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📖(24 min. read) Creation Theology: Why? and What?

Tom tackles the big questions of developing a relevant theology in an environmentally and ecologically aware age. He identifies three levels in any narrative- what happened, the moral-ethical angle and the mystical-theological level. And he’s sharp with those who dismiss the second and third understandings as romantic or superfluous when looking at our lives, relationships to one another and to our world – even ‘business’: “We have not begun to understand scripture until we have broken through this attitude and come to a sense of the interrelatedness of the facts of daily life and the fact that God is God.” And “Our awakening secular consciousness is discovering that our human story is not, after all, self-contained but is part of a greater story – a story told in the language of evolution and ecology. We need to go further and embrace this theologically, embrace it until the divine nexus we have with creation as a whole is part of our felt life, and surely celebrated in our liturgy.” Using lots of examples, this paper offers three ‘What?’s followed by three ‘Why?’s to lead us deeper into a three-fold awareness, - and refers too to the ‘Creation Litany’ found also on this website.

6,203 words

Written around 1990?


WHY? 1.

Think of any recent event in your day. In my case: a friend has just taken me to the local shops. At the level of immediate experience that is a story simply told: a car journey by friends, various purchases and encounters in the shops, a return journey. As another level the same event can be considered in the moral or ethical terms: my friends’ generosity, what it means to own a car, the concern/unconcern of people in the shops, the morality/immorality of what I bought, how much and why… And then a third level: God was giving God a lift to share in God’s blessings!... A mystical theology level.

These are three versions of the same event: the story of immediate experience, the moral story, and the theological story. Each version of the story is coherent in its own right. But each version, each level, also pre-supposes the story underneath it, even if we do not realise it.

We could take the same triple level way of understanding wider social and economic realities which we are experiencing. It is very important for us, as people of faith, to appreciate that the story of these social realities, at the level of immediate experience, is presupposing a story (often untold) at the moral level, and that is also presupposing a theology of God.

One of the special marks, perhaps its greatest genius, of the Jewish-Christian tradition, is to perceive, and keep remembering, (because it is so difficult to remember!) that every social issue is theological, and every theological issue is social. When, for instance that tradition keeps re-affirming that God is One, it is at the same time affirming that people are one, affirming the covenant in which all people are first-class citizens, and to be treated thus. A budget, or a policy of social service benefits, which in practice denies this is not merely immoral but blasphemous.

It is, however, one of the characteristics of our age to feel confident about what is tangible and provable, but suspicious about what is intangible. So we tend to treat the first level story (whether about going to the shops, or the wider social realities) as ‘real’, and to treat the second level, and even more the third, as increasingly ‘fanciful’ or ‘idealistic’.

How often serious discussions about political or economic issues seem to be drawn off into the realm of fancy as soon as anyone introduces God-talk! It is noticeable even among very committed Christians. Talk of morality, or talk of God, is felt to be the language of idealists, ideologues, or dreamers. (Nice, of course, to have such people around, but never let them influence pragmatic decisions.)

We have not, however, begun to understand scripture until we have broken through this attitude and come to a sense of the interrelatedness of the facts of daily life and the fact that God is God. The only reason for the practical demands of Torah is that God is God.

Indeed it is the outlandish claim of all religion that the three levels of story I mentioned do not take us from what is real to what is fanciful, but exactly the other way round. True faith shows up the story of immediate experience as full of illusion, of conditioned attitudes, of plausible idolatries. It shows the moral story as a wider reality which alone can save the story of daily experience from its illusions. It shows the God story as the ultimate reality at the heart of the other two.

Consider now: what sort of immediate experience story do we feel ourselves to be in today, in a general way? Is it not one of living in a very rapidly changing world – a world whose only certainty is that the future will not be like the present? And also of living in a very precarious world – a world in which things could fall apart very quickly?

The one thing we know about children is that they are not going to grow up to be like their grandparents. Ours is the first culture in history to feel like that; every previous culture has assumed the opposite, and cultural norms and values, family and social roles, work practices and so on, were geared to ensure that the young did grow up to become like, and take over from, their parents and grandparents. If the norms and values inherited were not handed on, everything would collapse.

Recently a couple of us were planting out young oak trees when some friends visited from the city. They were full of wonder and near disbelief. I asked why and they said: “Here you are, spending time and effort on something with at least fifty year time span, whereas nothing in our daily life looks forward to more than a few years, five at the most.”

People do feel that everything is moving very fast and that everything we handle, everything we plan, everything we give ourselves to, will not be the same in the future. This is what is called a time-conscious, rather than a space-conscious, culture. It can be very frightening, even at levels which people would not acknowledge. I personally think that the present cult of the secure, property-based, usually suburban, lifestyle is (as a cult) a flight from reality. It is a fearful withdrawal from the complex, threatening, experience of the larger world. A little asylum with security alarm, household treasures, and a safe T.V. window onto the outside world. When such a bourgeois norm is set up as the official cult, a norm to which all must aspire and can feel ‘arrived’ when they have acquired it (though in fact it allows no one to ‘arrive’ because enough is never quite enough) – when that becomes official cult, then we are generating narcissism. This is surely one of the deepest challenges to the churches today, in urban, rural and especially suburban areas: to name and de-mythologise the potential narcissism of the bourgeois life-style. We cannot be open to God, to people, and to the reality in which we live, if we defend ourselves from being vulnerable, and merely look after our own.

Our time-conscious awareness asks many questions of our theology. For instance, our children grow up learning about evolution, and evolutionary thinking is taken for granted in the media (albeit in an uncritical, simplistic way). The idea that our story is part of an immensely greater evolutionary story is part of the mind-set of our age, it is the cosmology we take for granted. What then happens when a child moves from biology or geography class to Sunday school or sermon, and hears a creation story written in a quite different cosmology, in which God ‘created’ all, ‘sustains’ all, but in a basically static way? Can our third-level theology story be talking about the same reality as our first-level story of experience? Are we not consigning the theology story to a realm of fancy and make-believe?

A creation story is a very deep part of self-identity of any culture. And it is important that this creation story should speak theologically (as well as scientifically and historically) in the cosmology of the age. We are looking for a creation story which will do just this. It must take seriously our awareness of evolution, and our awareness of ecology, and at the same time deepen our appreciation of the creating-redeeming God of our Jewish-Christian roots.

What we do notwant to do is to tell the story and then see where we can bring God in: I shudder when I hear people, talking about some part of life, say: “I wonder if that’s where God comes in?” You might as well ask a fish; “Is that where the water comes in?”

WHY? 2.

A few years ago, Tom Berry, leading pioneer-prophet in creation theology, was invited to a conference of transnational companies.

They were trying to face up to their social responsibilities as employers of millions of people, users of primary resources, international traders and purveyors of goods.

One representative opened the proceedings by saying; “Let’s get quite clear before we discuss anything else: the bottom line of all our operations is that we must make profits.” Tom Berry intervened. “Well, I’d like to suggest there are two more bottom lines below that one.” And as a benign look came over their faces as if to say ‘we have a woolly dreamer in our midst,’ he went on: “ If you continue to use people in the way many of you do use people now, sooner or later you’ll have to pack up your operations. So that’s a bottom line below the profit one. And if you continue to plunder planet earth at the rate, and in the way, you are now plundering, then in 10 or twenty years not only will you have to pack up, but nature will have her come-back. That’s a bottom line beneath the other two.”

At that someone called Tom a romantic. And since, as he says, he likes to think of himself as a hard-nut realist that stung him. “No, no. It’s you gentlemen who are the great romantics of our age. You hold out to people, through adverts and hype, images of the good life, paradise, nirvana. And you offer rites of initiation, and sacraments of passage, for people to progress into that dreamland of salvation. Cars and cookers and candies. That is pure romanticism.”

* * * *

Tom Berry’s bottom bottom-line is becoming much clearer to us today than it has been for centuries. During our western revolutions in science, in industry, and then in technology, our attitude to planet earth has been over-rationalist and –mechanistic. Our natural world has been treated as an object for study or as a supplier of our needs. We have only recently begun to recover what most earlier cultures took for granted, that we human beings are members of, part of the story of, out natural world, our planet home. This growing awareness is partly a recovery of lost sensitivity, but also something quite new because only in our age have we been gifted with (and warned by) a feeling for the very finely balanced and interlocking ecosystems of our world.

I use a sheet of plywood for building and know that I am part of a process devastating our tropical rain forests – a process which is radically changing the planet’s essential systems of photo-synthesis, radically shifting weather patterns.

We squirt aerosols or dispose of fridges, and know that we are part cause of a serious change in the ozone layer.

We drive cars, use oil and gas and coal, throw away aluminium cans, and know that it cannot go on for ever. In North America more of the world’s non-renewable resources are used in ten years than in all previous human history.

We become, bit by bit, aware that many innocent, domestic, everyday activities have implications of global magnitude. And that awareness brings with it a considerable alarm and dread, even, perhaps, guilt.

Our life styles, all the little and big things we have come to take for granted are now dependent on massive structures of production and commerce – how can all that, and we ourselves, change rapidly enough to prevent our planet being devastated beyond recovery? How likely is the quantum leap of imagination that would be needed to liberate us from such vested interests?

There have been, however, some remarkable, if subtle, shifts of attitude in many disciplines during the last decade or so. Shifts away from brash rationalism to much more holistic, sensitive approaches.

In agriculture, for instance, we have suffered unwittingly for years from the economic necessities producing food by means of more and more fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and capital expenditure. But now there is a serious debate as to whether ‘economics’ (in the true sense of economy as the overall care of the household rather that its naïve sense as the care of finances) does not call for a far more sensitive use of land, and a far more social approach to agriculture. Ten or twenty years ago those who pleaded for more organic, less capital intensive, use of land, were mere romantics at the edge of reality. Now they are seen as part of the debate of realists.

In medicine, likewise. Many approaches to holistic medicine which were treated as quirky, silly, and even dangerous, are now being taken seriously by the medical profession. An over-rationalist medicine, for which physical illness is physically curable, is coming to appreciate a person-centred medicine in which most illness is seen as psychosomatic, involving questions of life-style, stress, diet, self-image, even faith!

In development studies there was a time when the future of poorer countries lay merely in getting in on the development of the richer countries so that all could be developed together. The brash crudity of that approach is now clear. Not only is it inconceivable that planet earth could support all human beings at the level it now supports a few of us (in my lifetime I will use over forty times as much of the planet’s non-renewable resources as my contemporary in India) – but we now recognise what ecological devastation has resulted from our ‘development’, whether in widespread deforestation, the breakdown of indigenous agriculture, the commercial plundering of the seas for fish.

My point is that the last ten years have seen a real shift away from crude development towards environmentally sensitive development. After all these years we seem at last to recognise that the meek will inherit the earth. That the future of poorer countries depends on their local indigenous agriculture, developed through sensitive intermediate technology; and the future of our wealthier countries depends on discovering simpler, less arrogant ways of being part of the story as a whole.

We could find other disciplines in which the same shift of approach is taking place. The hairy dreamers of yesteryear, the romantics and prophets (those who are good to have around as long as they do not influence policy decisions). These hairy ones are having to be taken seriously by the smooth ones. The smooth realists, strong on reason and weak on imagination, strong on rational knowledge and weak on wisdom knowledge, are having to face the horrible truth that reality is greater than their own narrow, assured, perceptions. The smooth are not so smooth, the hairy not so hairy.

* * * *

Our awakening secular consciousness is discovering that our human story is not, after all, self-contained but is part of a greater story – a story told in the language of evolution and ecology. We need to go further and embrace this theologically, embrace it until the divine nexus we have with creation as a whole is part of our felt life, and surely celebrated in our liturgy.

WHY? 3.

Aelred, a member of my community ‘full of wisdom and years’, had a weakness for provocative remarks. “You know, Thomas, the next phase of Christianity belongs to Catholics.” And then, giving just enough time for my ecumenical hackles to rise, “Because we have all become Protestants.”

