The Substance of God

The Natural World: Week 2

The Substance of God
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Many indigenous spiritualities, Franciscans, and Celts saw creation as good, as a theophany or revelation of God’s very being, just as Genesis taught. How did Christianity come to be so divorced from nature? John Philip Newell (b. 1953), a poet and scholar known for his work in the field of Celtic spirituality, traces the roots and impact of the doctrine creatio ex nihilo. He offers an alternative, still orthodox, view of creation based on the writings of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon:

Irenaeus [130-202] . . . taught that the whole of creation flows from the very “substance” of God. [1] All things carry within them the essence of the One. Irenaeus . . . signaled his concern about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. . . . This was to become the standard of Western Christianity’s approach to creation. Creation would be viewed not as coming forth from the substance of God but as fashioned from afar by a distant Creator, made out of nothing from on high.

Irenaeus intuited that this would be a disaster, that to neutralize matter, to teach that creation does not come from holy substance, would lead to the abuse of creation. It was a convenient “truth” . . . [meaning] that the empire could do whatever it wished to matter. Matter was not holy. It had not come forth from the womb of God’s Being. Rather it was made from nothing. It was essentially devoid of sacred energy. So, every imperial mind could ravage the earth’s resources with impunity. It could disparage the rights of creatures and subordinate the physical well-being of its subjects. Religion had become the accomplice of the state’s subordination of the earth. It had sanctioned the separation of spirit and matter.

Irenaeus . . . passionately taught that the substance of the earth and its creatures carries within itself the life of the Holy One. God, he said, is both “above us all and in us all.” [2] God is both transcendent and immanent. And the work of Jesus, he taught, was not to save us from our nature but to restore us to our nature and to bring us back into relationship with the deepest sound within creation. In his commentary on the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, in which all things are described as spoken into being by God, Irenaeus sees Jesus not as speaking a new word but as uttering again the first word, the sound at the beginning and the heart of life. He describes Jesus as “recapitulating” the original work of the Creator, as articulating again what we have forgotten and what needs to be repeated, the Sound from which all life has come. [3] Jesus re-sounds the beginning. He resounds with what is deepest in the matter of the universe.

. . . The Christ story is the universe story. The birth of the divine-human child is a revelation, a lifting of the veil to show us that all life has been conceived by the Spirit in the womb of the universe, that we are all divine-human creatures, that everything that has being in the universe carries within itself the sacredness of Spirit.

References:
[1] Irenaeus of Lyons: The Early Church Fathers, ed. Robert Grant (Routledge: 1997), 150.

[2] Ibid., 151.

[3] Ibid., 169.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 12-14, 16.

Image credit: Starry Night Over the Rhône (detail), Vincent van Gogh, September 1888 (Arles), Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception. Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first splitting and spinning of the stars. —Joanna Macy

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