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Q and A: The new cosmology: a Providence perspective

Sister Jan Craven

This article is reprinted from the fall 2009 issue of HOPE.

Editor’s note: In the previous article, “The new cosmology: an evolving universe,” Sister Jeanne Knoerle provides an overview of the new cosmology. In the following article, Sister Jeanne explores this subject more by asking two sister-theologians some probing questions. Responding to her questions are Sisters Jan Craven and Alexa Suelzer.

1.) As a theologian, tell us briefly how your perspectives on creation have shifted (if indeed they have) because of recent scientific discoveries.

Sister Jan Craven: I would have to say the scope of my perspective has widened and deepened and has become more expansive. I grew up in an era where “recent scientific discoveries” were making headline news almost on a weekly basis. In other words, I have grown to expect them, welcome them and be surprised by them. For me, the so-called changes in the way we view creation is just another exciting adventure in the nature of our own journeys. I know one thing about the recent thinking about creation: it makes sense to me in a way that I cannot explain.

Sister Alexa Suelzer: Well, indeed they have shifted, but recent scientific discoveries don’t account entirely for the change. Even as a youngster I had a difficult time relating to the traditional estimate of 4,000 years since creation — despite scholarly attempts to employ symbolism or some other method of computation. Eventually, tentative theories of physical evolution held my attention and approval.

In college I took a course called cosmology; I shudder now to think of the simplistic presentation of its chapters. Still later, in biblical studies the auxiliary disciplines like history, biblical archaeology and anthropology confirmed my view of slow and lengthy stages of human and non-human development. But my introduction to the work of the late Thomas Berry, CP, and Brian Swimme (and others like them) with its amazing account of development over 13 billion years, convinced me that evolution is not a peripheral scientific issue. Rather it provides the matrix for all the other issues.

Sister Alexa Suelzer

2.) How do you correlate these discoveries with your Christian belief in the role of God in creation?

Sister Jan: Christians have always had beliefs that have influenced their lives. We all need to become aware of the beliefs we hold, and to change and develop them as life experience and reflection lead us. All of us, in one sense, are theologians in that we have beliefs about God that affect our lives. But it is discovering and articulating the convictions that shape our lives. To be able to correlate or equate or connect these ever present discoveries with my Christian belief has never been an overwhelming task for me, which I attribute to my upbringing and the good teachers I had who encouraged me to look at things with “fresh-eyes.”

The great teachers I have had along the way led me to reverence critical thinking to such an extent as to always make room for future knowledge that might color my present findings — in all disciplines including science and theology. I learned that from one of my mentors: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. God was the center of an evolving universe for him, and he never failed to combine his love of God with his love of Earth and the universe. I try to do the same.

Sister Alexa: Christian faith affirms that God is the origin of all that is. So whether I hold that the universe came from God’s immediate action or evolved over billions of years, God is still the source of all that is. In either case, “all his works are wonderful” (Psalm 111:4). But immediate creation suggests God acting impersonally — once and from afar — whereas the notion of infinite power working through billions of years and continuing even today provides a more admirable instance of dynamic creative energy.

Further, because the new cosmology posits the divine in all of reality, theologians can more readily correlate the Christian concept of a personal and loving God with the scientific understanding of the universe. St.
Augustine notes that “God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.” This penetration of the cosmos with the divine leads theologians to a reappraisal of the relation between God and the world and to re-examine the dualistic terms like nature-grace, natural-supernatural.

3.) Have you followed the ongoing conversation between the theologians and the scientists? If so, what are some of the questions/ideas/hopes that have arisen for you?

Sister Jan: Yes, I have followed the ongoing conversation between these two disciplines. As I walked into the study hall, my first day as a postulant, there on my desk was a copy of the Vatican II Documents and the Dutch Catechism. One of my science teachers from high school gifted me with three books that I still have in my possession and revisit quite often. Those three books really shaped my thirst and quest for learning: “The Divine Milieu” and “The Hymn of the Universe,” both by Teilhard de Chardin and “The Unexpected Universe” by Loren Eiseley.

In 1977 I studied spirituality and theology at Fordham University and took as many courses as I could on Teilhard’s thinking from one of the professors who actually knew him. After visiting his grave in New York, I felt compelled to continue my interest and studies in the conversations happening between science and theology. Today, I realize that more scientists are becoming theologians because of their new findings and learnings as a result of the conversation going on over the past several decades. It is my hope that more and more theologians become more interested in science.

As I studied at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, Calif., during the 1990s, I became more enamored with God’s relationship with Earth and humanity. In process thinking, “the character of the world is influenced by God, but it is not determined by God, and the world in its turn contributes novelty and richness to the divine experience.” (“The World and God” by John B. Cobb, Jr.) It is that last part of Cobb’s statement that intrigues me the most — that we have, can, and will continue to contribute to God’s experience.

Sister Alexa: I have not read many contemporary scientists directly, but I am familiar with their findings as I read of them in the work of current theologians. For me, a leading theological question is the role of Christ in the light of our new consciousness. Early Christians were concerned to express Christ’s relation to the Trinity; in our own time we must discover the link between Christ and the universe. The old cosmology will not help us do this, marked as it is by the inability to relate nature to the supernatural. Doctrines of Christology such as incarnation, grace, freedom and the Mystical Body, have lost relevance today because the Christ they present appears distant from the world as we know it.

In evolutionary thought Christ is more intimately involved with all humans and with the movement of the universe into the future. Indeed the cosmos is centered in Christ and he is the goal toward which evolution is directed. I am intrigued by the way contemporary theologians are using evolutionary discoveries to show how Christ is indeed related to the whole cosmos and the whole cosmos finds its meaning in Christ.

4.) Are there particular theologians or philosophers you would recommend as good sources for further thinking about these issues?

Sister Jan: What I recommend is what has worked for me; so there is no guarantee anyone else will like what I suggest. Of course, Teilhard’s books and thinking are essential. Some current books that I have read are: “Called to Question” by Joan Chittister, OSB, “God’s Ecstasy” and “The Grand Option” by Beatrice Bruteau, “Christ in Evolution” by Ilia Delio, “Theology for Skeptics” by Dorothee Soelle, “Praying a New Story” by Michael Morwood, “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley, and “God’s Equation, Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe” by Amir D. Aczel. More recent ones are: “What Does God Look Like in an Expanding Universe?” by Jim Schenk, “Prayers to an Evolutionary God” by William Cleary and “Evolutionary Faith” by Diarmuid O’Murchu, MSC.

Sister Alexa: Of course the late Father Tom Berry’s work is essential for an understanding of the new cosmology. If a reader doesn’t know Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, his early work, “The Divine Milieu,” is a good introduction. Also useful is Cletus Wessels’ “Jesus in the New Universe Story.” Theologians Karl Rahner and Bruno Barnhart, OSB, do not deal specifically with evolution, but their work can give insight into some characteristics of contemporary evolutionary discoveries. Rahner’s view of evolution is basic to his transcendental method and is of particular importance in his view of God, Jesus and human freedom. Barnhart’s view of wisdom familiarizes the reader with non-Western modes of expression and illuminates some aspects of contemporary scientific research.

5.) Do you have other insights about these important issues that you would like to share?

Sister Jan: I believe that all of these books that I have read and studied have led me to a deepened prayer life. To contemplate and meditate on my reading is prayerful for me. To join a book group to discuss the contents and ideas is very valuable. I do feel at home in this planetary house. As Beatrice Bruteau says in “God’s Ecstasy,” we should be rejoicing in the cosmos. “If you can see the God you love as present in, even as, this world, then feel that union and rejoice in that. And be active in it, contribute to it, participate in the building, in the artwork, in the healing, in the understanding. This is where Reality is. God’s ecstasy creates the world, and the world’s ecstasy realizes God. And you are right in the midst of it all.” Is there any better definition of a person of Providence?

Sister Alexa: To look at Christian faith in the light of new cosmology is not to abandon the past but to examine its riches in new light. A case in point is our relation to Christ. What does it mean in the light of our new consciousness? Seeing Christ as the center of an evolutionary universe brings a new understanding of Christ and of ourselves in relation to him. In the past, the human need for redemption guided the thought of classical theologians. They did not see the incarnation as essential to creation, but as a kind of accident necessitated by our human sin and weakness.

In contemporary thought God’s love is seen as the ultimate reason for the incarnation and the incarnate Christ is the perfect response to God’s self-communicating love, the perfect realization of what is potentially in human nature — union with the divine. Since we share Christ’s sonship, we also share his work of bringing about the transformation of the universe in love.

Discipleship involves more than the achievement of individual salvation; what took place in Christ must take place in us if creation is to move forward toward completion. Our participation is necessary to adjust to the new shape of the world and a new religious consciousness.

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The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, are a congregation of Roman Catholic women religious (sisters) who minister throughout the United States and Taiwan. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded the Sisters of Providence in 1840. The congregation has a mission of being God's Providence in the world by committing to performing works of love, mercy and justice in service among God's people.

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