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The Cosmic Christ and an Ethic of Reconciliation

February 27th, 2024 | 8 min read

By Dennis Sansom

Ross Douthat of the New York Times is known to defend the orthodox Christian faith (he is a Roman Catholic) in the pages of the Times. Late last summer he published a provocative opinion piece titled “Does God Control History?”  His point is not to argue that because the Church believes in a sovereign God that we all should believe God is in total control of the heavens and earth. Of course, this notion of God controlling everything is dismissed and ridiculed in the de-Christianized culture to which Douthat writes. Rather, Douthat directs his main point to his Christian readers— “providentialism [that is, our recognition of God’s work in the world] is basically inescapable once you posit a divinity who made the world and acts in history.” That is, in spite of the cold-shoulder which Christianity receives in the world of the NYT’s reader, the logic of the Christian faith about God and the world compels Christians to explain how God’s works in the world, how we can discern divine providence.

Douthat is right. Since the scriptures state God is the Creator and the Lord of the world, Christians should be able to recognize what God is doing in the world. Of course, we often mistake providence with our own wants, hidden prejudices, political positions, and nationalistic assumptions. Even though Christianity claims that God has definitely revealed God’s being and will in history (for example, the giving of the Torah to Israel, the biblical prophets, Jesus Christ, and Pentecost), we must first admit that God is the unsurpassable being, whom we cannot fully conceive. God’s ways are not our ways. Thus, it takes much informed reflection and also deep humility to identify rightly divine providence. It’s risky. Nonetheless, we must try.

Colossians 1:11-20 offers a good beginning in formulating an explanation of providence. In this poetic act of praise, the Apostle provocatively claims that Christ coheres all aspects of creation and by his salvific death reconciles heaven and earth to God.  The universe is not a meaningless collection of randomized atoms but the orderly expression of an underlying creative, good reality.  Christ is the Lord of the universe, the Cosmic Christ, who holds together every aspect of existence into a grand unified reality. The presence and reality of the Cosmic Christ creates and reconciles all things into a wonderful and beautiful cosmos.  

This coherence is not only an event in eternity. It happens by the specific, historical action of the “blood of his cross.” A historical event reveals the eternal reality of how all things consists in the Son of God and how all things are reconciled to God. In Jesus’ crucifixion, eternity and history conjoin to accomplish the ultimate purposes of God for creation; that is, although the crucifixion may seem to be a defeat, because of it, we witness why creation is a meaningful cosmos not given over to chaos and darkness.        

The Apostle speaks of the reconciliation of the world to God as already taken place by the particular “redemption through [Christ’s] blood.” The world filled with tyrannical thrones, wicked dominions, violent rulers, and malevolent powers has been reconciled to God. Their destructiveness, greed, inhumanity, ignorance, and hate do not prevent God from restoring the goodness of creation and creating peace between God and fallen humanity and among the morally crippled and anguished peoples.  

Yet, the thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers are still wreaking havoc in creation. The Colossian region to which the Apostle writes is rife with conflicts, oppression, and great sorrows. He knows sin still abounds in a world already reconciled to God. But isn’t this a contradiction?  Either there is mass injustice and evil in the world or the world is presently made peaceful by Christ’s redemptive work. The Apostle would say both are true because the power of creation is also the power of providence. What creates the cosmos into a meaningful whole is also what makes reconciliation of the cosmos to God possible. Divine providence drives the course of the cosmos towards a final coherence in which the cosmos will be healed of the sickness of evil and be made whole in relation to the Creator of the cosmos.

Therefore, we should not be cynical about the course of human history. The church must reject the Manichean fear of the world as evil and abandoned by God. Rather, the verses encourage Christians to affirm the goodness of creation, be in awe of Christ’s redeeming power, and recognize the reconciling work within the affairs of the world. The church’s message to the world is that God saves not only individual souls from sin, death, and the devil but also the cosmos by restoring it to the divine purpose that fulfills all things in the proper relationship of sustenance on the creative power of God.  

Although Western Christians live in a de-Christianized culture, the church nonetheless should find relevant ways to speak of divine providence. However, we face serious rejections of this message. The claims of the 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (The Essence of Christianity, 1841) represent one of the ways the post-Christian culture dismisses Christianity—theology is anthropology; all statements about God are statements about ourselves. What we believe about God actually reflects the magnification of our best qualities. Our ethical actions spring from our drive for happiness, not obedience to a divine command. In truth, we do not know God.  

That is, when Christians talk about a meaningful cosmos and a certain salvation, they are in actuality only talking about their aspirations for meaning and hope for fulfilling relationships. Regardless how sincerely and enthusiastically the church proclaims Christ, a post-Christian culture ignores or rejects the utterances as subjective self-references. Scripture, theology, liturgy, personal piety are all expressions of personal wishes and not of reality. According to Freud (following Feuerbach), religion reveals the immaturity and cowardice of people who cannot accept their own profoundly conflicted psyches and who wish to escape the harshness of reality. Faith is hence a form of neurosis, and, consequently, society does not need to take seriously Christianity’s claims about reality.  

How to respond? Of course, Christians should be sincere and heartfelt in their witness, and often their personal testimonies persuade others. However, Christians should acknowledge that for most of the de-Christianized culture, Christians’ personal testimonies are not in fact about God but about their own subjective states, no more than self-congratulatory displays. As long as Christians testify only about what God does to enrich and empower their lives, the church should not be surprised that the post-Christian culture (shaped by the Feuerbach-Freud assessment of religion) shrugs off the testimony.      

