Sunday with Ron Rolheiser: Christ and Nature

Chicago Botanic Garden 2018

Sunday with Ron Rolheiser
Christ and Nature

Christ, himself, is vitally bound-up with nature and his reasons for coming to earth also include the intention of redeeming the physical universe. What’s implied here?

Let me begin with an anecdote which captures, in essence, what’s at stake: The scientist-theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in conversation with a Vatican official who was confused by his writings and doctrinally-suspicious of them, was once asked: “What are you trying to do in your writings?” Teilhard’s response: “I am trying to write a Christology that is wide enough to incorporate the full Christ because Christ is not just an anthropological event but he is also a cosmic phenomenon.” Simply translated, he is saying that Christ didn’t just come to save people, he came for that yes, but he also came to save the planet, of which people are only one part.

In saying that, Teilhard has solid scriptural backing. Looking at the scriptures we find that they affirm that Christ didn’t just come to save people, he came to save the world. For example, the Epistle to the Colossians (1, 15-20) records an ancient Christian hymn which affirms both that Christ was already a vital force inside the original creation (“that all things were made through him”) and that Christ is also the end point to of all history, human and cosmic. The Epistle to the Ephesians, also recording an ancient Christian hymn, (1, 3-10) makes the same point; while the Epistle to the Romans (8,19-22) is even more explicit in affirming that physical creation, mother-earth and our physical universe, are “groaning” as they too wait for redemption by Christ. Among other things, these texts affirm that the physical world is part of God’s plan for eventual heavenly life.

What’s contained in that, if we tease out its implications? A number of very clear principles: First, nature, not just humanity, is being redeemed by Christ. The world is not just a stage upon which human history plays out; it has intrinsic meaning and value beyond what it means for us as humans. Physical nature is, in effect, brother and sister with us in the journey towards the divinely-intended end of history. Christ also came to redeem the earth, not just those of us who are living on it. Physical creation too will enter in the final synthesis of history, that is, heaven.

Second, this means that nature has intrinsic rights, not just the rights we find convenient to accord it. What this means is that defacing or abusing nature is not just a legal and environmental issue, it’s a moral issue. We are violating someone’s (something’s) intrinsic rights. Thus when we, mindlessly, throw a coke-can into a ditch we are not just breaking a law we are also, at some deep level, defacing Christ. We need to respect nature, not, first of all, so that it doesn’t recoil on us and give us back our own asphyxiating pollution, but because it, akin to humanity, has its own rights. A teaching too rarely affirmed.

Finally, not least, what is implied in understanding the cosmic dimension of Christ and what that means in terms of our relationship to mother-earth and the universe is the non-negotiable fact that the quest for community and consummation within God’s Kingdom (our journey towards heaven) is a quest that calls us not just to a proper relationship with God and with each other, but also to a proper relationship with physical creation.

We are humans with bodies living on the earth, not disembodied angels living in heaven, and Christ came to save our bodies along with our souls; and he came, as well, to save the physical ground upon which we walk since he was the very pattern upon which and through which the physical world was created.

17 thoughts on “Sunday with Ron Rolheiser: Christ and Nature

  1. Ted, I have found Teilhard very difficult to read. He has some modern interpreters, however, who have helped me. For instance John Haught, retired prof from Georgetown U. His Deeper Than Darwin is especially good. I also like Ilia Delio, eg. Christ in Evolution and The Emergent Christ. Also she edited From Teilhard to Omega which was very good. When I heard about him nearly fifty years ago in a Philosophy of Religion class, I thought he was crazy. That was before taking Biology 101 which, despite the teachers at my then fundamentalist college, convinced me of the validity of the evolution narrative. I forgot all about him until the late nineties when I began seeing references to how the internet fit right in with his vision.


  2. I don’t dispute biological evolution; for me there is no conflict between creation and evolution. But I believe that Jesus Christ is the completion of creation, and that the final step to the New Creation is not made by evolution, but by Jesus Christ incarnating, being crucified, being resurrected, and ascending as Lord. The Omega point is no more produced by evolution than the Alpha point was; evolution happens, but it is not capable of the work that only Jesus Christ can do, and has done.


  3. evolution, which is an impersonal biological mechanism

    Robert, this is where the communication breaks down in the evolution/creationism debate. What if evolution isn’t impersonal at all? I’m open to the idea that God is driving evolution, in the same way that he moves the sun and the other stars.

    A friend of my wife’s tried to get me interested in Tielhard de Chardin back in 1980 even gave me a couple of books. I wasn’t ready back then, maybe it’s time for another look.


  4. from the wisdom of Annie LaMott: “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”

    from ‘Among the Redwoods’ by Edward Rowland Sill, this excerpt:

    . . . Suddenly, through side windows of the eye,
    Deep solitudes, where never souls have met;
    Vast spaces, forest corridors that lie
    In a mysterious world, unpeopled yet.
    Because the outward eye elsewhere was caught,
    The awfulness and wonder come unsought.

    If death be but resolving back again
    Into the world’s deep soul, this is a kind
    Of quiet, happy death, untouched of pain
    Or sharp reluctance. For I feel my mind
    Is interfused with all I hear and see;
    As much a part of All as cloud or tree.

    “Listen! A deep and solid wind on high;
    The shafts of shining dust shift to and fro;
    The columned trees sway imperceptibly,
    And creak as mighty masts when trade-winds blow.
    The cloudy sails are set; the earth-ship swings
    Along the sea of space to grander things.”


  5. There are non-fundamentalist, serious, sober theologians who balk at Teilhard’s use of evolutionary categories and terminology to talk about the Escaton and the realization of the Kingdom; they do not believe that evolution, which is an impersonal biological mechanism, provides an adequate language to correctly convey or describe the consummation of all things, which has already been achieved in Jesus’ incarnate, resurrected, ascended and perfected humanity, and which is personal through and through, rather than mechanical. I’m inclined to agree with them, to the degree that they reject Teilhard’s implication that biological evolution will overlap into human technological evolution, and that this will be essential to the realization of God’s kingdom and the Eschaton.


  6. It’s cosmic whichever the starting point.

    I think Dante had it right too, when he said that it’s Love that moves the sun and the other stars.


  7. I’ve been musing about what what Mule might mean too. Based on the words in the post itself, could it be that “…Christ is not just an anthropological event but he is also a cosmic phenomenon” is what Barfield thought Teilhard de Chardin had backwards? Christ is not just a cosmic event, but an anthropological phenomenon, meaning that in Jesus Christ’s perfected and completed humanity, the cosmos finds its own completion and perfection? Since humanity and creation have both found their consummation in the divine humanity of Jesus Christ, there is no need to await the next phase in human evolution, whichTeilhard called the noosphere, since that phase has already been realized.


  8. Mule, could you explain that? It seems to me that Tielhard is repeating here what Jesus said, that he is the alpha & omega, and that he will make all things new. What’s backwards?


  9. I’ve always been fond of this bit from Jonah 4:11

    “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”


  10. This is a favorite:

    ““The world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it.”
    (Teilhard de Chardin)


  11. One of the most provocative quotes I have ever read came from Owen Barfield who said that Teilhard de Chardin had it exactly backwards.

    I think about that constantly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: