vol 6: Essays
On visible salvation
"One needs a new language of salvation, one that addresses the historical suffering experienced in our world, and the present day consciousness that is scandalised by it, and at the same time is faithful to the scriptural and classical witness about Jesus saving." Haight p 26
Through the Living letters we listened and heard our sisters answer Jesus question, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Women responded by revealing their secret pain of isolation, economic injustice, barriers to participation, racism, religious fundamentalism, ethnic genocide, sexual harassment, HIV/AIDS and violence against women and children. We lamented. We searched the scriptures and we prayed. We found the Holy Spirit interceding with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26). Empowered, we have begun the journey of healing. WCC Eighth Assembly.
This essay is written from the viewpoint that human affairs have meaning in the context of the evolving Universe revealed to us by scientific work. Silk, Weinberg. This scientific view of the world was introduced to Christianity by the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard de Chardin appears to identify an end point of the Universe, which he called the omega point, with the Christian escatological vision. Teilhard de Chardin, page 257 sqq.
The problem we have before us is typified by the question quoted above: "Woman (human? any being?) why are you weeping?" The general answer is that we are to some degree off course, lost and in need of salvation. Good navigation protects us from shipwreck, and violence in general. A short reflection reveals that the problem of finding effective means to avoid the evils that surround our lives is both universal and exceedingly difficult.
Although when conflicts arise, there is a natural tendency to find fault or sin at the root, it is clear also that severe difficulties can arise between persons of good will with no evidence of wrongdoing. Errors, ignorance and acts of God can bring the best navigator undone.
The general theory of navigation is cybernetics. Ashby. The word was coined by Norbert Wiener and defined as control and communication in the animal and the machine. Wiener. Animals and machines control themselves through error signals, which measure how far they are missing their target. In its current meaning Salvation carries overtones of sin and of private misery. I would like to differentiate sin (with its concomitant guilt) from error, and so to construct a language of salvation which speaks in practical and public terms. Accusations of sin seem to be a potent source of the very division which practical salvation seeks to heal. back
The Christian narrative of human existence begins with Genesis. An event in Genesis, which gives context to the story of Salvation, is the Fall:
The serpent was the most subtle of all the wild beasts that Yahweh God had made. It asked the woman, 'Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?' The woman answered the serpent, 'We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the fruit in the tree in the middle of the garden God said. "You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death".' Then the serpent said to the woman, "No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil. The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Genesis 3:1-6
And so, according to the Christian hypothesis, the original sin was committed and punishment followed; suffering and a tendency to further sin entered in the human world. Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 602. This is the bad news. The good news, found in the New Testament, is the story of Redemption or Salvation and the consequent hope for the Kingdom of Heaven.
The details of this position have been worked out over the last two thousand years, and the process of defining Christianity continues. The lively current movement toward unity requires each of the Churches to examine its position to decide what it holds in common with the other Churches and where it differs. One very public example of this process has been the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue whose formal beginning was the Common Declaration made by Pope Paul VI and the Archbishop of Canterbury on 24 March 1966. Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.
The documents generated by this dialogue provide clear contemporary statements of Christian faith drafted by expert Commissions guided by modern scholarship. In Salvation and the Church
The primary task of ARCIC II is to examine and try to resolve those doctrinal differences which still divide us. Accordingly, at the request of the Anglican Consultative Council (Newcastle, September 1981) we have addressed ourselves to the doctrine of justification, which at the time of the Reformation was a particular cause of contention. This request sprang out of a widespread view that the subject of justification and salvation is so central to the Christian faith that, unless there is assurance of agreement on the issue, there can be no full doctrinal agreement between our two Churches. Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commision II, Preface.
3 . . . Above all it was agreed that the act of God in bringing salvation to the human race and summoning individuals into a community to serve him is due solely to the mercy and grace of God, mediated and manifested through Jesus Christ in his ministry, atoning death and rising again. It was also no matter of dispute that God's grace evokes an authentic human response of faith which takes effect not only in the life of the individual, but also in the corporate life of the Church. The difficulties arose in explaining how divine grace related to human response, and these difficulties were compounded by a framework of discussion that concentrated too narrowly upon the individual. ARCIC II § 3.
These three difficulties related to salvation and faith, salvation and justification and salvation and good works. back
9 When we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, we praise and glorify God the Father, whose purpose for creation and salvation is realised in the Son, whom he sent to redeem us and prepare a people for himself by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This wholly unmerited love of God for his creatures is expressed in the language of grace, which embraces not only the once for all death and resurrection of Christ, but also God's continuing work on our behalf. The Holy Spirit makes the fruits of Christ's sacrifice actual within the Church through Word and Sacrament: our sins are forgiven, we are enabled to respond to God's love, and we are conformed to the image of Christ. The human response to God's initiative is itself a gift of grace, and is at the same time a truly human, personal response. It is through God's grace that God's new creation is realised. Salvation is the gift of grace; it is by faith that it is appropriated. ARCIC II § 9. back
13 . . . The concept of justification relates to the removal of condemnation and to a new standing in the eyes of God (e.g. Rom. 3.22 ff., 4.5, 5.1 ff; Acts 13.39). Salvation in all these aspects comes to each believer as he or she is incorporated into the believing community.
14 . . . The discussion . . . has been confused by different understandings of the word justification and its associated words. The theologians of the Reformation tended to follow the predominant usage of the New Testament, in which the verb diakaioun usually means 'to pronounce righteous'. The Catholic theologians, and notably the Council of Trent, tended to follow the usage of patristic and medieval Latin writers, for whom iustificare (the traditional latin translation of diakaioun) signified 'to make righteous'. Thus the Catholic understanding of the process of justification, following Latin usage, tended to include elements of salvation which the reformers would describe as belonging to sanctification rather than justification. As a consequence, Protestants took Catholics to be emphasising sanctification in such a way that the absolute gratuitousness of salvation was threatened. On the other side Catholics feared that Protestants were so stressing the justifying action of God that sanctification and human responsibility were gravely depreciated. ARCIC II, §§ 13, 14. back
24 The language of merit and good works . . . when properly understood, in no way implies that human beings, once justified, are able to put God in their debt. Still less does it imply that justification itself is anything but a totally unmerited gift. ARCIC II, § 24.
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The concern to emphasise the freedom of God's gift and the impotence of humanity has also been a subject of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue in relation to the Eucharist. The report Sacrament and Sacrifice from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in Australia makes the following points regarding the Eucharist:
Catholics and Lutherans hold in common that the Christ who is present . . . in the Eucharist is the same Christ whose death on Calvary was the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue Committee, §43.
Our dialogue is unanimous in agreeing that there is no sacrifice which human beings can offer which can usurp the place of this unique, saving event on Calvary. §51.
In general, Lutherans have considered that the prime purpose of the Eucharist is to communicate God's forgiveness to the faithful and strengthen their faith in Christ. Because the risen Christ is truly present in the Eucharist in his crucified body and blood, the forgiveness of sins, promised at the Last Supper (Matt. 26:28) and won on the Cross (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:22), is imparted to the believer in the sacrament. Consequently Lutherans have usually laid emphasis on the reception of the Eucharist: the faithful receive what Christ has gained for them on the Cross, viz the benefits and fruits of his sacrifice. For this reason Lutherans have traditionally been critical of any suggestion that Christ or his sacrifice on the Cross is offered up to the Father by the priest, by the people, by the Church. They fear that this understanding of the Eucharist leads to a confusion of Christ's action and ours, opens the door to false stress on human achievement, and calls into question Christ's unique sacrifice. §61.
It is very clear from these documents that the current Christian view is that salvation is in every sense unmerited. As ARCIC II wrote "Even the very first moments which lead to justification, such as repentance, the desire for forgiveness and even faith itself, are the work of God as he touches our hearts by the illumination of the Holy Spirit." §24. back
Although the quotations above tend to picture people who see themselves totally dependent on God's grace for every move toward salvation, it is apparent from a wider viewpoint that the Churches, like other human organisations, have been very active in bringing about their vision of the Kingdom of heaven, and have been heavily involved in social welfare, social policy and politics since earliest times. Toynbee, pp 319-350. The nature of his death indicates that Jesus himself was viewed by his government as a political agent. Fredriksen, p 124. Viewed in this light, Jesus' preaching and the 'deposit of faith' are quite consistent with the developments in governance, agriculture, industry and human relationships that we have seen in the last two thousand years.
The social history of the Church is consistent with the natural function of religion documented by Reynolds and Tanner in what they claim is the first "thoroughgoing functional approach to religions in terms of the life cycle of ordinary people . . . ". Reynolds and Tanner, p 15. They note that
religions . . . engage people in the most matter-of-fact ways, instructing them about their hygiene, their sexual behaviour, how and when to have children, how to manage the difficulties of adolescence, and so on, through the life cycle until death. p 25. Rossano: Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, Bellah: Religion in Human Evolution
Noble argues persuasively that technological development is intimately related to salvation, first in reversing the damage done in Eden, and then in actually bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into existence:
For modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavour.