In her message to a de-Christianized society, the church should unpack the cosmological implications of Colossians 1.11-20. The text gives us an understanding of how reality works and how God is at work within the cosmos. This understanding is the business of metaphysics, that is, the study of the basic characteristics of the whole of reality, of the foundational substance/s in our ordinary experiences in the world. The relation of metaphysical explanations to our common experiences of the world is similar to the relationship of accounting to household finances or molecular chemistry to home health remedies. The former accounts explain the intellectual foundations of these everyday practices.    

Even though metaphysics can be a rigorous academic discipline, we do metaphysics, for example, every time we try to explain 1) the continuities in our experiences of our lives and the world, 2) the certainties of our mental experiences, 3) the puzzles of our personal freedom within a world governed by laws of nature, 4) whether the world is meaningful or pointless, 5) how God is different from us and the world, etc.  

Colossians 1:11-20 makes metaphysical points, and I believe these points should inform Christian theology and the Christian witness in a post-Christian culture. Although we live in pluralistic and conflicted society, we all share the same basic features of the world. Because Colossians (and other biblical texts) describe Christ as the creator and redeemer of the cosmos, the church should articulate a metaphysic, should explain these basic features of the cosmos.

This admonition is not new. Early Christian leaders as Justin Martyr and Origen gave metaphysical explanations. Medieval saints as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas elaborated thorough and detailed metaphysics. Contemporary Christianity needs a metaphysic for today that explain the claims of its faith.

For example, I believe the following outline for a metaphysic would articulate both the assumptions in Colossians 1:11-20 and what all people experience about the world. Because we and the cosmos as a whole exist, we should believe that it is better for the world to exist than not exist. Furthermore, we should believe that the features of the world that enable it to sustain existence are better than those that destroy existence. These features would be, for example, 1) what exists are real substances, 2) they have power to exist, 3) they can be coordinated with other substances into an orderly and reinforcing whole, 4) they are oriented towards an overriding and ordering purpose, and 5) the actions that contribute to that purpose are better than actions that disintegrate the ordering process.  

However, we also know that the world is not what it is supposed to be. Within the world are powerful forces of corruption and destruction (for example, pestilences, cruel deaths, war, willful malice, etc.). Of course, we also know that no matter how destructive these forces are, the cosmos persists, that an orderly purpose to the cosmos keeps overcoming these disastrous effects. For instance, in considering the impact of all the carnage and misery caused by the two World Wars in Europe, we could reason European civilization should have withered away.  But it did not.  It recovered. A restorative power emerged greater in influence that the power that unleashed the horrors of hate and war.  

The same could be said about nature. Although we worry about the consequences of the present causes of climate change, we recognize how nature itself recovers from the destructions of fire, storms, pollution, and weather alterations.

The world is bent towards life, towards integration, towards overcoming the eruptions of chaos.  The church says that the power of integration exists because God created the world that way and works to cohere all things into a divinely given purpose to be in fulfilling relationship with God. Moreover, even though evil and destruction exist, the church says that the power of Christ’s vicarious, sacrificial death on the Cross is more powerful that the forces of darkness.  God wills a fulfilling purpose for all things and seeks to restore what has been alienated from that purpose.

Furthermore, in that Christ has reconciled all things to God, Christians should affirm the power of Christ’s reconciling activities by acting in ways to reconcile people to nature, others, and God.  The essence of the Torah and Prophets to love God and to love the neighbor as ourselves does not only describe a program for daily action. It describes the Cosmic Christ at work. For example, by forgiving others and showing mercy to the “prodigal sons,” by loving those who are near and far and also our enemies, by being “peacemakers,” by manifesting the “fruits of the Spirit,” Christians display metaphysical truths, not mere wish projections (ala Freud) or personal desires (ala Feuerbach).

The 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky gives a powerful illustration of an ethic of reconciliation in The Brothers Karamazov.  Just before the elderly monk Zosima (who is Dostoevsky’s mouthpiece) dies, Zosima summarizes his ethics to his troubled understudy, Alyosha.  

Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.  If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.

We discover the true meaning of the world by loving all things, not only in the sense of having deep affections but in the sense of embodying the reconciling power of Christ, which is the divine mystery in things. Christ works through such loving efforts to overcome the real, grievous, and ultimately self-defeating vices of fear, hate, and malice. Because it manifests the Cosmic Christ at work, the ethics of reconciliation effectively exhibits the metaphysical truth of Christianity and thereby gives a persuasive account of the world. She has metaphysical reasons (not just wishes and desires) to claim that love is more real than hate; forgiveness is more powerful than resentment; reconciliation is truer to the ultimate purposes of history than war; and faith in God more accurately understands the cosmos than does nihilism.  

The church should explain to a de-Christianized culture that her theology of divine providence illuminates fundamental aspects of the world.  Because of it, we better understand the reason and purpose of the world we live in.  Feuerbach is wrong.  Theology is not merely anthropology but in fact a metaphysical truth claim.

Dennis Sansom

Dennis L. Sansom recently retired from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was the chair of the department of philosophy. He taught a wide range of classes but focused on Christian, philosophical, business, environmental, and medical ethics.

Topics:

Theology