The protestant in each of us emphasises the need for personal commitment and responsibility, the uniqueness of salvation in Jesus Christ, the absolute gratuity of grace.

The catholic in each of us emphasises that we are always part of a larger communion, that faith is as much a culture as a commitment, that the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is in the wider context of God’s revelation in all life and history, and that grace is always mediated in its giving and modified in its recipient (as sunlight is appropriated by plants.)

Every theological insight is enjoyed at the cost of something lost! The protestant in each of us, if not held in tension (in dialectic) with the catholic, tends to a privatisation of faith (the present government is no pioneer in privatising!); tends to a one-dimensional emphasis on salvation, as an individual affair rather than part of God’s redeeming the whole. Also, perhaps to highlight the gratuity of grace, the protestant is suspicious about, or at least indifferent to, the natural order. Whereas the catholic wants to value the natural order as God’s primary self-revelation, wants to value creation as sacramental.

Obviously the catholic in us, if not held in dialectic with the protestant, has its own hazards – the sort raised at the time of the Reformation. But Aelred was surely right that our own brand of inherited western Christianity has so privatised and spiritualised faith that it has no felt relationship with most experience of modern life. It does not convey to our hearts that what is happening in our complex modern world, especially in its global dimensions, is theologically significant.

Is it possible that God is calling us to a much broader, more embracing theological sensitivity? And is it possible that through the words of science in the theory of evolution and in ecology, God has spoken a word to us to enable this more holistic, cosmic, sensitivity? Both scientific disciplines are of course under constant review, always more or less provisional. But as ways of thinking, they open us to a comprehensive vision of God’s creative ways. We need a unifying theology which can read the story of creation, the story of redemption in Christ, and our own stories, as three aspects of God’s single drama.

WHAT? 1.

Recent pioneers in ‘creation theology’, such as Thomas Berry, point out the importance, in any culture, of having a coherent creation story. A creation story is part of our self-identity, part of the symbolic and codified way in which we know who we are, where we are from, what we are part of. And of course if such a creation story is to speak to our whole selves, it needs to be told in the cosmology of our age, an evolutionary and ecological cosmology.

But it also needs to be theological; it needs expressly to incorporate the author of the story. There lies the problem. How do we take an existing and highly developed secular account of evolution and tell it as a truly theological creation story without appearing to ‘bring God in’ arbitrarily? And artificially?

It is relatively easy to bring in a heretical god. One of these for instance:-

The God of the Gaps. Ever since the early, heated debates on evolutionary theory it has been hoped that science would always have gaps where God could come in with a special act of creation. Maybe at the beginning of life, or between plant life and animal life, and certainly, surely, at the origin of human life. The problem with this understandable hope is that it places God among the scientific causes of things, or at least as an alternative cause. Either science or God.

The God of the Gaps has been around ever since the seventeenth century, ever since many human disciplines began to understand scientifically what had previously been accepted as part of how things are, under God’s providence. In medicine for instance: much easier to pray to God for healing if healing is unexpected surprise than if bodily processes and medication are scientifically understood.

Today the God of the gaps also comes into discussion about the human embryo. The idea of the human soul being a ‘thing’, somehow ready-made, infused at some moment into a bio-chemical embryo, to enable it to become a human, spiritual person, will not do. The soul is not a thing, but the life principle of the person. That it evolves with the bio-chemical aspect of the embryo (and baby and child and adult and…!) In no way denies its spirituality and emerging transcendence. God creates within the creative powers of parents, not alongside them. We do not have to find gaps for God!

The great problem for the God of the Gaps is that the gaps keep closing up and disappearing. God goes with them.

The Puppeteer God: This is the God of those who cannot accept God as truly Creator except in immediate, special, creative activity. It is the God of creationists who insist that Genesis chapter 1 requires belief in a God who creates everything ready-made, ex nihilo. A god who created light and dark before sun and moon, fossils ready-made high up in mountains, plants before insects to fertilise them, trees with ready-developed annular rings – all this because, for God to be truly creator, he must act immediately. To create mediately through the created natures of creatures is felt somehow to deny God as truly creator.

The Puppeteer God denies the right autonomy to scientific method, denies that science, within its proper terms of reference, does not either postulate or deny God. It is true, of course, that science can only work at all on certain assumptions; that the world is intelligible, for instance, or that things do work according to cause and effect patterns. But those principles are philosophical and theological, not within the discipline of science itself. Of concern, hopefully, to the scientist, but not to science.

The Clockmaker God: This the God who is only really involved with the beginnings of things. Having intricately and beautifully put it all together, God then watches with an anxious eye as it slowly runs down, interfering just now and again for running repairs and rewinding. It is the God who initiates but does not truly sustain, except in a non-involved, keeping-things-from-extinction sense. In some ways the clockmaker is the opposite of the puppeteer.

There has been a clockmaker tendency in our traditional reading of the creation-fall story in Genesis. God created planet earth as paradise and then, almost at once and ever since, it went wrong. The subsequent story has been one of salvific running repairs to a human/planet world which could and should have been perfect but sadly was not. This is very different from an evolution-ecology reading of the same story, which accepts that a human/planet world, incarnating wonderfully both spirit and matter, could not be other than ‘fallen’. We tend to establish the clockmaker even more firmly if our reading of subsequent salvation history only considers God’s dramatic intervention in the lives of particular famous people: Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets. All reading of history tends to be that of the few and the famous. But God’s history is that of people.

Another case of the clockmaker God, the God of golden ages of the past, is the idea, very widespread among Christians, that the early Church was made up of ideal Christian communities from which we have run down ever since. People quote St. Luke’s account of the early Jerusalem church sharing all things in common, praying and breaking bread (an account which is itself idealised) and somehow think of the whole first decade’s church in a romantic way. All the evidence is against this. Those Christians were buoyant and despondent, assured and uncertain, united and divided, struggling with issues of authority and freelance enthusiasm, discovering (as we have to) that the Spirit works in and through the ambiguities and mess, not in spite of them. The clockmaker God is a pagan God if the Spirit of the Risen Lord was any more present in times past than in times present.

Both puppeteer and clockmaker deny an aspect of God’s creative presence which is, I think, difficult to comprehend. It is the aspect of God being concursus with and in the action of creatures. Concursusuntranslatable, yet surely we know its meaning. God is not only originator and sustainer, but intimately concurrent in all created activity, even that of free will – and yet, and yet, is present through secondary causation, not primary. (Primary causation being the ultimate act of holding-in-being, a causation known by faith, but beyond experience.)

Concursus; crucial to a living creation theology.

The Motormechanic: The last God I mention is the one who is totally ignored when life goes well, and taken for granted, but is then blamed roundly when things go wrong. It is the God whom people have in mind when, after a natural disaster (such as the recent case of a whole mountainside in Colombia collapsing onto hundreds of people in a town beneath it), they say: “If God exists why did he not prevent that happening? Either he is not loving or not all-powerful.”

Perhaps a fuller understanding of how totally inter-dependent planet earth is would help, at least a little, to answer that question. No local part can change without the whole being changed; it is not possible that that mountainside should not collapse, if ready to do so, unless the whole planet earth be other than it is. Arbitrary intervention cannot be merely local or temporary.

The motormechanic is not only the one we blame when things go wrong, but also the one we expect to put them right. We sense the hand of a loving, compassionate God in the love and compassion of rescue workers, of aid agencies, of victims who sacrifice their own lives to save others. But the motormechanic God can never be the incarnate, crucified God who has so entered into the mystery of his own creation as to be one with the suffering, the dying, the bereaved.

* * * *

Scratch a Christian and you find a heretic. Our theology, our worship, our prayer of necessity include the god of the gaps, the puppeteer, the clockmaker, the mechanic. If we cleaned up our language we would surely be left speechless. But at least we can be aware that that is the case.

In trying to formulate a creation story litany I and friends have tried to convey a sense of God as author (and all creation as dependent) and also convey the right autonomy of natural processes (through secondary causation). It is, and always will be, a provisional draft.

* * * *


In seeking a coherent creation theology we are not embarking on a romantic, back-to-the-land, anti-technology cruise up the rivers of Eden. We are looking for an appreciation of the whole range of cosmic reality as truly of God, the whole range from atomic structure to the structures of human history and economics. We are not dealing more with cows and clouds than we are with cars and computers.

This has often been said, and attempts have been made to translate the rural imagery of scripture and liturgy into urban and technological equivalents. Scripture knew as little of cars and computers as our urban young know of sheep and shepherds.

But in fact we face a deeper problem than merely including the world of technology in our religious language. Water, plants, animals, weather… provide basic symbols of our dependence, of the givenness of the world we are in, of our own humility and involvement; basic symbols which are sacraments of God’s bounty. Cars and computers are no less part of God’s creation; we can wonder at them and give thanks to God. But they can never be sacrament/symbols of our dependence and humility. They can never provide us with imagery which gives us the language which gives us the faith to know and celebrate God.

Many of our contemporaries grow up to know milk as a white liquid in a bottle, bread as sliced and packed platforms for butter and jam, tea as bags for the pot. They may ‘know’ where they come from, but there is no felt dependence or involvement. This is a basic alienation from roots, from reality. Perhaps it is one of the deep psychic and spiritual alienations which make worship and celebration so contrived in our modern society?

In seeking to recover our roots in planet earth we are not implying that the gifts of technology and industry are somehow aberrations on top of, or aside from, God’s creation story. But there must be a priority given to recovering our nexus with what we call the natural order.

What is ‘natural’? In some approaches to creation theology there is an idealised language about ‘nature’. It will dwell on the first chapter of Genesis, content to speak of all things created good. It does not take seriously the next two chapters, which give us the dark side, the violent side, the alienation intrinsic to the natural order. It is rather like the picture that many city dwellers have of ‘the countryside’. Any farmer or serious gardener knows that within a spade’s depth of soil there is strife, knows that ‘the natural’ is struggle and violence, not as an aberration from the ideal, but as part of the very story of creation.

God created and creates and ‘sees that it is good’, but that does not deny that grubs eat roots and lions eat lambs. In the Jewish-Christian tradition God’s creation story is always about all things

a) Being created good (because they express his goodness,

b) Being, within that goodness, radically alienated (because being other that God) and

c) Being, within that alienation, in process of redemption. We cannot avoid the ambiguity of that profound insight by claiming some parts of the whole as pure and good, others as hopelessly evil.

As a footnote let me give an example of where a sense of the ‘natural’ can easily lead to naiveté. In the serious debate going on about nuclear energy one sometimes detects a feeling that gas, coal and oil are natural fuels, whereas nuclear energy is unnatural. In fact, nuclear energy is the primordial energy source without which none of us would exist: no planet earth, no gas, coal or oil. Nuclear energy in the sun is, if you like, the most natural of all. The problems arise because we are handling something at the edge of our ability, and something which touches very deep symbolic meaning and fear in many people. – fear of unknown and unknowable power. But that is not to say that it is unnatural.

WHAT? 3.

It is part of our godlikeness as human beings not only to think but to reflect on the way we think. Our patterns of thought, our mind-set, are conditioned by family, class and culture, but are never fully determined by them. We are able to step back and be aware of having the patterns we have. We can reflect, and therefore transcend.

When I reflect on my own received patterns of thought, I find that appreciation of creation is in a separate domain from appreciation of salvation and grace. This may, in part, be because, as students, we spent weeks in theology, studying the theology of creation, and God the Creator, and then, later on, other weeks on redemption. But it, was not only academic studies that divorced the two. The general approach in most of our churches has been to speak of creation, ‘the world’, as at best a neutral backdrop, at worst an ambush, in which to set the story of salvation. Incarnation and redemption have been presented as an invasion into foreign territory rather than the home-coming of an heir.

In order to emphasise the fact that human beings cannot save themselves, and that God’s salvific grace is a free gift we have found it necessary to tell one another, and ourselves, that we are lost and sinful, that we are ‘worms and no man’. We have created a mystique of sin and given the impression that the world, and our own natural selves, must be denied. (There is, Of course, a sense in which that is true, but not in the sense it is often said.)