This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, . . . Rather, it is meant literally and historically to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief. Noble, pp 4-5.
He argues by examining the words of prominent scientists and technological innovators to see what they thought they were doing. In his chapter 9 The Ascent of the Saints: Space Exploration, he draws attention to the very high proportion of those involved in space exploration who are Christians, many quite outspoken in their belief. He quotes the following words of Werner von Braun, the 'father' of the US space effort (whose early work was in Nazi Germany):
In this reaching of the new millennium through faith in the words of Jesus Christ, science can be a valuable tool rather than an impediment. . . . Science and religion are not antagonists. On the contrary they are sisters. While science tries to learn more about the Creation, religion tries to better understand the Creator. Speaking for myself I can only say that the grandeur of the cosmos serves only to confirm my belief in the certainty of a Creator. Noble, page 127.
Christianity interprets the Fall as a major ontological failure of the world. There is another way, rooted in evolutionary psychology, of looking at Genesis 3 which may throw more light on the human situation at the time this story entered human literature. Cummins.
Jaynes provides an analysis of human consciousness and uses ancient sources to study the origin of human consciousness. Jaynes. One line of evidence for this event is found in Mesopotamian sculpture. p 223. A second is an analysis of the Iliad and the Odyssey which shows that the narrator of the Odyssey has an awareness of self which is absent in the earlier narrator of the Iliad. p 67 sqq.
Jaynes then turns to the Khabiru (Hebrews) with the words "The third great area where we can look at the development of consciousness is certainly the most interesting and profound." p 293. Consciousness allows us to reflect on our fate, and the narrative of the Fall is one such reflection which widely shared by Homo sapiens. From Jaynes' point of view, the Fall narrative does not reflect some ontological failure of the relationship between human beings and the rest of reality, including God, but rather the dawning of awareness that we do have to work for a living, and that the future is in our own hands. As the serpent pointed out, "on the day you eat of [the tree of knowledge] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil". Genesis 3:5.
The consequences of this action which Yahweh God visits upon the snake and the humans (Genesis 3:14-19) are nothing other than a description of life as it has always been for all living things: each must avoid sudden death, grow and reproduce, and make the effort necessary to achieve these ends, or be unfit. Wilson. In contrast, life on earth for creatures and people completely accepting of their lot may have been subjectively paradisaical. Turnbull.
That the evolutionary approach to the meaning of human existence has a place in the Church was reaffirmed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled Truth cannot contradict truth. The Pope said:
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5. The church's magisterium is directly concerned with the question of evolution, for it involves the conception of man. . . . It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God (animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides nos retinere iubei; Humani Generis, 36 Pope Pius XII). Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.
6. With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. . . . The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator's plans. John Paul II
This is not the place to dispute the Catholic dogma on the creation of the soul. My working hypothesis is that a proper understanding of the Universe makes the postulation of a God outside (and the special creation of the human soul) unnecessary.
Let us assume, then that evolutionary theory (coupled with the mathematics of networks, computation and communication) is capable of explaining the origin and function of the human mind and that ecological theory can explain the diversities of the development of the human species and give us much insight into the state of the world today. Cummins, Diamond. Religions, as components of human culture, obviously have an important part to play in human ecology.
This view of salvation embodies the adage "the Lord helps those who help themselves", which seems to carry with it the idea that human have some control over acts of God, and that acts of God are not therefore purely gratuitous. If one is to follow this adage a major question arises. How do I help myself? How do I act, in this vast Universe, to become a member of the Kingdom of Heaven? back
The progress of technology is intimately bound up with progress in mathematics. The 'do it yourself' attitude to salvation seems to have taken root about the time of Descartes. Gaukroger, Davis. At this point, we can see the stream of human intellectual development splitting in two. Scientists, technologists, capitalists, merchants and the like set out on the project of building a new world. The Reformers, on the other hand, emphasised the overwhelming power of God and the weakness of mankind.
When mathematics looks at the wheel it sees a circle, a geometric object defined as the plane figure comprising a line (or set of points) equidistant from a point in the plane called the centre of the circle. Lonergan, p 31. Looking at salvation in the same vein, we may see the sequence on course - off course - on course. Before the Fall, we were bound for glory. We lost it, but, as the New Testament explains, God has saved some of us. He has brought the faithful back onto the right path.
