The Emerging Worldview of the 21st Century and its Impact on Ecclesiology
By Diamuid O’Murchu
The coming to be of a world Church precisely as such does not mean just a quantitative increase in the previous Church , but rather contains a theological break in Church history that still lacks conceptual clarity and can scarcely be compared with anything except the transition from Jewish to Gentile Christianity— Rahner 1979, 726-727
What is the New Cosmology?
The new cosmology is so named to counteract the more mechanistic world view that prevailed from the 16 till the 19t century CE. The new departure is marked by Einstein’s theories of relativity and the development of quantum physics in the opening decades of the 20% century. However, it is not entirely new, as it reclaims several features of the cosmology that prevailed in the high Middle Ages (influencing St. Thomas Aquinas, among many others), traces of which can be found in several ancient oriental traditions of China and India.
The following are considered to be the key features of the New Cosmology, sometimes named the New Story (especially by one of its best know proponents, the late Fr. Tomas Berry CP [Berry 1999:2006; 20097)
1. Aliveness: Organicity characterises everything in creation. Aliveness did not begin with organic creatures nor does it manifest in a superior expression in any one strand of life, human or otherwise. Aliveness belongs first and foremost to the evolving universe, bestowed on all creatures we know through the mediation of our earthiness. Humans are alive because the earth to which we belong is alive, and the earth has inherited its aliveness from the living evolving universe.(More in Barrow 2011;’ Davies 2006)
Challenge to the Church: All the major religions, including Christianity, attribute liveness primarily to God, and secondarily to God’s primary creatures on earth, namely humans. Humans are deemed to be superior to all other life forms. Moreover, Christianity, for much of its history, encouraged humans to remain as separate as possible from the earth and the wider creation, on the understanding that too close a connection with the material creation could prove to be a serious barrier to obtaining salvation in a world beyond. The dualistic split between the sacred and secular is at the root of Christianity’s one-sided understanding of what it means to be alive.
2. Symbiogenesis is a concept developed by the micro-biologist, Lynn Margulis (1998) to denote the relational, cooperative interaction through which everything in the universe comes into being, grows and flourishes. Contrary to the atomistic view of classical science, and the separation through which modern humans self-define themselves, nothing in the universe makes sense in isolation. Everything needs everything else to thrive and flourish.
Challenge for the Church: Despite belief in a Trinitarian God, understood today as a nexus of deep relational meaning, Christianity has always favoured differentiation and distinction. atomism and dualism, over against relational, interactive ways of perceiving and understanding. Consistently, the emphasis has been on how Christianity differs from everything else, rather than seeking out and celebrating the commonalities that can Inspire and empower.
3. Interdependence follows logically. No one species has dominion over all others. Our human becoming is dependent on all the other creatures with whom we share the living earth, but also dependent on the creative energies we have inherited from eons long past. Judy Cannato (2006, 65) provides a vivid description of this interdependence:
The water in your body contains primordial hydrogen formed in the first seconds of the Big Bang. The carbon atoms that formed you came together after the explosion of a supernova. The concentration of salt in your body matches the concentration of salt in the ancient seas. Your cells are direct descendants of unicellular organisms that developed billions of years ago. You see because chlorophyll molecules mutated, so that like plant leaves, your eyes can capture the light from the sun. And in your mother’s womb your tiny body repeated the whole process of multi-cellular life on earth, beginning with a single cell, and then developing greater and greater complexity.
Challenge to the Church: Heavily aligned with patriarchal top down order and structure, the Church tends to emphasise the independent uniqueness of those who hold the power, to be clearly distinguished from those who don’t. For much of Christian history the people of God were treated as passive recipients of a wisdom which belonged in its fullness to those at the top. Instead of striving for mutuality and interdependence, something closer to the parent-child relationship defined the Church’s way of operating in the world.
4. Paradox is the word we use to captivate the integration of cosmic polarities – life and death, creativity and destruction, light and darkness — observable throughout the entire universe. While our inherited consciousness tends to split these polarities into binary dualistic opposites, the New Cosmology seeks to reclaim the more fundamental unity of the bothrand rather than the either- or. This material is foundational to our cosmic understanding of the dark and destructive forces at work in creation, all of which are essential to the creative potential of cosmos and Earth planet alike. Human suffering needs to be understood afresh within this paradoxical context, a challenge largely unknown to the human species at this time.
Challenge to the Church: All meaningless suffering is understood to be derived from a foundational flawed condition, known as Original Sin. The flaw begins with humans and adversely affects everything else throughout the entire spectrum of cosmic creation. This set of perceptions is quite primitive, narrowly anthropocentric, and tends to exacerbate rather than reduce the meaningless suffering in the world. There is gross confusion between the flaw and the paradox, resulting in a range of redemptive theories, the shortcomings of which have been extensively documented in recent times. (cf. Brock & Parker 2008; Heim 2006).
5. Revelation – in inherited Christian thought – describes God’s manifestation of divine meaning exclusively through the Christian scriptures. On the other hand, the New Cosmology acknowledges that God has been fully at work in creation for billions of years — before scriptures or religions ever evolved; it proposes that revelation needs to be predicated on universal life embracing its entire trajectory of 13.7 billion years. God reveals the God-self primarily through the universal creation as an evolving unfolding emergence. Each religion, therefore, may be viewed as a particular cultural and time conditioned articulation of the foundational revelation which belongs primarily to creation itself.
Challenge to the Church: The Church’s official theological horizons are far too narrow, with revelation applying almost exclusively to the human realm, and in the Christian context to a narrow historical time frame, culminating with the death of the last apostle. All elegance of God at work in the larger creation is either ignored or subverted, a stance that is likely to alienate many believers in an age where millions are more consciously aware of the larger context, and of the urgent ecological and environmental issues confronting humanity today.
6. Story. The creation we know is not merely an accumulation of scientific facts, but rather a story that is being told spanning infinite spacetime, a universe which in all probability has neither beginning nor end. Scientific fact certainly illuminates the mystery, and in recent times particularly it has enhanced human awareness and our understanding of the vast and complex “multiverse” to which we belong, and without which our lives have no meaning. We, humans, belong to the story. We did not invent it, although today its materialisation into greater consciousness is happening at a more accelerated pace thanks to human reflexive thought. We have a unique gift to bring to the universe (as do all other creatures) but we do so indebted to the universal source from which we have received everything we cherish as earthlings. Contemporary renditions of this story include Dowd (2009), Primack & Abrams (2006), Swimme & Berry (1992).
Challenge to the Church: How does the Church reclaim the power of story? In the Gospels, Jesus unravels and illuminates deep truth in the power of story (parables – and the miracle narratives as parables-in-action — more in O’Murchu 2011, 74-93). In the history of the Church doctrine and dogma subverted the power of story, with its potential for dialogue, discovery, process, and emergent sense of truth, congruent with the evolutionary nature of life itself.