Peguy wrote:

If one would raise oneself to the eternal, it is not enough to depreciate the temporal – to raise oneself to grace it is not enough to depreciate nature – to raise oneself to God it is not enough to depreciate the world…(People) believe that, because they have not the strength (and grace) to belong to nature, they belong to grace… that because they are not bold enough to be worldly, they are godly – not brave enough to be on the side of humans, they believe they are on the side of God… Because they love nobody, they believe they love God. And yet, Jesus was a man. (Oeuvres Completes. Vol: 1X P.180)

For a long time I wondered how we should cope with our inherited dualism between nature and grace, between creation and redemption. How could we understand the free, gracious work of God’s redemption as integral with our appreciation of the natural order of God’s creation? What does redemption mean?

A very simple clue came to me when I realised that the New Testament writers used the word in the same way as we do in daily use. If I go to redeem granny’s watch from the pawnbroker, I pay a price to win back something that is far too precious to be lost in the grip of alien and unappreciative powers. I do not redeem it to make it precious; I redeem it because it is precious – and it becomes more so for being redeemed.

The early Christians knew about redeeming slaves and saw the blood of Christ as the ransom price for setting them free. Today we would think of hostages held by foreign powers and the imagery would be that of not only one who pays a ransom price, but submits himself to the powers, as a hostage, in order that the hostages be released.

For St. Paul the powers that hold human beings hostage are especially death, sin and law (which we might today read as ideology, in its pejorative sense). Do we not share a widespread and debilitating dread that all human endeavour is in the end doomed? Do we not share a similar dread that there is no way out of our propensity for making things worse – scattering and disintegrating rather that unifying – that it is irredeemable? Do we not share a dread that the absolute claims of ideologies (in our case that of individualist capitalism) create such subtle and plausible control over people, that nothing can be done? Death, sin and law (ideology).

Paul found irony in the fact that Jesus was brought to his death by submitting to the logic of these ‘powers’ but tricked them of destructive triumph because he was in fact the unique one who could not be held by them. His cross-resurrection is both his liberation and those he redeems, but also in effect publicly parades those powers as impotent – at least in the sense that they cannot hold anyone who does not, in some way, wish to be held. Redemption relativises all absolute claims of powers other than God.

It might sound from such a presentation that human beings are merely the innocent victims of powers beyond their control. But the tragedy is surely (and I think Paul saw it) that we opt in to our being hostages by going along with the very powers that hold us. We are both victims and culprits. How many people, how much of me, really want God’s sort of liberation at all? (Any more than the Israelites really wanted the desert rather than the flesh-pots of Egypt!)’

Such an approach to our understanding of the cross-resurrection of Jesus helps to place the redemption story within the creation story. St. John put it so concisely: God so loved the world that he sent his Son…

God did not send his Son in order to love the world, but because he loved it. It is therefore strange that Christian theology has had so many theories of redemption and atonement based on the idea of making satisfaction with God. Last Easter, preparing to sing the Exultet at the night vigil (a hymn that goes back to the earliest centuries) I was alarmed by the verse “Christ has ransomed us with his blood and paid for us the price of Adam’s sin to our eternal Father.”

I reworded it ‘for the Father’ when the night came. But it is a widespread confusion in people’s minds. Recently I was preparing for Mass with 8 or 9 readers and Eucharistic ministers. These questions had been on my mind, so I asked: “If the blood of Christ paid the price of our redemption, to whom was it paid? To God, to the devil, or to whom…?” Some said: to God; Some: to the devil; The rest were not sure. In fact none of them was quite sure. But surely the whole thrust of Jesus’ preaching and life was that God is forus, not against us, and that any notions that God has to be appeased or satisfied are basically pagan. It is we, and creation, that are alienated, not God.

We need an understanding of redemption as integral to the creation story. If struggle and violence are an integral part of the non-human life of planet earth, are not sin and oppression an integral part of its human life? And likewise any endeavour to allow ourselves to transcend sin and oppression, any endeavour to become co-redeemers to liberate others, is to share in the redemptive work of God which is the very heart of his creative work.


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