The mathematical model is built around an object called the control loop. The archetypal control loop operates in a sailing craft controlled by a helmsman, Greek kybernetes, whence kybernetike, skilled in steering. To make headway, the boat must be kept in a certain relationship to the wind and sea. The helmsman watches sails and sea, decides if any correction is necessary, and uses the tiller to put these decisions into action.
Mathematics models the control of the ship by a function which is put into action by a computer. Jech, p 8, Davis. A function is a mapping, that is a relationship between two sets of elements. One set is the input, in this case the sensations experienced by the sailor sensitive to wind, sea and the motion of the ship. The other set is the output, the movements of the tiller known from long experience to be necessary to keep the ship under control and making the best prudent headway.
From the point of view of the mathematical model, steering a ship is but one instance of the general class of control loops. Once we get used to thinking in this way, we can see control loops everywhere as systems that control themselves in order to optimise some parameter or set of parameters. Evolution naturally selects those systems who are able to succeed in steering themselves through the general space of life.
Lovelock's concept gaia is defined cybernetically. Lovelock. Through it we see the earth as a single living organism comprising interlocked systems of other organisms, all acting together to produce a suitable envronment for each other. This seems to me to be a good candidate model to reinterpret the Catholic concept Mystical Body of Christ.
In practical terms, the heart of the control loop is the function that the system uses and the way this function is implemented in whatever real physical computer the system uses. Theory is not so constrained as practice, and revolves around an abstract mathematical computer affectionately known as the Turing machine. The abstract Turing machine can deal with countably infinite sequences of symbols, and a countably infinite number of machines may be linked together into a network. This abstract mathematical structure is thus big enough to model the world organism by organism, or even atom by atom, as the gaia hypothesis suggests. Alan Turing: On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem
The abstract heart of the control loop is a function implemented as software in a computer or network of computers. This function may be represented by a string of symbols, that is an ordered set. It is a word, in the biblical sense of a set of words like the Bible or the writings of the Fathers. If God were to program the computer it would be fitting to call that program the Word of God. The Church is a goal oriented organism which falls within the definition of a control loop. We can see, through our familiarity with the Church, how the Word of God coupled with dialogue between its members guides its activity in the world. back
"This is the revelation given by God to Jesus Christ so that he could tell his servants about the things which are now to take place very soon; . . . " Revelation 1:1. The classical Christian narrative of salvation operates on very short timescale compared to the world as we now know it. One of the main difficulties with understanding evolutionary theory is appreciating the slowness of the process, the vast amount of detailed information involved and the vast times needed to make significant changes.
From a ecological point of view, a successful religion is one that enables its adherents to "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on earth." (Genesis 1:28), but it is clear that much more information is needed to regulate human affairs than the deposit of faith. Christianity has indeed conquered the earth, but because the earth is a single closed system, our conquest runs the risk of being a Pyrrhic victory. Our very success can be seen to threatens the foundation of our continued existence.
At first glance, the interpretation of salvation as passive rescue from sin seems to be vastly different from the interpretation of salvation as evolution of means of dealing with problems as they arise. In particular the evolution of technology seems to point to dangerous human hubris, to playing God, contrary to the nature of religion, which requires submission to the divine: eg Islam is Arabic for Submission (to the will of God). Delbridge, sv "Islam".
Practical acquaintance with technology, however, suggests that this difference is more apparent than real. The nature of God is revealed not just in the deposit of faith, but also in creation. To make any technology work requires meticulous attention to the detailed requirements of nature, that is submission to nature.
In the magical phase of human development, people think that the world will hear their words and rituals and obey. Later we realise that if we want to make things happen, it is no use talking to them in human language, but in their own natural language. We must submit to the protocols of the world if we wish to survive in it. Science is our means of learning the languages of nature and learning to speak them with sufficient facility to guide the world toward our own ends. Insofar as God reveals itself through nature, science seeks to hear the word of God. Science so understood is an element of gaia, part of the loop that keeps us on course. If we want to construct heaven for ourselves, we must learn to listen very carefully to both our own nature and the nature of the world. back
How does this discussion meet Haight's request for a new language of salvation, one that meets the sort of problems documented by the women of the Ecumenical Decade festival?
We are animals with an evolutionary heritage three or four billion years old. In that time we and our ancestors have adapted to the demands of the world, and the record of that adaptation is carried in our genotype. We have a very wide dynamic range of behaviour, ranging from utmost gentleness to murderous violence. Each behaviour has its place in one or other of the vast array of situations which may confront any individual and have surely confronted its ancestors.
