The picture frame: God and evolution at opposite corners. The re-frame: God within evolution as the meta-narrative, an umbrella story into which the Christian narrative is folded.
For the first half of my ministry the understanding of God and the understanding of our evolving universe co-existed, with little interaction between the two. During my first years as pastor, the concept of evolution seldom showed up in my sermons or teaching. It was there as a background story, acknowledged but seldom connecting with life experience. Occasionally, if pressed by a Creationist, I would defend my view of creation as unfolding over millenniums. It was a “soft” belief, one which I knew to be well-documented by contemporary scientists.
What a shock it must have been during the late Middle Ages for humans to hear, “You are no longer the center of the universe!” This startling truth—the earth revolving around the sun—shattered our primal place within a presumed stable, orderly world. During the centuries that followed the church was largely in denial about this discovery, while at the same time science emerged, triumphantly solidifying our evolving as humans in an evolving universe. Even the sun lost its prominence, becoming but one of countless suns within countless galaxies.
Picture the vastness of evolution compressed into 100 years, a schema perhaps familiar to you. The Big Bang occurred in the first year, then after about 67 years our solar system is formed, with us, the human species, appearing around the 99th year. That leaves the birth of Jesus occurring during the last hours, which, in turn, leaves me with my mouth wide open in radical amazement. Imagine that! Christianity and other faith traditions are recent—just getting started, we could say. You and I serve an early, early church. Could there be a more abrupt shift in perspective?
My turn toward this re-frame—the evolving universe as meta-narrative—began with Claude Stewart, a nearby professor, who I asked in 1987 to deepen my understanding of “process theology.” My first assignment took me by surprise. “Read Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis,” he said. Claude in his wisdom didn’t want us to begin with an intellectual discussion of theory. First, he invited me to experience “process,” to feel it in my bones, know it viscerally, and encounter its throbbing dynamism. He wanted the starting point to be the awe, power, and beauty of evolution. Kazantzakis’ poetic grasp of evolution did just that. I’ll quote part of it.
Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant water, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do! You are demanding the impossible! But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”
It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We are just fine here,” they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”
But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!”
“We don’t want to! We can’t.”
“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”
And lo! After thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs. Man calls in despair, “Where can I go?”
And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”
This Cry, this pitiless hammering in our loins, the Beyond luring us forward—don’t you feel it at times? You know that fiery mixture of fear and excitement welling up within, whispering or shouting sometimes, “Wake up. Leave your comfort zone. Risk. Stand up. Give birth to your betters!”
Your mother felt this Cry. So did my mother. At our births each one heard the Cry. While fearing, “I can’t do this! This is too hard, too painful!” they heard the counter Cry rising within them: “You can. Let go. Yield to the struggle. Embrace the pain. Don’t hold back. Give birth to ‘your betters.’ Welcome the new life coming through you!”
You felt that Cry when you decided for the first time to stand up on your own two legs. It was a micro moment of defying fear by choosing the risk of walking over the comfort of crawling. It was the same Cry calling you to courage when you risked preaching your first sermon, when you vowed “yes” at your ordination, when you risked rejection within an important personal relationship for a deeper acceptance and intimacy, or when you took a stand out of integrity in the face of inner voices shouting, “No. Don’t do it. We’re just fine here. Don’t disturb us.” Yet, you heeded a different voice, and, to your surprise, your self-confidence thickened. The feared catastrophe likely didn’t happen. This is the process that occurs when you “give birth to your betters.”
You can almost hear this Cry pounding in the heart of a trapeze artist: the risk of letting go of one bar, feeling the “up in the air” anxious suspension, yet trusting the new bar coming toward you. It’s the metaphor I turn to when I think of evolution: the summons—to risk failure for a higher stage, to risk discomfort for the sake of integrity, to risk misunderstanding for a more complex, deeper mutuality. It’s the Cry, a gigantic breath “blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and in the heart of every living thing,” a force some of us call God and Spirit.
This re-frame shifted my perspective in multiple directions. My understanding of evolution evolved as God within evolution became the meta-narrative. You gain a sense of this shifting from these short paragraphs.
- If time is imagined as a long corridor, then this evolving universe blew away the backdoor on my sense of history. Our human capacity for transcendence is comparably recent.
- Creation did not happen; creation is happening. Nothing is ordered, fixed and stable; life is dynamic, chaotic, devolving, evolving, ever more complex, demanding ever more collaboration. At our best, we are co-creators with God in an unfinished universe.
- Our planet, the beautiful blue ball pictured from outer space as whole, undivided, is the mythic symbol of our age.
- Reality is relational, interconnected, systemic, fluid, ever evolving on all levels from micro to macro within an expanding universe. Separation is an illusion.
- God is active within our evolving creation; our evolving creation is within God (pan-en-theism). God is the Cry, the Lure, the summoning life-force of Love—Love as eros, desiring to connect creatively; as philia, forming covenant partnerships; and as agape, radical self-giving to the “other,” the neighbor “as yourself.” God is the subject of Love, glowing and active in and through our relationships.
- The Spirit is divine Love-in-action. Evolution is Spirit-in-action, a Ken Wilber phrase.
- Jesus, Life-giver, icon of the fully human, is the divine Cry incarnated, giving body, mind, and soul to this movement toward the fullness of shalom.
- Church is those who desire and allow the Love embodied in Jesus to be embodied in them, his Body in the world.
- Prayer is surrendering to and partnering with this divine movement toward justice and right relationships (shalom), allowing ourselves to be transformed in the process.
- Meditation is an inner muscle builder, a repeated practice of letting go the inner noise of anxious mental thoughts, past or future, and falling into the heart space of “belovedness,” our true human nature, our deepest identity.
- Worship, from a place of awe, is our self-offering to the God movement toward shalom.
- Hope is standing back, way, way back, far enough to see the vastness of evolution with its repeated patterns of death and resurrection, dying and rising, the Paschal Mystery and its movement toward increasing complexity and collaboration in the direction of wholeness. My hope is in those who hear and heed this summoning Cry, feeling it, questioning it, fearing it, and who finally, over and over again, yield to its call to “give birth to their betters.”
I am not proposing determinism. We experience both the pull of evolution and the force of devolution. Extinctions are occurring. From self-destructive and earth-destructive behavior, we homo sapiens might be the next. Yet, evolution will not end. Death never has the last word. Life keeps coming out of death—a conviction formed from my understanding of the Gospel, my trust in the Cry, and my understanding of evolution.
Recently some elder friends and I were lamenting the current state of affairs. The conversation bounced around the table. “Democracy is gone. Let’s face it. We have an oligarchy—the few with wealth, political power calling the shots,” said one friend. Another bemoaned international crises, saying “I can’t stand watching nations implode, with thousands of refugees fleeing for safety. I see no solution.” Still another reminded us of our founders’ choice—a messy political process over the option of tyranny—and despaired, “Yet now in the last decade people are elected to obstruct the political process as a way to sabotage the other political party.” The chorus claiming our voices was “Ain’t it awful! Ain’t it awful!”
On and on it went. After a while I asked my friends, “Well, what gives you hope?” Like a boomerang the question came back, “Well, Mahan, what gives you hope?”
I told them about the Cry. It’s been a re-frame that’s mattered.
For further reading:
The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio