemporary science and culture. Hitherto unimaginable dimensions of time and space and energy have entered into our minds today. We understand and increasingly experience this world as one of amazing, intricate and even chaotic emergence. It is a process, unfolding through billions of years in increasing differentiation of physical, chemical and biological forms. It expresses itself in different and successive levels of organisation, from the quantum behaviour of particles to the formation of increasingly complex molecules to the emergence of life, from the protozoa to what we can now call plant, animal and human. Such emergent differentiation and interiority, heading to the phenomenon of the human, dawns as a universe, a vast communion, a cosmic emergence already of unimaginable duration, begging for ever more creative meanings to interpret it. How does the incarnation fit into such a scheme? How, why does God become human in such a cosmic unfolding? How is Christ incarnate, not only in an individual human body, but in the cosmic body of emergent reality? These are the larger questions brought dramatically into consideration by the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. [12] The divine appears more now as the limitless matrix of life out of which the whole process has emerged, to communicate itself in a personal way at the beginning of this ‘second day', in terms of our earlier illustration, in order to offer a new and final integration of the all in a common destiny.

And so, from the above five points of view, the great doctrinal inheritance of Chalcedon explodes into whole ranges of new questions. Perhaps they are best when most simply put: what if the incarnation were true? What difference would it make? What taste for life would it offer? What sense of the whole would it confer? To anyone already a committed Christian, such questions seem to entertain a needless doubt. They seem to imply a deeper capitulation to a relativistic and agnostic mood, perhaps in the hope of evoking a little bit more consideration from well-meaning non-believers. But to leave the matter there is to place Christian faith in an endless effort of self-justification in a world of disbelief. On the other hand, such a question can profitably stir a more creative response from Christians themselves. Given the complexity of human consciousness and the fragmented character of modern culture, it is possible to live as if the Incarnation were not true, for  more or less vast areas of human experience. The consequences of the original, radical Christian affirmation remain untapped. The incarnation is left in doctrinal isolation, cut off from a larger imagining. It is a completed viewpoint rather than a developing horizon, leaving the believer content with doctrinal certitude rather than stirred to wonder. The dogma congeals into a statement, instead of inspiring new questions.

Without losing confidence in its basic affirmation, living much closer to the questionable, questing, wondering energies of faith can mean real gains for the vitality of Christian imagination. So, what if it were true that in Jesus of Nazareth the divine has expressed itself? What difference would it make in the whole world of our experience? What if it were true that the Word, the self-expression of limitless originating mystery, had become flesh, uttering itself into what seems most distant from any notion of the divine? What if it were true that the divine has uttered itself into the matter and processes, into the emergence and into the community of this planetary life?  What if it were true that the God, from whom the universe has come and is held in being, has become with us, an earthling, to emerge out of the fertility of this process of life? What if it were true that the universe itself had become newly conscious of itself in the mind and heart of the Word made flesh, the Word incarnate, en-worlded, en-cosmified? What if it were true that the procession of the Word from the Father in the Spirit was the deepest structural dynamism of the world process itself?   For, as Aquinas, would say, the Word is not ‘any kind of word, but a Word breathing love' of limitless self-giving. [13] So we can ask, What if this were the way reality is? What difference does it make to our sense of God, of ourselves, of the world, of the universe, in its origins and in its future?

The Virgin of Vladimir

The Word and the Worlds of Meaning

I am not implying that there are only questions. Indeed, new answers are being shaped not only in theology, but in new doctrinal expressions of faith. One inspiring source for further reflection is Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes. This seminal document gives expression to the cosmic, historical, social and cultural understanding of human existence. One notes the change of emphasis, a readiness to employ a less philosophically burdened style of thinking. In many ways its language is a reversion to an earlier style of Christian thought characteristic of Irenaeus of Lyons and Origen, and yet owing much to the influence of Teilhard and the evolutionary perspective of Rahner. Before commenting on some conciliar texts, I feel it is important to take note of the meaning-making process that is in evidence in the creativity of the Church's expression.

‘Meaning' is a strange ‘in between' kind of activity. By meaning something, we certainly intend to make a true statement. We are attempting to deal with reality. But that reality is disclosed only within an horizon lit by many kinds of meaning-full acts.  Even then, in its deepest reaches and extent, existence remains an englobing mystery, inciting us to meaning, but eluding any complete comprehension. To express the matter another way, it is not as though we simply put a meaning on things already somehow there. Rather, through our efforts to be meaning-making, we find our immersion in reality illuminated in seemingly endless ways. Without it, the world would be meaning-less. We would have no name, no language, no history, no laws, no thought, no art, and certainly no religion. Even to ask a question implies our involvement in a meaningful world.  To be suddenly left stranded in our worlds of ordinary meaning, say, when we are touched by dreadful suffering, or pierced with the absurdity of the situation, or shocked by a sudden death, or drawn into the divine presence, is profoundly disconcerting. For being human is a continuing effort to live in a meaning-ful world, a world shot-through with significance and intelligibility.

Without going into all the complexity of this topic, we usually associate meaning simply with what is meant in the world of known objects. I mean ‘kiwis', not ‘kangaroos; I mean that the cows are in the meadow, not that they jumped over the moon; I mean that the moon is made of rock, not of cheese. Hence, the most noticeable function of meaning is that it orientates us in an objective world. It is cognitive. This world of objects is one of limitless scope, from quarks to quasars, from photons to the world of faith; from protozoa to the Trinity itself. Early in human development we learn to distinguish between real and imaginary objects, eventually to arrive at distinctions between astrology and astronomy, between myth and history, between truth and fantasy, between well-founded belief and childish credulity. In that apparently sturdy world of cognitive meaning, we are constantly encouraged ‘to say what you mean and to mean what you say'. It is a world in which knowing supposes an increasing ability to name and to refer to a world of objects, in their distinctiveness and connections.

Now this has been very much the world of Christian faith with its hardy Greek intellectual inheritance. You have the articles of the creed and the various church doctrines that teach that this is the case, not that. God's Word is, thus, the supreme object which has entered into the flesh of our world of objects. Theological systems characteristically endeavour to bring these doctrines into a meaningful whole, and to relate that world of the objects of faith to the world of science, philosophy, and the human sciences in general. Manifestly, this remains a great challenge at the moment: to take aboard the meaning-system of Christian faith all the new things and relationships that ecology or cosmology are increasingly discovering. As an example of the greater cognitive range of meaning, we can cite the following passage from Gaudium et Spes:

The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was made flesh so that as perfect man he could save all human beings and sum up all things in himself. The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilisation, the centre of humankind, the joy of all hearts, the fulfilment of all aspirations. It is he whom the Father raised from the dead ...constituting him judge of the living and the dead. Animated and drawn together in his Spirit, we press onward in our journey towards the consummation of history which fully corresponds to the plan of his love: ‘to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth' (Eph 1:10). [14]

In this passage, we find a comprehensive cognitive meaning of the Incarnation, in contrast to its comparatively isolated treatment in the classic definitions of faith already referred to.

At this point, we can introduce the presence of other more tacit and pervasive dimensions of Christian meaning. They serve to put the objective affirmations of the Incarnation in a far richer field of reference. These three other dimensions of meaning are further ways of meaning reality and responding to its meaningfulness.  There is constitutive meaning.  It bears on our living sense of identity.  Then there is communicative meaning. It establishes relationships of inclusion and belonging. A further range of meaning is effective.  It changes things, and in fact forms and even transforms our world. [15] Let me illustrate each one in turn.

First, the constitutive function of meaning. To say it simply, we are constituted in a richer kind of human identity by our meaning-making. If I say that this dog is my pet, Pluto, I am not only meaning something about a dog as an object, but I am revealing, maintaining and confirming my own identity as someone who owns and loves this dog. I am constituted in a certain way. Similarly, if I say I am an Australian, I am not only saying that a country exists by that name, but that my national, cultural and historical identity has been constituted by such belonging, even if, in some foreign clime, I have only a passport to prove it. Further, the Australian constitution ‘constitutes' me as a citizen with certain rights and duties within this country. By such obvious meanings, I own my identity in a certain way, and come to a feel, as it were, about myself and the world I live in, to present myself for what I am in a meaningful world.

Such constitutive meanings have been the special preoccupation of phenomenological philosophy.  The focus is on human consciousness and the self-constituting events and decisions that make us the kind of persons we are. It highlights the subjective pole of human experience. The question arises, then, as to what kind of subjectivity, what kind of lived identity does Christian faith bring about? If I say the Word became flesh and mean it with the full assent of faith, I mean something; but I also have become someone in the process. I am ‘in Christ', as St Paul would say. I have been constituted in the universe of meaning and of values by a distinctive feel for the universe and its mystery. The mystery of God revealed in Christ has become an indwelling reality in our hearts: the Christian is one who has been illumined by the light of the Word, as a member of the Body of Christ, as a temple of his Spirit.  And so the believer enjoys a liberated intimacy with the incomprehensible mystery, as the child of God. 

