Abounding In Kindness: Writings for the People of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson – Summary Highlights

January 23, 2017

Abounding In Kindness: Writings for the People of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson, Orbis Books.  Highlights and references below are from the kindle edition.

The overflowing compassion of the living God engaged with the struggles and suffering of the world… The book’s title brings this to expression with the words of Psalm 103, which praises God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness” (v. 8). In picturesque language the psalm goes on to say that God knows how fragile we are, like dust, like the wildflowers that wither when the dry wind blows. Yes, we are mortal, but God surrounds the world with steadfast love greater than the height of the sky above the earth;120  Yes, we transgress, but instead of dealing with us as we deserve, God removes our sins farther away than the east is from the west.125

Abounding in kindness, the holy mystery of God is love beyond imagining.129

Karl Rahner’s offers thought-provoking direction for the road ahead: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a mystic, that is, one who has experienced something, or he [she] will cease to be anything at all.”1 The Christian will be one who has experienced something of the beauty and love of the living God, one who has felt the attraction so that it becomes personal knowledge, or faith will be a dead fish.169

Contemporary theology has rediscovered a more biblical view, seeing faith as the assent of a person’s whole being to the mystery of the ineffable God who is unspeakably close in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. Faith entails committing yourself to this mystery, risking a relationship that has the power to transform your life.

At the heart of it all, what does Christianity proclaim? It announces the good news that the reality of God surrounds us with forgiving, abounding kindness in the midst of our darkness, injustice, sin, and death. All the doctrines and rituals aim to unpack this basic wonder. Faith means entrusting yourself to this presence, leaning your heart on this Rock, and responding with your life’s energies. This is normally done with others in a community of disciples called church.174

Love makes life meaningful, replete with goodness, actively compassionate toward others, and hopeful in the midst of struggle. For this to happen fruitfully, we who have been on earth a little bit longer have to speak and act out of the depths of our own religious experience. The lamp of the word of God burns primarily with the oil of our own lives. Conscious of the challenges of our day, we need to witness to faith creatively in word and deed so that the spark will catch among the young. As in every era, a practice of discernment helps us to figure out which elements of faith need particular emphasis. Adults in the church who treasure their faith must make deliberate decisions not only about strategies but also about emphases in what is being passed on in order to intrigue new generations into a life of relationship with the living God.181

We create the church of the future out of our own lives,192

Maker of heaven and earth. Notice right at the outset that God is not pictured all alone in isolated splendor but as Creator, in relation to the whole world, which depends on divine graciousness for its very existence. Just as people can see in an artistic work something of the artist who created it, so too from ancient times onward, people have noted that the beauty and power of the natural world can reveal the glory of the unseen God who made it. The universe is magnificent and the creed begins by affirming that God makes and loves the whole shebang.2 In the context of a humble creation theology, two dimensions of faith that need to be passed on in our day are a faith that reverences the incomprehensible mystery of God and a faith that loves the earth.

Respecting God’s Holy Mystery

It is a constant struggle in theology, preaching, and popular practice to understand that the one God we are confessing in human words is infinite holy mystery beyond imagining. Such has always been a central tenet of monotheistic faith. The One who is ground, support, and goal of all creation, while profoundly present, cannot be completely understood or defined.197

God’s being God and not a creature that God is beyond our human power to grasp. In Augustine’s unforgettable echo of earlier Greek theology, “Si comprehendis, non est Deus”: if you have understood, then what you have understood is not God (Sermon 52). We are deceiving ourselves if we think otherwise. Paradoxical as it might seem, this very awareness is an enlivening form of knowledge. There is always more to explore,208

Augustine consistently pushes this acknowledgment of God’s incomprehensible character through to its genuine religious goal, the knowing of God through love.212

If we wish to savor something of God, he writes, then we should attend to our loving, for God is Love. “In loving, we already possess God as known better than we do the fellow human being whom we love. Much better, in fact, because God is nearer, more present, more certain.”3 The God who pervades yet cannot be contained in creation or caught in concepts is nonetheless deeply known in human love, as love itself. Of course, as Aquinas described it, we must take excellent qualities known from the created world and speak about God as being good, wise, loving, and so forth.213

In today’s spiritual climate, Rahner has argued, this truth of the incomprehensibility of God belongs not at the margins or at the end of the road in theology but at its very heart. In the face of atheistic criticism and the arid experience of agnosticism, the darkness of divine definition opens room for faith to grow.221  People can dare to entrust their existence to the always greater holy mystery surrounding their lives with unfathomable love.224  The living Source of all is not a being among other beings! Rather, the living God is the incomprehensible mystery of love beyond imagining.229

This uncreated plenitude can be expressed in many images: father, of course, and also mother, midwife, shepherd, lover, artist, potter, liberator, friend, Wisdom; also hovering bird and angry mother bear; also blowing wind, blazing flame, flowing water, unapproachable light; the One in whom we live and move and have our being. But in truth the reality of God, being the uncreated Source of all, is beyond all images, goes beyond telling.230  From the initial flaring forth of the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, to the formation of galaxies with their billions of stars, to the shaping of our sun and its planets 5 billion years ago, to the slow evolution of life on Earth over deep eons of time, the cosmic adventure has moved toward increasing complexity and beauty.235

The world has its own intrinsic value, being loved by God for its own sake.241

In a terrible way our human practices are wreaking damage on the life-systems of air, water, and soil, and on the other species that share with us one community of life on this planet. Why have we who confess that God created this world not risen up en masse in its defense? One reason is that through theology’s engagement with Greek philosophy, we have inherited a powerful dualism that devalues matter and the body and prizes the spirit as closer to God. The task now is to develop a life-affirming theology of earth/matter/bodies, one that will do better justice to this world that God makes and so loves.247

If we truly believe in “one God, Maker of heaven and earth,” then we will hand on to the next generation a faith that loves the earth.257

The transcendent God draws radically near by becoming incarnate in human flesh. A genuine member of the human race, living a real historical life from start to finish, “tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15),262

Faith that does justice, and faith that lives in joyful compassion.267

Doing Justice Jesus’ story starts out as a distressing one. He was born into a poor family, laid in a manger, and soon became a refugee fleeing a ruler’s murderous violence. In Gustavo Gutiérrez’s memorable words, the advent of God in Christ is “an irruption smelling of the stable.”6 Years later Jesus announced the theme of his ministry with liberating words from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor for the Lord” (Lk 4:18–19). What follows is indeed good news in the concrete as the prophet from Nazareth meets and transforms suffering and despair. The Messiah heals the sick, exorcizes demons, forgives sinners, and cares for those whose lives are a heavy burden. He practices table companionship so inclusive that it gives scandal: “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 11:19). Illuminated by his creative parables centered in the coming kingdom of God, these merciful actions destabilize the prevailing norms of who is first and who is last in the eyes of God. They establish beyond doubt divine solidarity with those who lack basic necessities: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat…I was hungry and you gave me no food” (Mt 25:35, 42). Neglect of “the least of these” means turning your back on God. In historical perspective, Jesus’ death on the cross is the price he paid for his prophetic ministry. And here, precisely where one would least expect to find divinity, amid torture and unjust execution by the state, the gospel locates the presence of God. Ecce homo: behold the suffering face of Jesus.268

That discipleship also calls for action to establish social justice by transforming structures that create the miseries of war, oppression, and massive poverty to begin with.285

Renewed emphasis on Jesus’ prophetic preferential option for the poor in the name of God summons our conscience to action on behalf of justice that will change oppressive structures in keeping with his loving, liberating intent.289

Miranda states the challenge with singular directness: “No authority can decree that everything is permitted, for justice and exploitation are not so indistinguishable. And Christ died so that we might know that not everything is permitted. But not any Christ. The Christ that cannot be co-opted by the comfortable is the historical Jesus.”7290

Support attitudes, actions, and inactions that diminish the well-being of African American and other racial and ethnic groups struggling to live with full human dignity? During the time of slavery, the faith of black people understood the liberating message of Jesus better than their white masters did.294  Following Jesus entails solidarity in the effort to ensure that human rights be honored for all God’s people,297

Jesus called women disciples who followed him in Galilee, were faithful witnesses of his death, and commissioned witnesses of his resurrection. In the decades following they participated with men in founding the church. Even apart from myriad gospel examples of Jesus’ beneficent relationship with women, his rejection of any relationship patterned on domination (“the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them…but it will not be so among you,” Mt 20:25-26) challenges the church to become a more inclusive community.300

Divine love is universal, not exclusive. But it does mean that the living God has a particular care for those who are hurting. Listen to Mary’s song of justice, the Magnificat: she sings that God her savior has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty, all in fulfillment of the ancient promise of mercy. This is what is meant by a love that does justice, the kind of love that enacts God’s mercy in a broken world.304

How then shall we understand the cross? Not as a death required by God in repayment for sin, but as an event of divine love whereby the Creator of the world entered into intimate contact with human suffering, sinfulness, and death in order to heal, redeem, and liberate from within.324  The cross as an event of divine compassion in solidarity with human suffering, sin, and death. Jesus did not come to die but to live and help others live in the joy of the reign of God.332

“We believe in the Holy Spirit.” The creed goes on to describe what the Spirit, worshiped together with the Father and the Son, accomplishes. The Lord and Giver of life precisely gives life, inspires prophets, brings the church to life, consecrates people through baptism and the forgiveness of sins, and ensures the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. This article of the creed connects the Spirit in a particular way to the church, the community made one, holy, catholic, and apostolic by grace. Augustine used a particularly striking image to bring this point home. The Spirit is already at work among you, he preached to his congregation, cultivating you like an orchard, producing buds, strengthening your branches, clothing you with leaves, and loading you with fragrant flowers and fruit.338

Central to this spiritual flourishing is the eucharistic body and blood of Christ which can transform people themselves into the body of Christ: “If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive” (Sermon 227). In our day Edward Schillebeeckx has written with similar sensitivity to the way the Spirit shapes the church: The living community is the only real reliquary of Jesus…. By following Jesus, taking our bearings from him and allowing ourselves to be inspired by him, by sharing in his Abba experience and his selfless support for the “least of my brethren” (Mt 25:40), and thus entrusting our own destiny to God, we allow the history of Jesus, the living one, to continue in history as a piece of living christology, the work of the Spirit among us.8344

Thus the religions with their saving figures and sacred texts, their creeds, codes, and rituals can be considered channels of grace set up by God’s providence to be ways people in different cultures encounter and respond to the Holy One. This is the teaching of Vatican II, still not widely appreciated: The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people…. The Church, therefore, exhorts her children, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these people.9358

Put plainly, what is true and holy in the religions expresses God’s presence in the world through the universal working of Word and Spirit. Such diversity in the religious sphere gives dazzling expression to the depth and breadth of God’s holy mystery. It witnesses to the superabundant generosity of God who manifests divine purpose to the human race in such manifold ways.366

The revelation in Christ of God’s will to save all people actually postulates a sweeping divine activity in the world, not only in a general sense but also in the religions that lay down explicit paths of holiness. Not to recognize this is tantamount to being ignorant of the greatness of God. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs proposes some arresting analogies. What would faith be like if we acknowledged the presence of God in other faiths, whose truth is not our truth? It would be like feeling secure in one’s own home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places when we travel, knowing they are someone else’s home, not ours, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like realizing that our life is a sentence written in the story of our own faith, yet pleased to know that there are other lives written in the stories of other faiths, all part of the great narrative of God’s call and humanity’s response. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. As we discover ever more truth about God in each other, the dignity of difference can be a source of blessing.10 In a world where violence propelled by religious differences wreaks havoc and shatters lives, it is imperative that the religions learn to live respectfully with one another.373

Our deepest commitments can impel us to work together in solidarity for hallowing the world in peace.384  is faith in the living God brought to its radical conclusion. It is faith in the Creator Spirit that does not stop halfway but follows the road consistently to the end, trusting that the God of the beginning is also the God of the end, who utters the same word in each case: let there be life!   All the biblical images of the end-time—light, banquet, harvest, wedding feast, rest, singing, homecoming, reunion, tears wiped away, seeing face to face, and knowing as we are known—point to a living communion in God’s own life. We die not into nothingness but into the embrace of God. Transformation, not annihilation, is the goal. There is a reason to hope, then, even with tears of grief streaming down our cheeks. In the end there is God or there is nothing. This is a precious truth that we need to hand on.392

(This is a) rich treasure the Christian heritage holds. Extrapolating from the gospel story of Jesus, Scripture dares to present the living God as fundamentally and essentially Love (1 Jn 4:8). Present through the Spirit in the world, God is the lover of this world, including us human beings, and graciously desires the well-being of all. Faith then becomes the radical experience that at the heart of the world this kind of Love exists as a reality greater than any other.

We are moved to prayer, by turns silent, wildly lamenting, repenting, joyfully thanking, and praising. We are moved to compassionate praxis that corresponds to God’s own heart. We are moved to these actions together, as church, as the community of disciples of Jesus, budding like an orchard. In the biblical book of Proverbs, Holy Sophia goes to great pains to prepare a feast. After building a house, setting the table, dressing meats and fermenting wine, she sends her maidservants out around the town to invite all who will listen: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov 9:5–6).400

Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” Theological Investigations Vol. 7 (New York: Crossroad, 1971), 15.411

Augustine, On the Trinity,

Abraham Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (New York: Scribner, 1954), 82; “Whose ear has ever heard how all trees sing to God? Has our reason ever thought of calling upon the sun to praise the Lord? And yet, what the ear fails to perceive, what reason fails to conceive, our prayer makes clear to our souls. It is a higher truth, to be grasped by the spirit: ‘All Thy works praise Thee’ (Psalms 145:10). We are not alone in our acts of praise. Wherever there is life, there is silent worship. The world is always on the verge of becoming one in adoration. It is man who is the cantor of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed.”415

Gustavo Gutiérrez, The God of Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 84. 7. José Miranda, Being and the Messiah (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1977), 9.422

Vatican II, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), par. 2.425

Peering through the mists of time, anthropologists who study early human culture report finding indications of religious practice. It seems that from the beginning human beings lived with a sense of a numinous power which they could not control yet with which they sought to live in harmony. They saw the natural world pervaded with spirits that dwelt in every mountain and tree, river and animal, and developed rituals to commune with these spirits.431

Taken as a whole, the range of religions gives evidence that the search for right relationship with the sacred in some form has been a persistent activity of the human spirit, for better or worse.

The picture changes quickly in the modern period. In a partial census of the world’s peoples conducted in 1900, 2 percent of the population contacted declared themselves to be atheists. In 2000, that number was 20 percent. Today it is quite possible to live a satisfying and good life without any affiliation with an organized religion and even without a “spirituality,” that is, without personal beliefs and practices that put one in touch with the sacred.444

Believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion. (Gaudium et Spes 19) 496

Thus a person can no longer be a Christian simply out of social convention or inherited custom. Faith now requires a personal decision, the kind of decision that brings about a change of heart and sustains long-term commitment. It is not an easy situation507

And so to the second point: in this secular culture, what does it mean to have faith? 509

Winter. Such is Rahner’s metaphor for the spiritual season of our time. The profuse growth of devotions and secondary beliefs, all these leaves and fruits that unfurled in the medieval season when Christianity was dominant in the culture, have fallen away. The trees are bare and the cold wind blows. In such a season, it will not do to spend energy on what is peripheral and unessential, as if it were high summer. To survive, people of faith need to return to the center, to the burning center that alone can nourish and warm the heart in winter.515

Rahner invites people to take a journey of discovery through the experience of their own lives. Turn to oneself. Consider that being a person entails being not a mere object but a subject, someone with interiority, a thinking mind and freedom to choose. See where this goes. Of all the aspects of human life that reveal our subjectivity, Rahner opted to focus mainly on curiosity. His doctoral dissertation opens with the words Man fragt, which translated means One asks, or A person asks a question. This is a typical human act, one that can be found at all times in all cultures.521  From the child’s “Why is the sky blue?” to the young adult’s “What should I do with my life?” to the mid-lifer’s “Do you still love me?” to the dying elder’s “Is there any hope?”; from asking directions when lost, to getting advice on how to start a business, to exploring the rain forest, to agonizing over why suffering and death exist in the world, to questioning an official 525 to finding out how to install a new computer program, to asking your beloved to marry you, to figuring out how to deal with your cancer, to wondering about the meaning of life, questions both practical and existential pour forth in an unending torrent. One asks.

Ponder what this ordinary experience reveals about ourselves as human persons. Asking a question presumes that we do not know something. In an interesting way it also implies that we already do know a little or it would be impossible to ask about it to begin with. Most tellingly, asking a question shows that we have a desire to know. It brings to light a certain dynamism in the human spirit that wants to know something more, thereby expanding our connection with our own depths and with the wider world. In asking, we anticipate that there is more to be found out. When an answer crystallizes, the mind grasps it and judges whether or not it satisfies the question that was asked. Even a perfectly good answer does not allow our mind to rest for long, because the answer nestles against a background of related knowledge that triggers our curiosity anew. The answer becomes the basis for a new question.528

The human spirit is structured with an unrestricted openness toward truth. Even in the most mundane inquiry we go beyond the matter at hand toward the next thing, and the next, ultimately reaching toward…all truth, which cannot be contained. Our questions, driven by a profound desire to know, are made possible by the very structure of the human spirit which is dynamically oriented toward union with all the truth there is to know.

This same pattern can be traced again starting with the character of love. Here, too, persons experience a never-ending dynamism of desire to give and receive. Every act by which a person loves another deepens the ability to love; every bit of love received opens one to more, in a widening circle of relationship. As an example, Rahner points to the way two people who love each other get married and then have a child, widening their circle with another person to love. Human loving, like questioning, is a dynamism that keeps on transcending beyond everything it grasps. What is the condition for the possibility of freely summing oneself up and declaring to someone, “I love you”? It is the open structure of the human spirit, which is oriented toward a boundless fullness of love. Once one grasps this pattern of transcending toward ever more truth and love, one can discover this experience present in a thousand forms.

Not only do we curiously question and freely love, but we act for our own happiness and that of others, we seek relief in the midst of suffering, we resist injustice, we plan projects, we try to act responsibly, we remain faithful to conscience under pressure, we are amazed at beauty, we feel guilt, we rejoice, we grieve death, we hope in the future. Undergirding all these moments is an immense and driving longing. At root we experience that our human spirit is open and thirsting for something infinitely more than any single moment can deliver.542

The Whither of our driving self-transcendence is that ineffable plenitude toward which we are journeying, the goal which summons and bears our thirsty minds and desiring hearts.566  an incomprehensible fullness of overflowing Love that is the ground, support, and goal of the world and of each of our little, infinitely yearning lives. This is why it is a mistake to think we can prove the existence of God the same way we prove the existence of new planet or any other particular object of our experience in the world. God is not a being among other beings, but the infinite Whither that makes possible the very functioning of our human spirit. The experience of self-transcendence carries every act of knowledge and love beyond itself toward this horizon. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, whether we are open to this truth or suppress it, our whole spiritual, intellectual, and affectionate existence is borne along by and orientated toward this living Source of life.

Rahner has one more arrow in his quiver for the spiritual seeker in winter. At the heart of Christian faith is the radical belief that the infinitely incomprehensible Whither of our existence, the holy mystery of God, does not remain forever remote but draws near in radical proximity to the world. This is accomplished in an act of self-giving by which the Word became flesh and joined us in the struggles of historical life all the way to death. It is also accomplished in the gracious act of self-giving by which the Spirit continues to dwell in and among us to heal, redeem, and liberate. In Christian doctrinal terms these gifts are known as incarnation and grace. Jesus Christ and the Spirit spell out the one sacred mystery of God drawing intimately near to the world in loving self-communication.570  Rahner insists, all Christian doctrine really says only one thing, something quite simple and radical, namely, the Whither of our existence who is ineffable and beyond imagination has drawn near to the tangle of our lives.585

As in the Bible, faith is first of all an existential decision rising up from your personal depths to entrust yourself to Whither of your life,589  It is a fundamental stance whereby you open yourself to the plenitude of holy mystery who cannot be manipulated but who approaches in compassionate love. It is an act of courage, whereby you risk the meaning of your life on the faithful goodness of the One made known in Jesus Christ, infinitely beyond our comprehension but nearer to us than we are to ourselves. As a result, you see yourself and the whole world with new meaning, and you act and care and suffer with new passion.590

Martin Luther had a fine phrase about this, saying, “God is the one on whom you lean your heart,” the one on whom your heart depends, inclines, relies, rests. For an individual, if the Rock you lean on is too minuscule to support the range of your life’s desires, faith will collapse as you grow into maturity. For a community like the church, if the God they lean on together is inadequate, they will lead a cramped religious life. Because the symbol of God functions, the issue of which God to believe in is vital. Long before modern atheism the fourteenth-century theologian named Meister Eckhart preached a sermon in which he said a puzzling thing: “So therefore let us pray to God that we might be free of God.” More recently the German theologian Dorothee Soelle retranslated this to say: “I pray God to rid me of God,” and this is the way the saying appears on cards and posters and in the work of spiritual writers today. Why would anyone who is trying to live a life of faith say such a prayer? Why would you want to eliminate God the way you rid your house of termites? Because, Meister Eckhart thought, the narrow, puny notions of G-O-D many people carry around in their imagination are both unworthy of God and damaging to the human spirit. Praying to God to rid us of the popular notions of God characteristic of American culture, one task for religious people today is to seek the God of abounding kindness borne in the fullness of Scripture and the living tradition.617

Among different groups around the world, different kinds of religious experiences have led to new insights that take us beyond the narrow cultural view of modern theism. Consider: the view we have already looked at, developed by Rahner and others in the winter of post-war Europe’s increasingly atheistic society, that God is the unrestricted horizon of our human thirst for truth, love, and life; the ineffable Whither who has drawn near in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. the challenging notion of the suffering God, pioneered by German theology in face of the Nazi holocaust of the Jews. God not only does not will such evil but is compassionately present with the victim. As Elie Wiesel wrote in Night: “Where is God? He is hanging there on the gallows,” hanging with the youth who wouldn’t die quickly enough. the powerful intuition arising from extreme, unjust poverty in Latin America that God is a God of life who comes to liberate, a God whose mercy opts for the poor and destitute, desiring change in unjust structures, change so there can be bread on the table. The wisdom born from women’s struggle for full human dignity that the ineffable God loves them too, and can be approached with female images of comfort, power, and might, to say nothing of maternal compassion for the world, the sensibility flowing from African Americans’ titanic struggle against slavery and Jim Crow laws that God is Black, being the One who breaks chains. the realization of Latino/Latina communities that the God of fiesta, flower, and song accompanies them in the suffering and joy of daily life. the discovery of Christians in Asia who glimpse the generous God of the world’s religions, present to all peoples through their various religious ways, the perception of people engaged in protecting the vulnerable earth that the love of the indwelling Spirit extends beyond the human species to include the whole evolving ecological community of species, being the Giver of life who vivifies all. Each of these insights into God being explored in detail by different theologies today restate in some way the biblical testimony to the God of love who acts in history to heal and redeem. This is the compassionate God whose reign Jesus preached and embodied; the God praised by saints and sought by mystics; the creative Spirit who is present in and through the natural world; the holy mystery of God who embraces even the dead with a promise of the future. In every instance, a path opens up that leads from daring trust in God encountered in this way toward a meaningful life in winter.628

The question facing each one of us is: which do we love better, the little island of our own certitude or the great surrounding ocean of holy mystery?654  that the purifying fire of atheism, rather than killing faith, can turn faith into an invitation for an adventurous life.657

In his play A Sleep of Prisoners, Christopher Fry drives this point home with poetic power. Escaping from a burning church, an imprisoned soldier utters a passionate soliloquy which could well be adopted by today’s seekers and believers in God: Dark and cold we may be, but this is no winter now. The frozen misery of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move. The thunder is the thunder of the floes, the thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring. Thank God our time is now, when wrong comes up to face us everywhere, Never to leave us till we take the longest stride of soul men [and women] ever took. Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise…is exploration into God.658

The ancient path of contemplation, which is becoming one of the great religious movements of our times, draws persons into the purifying darkness of an apophatic moment that breaks all divine images open. As a result of this existentially dark not-knowing, which is actually a religiously profound kind of knowing, persons are moved experientially into the presence of the incomprehensible mystery of God.684

Wonder at the world in the face of wasting the world: for many religious persons today this experience provides a new entry to an ancient form of contemplation along with a fresh ethical consequence, namely, acts of prophetic witness and repair of the world.701

The life-giving Spirit of God encircles, pervades, and energizes the world, empowering its own intrinsic, self-organizing powers that have led to magnificence beyond our imagination, including our own human race. 717


The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil, Crushed…3

More than a century after Gerard Manley Hopkins penned these ecstatic words, his poetic intuition grows ever stronger in believing persons who encounter the dazzling variety and profound interconnectedness of the world, its denizens, and its systems. At times, some are swept up in an oceanic feeling of oneness with the universe as a whole. Others awaken to the delight of particular creatures, each one with its own intricate, spirit-filled reality.

Writing of her goldfish, for example, Annie Dillard describes it in eloquent if poignant detail: This Ellery cost me twenty-five cents. He is a deep red-orange, darker than most goldfish. He steers short distances mainly with his slender red lateral fins; they seem to provide an impetus for going backward, up, or down. It took me a few days to discover his ventral fins; they are completely transparent and all but invisible dream fins. He also has a short anal fin, and a tail that is deeply notched and perfectly transparent at the two tapered tips. He can extend his mouth, so it looks like a length of pipe; he can shift the angle of his eyes in his head so he can look before and behind himself, instead of simply out to his side. His belly, what there is of it, is white ventrally, and a patch of this white extends up his sides—the variegated Ellery. When he opens his gill slits he shows a thin crescent of silver where the flap overlapped, as though his brightness were sunburn. For this creature, as I said, I paid twenty-five cents.

I have never bought an animal before. It was very simple; I went to a store in Roanoke called “Wet Pets”; I handed the man a quarter, and he handed me a knotted plastic bag with water in which a green plant floated and the goldfish swam. This fish, two bits’ worth, has a coiled gut, a spine radiating fine bones, and a brain. Just before I sprinkle his food flakes into his bowl, I rap three times on the bowl’s edge; now he is conditioned, and swims to the surface when I rap. And, he has a heart!4

As Sallie McFague comments on this passage, the juxtaposition of twenty-five cents with the elaborateness, cleverness, and sheer glory of this tiny bit of matter named Ellery is frankly unnerving. For the intricacy of this little creature calls forth wonder, and suddenly its worth is sensed to be priceless.5 Such experiences with the extraordinary quality of even the mundane world are to the fore in our ecological times.

Michael Buckley has observed, “God has emerged again and again in the history of wisdom as the direction toward which wonder progresses.”6 Hence, wondrous experience of the natural, bodily world including ourselves leads contemplative persons to sense the grandeur of God drawing near and passing by in and through the magnificence of creation. They know, not just with their minds but with a certain kind of experiential feeling, that the utterly transcendent holy God is utterly immanent in the world, present and active in its creatures and dynamic processes.725

How to explicate this? The biblical concept of glory and the Thomistic category of participation offer theology intellectual tools with which to bring this religious experience to language.751

The Hebrew noun for glory, kabod, derived from a verb which means “to weigh heavily,” weaves these connotations round with a sense of heaviness or deep importance, so that glory signifies a certain weighty radiance. When used in reference to the mystery of God, the kabod YHWH or glory of the Lord is a light-filled metaphor meaning the weighty radiance of divine presence in the world, the heavy, plump, fat brightness of God’s immanence close at hand to enlighten, warm, and set things right.

The more the infinite transcendence of God was stressed in Israel’s experience, the more kabod YHWH became a technical term in the biblical books for divine presence within the world and its happenings. Though God dwells beyond the heavens and can be compared with nothing created, the approach of divine glory signifies the self-disclosure of God’s being, the publicly engaged, unhidden character of the incomprehensible Holy One. In the wisdom of Scripture, the approach of glory is never directly perceived. Rather, it is revealed in and through the world and its events.

Chief among these revelatory bearers is the natural world with its power and beauty: “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” exalts the psalmist (19:1). Typically in the Bible the approach of divine glory is depicted by a cloud or the land’s fruitfulness or fire or a thunderstorm with its crashing noise, flashing lights, and rushing waters. Indeed the whole natural world is capax Dei, capable of revealing the unseen, hidden Creator. As Isaiah’s mystical vision of the One who is “holy, holy, holy” perceives, heaven and earth are full of God’s glory (6:3).762

The glory of God is a biblical symbol of religious hope. Uttering words of comfort to people suffering the distress of Babylonian exile, Isaiah proclaims that “the glory of the Lord will be revealed” (Isa 40:5), and this revelation will occur when they are delivered. Then they will see a resplendent manifestation of divine power in a historical moment of liberation and homecoming, sign of that even greater future day when evil will be overcome and the whole world will be filled with the kabod YHWH. In a consistent way biblical yearning for salvation, for victory in the struggle with evil, for lifting the oppression of the poor, for the cessation of violence against the needy, the cry for all that is good is expressed in the hope that God’s glory will dwell in the land (Ps 85:9), or will fill the earth (Ps 72:19), or will shine throughout heaven and earth (Ezek 43:2).

Biblically, then, the glory of God does not point to God as a bigger and better Solomon sitting on a throne in isolated splendor. Rather, it signifies divine beauty flashing out in the world and in particular bent over brokenness and anguish, moving to heal, redeem, and liberate. It is a synonym for God’s elusive presence and action in the midst of historical trouble. As such, it is a category of relationship and help. It is interesting to me how resonant the biblical term “glory” is with spirit (ruah), wisdom (sophia), and active presence (shekinah), those grammatically feminine great metaphors of God’s indwelling power and concern.

Hopkins himself associates the glory of God with ruah, the spirit of God, ending his poem about God’s grandeur with a hopeful maternal metaphor: “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” The book of Wisdom consistently connects God’s glory with sophia, saying of wisdom that “she is a pure radiance of the glory of the Almighty” (7:25); “she is the brightness that streams from everlasting light” (7:26); and “she is more splendid than the sun, and outshines every constellation of the stars; compared with the light of day she is found to excel, for day gives place to night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail” (7:29–30).

In the writings of early rabbinic Judaism glory and the shekinah are used as equivalents, the shekinah being God’s compassionate spirit who accompanies the people, suffering the tragedies of history with them and occasioning hope. Here the typical expression of the kabod shekinah YHWH, the glory of God’s indwelling spirit, signifies no mere feminine dimension of God but the radiance of God as She-Who-Dwells-Within, divine Spirit in compassionate engagement with the conflictual world as source of vitality in the struggle. The correlations, mutual amplifications, and at times even the identity between the glory of God and the divine metaphors of ruah, sophia, and shekinah indicate that we are dealing with the active presence of great beauty that can fittingly be imagined in female metaphors.783

The weighty radiance of divine presence is in the world in a new way through the very human flesh of Jesus the Christ, whose ministry makes strikingly manifest how divine glory operates: the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them (Mt 11:5).814

Glory rests on the whole community of believers, women as well as men, who are thereby being transformed amid weakness and sin into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). The natural world, too, is involved in this drama of salvation, groaning in the present age but with the hope that it “will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). The orientation toward promise is strong throughout these writings: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).

Once again, glory is a category of participation in God’s redeeming beauty that draws near to share in the brokenness of the world in order to heal and set free. To sum up the biblical data: the glory of God is a luminous metaphor for the elusive nearness of the ineffable God glimpsed in and through the wondrous process of nature, the history of freedom, and communities where justice and peace prevail. Using the term “the glory of God” signifies that the incomprehensible holy mystery of God indwells the natural and human world as source, sustaining power, and goal of the universe, enlivening and loving it into liberating communion. The category of glory provides language for contemplation’s sense of the presence of God, hidden but glimpsed in the natural world. 817

Every creature stands in relation to God as the air does to the light of the sun. As the sun is light-giving by its very nature whereas the air is bright and illuminated only so long as it is lit by the sun, so also God alone simply exists (divine essence is esse, sheer being) while every creature enjoys existence insofar as it participates in being (creaturely essence receives the gift of being). The category of participation affects theological understanding of both God and the world. Continuously creating and sustaining, God is in all things not as part of their essence but as the innermost source of being, power, and action.

There is, in other words, a constitutive presence of God at the heart of things. Conversely, in its own created being and doing, the world continuously participates in the livingness of the One who simply is. Every excellence it exhibits is a participation in that same quality unimaginably present in the unknowable mystery of God. Take the key example of goodness. Since “it befits divine goodness that other things should be partakers therein,” every created good is a good by participation in the One who is good by essence. It follows that “in the whole sphere of creation there is no good that is not a good participatively.” In possessing their own specific goodness, creatures share in divine goodness.837

One of the strengths of Aquinas’s vision is the autonomy he grants to created existence through its participation in divine being. He is so convinced of the transcendent mystery of God and so clear about the unique relation of God to the world that he sees no threat to divinity in allowing creatures the fullest measure of agency according to their nature. In fact, it is a measure of the creative power of God to raise up creatures who participate in divine being to such an extent that they are also creative and sustaining in their own right. A view to the contrary would diminish not only creatures but also their Creator: “to detract from the perfection of creatures is to detract from the perfection of divine power.”8 This is a genuinely noncompetitive view of God and the world. According to its dynamism, to cite Karl Rahner’s way of putting it, nearness to God and genuine creaturely autonomy grow in direct rather than inverse proportion. That is, God is not glorified by the diminishment of the creature but by the creature’s flourishing. The nature of created participation in divine being is such that it grants creatures their own integrity without reserve, while they in turn become symbols in and thorough which divine mystery may be encountered.848

…the world itself is a revelation and a sacrament: revelation, because the invisible grandeur of God can be glimpsed and known experientially in the splendor of the universe, its balance, complexity, creativity, diversity, fruitfulness; and sacrament, because the mystery of divine, self-giving presence is really mediated through the richness of the heavens and the earth. Participating in the glory of God, our whole planet is a beautiful showing forth of divine goodness and generosity. By being simply and thoroughly its magnificent self, it bodies forth the glory of God that empowers it, being as it were an icon. And, in keeping with the biblical theme of glory, this carries with it a note of promise. Pervaded and encircled by the glory of God, nature’s beauty, intricacy, wildness, richness, order, and novelty are a sacrament of hidden glory not yet fully revealed.860

In the light of mystical insight resulting from contemplative religious experience of nature, the many-faceted ecological crisis suffered by the living planet Earth becomes a matter of intense religious concern, for human beings are rapidly fouling and even destroying the primary sacrament of God’s glory, one with its own intrinsic value before God. The critical praxis of justice for the earth, flowing from contemplative attentiveness, becomes in turn an engaged practical form of religious experience in its own right.


If it be the case that, as John of the Cross writes, “contemplation is nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, inflames the soul in the spirit of love,”9 then the soul so enkindled responds to divine love by trusting correspondence to divine affections for the world. This dynamic, so basic to Jewish and Christian faith, finds a strong contemporary interpretation in the dictum of political and liberation theologies that God is not only to be contemplated but also to be practiced.

If the heart of divine mystery is turned in compassion toward the world, then devotion to this God draws persons into the shape of divine communion with all others: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). To deny one’s connection with the suffering needs of others is to detach oneself from divine communion. The praxis of mercy is propelled by this dynamic. So too is committed work on behalf of peace, human rights, economic justice, and the transformation of social structures.

For those who engage in this work out of deep contemplative experience, it is far from mere activism or simple good deeds. Rather, solidarity with those who suffer, being there with commitment to their flourishing, is the locus of encounter with the living God. Through what is basically a prophetic stance, one shares in the passion of God for the world. In the midst of the present ecological crisis, the vision of the natural world as a sacrament of the glory of God motivates contemplative persons to extend this justice model to embrace the whole earth. If the creative glory of God pervades the whole world which is a sacrament of divine fecundity and beauty, then ecological abuse that weakens or destroys the earth’s flourishing is contrary to God’s intent. The human selfishness, greed, irresponsibility, and ignorance that are newly impoverishing nature need to be challenged both concretely and systematically. The preferential option for the poor must now include the vulnerable, voiceless, nonhuman species and the ravaged natural world itself, all of which are kin to humankind. Loving these neighbors as their very selves, committed religious persons develop moral principles, political structures, and lifestyles that promote other creatures’ thriving and halt their exploitation. For the prophetic passion flowing from contemplative insight, action on behalf of justice for the earth participates in the compassionate care of the Creator God who wills the glorious well-being of the whole interdependent community of life. Human beings partner up with the One whom Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”10

Naming the Abuse

In order to right a wrong, it must first be brought into the open and faced squarely as an evil. Prophetic consciousness infused with the glory of God in the world therefore urges upon the religious and civic communities the realization that the earth, its life-giving systems, and the diversity of creatures it has brought forth are currently undergoing massive assault from human beings on an unprecedented scale. Ever-expanding consumer demands that fuel endlessly swelling growth economies are plundering the planet. These human pressures, coupled with exploding human populations, are destroying the health of planetary ecosystems. Pollution of waters, air, and soil, build-up of toxic and nuclear wastes, destruction of vast stretches of habitat: these are symptomatic of deep abuse. Living species that took millions of years to (develop and evolve)…866 Removing the sacred value from the earth, seeing it almost as the index of the anti-divine, is a Christian factor contributing to the present assault on the earth, its life-systems, and its diversity of creatures. By contrast, imbued with the contemplative realization of the earth as a sacrament of divine glory, contemporary prophetic consciousness names what has gone awry and seeks a new paradigm that reconfigures the mystery of God, all humans, and the earth in deep interconnection.923

Transforming the Abuse

Saving the earth requires hard choices and courageous deeds in the political, social, economic, and cultural arenas. To reflect upon and promote such critical praxis, theology has need of thought patterns that disrupt human dominance and promote the whole community of life. I would suggest that one such configuration consists of the intertwined categories of memory, narrative, and solidarity. As originally developed in the practical foundational theology of Johannes Baptist Metz, these categories function in an emancipatory way in the service of suffering and defeated human beings.12 It seems to me that they have the capacity to serve the same way with regard to the exploited earth and its creatures.

Memory is a category that serves to rescue lost or threatened identity. Witness the fact that every dominating power tries to wipe out defeated peoples’ traditions, while political protest and resistance are fed by the subversive power of remembered sufferings and freedoms. Memory is not understood here as mere nostalgia. Rather, it is a strong visitation from the past that energizes persons. By evoking the sufferings and victories of those who went before, it galvanizes hope that new possibilities can be realized. There is danger in such remembrance for it interrupts the omnipotence of a given situation, breaking the stranglehold of what is currently held to be plausible. The future is opened up in a new way by the surplus of meaning carried in the act of remembering.

Memory is most often communicated by narrative, which preserves the uniqueness of experiences of suffering and victory, preventing them from being reduced to any theory. In the widest sense life itself has the character of a story, and concrete reality is expressed better through narrative than through abstract thought. In oppressive situations, telling certain tales of courage and witness, violence and defeat, has disclosive and transformative power. Robert McAfee Brown has described the method of Holocaust survivor and witness Elie Wiesel: “You want to know about the kingdom of night? There is no way to describe the kingdom of night. But let me tell you a story. You want a description of the indescribable? There is no way to describe the indescribable. But let me tell you a story.”13 Within the political experience of unjust suffering, narrated memory is a subversive language with practical effects.

Telling dangerous stories does not bring intelligibility to the suffering, as if it could ever make sense. But evocative telling of tales of tragedy and triumph gives birth to hope and resistance. The memory of suffering and freedom creates, strengthens, and expresses solidarity across times and places. In Christian political theology solidarity does not refer to a common feeling with those in our immediate class or neighborhood, or even optimistic sympathy for the less fortunate. Rather, it connotes a partnership of desires and interests with those in need, with those most in need, perhaps causing us loss. In a vital community one enters into common reflection and action against the degradation which so defaces others, and does this with the sense that these others are part of oneself. The universality of this category is shown in the fact that it includes not only the living but also evokes an alliance with the dead, especially with those who have been overcome and defeated in history. The narrative of the dead creates solidarity backward through time, which emphasizes the common character of the destiny of all creatures. It is thus a category of help, support, and togetherness, by means of which the dead can be affirmed as having a future, the living who are oppressed and acutely threatened can be raised up toward becoming genuinely free, and a more promising future can be created for those yet to be born. This historical solidarity between the living and the dead in view of the future breaks the grip of dominating forces and empowers transformative praxis toward a fulfilling future for all926

Notes 1. Michael Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 345. 2. Michael Buckley, “Atheism and Contemplation,” Theological Studies 40 (1979): 680–99. 3. Gerard Manly Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” A Hopkins Reader, ed. John Pick (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 47. 4. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 124. 5. Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 210. 6. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism, 360. 7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III, 66:7. 8. Ibid., 69:15. 9. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, chap. 10, no. 6. 10. Dante, Divine Comedy: Paradise, canto 33, line 145. 11. Catherine Keller, “Talk about the Weather: The Greening of Eschatology,” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. Carol Adams (New York: Continuum, 1993), 36. 12. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society (New York: Seabury, 1980). 13. Robert McAfee Brown, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 6–7. 14. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism, 363. Adapted from Finding God in All Things, ed. Michael Himes & Stephen Pope (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 84–101.982

To be in the margin, as African-American theorist bell hooks observes, is to be part of the whole but outside the main body. It is not an unnecessary place but a place of systematic devaluing. Being there signifies being less, being overlooked, not having as much importance, not being able to shape ideas or decide significant matters for the whole community.1032

sex. It labors mightily to set up structures and attitudes to keep women in their “proper” social place. In both prejudices, bodily characteristics stand in for the whole human person so that the fundamental dignity of the person is violated.1038

women work three-fourths of the world’s working hours, own one-tenth of the world’s wealth and one-hundredth of the world’s land, and form two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people, the education of girls not being a priority. Over three-fourths of the world’s starving people are women with their dependent children.1044

Subordination on the basis of sex is intertwined with subordination on the basis of race and class. Poor women of color, subordinated to poor men of color who themselves are already socially marginalized, are the oppressed of the oppressed. To make a dark picture even bleaker, women are bodily and sexually exploited, physically abused, raped, battered, and murdered. The indisputable fact is that men do this to women in a way and to a degree that women do not do it to men. Sexism is rampant on a global scale. Feminism is the stance that brings these situations to consciousness. It articulates the suffering women endure as a result. It analyzes these situations to reveal the pattern of male dominance that underlies them and makes them possible. It characterizes and resists this pattern as unjust. It embraces alternative worldviews more inclusive of women and the earth. It promotes changes in attitudes, theories, laws, and structures to bring about more wholeness of life. The dynamic of the whole movement is creating a change in consciousness that is irreversible. For those whose eyes have been opened to this worldview, it becomes as unthinkable to return to the endorsement of women’s subordination as to return to slavery.1047

Since women are present although with marginalized status in every social group and nation, the very process of their taking their lives in their own hands and seeking mutual rather than subservient relationships with men signals a radical transformation of human society.1060

The Second Vatican Council picked up this thread in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Teaching that all human persons have equal dignity before God which demands social justice for all, the bishops wrote: True, all persons are not alike from the point of view of varying physical power and the diversity of intellectual and moral resources. Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. (29)1069

The Second Vatican Council influenced Catholic women enormously. The concept of the church as people of God, the call of the whole church to holiness, the validation of the baptismal dignity of the laity—all of these teachings entail new roles and identity for women.1083

In God’s eternal plan, woman is the one in whom the order of love in the created world of persons takes first root…. The bridegroom is the one who loves. The bride is loved: It is she who receives love, in order to give love in return…. When we say that the woman is the one who receives love in order to give love in return, this refers not only or above all to the specific spousal relationship of marriage. It means something more universal, based on the fact of her being a woman…. Woman can find herself only by giving love to others. (29, 30) By nature, then, with their capacity for love, women are preordained to social roles of nurturing and caring for life, while their capacity for thought and active leadership are counted of little worth. This obviously translates into the domestic and private spheres of life being defined as women’s proper domain. In the context of patriarchy where public laws, symbols, and structures are shaped by men, such a patriarchal view of “woman’s special nature” simply ensures women’s continuing secondary social status and dependence upon men. In an ironic twist, it also credits women with being capable of living out Jesus’ great commandment of love better than men can, but this seems to go by unnoticed by the promoters of women’s special nature. Women are marginalized not only by theory; church practice likewise effects their exclusion. They may not receive all seven sacraments. Thus they may not preach or preside in the liturgical assembly, or mediate God’s grace in officially sacramental ways. The primary effect is to make women dependent on a male clergy for such mediation of God’s grace. Such exclusion also bars them from centers of significant ecclesial decision-making, law-making, symbol-making, and other public leadership roles in the institution. Awareness of this subordination has created a crisis over the Eucharist for many women. As Rosemary Radford Ruether expresses it, women come to the table to be nourished by the word of God and the bread of life, only to leave still starved because what has been powerfully ritualized is their own subordination.1118

Who is God? Is God a male ruler who wills male supremacy? Or a triune mystery of love beyond all imagining who wills the genuine equality of women and men in community and who, as a result, can be referred to in female and cosmic imagery? Are women deficient human beings or really created in the image and likeness of God? What is salvation? Is Jesus Christ a savior of all or a tool of patriarchal oppression? Does baptism really recreate women in the image of Christ, or do its effects not quite “take” when the recipient is female? Is the church to be forever sexist, or can it be redeemed from sexism to become a more just community of disciples? Vatican II taught that the pilgrim church on its way through history is continually in need of reform, called always to increased fidelity to its own mission.1143

In Anne Carr’s lovely phrase, in the midst of the history of sexism, feminism comes as an offer of “transforming grace” to the church, an offer to repent and become a living community of justice and peace.1150

I still followed the Way of Jesus, I offered, because it turns you toward the nearest neighbor in need, without denying the values that she so beautifully affirmed.1170

is the way these factors are combined in the Catholic Church that gives this group its particular character. The three strengths are these: the gospel, the community, and the imagination.1181

First, the gospel. The community that is the Catholic Church continues to keep alive the liberating, compassionate power of the gospel. We continue to hear from the Scriptures of God’s gracious intent to heal, redeem, and liberate all peoples and the cosmos itself. The Jewish Scriptures connect us with divine presence through proclamation of the exodus from slavery to freedom and the making of the covenant; through the prophetic word against injustice that promises release; and through the wisdom word about creation that points to divine ways in the world of nature and everyday life. The Christian Scriptures release the power of the Spirit through the dangerous story of Jesus the Christ: his love of God, his way of relating to people against all social stigmatizing, his challenge to follow, his death and resurrection releasing mercy and hope for all. In other words, if the core of the gospel were missing, there would be no point to remaining in the church or inviting others to share the faith. But I find it is still there.1182

we can see ever more clearly that Jesus-Sophia, in the name of God, gives the world a pattern of hope and meaning by embodying and teaching a loving way of relating to each other. Not domination-submission but the inclusive, mutual connections of sisters and brothers should characterize the community of disciples. Furthermore, feminist biblical interpretation highlights Jesus’ attitude toward women, his outreach toward women in need, his inclusive table community, the influence of women upon him, the witness of his women disciples. These disciples, key among them Mary of Magdala, provide the moving point of continuity in the gospel story. Having accompanied him as disciples around Galilee, they followed him when he set his face toward Jerusalem and were present at all the important events of his last days. They kept faith with him even to the bitter end. It is simply not true to say, as so many do, that all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him during the crucifixion. The circle of women disciples kept vigil by the cross as a sacrament of God’s own seemingly absent fidelity. The women disciples, according to the gospels, helped to bury Jesus. Knowing where the tomb was, they were the first to experience Christ risen and receive the apostolic commission to “go and tell.” The fire of the Holy Spirit was poured out on women and men alike in the upper room. Accordingly, the participation of women in ministry in the early years of the church was not an aberration but an expression of a new worldview learned from Jesus Christ, both historical and risen. The egalitarian character of the Jesus movement was eventually co-opted by patriarchy, although it did not go down without a fight. But the revolutionary realization that women are equally made in the image of God, are restored by Christ in the power of the Spirit, and are capable of responsibility commensurate with this blessing surfaces again and again in Christian history. There is thus a critical and transforming tradition stemming from the gospel itself that can add impetus to the conversation of the church today from sexism. The institutional church has already changed its long-held stances regarding the religious correctness of slavery and contempt for the Jews. It is now time for the living tradition to grow away from the subordination of women. The gospel carries this message as a subliminal text even in the midst of sexism. The second strength I would name is the community. The Catholic people form an ancient and widespread community of all sorts of folks, connected through time and space. The connection with believers throughout the ages as expressed, for example, in the “Litany of the Saints” gives us deep historical roots. In addition to community through time, there is also community through space given the wide geographic spread of Catholicism. The Catholic Church is a major world institution that crosses the lines of the hemispheres, north to south, east to west, linking together populations in western and eastern Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands, and Australia. There are over one billion of us, peoples of various cultures but with a shared faith, sacred memory, and symbol system, struggling to be faithful and make sense of our lives. This vast network becomes wonderfully real when you travel to different countries and participate in the local church. Being a Catholic means being joined with all these people. I find particular delight in discovering so many women in different countries forming networks of mutual help, moving forward with actions to promote the dignity of women according to the possibilities of their own culture. In North America there are feminist Catholics and Catholic feminists of all stripes, women pastoring parishes, women in peace and justice movements, theologians of multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic traditions. In India there is Virginia Saldanha with her circle of friends heading up the first Women’s Desk for the diocese of Bombay. In South Africa there is the artist Dina Cormick…1190

impact on society, even for generations yet unborn.1248

Francis Xavier is a wonderful instance of a life lived in faith. In a way more dramatic than most, he experienced what nevertheless is common to those who throw in their lot with the God of the Bible, because this God is a God of surprises, always calling us to “go forth,” “come ahead,” venture into the future promised but unknown. Some people, of course, live with a focus on the past, on the hurts whose remembrance requires self-pity or even vengeance, or on sweet times that wash them in nostalgia and a desire to return to the way things were.

Our own culture tends to fixate us in the present, where we can ignore the suffering of others by busying ourselves with a thousand distractions, entertaining ourselves to death. But faith keeps up a steady drumbeat to move into the future, where the ever-coming God will meet us in new challenging and comforting ways1281

To illustrate this, consider two famous ancient stories, one Greek and one Hebrew, that offer contrasting options about how to live.1288

Odysseus engages in terrific feats of valor—blinding an enemy! His journey is definitely an adventure. However, in the end, he is driven by the desire to return to what he knows, to the comfort and prestige of the past he remembers. The Hebrew story starts with an older man and his wife already settled in their home. God addresses Abram, and by implication Sarah, with an unsettling invitation: Leave, go forth to the land I will show you. This invitation is accompanied by a concrete promise: you will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. It carries, too, an even deeper pledge that God will be with them. Centuries later, reflecting on this moment, the New Testament notes with amazement about Abraham: “and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Through thick and thin he forged ahead, daring to risk everything in trust that God would be faithful, even when things got so bad that he hung on, “hoping against hope,” as Paul says (Rom 4:18). The drumbeat of his adventure and that of Sarah was faith in the living God who called them into the future and promised to meet them there. 1293

We human beings have a passion to be and become ourselves. This cannot happen if we try to return to the past or stay wedded to the present moment. Only by pressing ahead to the future can we allow the fullness of life to find us1304

The Greeks reasoned that if we freed ourselves from hope and simply accepted our fate, then we would no longer feel such pain. In the Bible, by contrast, the present moment is a growing edge, opening ever further to God’s dream for our becoming. It would seem that the living God is not above us but ahead of us, calling with a promise that exceeds expectations. “Leave, go forth,” God addresses each of us. Come ahead to the place, the vocation, the relationships, the work, the griefs and joys I will show you.

The human instinct is to shrink this promise to our own measure of what seems possible. If we dare to respond, however, we might find ourselves in surprising new territory. Biblical spirituality is awash with this hope.

Ultimately, the future that we all travel toward is death, something made very concrete by the ashes of Lent. Here we Christians live by a new chapter in the Abrahamic story, namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the end of his life Jesus really died on the cross and ended up in the darkness and silence of the tomb. It would seem that his story was over. But the ever-coming God of surprises opens up the future once again1309

The resurrection makes clear God’s purpose in creating the world. While death is a part of all life, in the end we and the cosmos are destined not for death and destruction but for transformation into new life. Here we have a whole new vision of what awaits, even if unimaginably so. God intends no empty future where we are annihilated by death, but a future of life transformed through resurrection1320

Abraham and Sarah embody the story where faith in God is an adventure into the unknown. In his death and resurrection, Jesus extends that adventure all the way through the barrier of death into the future where, in the embrace of the living God, we “shall see face to face,” and “know even as we are known.” For Christians, “come ahead” is the story to live. 1324

Creative Giver of Life

Astronauts who have seen the view of Earth from space with their own eyes speak of its power to change their attitude. (see short video at https://cleantechnica.com/2017/01/06/stunning-video-earth-nasa-astronaut-shares-beauty-big-blue-marble/) Saudi Arabian astronaut Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, member of an international crew, recollected: “The first day we all pointed to our own countries. The third day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were all aware of only one Earth.” Another astronaut, American Rusty Schweigert who walked on the moon, had this to say: “From the moon, Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in the universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that spot, that little blue and white circle, is everything that means anything to you—all of history, music, poetry and art, birth and love and death, tears, joy…And then you are changed forever; your relationship to the world is no longer what it was.”1

In our day, a new awareness of the magnificence of Earth as a planet that hosts life is growing among people everywhere. It is an ecological consciousness, pervaded by wonder at Earth’s living beauty and, simultaneously, by distress at its despoiling. Ecological awareness is a new dialogue partner for theology. It raises challenges and provides opportunities to take yet another step in the age-old journey of seeking understanding of the ineffable mystery of God, Creator of heaven and earth. Toward that end, consider first a view of the world in all its wonder and wasting. This in turn will open the door to insights about the Giver of its life.1332

This contemporary story of the history of the cosmos teaches amazing things. The universe is unfathomably old. We humans have only recently arrived. Carl Sagan memorably used the timetable of a single Earth year to dramatize the cosmic calendar. If the Big Bang occurred on January 1st, then our sun and planets came into existence September 9th; life on Earth originated on September 25th; and the first humans emerged onto the scene on December 31st at 10:30 PM.2

Placing this timetable into graphic physical motion, the American Museum of Natural History in New York contains a spiraling cosmic walk. Starting at rooftop level with the Big Bang, each normal-sized step one takes down the spiral covers millions of years. At the bottom, you step over all of human history in a line as thin as a human hair.

The observable universe is incomprehensibly large. There are over 100 billion galaxies, each comprised of billions of stars, and no one knows how many moons and planets, all of this visible and audible matter being only a fraction of the matter and energy in the universe. Earth is a small planet orbiting a medium-sized star toward the edge of one spiral galaxy.

The universe is profoundly dynamic. Out of the Big Bang, the galaxies of stars; out of the stardust, the Earth; out of the molecules of the Earth, single-celled living creatures; out of the evolutionary life and death of these creatures, an advancing tide of life, fragile but unstoppable, up to the riot of millions of species that exist today; and out of one branch of this bush of life, homo sapiens, the species in which the Earth becomes conscious of itself.

Human thought and love are not something injected into the universe from without, but are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. The universe is complexly interconnected. Everything links with everything else; nothing conceivable is isolated. What makes our blood red? 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.”3 We and all other species are made of stardust. The subsequent story of evolution makes clear that humans share with all other living creatures on our planet a common genetic ancestry.

Charles Darwin, who laid out the story of evolution so compellingly, described the result with the metaphor of a great tree of life.4 Picture a spreading evolutionary tree that links all living creatures into an indivisible whole, spanning the ages. The outer layer of budding twigs and green leaves represents the multitudes of species alive today, topping out in the sun. Below are layers of dead and broken branches that once lived, giving rise to the new life which they now support. What a grand natural system! And the story is not finished yet. Bacteria, pine trees, blueberries, horses, the great gray whales: we are all genetic kin in the great community of life.

This account of our living planet tends to awaken awe. But at the same time we humans are inflicting deadly damage on our planet, ravaging its identity as a dwelling place for life. The way we consume and exploit resources and pollute is dealing a sucker punch to life-supporting systems on land, sea, and air. The litany makes for nightmare headlines: global warming, holes in the ozone layer, rain forests logged and burned, ruined wetlands, collapsed fisheries, poisoned soils. The widespread destruction of ecosystems has as its flip side the extinction of the plant and animal species that thrive in these habitats. By a conservative estimate, in the last quarter of the twentieth century 10 percent of all living species went extinct. The dying off has only become more rapid in the twenty-first century. The behavior of the human species is killing birth itself, shutting down the future of our fellow creatures who took millions of years to evolve. Their perishing sends an early-warning signal about the death of our planet itself.1352

In our day, awareness of the magnificence of Earth as a small planet hospitable to life is growing among peoples everywhere. It is an ecological awareness, ecological from the Greek word oikos, meaning household or home. This living planet, with its thin spherical shell of land, water, and breathable air, is home for human beings, our only home in the vast universe. It is also home to a wondrous diversity of species that interrelate to form networks of living ecosystems.1629

Once when the noted nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir was hiking in the Yosemite wilderness, he came upon a dead bear. He stopped to reflect on this creature’s dignity: an animal with warm blood and a heart that pumped like ours, whose fur was ruffled by the wind, who rejoiced in a sunny day and a bush filled with berries. Later he wrote a bitter entry in his journal, criticizing the religious folk he knew who made no room in their faith for such noble creatures. They think they are the only ones with souls, he complained, the only ones for whom heaven is reserved. To the contrary, he wrote, “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”1 Is it? Is ours? The question deserves consideration.1643

Classical theology speaks of creation in three senses: creatio originalis, creatio continua, creatio nova, that is, original creation in the beginning, continuous creation in the present here and now, and new creation at the redeemed end-time. Originalis: At the outset, being created means that all creatures, including plants and animals, receive their life as a gift from the living God and exist in utter reliance on that gift. They owe their existence to God: this is the core of creatio originalis. In ultimate terms they do not bring themselves into being nor does their existence explain itself. Their very being here at all relies on the overflowing generosity of the Creator who freely shares life with the world; in the Bible’s opening words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Theology has traditionally used the phrase “out of nothing” to stress how divine this act is, and how free. There was no pre-existing material that the Creator used to fashion the world. There were no other gods or no Satan with whom the Creator had to wrestle to bring about the world. And there was no pressure, no necessity, to do this. Nothing and no one was there to bring any coercion to bear. Creation came into being not out of necessity but as an absolutely free and generous act of God’s own gracious, loving will, welling up from the unfathomable plenitude of divine being. Creatio originalis means that as creatures, plants and animals do not ultimately ground themselves but are rooted in a power beyond themselves. In this light, their existence is a sheer gift.

And it is good. Continua: In addition to their origin in God’s gracious act, plants and animals continue to be held in life and empowered to act in every moment by the Giver of life. Without this sustaining presence, they would sink back into nothingness. The living God did not retire after the six days of creation, but divine creativity is active here, now, in the next minute, or there would be no world at all. As we read in the book of Wisdom: “The Spirit of the Lord has filled the world (1:7), and “your immortal spirit is in all things” (12:1).

Nova: The God of life, source of endless possibilities, continues to draw the world into a future marked by a radical promise, namely, that at the ultimate end of time the Creator of all will not abandon the world but will re-create it anew. On the last day God will transform the world in an unimaginable way into a new creation in communion with divine life. Being created means that living creatures are the bearers of this great and hopeful promise. As we read at the end of the Bible: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). The fourteenth-century mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich catches the connection between these three dimensions of creation in one of her beautiful visions: And in this [Christ] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.2 What a profoundly simple observation, based on the conviction that God is faithful. Creation in the beginning, the fact that it continues to endure, and its promised renewal at the end come from the same source: infinite love.


The threefold meaning of creation, past, present, and to come, clearly renders the natural world religiously significant in terms of its own relationship to God. Over the centuries, however, especially in the theology of the West as compared to Eastern Orthodox thought, interest narrowed down to focus on human beings almost exclusively. Granted, we are a fascinating lot. But our special identity, our sinfulness, and our need for salvation became all-consuming, to the point where the…1655

Paul’s telling observation, all creation is groaning like a woman in childbirth, in hope that it will be set free (Rom 8:18–25). The evolutionary world, some would say, is cruciform; it proceeds along the way of the cross. No new life without the sacrifice of death.1793

Christ crucified and risen goes ahead of us like a pioneer, awakening hope that the future toward which we are going will be life, not death.1825

what about the plants and animals, the pelican chick? Can hope for redemption be broadened to include all creatures that die? There are important reasons to answer “yes,” starting with the broad belief1827

Jesus as the coming of God’s personal self-expressing Word, full of loving-kindness and faithfulness: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Note that the gospel does not say that the Word became a human being (Greek anthropos), or a man (Greek aner), but flesh (Greek sarx), a broader reality. Sarx or flesh in the New Testament connotes the finite quality of the material world which is fragile, vulnerable, prone to trouble and sin, perishable, the very opposite of divine majesty. Taking the powerful biblical theme of God’s dwelling among the people of Israel a step further, John’s gospel affirms that in a new and saving event the Word of God became flesh, entered personally into the sphere of the material to shed light on all from within.1833

“Deep incarnation” understands John 1:14 to be saying that the sarx which the Word of God became not only connects Jesus to other human beings; it also reaches beyond them to join him to the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they are composed. As Pope John Paul II realized, the incarnation accomplishes “the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature of everything that is ‘flesh’: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, has a cosmic significance…”91 856

The ineffable compassion of God embraces all who are perishing in the flesh. They remain connected to the living God despite what is happening; in fact, in the depths of what is happening. The indwelling, empowering Spirit of God, the Spirit of the crucified Christ who companions creatures in their individual lives and long-range evolution, does not abandon them in the moment of trial. The cross gives warrant for locating the compassion of God right at the center of their affliction. One may well ask if this kind of presence of the living God with creatures in their suffering makes any difference. In one sense it does not. Death goes on as before, destroying the individual. Wrestling intensely with this problem, British theologian Christopher Southgate admits as much: “When I consider the starving pelican chick, or the impala hobbled by a mother cheetah so that her cubs can learn to pull a prey animal down, I cannot pretend that God’s presence as the ‘heart’ of the world takes the pain of the experience away; I cannot pretend that the suffering may not destroy the creature’s consciousness, before death claims it. That is the power of suffering….” Reflecting further, however, his thought arrives at an awesome insight: “I can only suppose that God’s suffering presence is just that, presence, of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience.”10 Understood in this context, the death of Christ becomes an icon of God’s solidarity with all creatures in their dying, through endless millennia of evolution, from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground. The pelican chick does not die alone.1868

space, the tomb’s emptiness signals this cosmic realism. Herein lies the hinge of hope for the final redemption of all living creatures. The coming final transformation of history in creatio nova will be the salvation of everything, including the evolving community of life and the whole cosmos itself, brought into communion with the God of life.1898

CONVERSION TO THE EARTH Looked at in this faith perspective, the current destruction of life on Earth by human action has the character of deep moral failure. To speak theologically, it is profoundly sinful. By acts of commission and omission we are perpetrating violence against life, deforming its future. In so doing we are pulling contrary to the will of God, whose beloved creation this is. Ethicists have coined new words to name the sin: biocide, ecocide, geocide. Sacrilege and desecration are not too strong a designation. The Catholic bishops of the Philippines name the despoilation an insult to Christ: “the destruction of any part of creation, especially the extinction of species, defaces the image of Christ which is etched in creation.”14 Whatever the language, the moral judgment remains that the ecological damage humans are wreaking on the Earth is profoundly wrong. In terms of Christian spirituality, the turn from sin to a life marked by grace is known as conversion. In a broad sense conversion is a continuous characteristic of the life of faith, an ever-deepening fidelity in relationship with God. At the same time, as the New Testament term for conversion (Greek metanoia) indicates, it can also mean literally a turning, a change of direction, switching away from one path and swiveling toward another. Facing the evils of ecological ruination in a spirit of repentance, the church community needs to be converted to the patterns established by the Spirit in the giving of life itself. Motivated by the love of God, we need a deep spiritual conversion to the earth. This involves several discrete turnings at once. Intellectually, it entails moving from an anthropocentric view of the world to a wider theocentric one that has room for other species to be included in the circle of what is religiously meaningful. It means letting go of a philosophy shaped by hierarchical dualism that prizes spirit over matter in favor of a philosophy that also intensely values physical and bodily realities as God’s good creation. Rather than setting up a contrastive either-or relation between God and the world, this intellectual turning honors the presence of the Giver of life in, with, and under the ecological community of species, and sees the Creator reflected in their flourishing. Emotionally, being converted to the earth involves a turning from the delusion of the separated human self and the isolated human species to a felt affiliation with other beings who share in our common status as creatures of God. In the beautiful words of Albert Einstein, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”15 In the depths of our being we recover a capacity for communion with the natural world, to the point where brother sun and sister moon, brother fire and sister water, brother wolf and little sister bird are more than poetic ways of speaking but felt truths, as with Francis of Assisi. Ethically, we realize that a moral universe limited to human persons is no longer adequate. Our attention widens beyond humanity alone and re-centers vigorous moral consideration on the whole community of life. Recognizing that we are kin, we start to preserve and protect creation not just because it is useful to us but because it has its own intrinsic value. An excellent lead for action comes from the radical principle articulated by Pope John Paul II: “Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join humanity in praising God.”16 This calls into play the rich tradition of moral right and wrong, virtue and sin, already so well developed in terms of the dignity of the human person, and invites its challenging application to this new set of lives. Reciprocity rather than rapaciousness begins to mark our relationship with the earth. Simply put, ecological conversion means falling in love with the earth as an inherently valuable, living community in which we participate, and…1911

What is going on when women biblical scholars today point out that the Hebrew word for divine mercy, rechem, comes from the root word for a woman’s uterus, so that when Scripture calls upon God for mercy, it is actually asking God to forgive with the kind of love a mother has for the child of her womb? The prophet Isaiah intensifies the connection with his oracle: Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Yet even if these2076