Murray Rae: Jesus Christ, the Order of Creation


(Jon Garvey) #1

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

In C S Lewis’s famous “Mad, Bad or God” trilemma, Lewis discounts the idea of Christ as merely a great human teacher: “He has not left that open to us.” In his introductory chapter, theologian Murray Rae lays out the present book’s stall in a similar way, by pointing us to the remarkable “Cosmic Christ” passage of Colossians 1:15-17:

We are accustomed to Paul speaking of Christ as the one who died for us, who reconciles us to God, who calls us forth to a new form of life, and who gives the Spirit in order to enable our full participation in that life. Taken by themselves, however… these claims could be and often are pieced together to produce a picture of Christ as some kind of spiritual guru, a life coach, one to whom we may turn for counsel and solace. Paul will have none of that. In Christ, we have to do with the one in and through whom the entire universe came to be. We are encountered by the one who is in person the very logic of creation, the one who reveals the end and purpose to which all things are directed.

“The Christian gospel is cosmic in scope,” then, and that has implications for every aspect of life. In this chapter, Rae deals with these in a general way - useful in itself in plunging us head first into the vast scope of what is under discussion. The rest of the book will address the detail (in which the devils always dwell!) under the headings of theology, Bible and history, philosophy and science.

Rae summarizes the Bible’s overall narrative as describing the world to be a cosmos of God’s intentional creation. He stresses how, paradoxically, this is seen particularly in the passages involving the “desperate cry to God,” expressing faith that:

…despite all appearances, despite the suffering and the disruptions that often afflict us, we live in a creation ordered and sustained by God and destined to be perfected according to God’s good purpose.

He points out that the sciences - not only the natural sciences, but the human too - actually demonstrate by their quest to uncover the order of the world the same interests as the Bible in passages like Genesis 1 and the book of Job.

In order to show that any full understanding of the world depends on many different approaches, he goes on to give an extended example in a piece of music (for some reason Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23 - was it on the radio at the time?) and enumerates the multiple possible levels of explanation at the scientific, musical and even biographical levels. Neverthless, at the heart of an adequate explanation of the piece must be “an emotional and even a theological attentiveness.”

In the same way, the introductory Colossians passage means that, in the world,

[a]ll other levels of explanation, all other forms of witness to what has been, what is, and what may yet be, have something to speak of only because God in Christ, through the power of his Spirit, has established and given life to a reality other than himself.

This is relevant in any walk of life whatsoever. It underlies the work of the natural scientist, the poet, visual artist or musician; the economist, political theorist or social scientist; or the historian.

They go about their business under the assumption… that the world does have an order and a coherence that is intelligible at least in part, even if its ultimate basis in Christ is not seen or acknowledged by all enquirers.

So the take-home message of the chapter is this:

The theological claim that Christ is the one in and through whom all things came to be and in whom all things hold together entails that nothing can be understood in its entirety until we consider its role in the working out of God’s purpose.

To put some significant flesh on those bones, we need to perceive how all things created in heaven and earth are the outcomes of God’s love. And we also need to see them as, by that token, destined to be gathered into a new, Spirit-filled relationship with God.

The end or telos of all things is to take their place in the working out of God’s purpose and, precisely thereby, to realize their true identity and freedom as creatures of God.

I’m pleased to see, in a footnote, that he defines “freedom” in this setting as “capacity to be truly oneself,” in a Thomistic sense, and not “autonomy” in the modern, Promethean sense.

Rae’s closing section shows how this vision of the world can never be divorced from the Christ of the gospel. To begin with, all our efforts to understand the world are tempered by the fact of sin. And then, the nature of God’s blessing to the world is seen in the gospel pattern of Jesus - forgiveness, healing, comforting, and meeting need, but with all the abundance exemplified by the wine at the wedding in Cana. The Christ of creation and the Christ of salvation are one and the same.