In other words, the constitutive meaning of Christian faith is fundamental to its cognitive meaning, and often enough an impetus to its extension. In the light of constitutive meaning as an indwelling reality, one enters more creatively into the contemporary world of meaning. It is to live with a sense of the universe enfolded and energised by God's love. Without this sense of self and universal belonging, we risk of being ‘constituted' in less benign manners. We may come to see ourselves merely as the tiniest of cosmic fragments, or as one factor in the biological chain, belonging, perhaps, to a stage in the evolutionary process, but being really of no significance in a blind and aimless unfolding.  In our worst moments, we might even see ourselves as a genetic mistake, prone to apologise for taking up space in a world otherwise content to be without us.

But through the constitutive meaning of Christian faith, human consciousness lifts to an awareness of giftedness.  It enjoys the peace the world cannot give (John 14:27);  it is promised the joy that no one can take away (John 16:22); it lives with assurance that nothing in all creation ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Rom 8:39).  The incarnation means for those who believe it they live as participants in God's coming-to-be in the world of creation.  It makes the heart intimate with the mystery that is at work. It inspires an atmosphere of hope in which the randomness, the chaos, the entropy of the physical universe is subsumed into the creativity of a larger grace.  And the sins and failures of the past yield to the healing and forgiveness offered out of a limitless mercy.

Such a dimension of meaning is present in the following passage from Gaudium et Spes:

In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of the human truly becomes clear... Human nature by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed by him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For by his incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way, united himself with every human being. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has been truly one of us, like to us in all things except sin...  All this holds true not for Christians only but also for all people of good will in whose hearts grace is invisibly active. For since Christ died for all, and since in fact all are called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery... [16]

Belief in the Word incarnate inspires a new sense of identity: ‘life and death are made holy, and acquire a new meaning' [17] . Human consciousness is informed with a sense of dignity and destiny within what can seem a threatening cosmos: ‘the riddle of suffering and death which, apart from the Gospel overwhelms us'. [18] It offers an intimacy with the universal Origin, for, through the gift of the Spirit, believers invoke the ineffable mystery with a filial familiarity, as they share in the identity of the Son: ‘we may cry out in the Spirit, “Abba, Father!” '. [19]

But meaning is also communicative. Meaning functions not only by enabling us to mean something (cognitive), not only in making each of us a more meaningful someone (constitutive), but as a communication in a field of meaning. It expresses a community of language, thought, feeling, ultimate purpose and linked identity. At its most primitive and obvious, such a range of meaning is instanced as, say, when you can engage in conversation with someone. It is most noticeable in the formation of societies as they ‘socialise' their members into their respective meanings and values. On the specific levels of ecology and cosmology, we have a communicative meaning that sets us both in the larger community of life and in the vast process of the cosmos itself. In the ultimate horizon of  belonging together, Christian faith communicates a rich range of community-forming meanings.  It locates believers in the community of creation.  It identifies them as members of the body of Christ.  It promises a sharing in the ‘Holy Breath' of God and speaks of a common status as sons and daughters of the Father. This extension of meaning is well illustrated in the following words of Vatican II:

Just as God did not create human beings to live as individuals, but to come together in the formation of social unity, so he willed to make them holy and to save them not as individuals without any bond or link between them but to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness...  This communitarian character is perfected and fulfilled in the work of Jesus Christ, for the Word made flesh willed to share in human fellowship...  As the firstborn of many brethren, by the gift of his Spirit, he established after his death and resurrection, a new brotherly communion among all who received him in faith and love; this is the communion of his own body, the Church, in which everyone, as members one of the other, would render mutual service in the measure of different gifts bestowed on each... This solidarity must be constantly increased until that day when it will be brought to fulfilment: on that day, humankind, saved by grace, will offer perfect glory to God as the family beloved of God and of Christ their brother. [20]

The communicative dimension of meaning of faith inspires a sense of solidarity with others, in their sufferings, joys and hopes. Today this solidarity is extended in the grandeur of a shared scientific story of our origins, and of our genetic interconnection with other life-forms of the planet. [21] When the earth itself has become the symbol of the one community of life, Christianity is invited to make deeper and richer connections with the ground on which it stands, with the nature in which it is immersed, with the cosmic body of its Lord.

