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God Is Everywhere: The Great Chain of Being

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Great Chain of Being

God Is Everywhere!
Sunday, February 1, 2015

Question 16 in the Baltimore Catechism, which generations of 20th century American Catholics had to memorize, asked, “Where is God?” The answer clearly told us, “God is everywhere.” Then the rest of the book basically said, “We don’t really mean it!” It explained that God was really only in the Catholic Church, and really only in the bread in the tabernacle of Roman Catholic churches. God apparently was not in the people anymore, let alone in creation. It left us in a rather empty and lonely universe.

This is a far cry from what both Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) and John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) taught us: Deus est Ens, God is being, they both said. Most still think of God as a Being. It is surely much better to speak of God as Being itself. Or as Paul’s famous sermon to the intellectuals in Athens put it, God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). To lead us forward, I would like to reclaim an ancient, evolving, and very Franciscan metaphor to name the nature of God and the universe: The Great Chain of Being.

Through the image of The Great Chain of Being, medieval theologians tried to communicate a fully connected and inherently dignified world, whose dignity was given by God. It was their way of identifying the great ecosystem, similar to the “Net of Indra” in ancient Hinduism. The essential links in the divine chain included: 1) Earth itself with its minerals and elements; 2) the waters upon the earth; 3) the plants and trees; 4) all animals on the earth, in the skies, and in the seas; 5) the humans; 6) the heavenly realm of angels and spirits; and 7) the Divine Creator, the Connecting Mystery, the Ground of Being, the Source from which and to which all life flows. This image became the basis for calling anything and everything sacred. The Great Chain of Being helped our ancestors to understand that, indeed, God is everywhere. This grants all things an inherent dignity that is “endowed by the creator” and not given or withdrawn by any human preference whatsoever! That changes everything, but was largely lost by the common Christianity of the 20th century.

Some today prefer the image of “The Great Nest of Being,” a series of concentric circles with Matter at the center. Each circle integrates and transcends the circles within it, with God or Spirit as the outermost circle. As David Benner points out, the image of the Great Nest helps us understand God as the Alpha and the Omega, the source and fulfillment of all that exists: “God is in all that is because everything that exists is held in existence in Christ” (Spirituality and the Awakening Self).

Gateway to Silence:
Loving God in creation

Adapted from Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety, p. 133; and
A New Cosmology: Nature as the First Bible,
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