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The new cosmology: an evolving universe

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

How do you picture God? Pray to God? Understand God? Most of us move from childhood to adulthood thinking about God in ways appropriate to our age; yet there is always a sense that we don’t quite know how to do it. God is totally unique and we are limited in our ability to grasp the idea of God.

Theologians through the centuries have tried to help us. We have grown up with the images they suggested, loved them, depended on them. But are such images enough, especially now when the work of quantum science is complicating (and complementing) the work of theologians? If these scientists are right — and more and more evidence says they are — their recent discoveries are forcing us to change our images of God. These discoveries indicate that 10 or 15 thousand years ago God did not simply visualize a world, bring it into being¸ then create us and put us in it. On the contrary, they suggest that about 13.7 billion years ago God created a “self-creating” universe and allowed it to evolve, using the materials provided at its powerful birth, a birth often referred to as the “flaring forth,” or the “big bang.” Many billions of years later, humanity has evolved as the one species able to reflect on itself — but also as the species most able to destroy the planet upon which it lives.

As Christians, our concept of God as self-giving love adds to this scientific account of the universe a very important and unique understanding: that God not only created everything in the universe and thus everything that has evolved in it — the rocks and stones and water and earth and bacteria and insects and animals and humans — but that God is and continues to be present in all of them.

That presence of God creates a unique responsibility for human beings. If we see the world as created for us by God, that belief allows us to use whatever exists in that world to further the quality of human life, even when that sometimes results in degrading the quality of life of other parts of creation, animate or inanimate. On the other hand, if we see these created things as infused with the Creator’s continuing presence, our relationship to them changes and we begin to understand them as collaborators. We seek to join with them to further, in whatever ways we can, the ongoing evolution of everything in the universe.

How then does this newer understanding of the relationship between God and everything in the universe — including but not limited to human beings — alter how we imagine God? Contemporary religious thinkers are wrestling with that question. The Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was perhaps the earliest “contemporary” philosopher (he died in 1955) to see evolution as an essential element in our understanding of God. “If we are to remain faithful to the gospel,” he wrote, “we have to adjust its spiritual code to the new shape of the universe. It has ceased to be the formal garden from which we are temporarily banished by a whim of the creator. It has become the great work in process of completion which we have to save by saving ourselves.”1 For Teilhard de Chardin, as later for theologian Karl Rahner, SJ, the evolutionary change he saw occurring was the result of a power that comes from within the creature — and that pressure is the Divine acting from within.

Two monks, Trappist Thomas Merton and Benedictine Bede Griffiths, believed, like Teilhard and Rahner, that Christianity is undergoing a process of detachment from its inherited Western forms with its Greek philosophical trappings and is moving to a greater integration with other cultures. Their vocations as contemplatives led them to see the importance of discovering the unconscious, intuitive dimensions of human life, and to suggest that Christians of all cultures must develop a balance between these dimensions if they were truly to know God.

Today we are also becoming more and more aware of the impact of technology on all of us. It is one more element, and a very powerful one, in the evolution of the human person. Scientists tell us that biological evolution may be winding down but technological evolution has started to accelerate. We see this every day as cell phones and computers and Facebook and Twitter reorganize the ways persons relate to and communicate with one another. And whether or not we personally make use of these new modes of communication, our lives are powerfully impacted by them.

Ray Kurzweil, one of the leading inventors of our time and a philosopher dedicated to thinking through such impacts on our future, says, “To think human beings are fine the way they are is a misplaced fond remembrance of what human beings used to be. What human beings are is a species that has undergone a cultural and technological evolution, and it’s the nature of evolution that it accelerates, and that its powers grow exponentially, and that’s what we’re talking about.”2

And Teilhard, although he died before the full onset of the technology we live with today, believed that Christ and Christianity were always alive in the ever-evolving world of the future. “Christ must be born again, he must be reincarnated in a world that has become too different from that in which he lived.”3

And this world is very different — not only from the world in which Jesus lived, but from the world in which most of us grew up. Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, says of it: “We are confronted today by the survival of Christianity. Will it survive in the face of evolutionary shifts marked by a new global consciousness or is it a diminishing sect in an ever-expanding universe? Teilhard maintained that not only are we to survive but we are to flourish. We are to lead the evolutionary trend in a forward movement into God. He urged Christians to … risk, get involved, to aim toward union with others, because the entire creation is waiting to give birth to God’s promise — the fullness of love. (Romans 8:19-20) We are not only to recognize evolution but make it continue in ourselves.”4

And to continue that evolution within ourselves calls us to examine our image of God, not in the light of what we believed to be true in the past, but in the light of new, unfolding knowledge about an evolving universe. If we understand that creation continues to evolve, our way of thinking about and relating to the Creator must continue to evolve also. That requires openness on our part — and the willingness to say yes to new ideas. In the light of the long and rich history of Christianity through the centuries that should not be something we are unable or unwilling to do.

Endnotes

  1. Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Pierre. “Christianity and Evolution,” New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 91
  2. “The Singularity: A Talk with Ray Kurzweil,” www.edge.org
  3. Teilhard, Ibid, p. 94
  4. Delio, OSF, Ilia. “Christ In Evolution,” New York: Orbis Books, p. 147

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Sister Jeanne Knoerle

Sister Jeanne Knoerle was a Sister of Providence for 64 years. She taught for many years at schools in Illinois, Indiana, and Washington, D.C. and was the president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College from 1968 to 1983. Sister Jeanne passed away in June 2013. Read Sister Jeanne’s Obituary here.

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