For God So Loved The Cosmos
When Christ became human, he also became part of the vast body of the cosmos.
For Christians, Jesus Christ is the center of faith, the ground of the church’s belief and practice lived out in his Spirit. If love for him can be connected with love for nature, a strong impulse for ecological care will result, in addition to the doctrine of creation. Does Jesus have anything to do with the cosmos? Exploring his incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection with this question in mind yields some inspiring and challenging answers.
Made of stardust
At the core of Christian faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being to redeem the world. The gospel for Christmas day proclaims this beautifully: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word is God’s own self-communication, uttered from all eternity. Flesh means what is material, perishable, vulnerable, finite, the very opposite of what is divine.
Here is a most radical statement: God became material. Christmas celebrates a radical gift: The all-holy God personally joined our world of sin and suffering to save. This is known as the doctrine of incarnation, from the Latin in carne, “into flesh.”
Scientific discoveries have made clear that human flesh is part of the evolutionary network of life on this planet, which in turn is a part of the solar system, which in turn came into being as a part of a long cosmic history. This awareness of our natural history provides new insight into the cosmic meaning of the “flesh” that the Word became.
The prevailing theory in science today holds that everything that exists comes from a single blazing instant. Dated at 13.7 billion years ago, the universe began when a single speck exploded in what is rather inelegantly called the Big Bang, an outpouring of matter and energy that is still going on.
As this material expanded, its lumpy unevenness allowed swirling galaxies to form as the force of gravity pulled particles together and their dense friction ignited the stars.
Roughly 5 billion years ago some of these aging stars died. They exploded into great supernovas, which cooked basic hydrogen into more complex elements. Out of these clouds of dust and gas, some material reformed and re-ignited to become our sun, a second-generation star. Some coalesced into chunks too small to catch fire, forming the planets of our solar system—including Earth.
Three and a half billion years ago on this planet another momentous change took place when molecules coalesced to form living cells. Over eons these burst into creatures that would “be fruitful and multiply”: the advent of life.
Out of the Big Bang, the stars; out of the stardust, the Earth; out of the matter of the Earth, life. Out of the life and death of single-celled creatures, an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom emerged human beings—mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.
According to this scientific story, everything is connected with everything else. British scientist and theologian Arthur Peacocke explains, “Every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.”
Quite literally, human beings are made of stardust.
Furthermore, we share with all other living creatures on our planet a common genetic ancestry. Bacteria, worms, pine trees, blueberries, horses, the great gray whales—we are all genetic kin in the great community of life.
While human thought and love are distinct, they are not something injected into the universe from without. Rather, they are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. In the human species nature becomes conscious of itself and open to fulfillment in grace and glory.
According to the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, this makes human beings the “cantors of the universe,” able to sing praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.
Understanding the human species as an intrinsic part of planetary and cosmic matter has far-reaching implications for the meaning of incarnation. In this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos.
Theologians have started to use the phrase “deep incarnation,” coined by Danish theologian Niels Gregersen, to express this radical divine reach into the very tissue of biological existence and the wider system of nature.
Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself what Jesuit Father David Toolan has called “the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth.” The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.
This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. In place of spiritual contempt for the world, we ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, part of the flesh that the Word became. …
For billions of years the universe has had the character of an adventure, discovering and bringing forth new things never seen before. And the process is not finished yet. Human action that aborts nature’s possibilities by wreaking harm to ecosystems and other creatures is nothing less than a profoundly sinful violation against life. It shortchanges nature’s promise, killing off what might yet be. In so doing, it frustrates God’s own creative vision for the future of this universe.