Finally, there is the challenge to recognise more explicitly the effective dimensions of meaning. Meaning transforms the world. The plans we make, the laws we enact, the ethical imperatives we articulate, the technologies we design, the priorities we assign, the skills we employ, the cultural interests and political concerns we bring to any situation, all conspire into a world-making and world-transforming energy. Meaning makes the human world. The effective bearing of meaning could be illustrated in the recent emphasis on praxis in Political and Liberation Theologies. These modes of Christian thinking stress that, if the cognitive claims of Christian faith are to mean something in the real world, if the identity it promises is to be authentic, if the community it aspires to is going to be one of genuine solidarity, then its meaning must be effective. The test case of Christian meaning has typically been the genuine love of the neighbour. As this is extended into the whole neighbourhood of creation in which our neighbours live, the effective scope of Christian meaning is expanded. The energies of love form the true face of the world. The ‘love [that] never ends (1 Cor 13: 8) is the ultimately effective factor if the ‘fruits of our nature and our enterprise' are to be purified, illuminated and transfigured:

The Word of God, through whom all things were made, became human and dwelt amongst us: a perfect man, he entered world history, taking that history into himself and recapitulating it. He reveals to us that ‘God is love' (1 John 4:8) and at the same time teaches that the fundamental law of human perfection, and consequently of the transformation of the world, is the new commandment of love...  When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise – human dignity, brotherly communion, and freedom --according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom... [22]

The more the Word is en-fleshed in the world of human meaning, the more all the dimensions of meaning come into play in a mutually enriching manner. As the meaning of faith affirms the oneness of the universe in Christ, it illuminates our consciousness of being participants in a cosmic mystery of Incarnation. It grounds a sense of inclusion in the one mystery of creation, and inspires the transformation of the world itself. There occurs a circulation, even an ‘ecology', of Christian meaning as faith seeks to understand its truths, its consciousness, its community and its vocation in each age.

The Poem of the Word

 To summarise, our reflections on the Logos incarnate in the cosmos have dwelt on four considerations. First, we considered how God's love for the universe is illumined by a recognition of the Word incarnate in the human world.  It deeply affects human consciousness, for the Logos has entered the dialogos of the human conversation. Secondly, we noted three arcs of the expression of faith, in its effort to word the Word in the world of our experience. Thirdly, we proceeded to consider how the focal meaning of the Incarnation expressed in its classical doctrinal form now confronts Christian thought with new kinds of questioning. Finally, we indicated four dimensions of meaning in which this focal mystery is presently being expressed in Church doctrines.  A multidimensional Christian meaning orders, suffuses, connects and orientates our experience of the mystery of Christ.  Teilhard de Chardin writes,

Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within... Such has been my experience in contact with the earth – the diaphany of the divine at the heart of the universe on fire... Christ; his heart; a fire: capable of penetrating everywhere and gradually spreading everywhere. [23]

The brief points that I have made here not only sketch the dimensions of the great challenge confronting Christian thinking, but also provoke a re-reading of the past. The work of Irenaeus of Lyons and Origen are often instanced. But even in the work of such adversarial and logical thinkers as Tertullian, precious resources awaiting a larger retrieval are in evidence. To give one precious example,

Think of God utterly taken up with the task of creation, with hand, sense, industry, forethought, wisdom, providence, and, above all, with that loving care which was determining the features. For the image of Christ, the man who was to be, was influencing every stage in the moulding of the clay; because what was at that moment happening to the earth's clay, would happen again when the Word became flesh. [24]

When all is said and done, it is a matter of appreciating anew the Word Incarnate as a great poem. The sublimity of the hymnic prologue of John, referred to at the beginning of this chapter, points in that direction. The Word, the Logos, the Meaning Incarnate, works in human consciousness as a great poem. As the Les Murray, himself a remarkable poet, has stated,

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and our dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture. [25]

Murray's words remind us that the manifold meanings of faith are carried, not primarily in words or concepts, but in the pulse and momentum of our living. The Incarnation transforms our taste for reality, our whole feel for life as it carries us on.  Its meaning is inexhaustible, for

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask, Now why did the poet do that? [26]

In the interests of ‘full religion', or at least of a fuller version of it, we have been involved in a kind of ‘loving repetition' within the new contexts of our concern.  And there are certainly those turns where we are left with a question for the divine Poet of the Word. While that Word draws us into a vision of all things held in existence, illumined and linked in the event of incarnation, there are moments of utter darkness, taking us to the depths of human tragedy, into the silence of the tomb when the Incarnate Word is a tortured corpse. But we are not left there. No cosmic ‘black hole' of meaninglessness has swallowed him. There is that ‘white hole', if that is not too banal a parallel, of life transformed, of resurrection, disclosing a new and final form of existence. There, the fragmented and groping meanings of faith come home; and what is obscure and unfinished on this side of darkness, blazes with light.