And therefore he asks us to consider whether our particular interactions with the world - our science, our industry, our economics, art, music or literature - are both truthful about the world, and subordinated to the purposes of the gospel to bless. Above all, though, the chapter challenges us to turn away from Christ as only a private object of devotion, to the recognition that all things centre on him, and this is a public truth:

The confession of Christ as the very logic of creation is not a private affirmation about what particular individuals hold to be of value. It is a claim, cosmic in scope, about the way reality itself is constituted. The one who so orders all things for our good commands, as love alone can command, the joyful response of faithfulness and love.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

This is really helpful @jongarvey. @Philosurfer, thank you also for helping out in this series of reviews.

I had a few questions.

  1. What is your assessment of his ideas here? What is most helpful? What is missing the mark?
  1. Tell me more about this. I think I know what this is, but it seems important to fully grasp this. I’m also curios what the atheists will think about this vision of freedom.
  1. In what senses does he mean this to be worked out?

In many ways I like this. It seems to be a corrective to the generic theism of the ID movement and lowest common denominator engagement between faith ad science.

However, is he trying to bring scientific discourse into some sort of christianized version of science? Or is he suggesting some thing more aligned with A Secular-Confessional Society, where Christians allow science to be secular, but work out in public how they relate their understanding of Jesus to scientific knowledge?

If it is the latter rather than the former, how does he explain this?

If not, I’m not sure how we could expect it to work out. Can you fill this in some more?


(Jon Garvey) #3

Josh

(1) Because the chapter majored on a general introduction, I found little to disagree with - which isn’t to say it’s bland, because to treat the Cosmic Christ seriously is pretty radical in itself. And it’s radical because it doesn’t actually leave us any room for seeing the world in a secular way - though how that works out in specific ways (and particularly in relation to science) is, I guess, the substance of future chapters.

To bring that out a little (in my own way, not his), consider that he asks us to see Christ’s work in creation and sustaining through the lens of his gospel ministry. Imagine you were involved in that earthly ministry, in some highly practical pursuit such as catering or the logistics of his itinerary. Would it make a difference to be cooking or organising for the Saviour of the world, or would one say, “food is food, and accommodation is accomodation”? For me, I’d be constantly aware that “food” is also related to his teaching about “eating his flesh,” and that accommodation for the Son of God is something about temples. The broiled fish the risen Jesus eats to satisfy hunger is still just fish, but I have to reflect on the relationship between Christ’s old creation and the new, as I do the washing up…

(2) The “freedom” thing, as you prbably guessed, relates to my longstanding vendetta against “free process” theology, and its half-hearted imitators, in which God’s sovereignty and creatorhood are relativised by personifying of creation, including the evolutionary mechanisms, as “freedom” or “co-creation,” and even independence of God’s will. Rae’s “freedom” seems almost the opposite - each created thing finds its true being only in relation to the good God intends for it. “Whose service is perfect freedom”.

Once again, how that works in the nitty-gritty is “to be continued”, but it’s not simply to do with survival and fitness - perhaps the krill’s freedom is to be the whale’s sustenance (an idea found in Augustine’s writing on creation). Christ’s purposes for his creatures are the final reality.

(3) The chapter is not intended to be prescriptive, and I’m not even sure whether Rae would want to be. But for myself, I’d say that, like most biblical teaching, praxis follows from theology. Paul’s ethics, for example (as Greg Beale points out), nearly all take the form, “Since you are already a new creation through the resurrection of Christ, you have both the power to obey God, and the obligation to do so.” The behaviour that results, whilst Paul is not silent on details, is more a natural outcome of living as if the theology is true than being told what to do (hence Augustine’s “Love God and do as you like.”)

Likewise, how will a Christian scientist develop his/her work in the knowledge that the subject matter was created in love by, continues in relationship with, and serves the goals of, the risen Christ? My answer might be different from yours, or Rae’s - but I don’t see how it can be exactly the same as an anti-theist’s. If one’s christological theology of nature does not, somehow, affect one’s dealings with nature, then does it mean anything at all?