RE-CONCEIVING GOD AND HUMANITY IN LIGHT OF TODAY'S ECOLOGICAL CONSCIOUSNESS: A BRIEF STATEMENT by Gordon D. Kaufman

We need to reorder human life in an ecologically responsible manner, if there is time.

GORDON D. KAUFMAN, Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, has written ten books and many articles and reviews. He is widely known for his interpretation of theology as an ongoing activity of fresh imaginative construction (and reconstruction) of our understanding of the world and of God, and of human life in the world and under God.

I

An unspoken presupposition taken for granted throughout much Christian history has been that faith and theology are concerned basically with what we today call the existential issues of life -- despair, guilt, death, meaninglessness, anxiety, sin, and so on, the problems that arise because we are self-conscious subjects and agents. God's love, mercy, forgiveness, justification by faith were said to address these issues of finitude and sinfulness, and enable life to go on. This sort of focus and imagery, I suggest, encourages an understanding of both the Christian God and Christian faith in fundamentally human-centered terms, and as bearing largely on certain personal problems.

This personalistic character of most Christian thinking was, of course, deeply connected (on the one hand) with the idea that we humans (unlike all the rest of creation) were created in the very "image of God" as the climax of creation, and (on the other hand) with the fact that the traditional conception of God was itself constructed on the model of the human agent. God was seen as a kind of cosmic person who created the world, who loved humankind and hence entered directly into human history itself to bring salvation to us. There was, thus, an intimate correlation of God and the human, and this gave the Christian symbol-system profound resources for addressing problems arising in connection with what was taken to be the distinctive mark of our humanness -- subjectivity and agency, our souls -- and Christians had confidence that there would always be a Christian answer to every really important issue that might arise for women and men anywhere and everywhere.

Today, however, we find ourselves beset by new unanticipated problems. With the advent of the atomic age, a half-century ago, a great many things began to change. It was becoming evident that we humans were attaining the power to destroy the very conditions that made our lives (and much other life as well) possible; and the notion that God would save us from ourselves, as we pursued this self-destructive project, became increasingly implausible. Though the nuclear challenge has now receded somewhat, the problem it symbolized has grown more pressing with our discovery -- beginning (for most of us) about thirty years or so ago -- that we are rapidly destroying the ecological conditions apart from which much of life could not exist. Moreover, it seems clear that it is we humans who have to take responsibility for this situation. Humanity, as we are beginning to understand, is deeply situated within the evolutionary-ecological life processes on planet Earth; and it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine God as one who might (or even can) directly transform and make right what we are so rapidly destroying. So it is not really evident that God (as Christians have traditionally understood God) provides a solution to what is a major problem for men and women today: the ecological crisis.

This is a different kind of issue than Christians (or any other humans) have ever faced; and continuing to worship and serve this traditionally conceived God may even get in the way of our seeing clearly the depths and importance of this crisis. For now it is not a matter of finding a way to live with or overcome despair or meaninglessness or guilt or sinfulness, or other human suffering -- those profound problems of human subjectivity. It is a matter of the objective conditions that make life possible: we are destroying them, and it is we who must find a way to set them right.

This is not, of course, a specifically Christian or theistic problem: it is a problem in which all humans are implicated, and we are all called to do our part in its solution. So the central religious issue today confronting humankind is of a different order than ever before. And we may no longer claim that Christians have a corner on the solution to it; nor do Buddhists, or Jews, or the adherents of any other religion. What is now required is a reordering of the whole of human life around the globe in an ecologically responsible manner -- something heretofore never contemplated by any of our great religious traditions. All of humankind must learn to work together on this issue, or it will simply not be taken care of. We may not, of course, be able to solve this problem at all; we may already be past the point of no return.

II

What should be our specifically Christian response to this issue? One thing that we can, and I think should, do is get our own house into better order, so that our Christian meditation and worship, our activities and institutions -- as well as our thinking -- can help us address this exceedingly complex problem more effectively, instead of tending to conceal its seriousness from us. As a step in this direction, I want to propose a somewhat different understanding of God, humanity, and their relationship to each other, than that which Christians have generally held; a theological understanding that builds on our modern/postmodern evolutionary/ecological conceptions of the development and sustainability of life on planet Earth. To do this as compactly as possible, I will introduce three concepts here which, when taken together, articulate a rather different vision of human existence in the world under God.

First, I shall sketch briefly and explain what I call a biohistorical understanding of human being -- a way of conceiving the human that emphasizes our deep embeddedness in the web of life on planet Earth, while simultaneously attending to the significance of our radical distinctiveness as a form of life. Second, I want to call attention to what can be designated as serendipitous creativity manifest throughout the universe -- that is, the coming into being through time of the new and the novel. I use the conception of "creativity" here -- rather than the traditional idea of "God the creator" -- because it presents creation of the new and the novel as ongoing processes or events in the world, and does not call forth an image of a kind of "cosmic person" standing outside the world, manipulating it from without. Third, since the traditional idea of God's purposive activity -- a powerful teleological movement working in and through all cosmic and historical processes -- is almost impossible to reconcile with twentieth-century thinking about evolution and history, I propose to replace it with the more modest conception of what I call directional movements or trajectories that emerge spontaneously in the course of evolutionary and historical developments. This more open (even random) notion -- of serendipitous creativity manifesting itself in evolutionary and historical trajectories of various sorts -- fits in with, but significantly amplifies, today's thinking about cosmic, biological, and historicocultural processes.

Let us turn, then, to the notion of humans as biohistorical beings. Human historical development, over many millennia, has been as indispensable to our creation (as we today think of ourselves) as were the biological-evolutionary developments that preceded the emergence of humankind on planet Earth. As one rather obvious example of this point, consider the impact of the emergence of human awareness of, and knowledge about, both the natural world in which we humans live and our own human constitutions and possibilities. In the cultures of modernity human knowledge has become increasingly comprehensive, detailed, and technologized, providing us with considerable control over the physical and biological (as well as sociocultural and psychological) conditions of our existence. Indeed, we can say that we human beings, and the further course of our history, are no longer completely at the disposal of the natural order and natural powers that brought us into being in the way we were, say, ten millennia ago. Through our various symbolisms and knowledges, skills and technologics -- we humans have gained some measure of transcendence over the nature of which we are part. And in consequence (for good or ill) we have utterly transformed the face of the earth and are beginning to push on into outer space; and we are becoming capable of altering the actual genetic make-up of future human generations.

It is qua our development into beings shaped in many respects by historicocultural processes of this sort -- that is, humanly created, not merely natural biological, processes -- that we humans have gained these increasing measures of control over the natural order, as well as over the onward movement of history. In significant respects, thus, our historicity (as we may call it) -- our being shaped decisively by an evolution and history that has given us power ourselves to shape future history in significant ways -- is a distinctive mark of our humanness. Even our human biological nature has been shaped and informed by certain important historical developments; and the organism that finally emerged as human, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has pointed out, is "both a cultural and a biological product."(1) This historical development of human enculturedness (and the consequent growth of human symbolic behavior) appears to have had particularly strong effects on the biological evolution of the brain, as brain-scientist Terrence Deacon has argued.(2) And our present biological organisms, if not given extensive cultural programming from birth on, would be so seriously deficient that they could not function. As Geertz sums up the matter: "We are. . . incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture."(3) We are, then, all the way down to the deepest layers of our distinctively human existence, not simply biological beings, animals; we are biohistorical beings.

Despite the great powers that our knowledges and technologies have given us, we are all aware that our transcendence of the natural orders within which we have emerged is far from adequate to assure our ongoing human existence; indeed, the ecological crisis of our time has brought to our attention the fact that precisely through the exercise of our growing power on planet Earth we have been destroying the very conditions that make life possible. Paradoxically, thus, our understanding of ourselves and of the world in which we live, and our growing power over many of the circumstances on planet Earth that have seemed to us undesirable, may in the end lead to our self-destruction.

I want to turn now to the other two concepts I mentioned earlier. I suggested that we think of the cosmos as constituted by (a) cosmic serendipitous creativity which (b) manifests itself through trajectories of various sorts working themselves out in longer and shorter stretches of time. There are, of course, many cosmic trajectories, moving in quite different directions, and here on planet Earth there have been many quite diverse evolutionary trajectories producing the billions of species of life. But, for the problems with which we are concerned here -- specifically, the enormous ecological damage for which we humans are responsible -- it is important that we consider briefly that one trajectory that eventuated in the spread and development of human life over all the earth, that cosmic trajectory that issued in the creation of beings with historicity. Our human existence -- its purposiveness, its greatly varied complexes of social/moral/cultural/religious values and meanings, its virtually unlimited imaginative powers and glorious creativity, its horrible failures and gross evils, its historicity -- all this has come into being on this trajectory, this manifestation of the serendipitous creativity in the cosmos that has given us men and women our existence. We do not know what direction this evolutionary-historical trajectory will move in the future -- perhaps toward the opening of ever new possibilities for human beings, as we increasingly take responsibility for our lives and our future; perhaps going beyond humanity and historicity altogether, however difficult it is to image how that should be understood; perhaps coming to an end in the total destruction of human existence.

Construing the cosmos in this way, as constituted by cosmic serendipitous creativity that manifests itself in trajectories of various sorts, can help us humans discern our place within the evolutionary-ecological universe that is our home. Let us note five points in this connection. First, this approach provides us with a frame within which we can characterize quite accurately, and can unify into an overall vision, what seems actually to have happened, so far as we know, in the course of cosmic evolution and history. Second, this approach gives a significant, but not dominant, place and meaning to the distinctive biohistorical character of human life within the cosmic process; and in so doing it identifies the ecological niche that humankind occupies within this process as itself, necessarily, a biohistorical one. The biohistorical features of our human ecological niche themselves make possible, third, a way of thinking that can assist communities (and individuals) to understand better and assess more fully both the adequacy of the biological context of our lives and the import of the historical sociocultural developments through which we are living, thus enabling us to take up more responsible roles within these contexts and developments. Fourth, because this approach highlights the linkage of serendipitous cosmic creativity with our humanness and the humane values so important to us, as well as with our ecological niche, it can support hope (but not certainty) for the future of our human world -- hope for truly creative movement toward ecologically and morally responsible human existence. Finally, fifth, a hope of this sort, grounded on the mystery of creativity in the world -- a creativity that, on our trajectory, evidences itself in part through our own creative powers -- can help motivate women and men to devote their lives to bringing about this more humane and ecologically rightly ordered world to which we aspire.

This frame of orientation or vision of reality is not, of course, in any way forced upon us: it can be appropriated only by means of our own personal and collective decisions, our own acts of faith in face of the ultimate mystery of life and the world. We humans today are being drawn beyond our present condition and order of life by creative impulses in our biohistorical trajectory suggesting decisions and movements now required of us. If we respond, in appropriately creative ways, to the historical and ecological forces now impinging upon us on all sides, there is a possibility -- though no certainty -- that a niche for humankind, better fitted to the wider ecological order on earth than our present niche, may be brought into being. However, if we fail to so respond, it seems likely that we humans may not survive much longer. Are we willing to commit ourselves to live and act in accord with the imperatives laid upon us by the biohistorical situation in which we find ourselves, in the hope that our actions will be supported and enhanced by cosmic serendipitously creative events? In my view it is this kind of hope, and faith, and commitment to which the trajectory that has brought us into being now calls us.

III

It is obvious, I presume, that thinking of God in the way I am suggesting in these remarks -- as cosmic serendipitous creativity manifesting itself in a wide range of trajectories -- will evoke a significantly different faith and hope and piety than that associated with the Christian symbol-system as traditionally interpreted. Since creativity is present and manifest throughout the cosmos, as well as in all human cultural and religious traditions, this understanding of God should directly undercut the arrogant stance of much traditional Christianity toward other religious and secular communities, and vis--vis the rest of the natural order. We Christians may no longer consider ourselves to be at the center of things, authorized in what we say and do by God's special revelation to us. Nevertheless, important continuities with traditional Christian understandings still remain here, continuities significant enough, in my opinion, to warrant considering this picture of the world, and the human place within it, appropriate for Christian faith today.

First and most important. Understanding the ultimate mystery of things, God, in terms of the metaphor of serendipitous creativity -- instead of in terms of the essentially anthropomorphic creator/lord/father metaphors of the tradition -- facilitates (more effectively than the traditional imagery did) maintaining a decisive qualitative distinction (though not an ontological separation) between God and the created order. Such a distinction, perhaps the most important contribution of monotheistic religious traditions to human self-understanding, provides the basis for regarding God (that is, creativity) as the sole appropriate focus for human devotion and worship, that which alone can provide proper overall orientation for human life. All other realities, being finite, transitory, and corruptible, easily become dangerous idols which, when worshiped and made the central focus of human orientation, bring disaster into human affairs. This important distinction between God and the idols is emphasized in the symbolic picture I am sketching here.

Second, in keeping with this first point. Conceiving humans as biohistorical beings who have emerged on one of the countless creative trajectories moving through the cosmos -- instead of as the climax of all creation, distinguished from all other creatures as the very "image of God" -- makes it clear that we humans are indissolubly a part of the created order, and not in any way to be confused with the serendipitous creativity which has produced not only us but the entire cosmos, in all its complexity, order, and beauty. So in the picture I am sketching here the too-easy human-centeredness (and Christian-centeredness) of traditional Christian thinking is thoroughly undercut. We humans can exist only (as far as we are aware) within the boundaries and conditions of life found on the particular trajectory within the created order in which we have appeared.

Though strikingly different in important respects from some traditional Christian emphases, this understanding of God and of the human is clearly a form of radical monotheism (to use H. R. Niebuhr's term) that is appropriate to the constraints of modern/postmodern existence and thinking. Moreover, it is a conception that can be developed into a full-orbed Christian interpretation of human faith and life, if the creativity that is God is brought into significant connection with the poignancy and power of the story and character of Jesus -- regarded (by Christians) as what Colossians 1 called the "image of the invisible God," an image that is paradigmatic for the human sphere of life. I therefore propose this reconstruction of the conceptions of God and humanity (much too briefly sketched here) as providing a way for Christian faith -- and perhaps some other faiths as well -- to reconstitute themselves in light of our contemporary evolutionary/ecological sensibility and knowledge. Such a reconstitution should fit us much more effectively (than have the more traditional forms of Christian symbolization) to address today's ecological crisis -- a crisis likely to be with us for the foreseeable future.(4)

Notes

1. [Back to text]  Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 67.

2. [Back to text]  See Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: the Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: Norton, 1997).

3. [Back to text]  Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 49.

4. [Back to text]  A more fully elaborated version of the position briefly sketched here can be found in my contribution to Christianity in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Deborah A. Brown (New York: Crossroad, 1999), entitled "Ecological Consciousness and the Symbol 'God.' " Both this latter article and the present essay are based on the theological position developed in In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). In this book will also be found a fuller elaboration of the christological connections hinted at in the concluding paragraph of this article.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issue 1-2