[1] . Material to debate such a position can be found in John Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (London:SCM, 1990). Though there is no mention of an `ecological' christology, there is some consideration of the `Cosmic Christ', E.g., pp.140-142; 167; 307f; 314-316; 428.

[2] . For a fuller theological consideration of the prologue, see Macquarrie, Jesus Christ..., 105-122. Macquarrie's own translation of this passage, especially his use of `meaning' for Logos is particularly imaginative. For a fuller discussion, see Anthony J. Kelly and Francis F. Moloney, Experiencing God in the Gospel of John (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2003) 29-60.

[3] . For the importance of the symbol of light, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Light of the World. A Basic Image in Early Christian Thought (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962).

[4] . Augustine, Confessions VII, 9.

[5] . I owe this notion to the great ecumenical theologian, Joseph Sittler. But, with the passage of the years, the precise reference now eludes me. For a more specifically Pauline treatment of these issues, see the concise but stimulating work, Brendan Byrne, SJ, Inheriting the Earth. A Pauline Basis of a Spirituality for our time (Sydney: St Paul Publications, 1990).

[6] . Teilhard de Chardin, The Hymn of the Universe (London: Collins, 1970) 168.

[7] . See Denis Edwards, Jesus and the Cosmos (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991); also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Christ. Christology in Messianic Dimensions (London: SCM, 1990) 274-312.

[8] . Cited in Mooney, Teilhard de Chardin … , 136.

[9] . Though I have been speaking in classical terms of the incarnation of the Word, I do not mean to restrict this to the simple fact of the Word's becoming human. No Christian account of the meaning of the incarnation can pretend to any completeness if it leaves out the actual life, passion and death of Jesus, in his solidarity with the `poor' and the hopeless. Nor can we speak of the Light that is overcoming the darkness without referring to the Resurrection, the final manifestation of the meaning of the Meaning, the Logos, uttered into hope's ongoing conversation. In later themes, we will refer to such aspects of the Christian mystery.

[10] . Here I touch on points explored at depth in the christology of Karl Rahner. Most relevant here is his seminal article, ‘Current Problems in Christology', Theological Investigations I ( New York: Seabury, 1974) 149-200.

[11] . For an incisive analysis of this point, see Bernard Lonergan, ‘The Absence of God in Modern Culture', A Second Collection. Papers by Bernard J. F. Lonergan, SJ, William Ryan, SJ and Bernard Tyrell, SJ, eds. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1974) 101-116.

[12] . Here we must not overlook the pioneering work of the Anglican theologian, Lionel Thornton, The Incarnate Lord (London: Longmans and Green, 1928).

[13] . S Th I, q. 43, a. 5 ad 2.

[14] Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World'), Par. 45. from  Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Austin Flannery, OP, General Editor (Northport, NY:  Costello Publishing Co.,  1992) 947.

[15] . Lonergan, Method…, 57-99..

[16] . Gaudium et Spes,  par. 22, in  Vatican Council…,  922-924.

[17] . Ibid., par. 22.

[18] . Ibid., par. 22.

[19] . Ibid., par. 22, end.

[20] . Gaudium et Spes, par. 32, in Vatican Council…,  931-2..

[21] . See Denis Edwards, ‘The Integrity of Creation: Catholic Social Teaching in an Ecological Age', Pacifica 5 (1992), pp. 188-194, for a fuller documentation of such communicative meaning.

[22] . Gaudium et Spes, par. 38, in Vatican Council…,  937-8.

[23] . Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), footnote 1, p. 46.

[24] . Quoted in Gabriel Daly, Creation and Redemption (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988) 77.

[25] . Les Murray, ‘Poetry and Religion', in  Blocks and Tackles. Articles and Essays 1982-190 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1990) 172.

[26] . Murray, Blocks and Tackles,  172.