Speaking of our special relationship to God, Pope John Paul II writes "St. Thomas observes that man's likeness to God resides especially in his speculative intellect, for his relationship with the object of his knowledge resembles God's relationship with what he has created (Summa Theologica I-II:3:5, ad 1). Aquinas 605
The simplest creatures are almost completely specified by their genotype, but more complex creatures, especially Homo sapiens are able to learn from experience and pass this learning on to their offspring. This transmission of information parallel to genetic transmission we call cultural transmission. Religion is part of culture.
We are all born, as Aristotle noted, cultural blank slates. Aquinas. Human beings, otherwise identical, born into different cultural milieux are differentiated by the culture they absorb from their environment. This absorption requires understanding, for one does not become inculturated simply by hearing words and seeing actions; one must give meaning to the elements of culture and learn how to apply them in life.
The error signal in a control loop arises through change. The helmsman sees that a wave has knocked his vessel askew and moves to restore its optimum orientation. Relativity is inherent in the notion of error. The position of a boat cannot be in error by itself. The error that the helmsman detects and corrects is relative to wind, sea and desired course.
Genetic evolution and cultural evolution operate on vastly different timescales. In the modern world, the rate of change of culture is such that we may consider the human genotype as effectively fixed. The laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry and the genotypes of all the other creatures which surround us are also, to a first approximation, fixed in comparison to the rate of human cultural change. Cultural changes can introduce error into the system, and awareness of this error may be used to guide culture back into harmony with nature.
The consequence of uncorrected error is ever increasing error and eventually violence. A sailor far enough off course is very likely to be involved in shipwreck. From this point of view, human crime and violence are results of cultural error: the culture places human beings in positions where their evolved natural instinct dictates a very powerful reaction.
From a cybernetic point of view, we may speculate that the error at the root of domestic violence is the failure to recognise that male and female of any species are peers, whose relationship to one another has been carefully tuned over very long periods. In a culture, such as that represented by the Apostle Paul, female is made subordinate to male:
Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife, and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything" Ephesians, 3:22-24
This may be seen as a cultural error relative to our animal reality, and to lead to violence and misunderstanding as one person tries to exert cultural control over another that has no evolutionary foundation.
The way forward that Haight seeks is documented in Jesus, Symbol of God. We are learning to let go of Jesus as an extremely attractive real person and instead take a more abstract view of the symbolic content of the term Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
John, in his gospel, had already extended Jesus' personality into a more abstract space. Jesus is the Word of God (Jn 1:1-18). Jesus is the totality of divine revelation. Jesus is the soul of culture. From the point of view of the mathematical model presented above, Jesus as Word is a salvific function, the function which takes as input the human experience of life and delivers as output a world of peaceful, loving, productive, people.
Is this happening? Is the Christian story a safe algorithm with which to steer the human elements of the world? I feel that there are problems, mostly due to the finite perspective of Christianity in both time and space.
Early Christians thought the end was coming soon. To the best of current knowledge, the future of this planet is measured in billions of years. If we are to be part of the planet over such a vast period, we must tailor our cultures to fit nature to a high degree of precision.
Christians are apt to see their religion as the religion, in some way preferable to other religions. It is for this reason that Christians have not hesitated to claim a right to indoctrinate others in their point of view. Code of Canon Law, Book 3, Title 2. Yet Jesus and Christianity remain relatively tiny events in the planetary and universal process. It would come as no surprise to a person whose culture accepts evolution and cosmology to learn that there are millions of other species in the Universe as intelligent and organised as we are.
Perhaps the language of salvation needs to be extended to reflect these possibilities. One feels that this language will draw strongly on the language of mathematics, science, and the rule of law. Walker.
It seems that much of the humanity of functioning social democracies arises from the rule of law. This, in a way, is the gift we received from the Roman Empire via the Catholic Church. It seems clear, in the modern context, that such societies depend upon the principles of equal representation in decision making and a concern that public debate be allowed to bring out the full truth of each issue.
Haight constrains the language of salvation to remain "faithful to the scriptural and classical witness about Jesus saving." Haight, ibid. There may be a problem here for many people insofar as the language of salvation is so closely held and guarded by institutional churches, as we have seen in the snippets of inter-church dialogue quoted above.
Similar people might see this problem related to the authoritarian structure of some churches. The Catholic Church, in particular, is far from the open, democratic and scientific champion of human rights they would like to see. Perhaps a revolution in the understanding of salvation may prompt a revolution in the governance of the Church and a new rapport between the spiritual and practical wings of religion. back