Norman Wirzba: Creation through Christ


(Daniel Deen) #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.

Norman Wirzba is a philosopher housed in Duke Divinity School. His interests lie at the intersections of theology, philosophy, and agrarian/environmental studies. His healthy publication record suggests that one of the intersections relates to understanding humans in relation to Jesus Christ and the earthiness, perhaps, grittiness of creation. The chapter currently under discussion is an addition to this theme.

Chapter Summary:
The present chapter, “ Creation through Christ ,” argues for a radical reconceptualization of the way we view creatures (ourselves included) in relation to the cosmos around us. Wirzba argues that understanding the nature of Jesus Christ as fully human (human arché), intimately meshed with Jesus Christ as cosmic creator (ontological first principle), should upset the more common creation narrative of temporal origins. Creation includes beginnings, but is much more as well,

“it is about the character of the world and its proper orientation , alerting us to the meaning, value, and purpose of everything that is” (p. 40, emphasis in original).

His position is in response to a perceived commitment to reductionism entrenched within theology and science. The reductionism of the former relates to reducing Christ’s significance to human flourishing (e.g., salvation), while the latter is the more commonly discussed reductionism of methodological atheism (e.g., no need for God/Christ in material explanations of cosmos).

Wirzba’s solution is to refocus our attention on the relationship between a creature’s personal logos and the Logos of Christ. Creatures contain an internal logos that is an image of (enmeshed with?) the divine Logos. However, this logos is not only temporally created, but finds expression in the relationships we develop with other creatures and our environments.

“Though creatures possess their own unique integrity [logos],” Wirzba comments, “the purpose of creaturely life is being-with-others—in modes of touching, reproduction, growth, eating, play and so on—so that something like symphonic flourishing can occur” (p. 41).

These external, more practical relationships are called tropos . The ultimate tropos is that found in the life of Christ. He reveals the appropriate way to order such relationships that mark the developmental path for personal logoi to flourish. Creation, therefore, has much less to do with temporal beginnings and everything to do with establishing the pattern of relations for human development according to the arché of Jesus Christ’s temporal ministry.

This refocusing of creation on the ontological arché of Jesus, frees Wirzba to challenge the common metaphors of space used to think about creation. Creation is not a box or container, a vessel to be filled. Creation through Christ understands

“the world and its life as a meshwork ” (p. 47, emphasis in original).

All of creation is interlaced, a knot where individual strands (logoi) intimately connect (tropos) to form a meshwork of existence. Wirzba, following anthropologist Tim Ingold, argues

things are their relations …Bodies have no existence, no life, and no meaning apart from the relations that entangle them in a bewildering array of lines of development” (p. 48, emphasis in original).

He continues,

“In other words, there is no being that is not also a becoming-with-others” (p. 48).

Critical Commentary:
I applaud Wirzba for grounding creation in the ontology of Christ and drawing attention to a more relational ontology between creatures. I agree that the more traditional individualistic conceptions of creatures alongside the container metaphors of creation have captured the imagination of much Anglophone philosophical and theological speculations regarding creation. However, I wonder if Wirzba’s desire to reorient our perspective doesn’t over-correct against individuality, leading to a dilemma.

While he allows for individuality in the nature of a creature’s logos, it is clear that Wirzba places greater emphasis in the relations (or meshing) between creatures. This emphasis on the ‘relation between’ at the expense of the ‘self’ raises a peculiar set of problems. On the one hand, if my being is non-existent apart from becoming with others as he suggests, then my entire being is founded in external relationships. This suggests the odd position that I am NOT in anyway responsible for the person I am. On the other hand, if I were responsible for my being, then it would primarily be checked against the tropos of Jesus. This, however, suggests that Wirzba is narrowly focusing on a particular set of relational attributes of Christ, which are the norms of human flourishing. This seems akin to those he accuses of reducing Christ to human salvation, the difference being that Wirzba is reducing Christ to a standard of human behavior. Thus, either I am determined by my external relationships, relinquishing a robust sense of agency/individuality (and perhaps responsibility), or, my agency/individuality only matters against the backdrop of Christ’s tropos. The former is too deterministic while the latter unravels Wirzba’s meshwork metaphor, offering a new reduction to those relationship(s) exhibited by Jesus.

Thoughts? What am I missing?

Further Discussion Questions:

  1. Wirzba, working under his meshwork metaphor, concludes that the work of the Church is to

“graft the whole material world within itself, not to control or exploit it but, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to be the hospitable presence that heals, nurtures, liberates, and celebrates all creatures into the life that God desires for them” (p. 53).

How might this help or hinder atheist/agnostic/Christian relationships within and without professional science?

  1. If my relationships define my being alá Wirzba, what does that mean for a person:

a) as a Christian practicing a science among atheists?

b) as an atheist practicing science amongst Christians?

c) as a Christian ambassador of science to the public?

d) as an atheist ambassador of science to the public?

  1. If Jesus Christ is the topos to be modeled, how does that relate to the actual practice of science? Are Christians and agnostics/atheists practicing different sciences due to different beliefs about/relationships with Jesus?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

Great summary and review @Philosurfer.

Is his view connected to the relational understanding of the image of God?

Your other questions are good, but are going to require some thought.


(Daniel Deen) #3

I don’t know? He didn’t actually use the term Image of God in the chapter, preferring the logos/tropos/meshwork language. I used “Image of God” in my review and may be misunderstanding him. Wirzba’s general approach to creation and his emphasis on holism suggests a position amicable with relational understanding of the Image of God.


(Jon Garvey) #4

I too thought he’d stressed the relational somewhat at the expense of the individual. The answer to that, I guess, is to incorporate the individual aspect into one’s thinking!

However, it’s still a good corrective, since the understanding that the individual stands far more in solidarity with his social relationships helps account for the biblical teaching that we are held accountable as much as I am held accountable, because we can form a meshwork of sin just as we can sin individually. Consider the Flood, or Sodom, or Jerusalem in 70AD. That’s a thought to work on.

As applied to the “irrational creation,” the idea that all life is based on relationships, with their source in Christ as Creator, is a powerful one that ought to affect the way we experience the natural world. It’s tantamount to seeing the creation as a purposeful cosmos based on relationships - which is scarcely a new view, but is one that’s been marginalized deliberately in the historical quest to reduce things to their constituents and understand the world as the sum of the parts.

Daniel raises a number of questions related to the practice of science, and particularly science as a joint venture between believers and unbelievers. This is indeed a problem. For if Wirzba is right that there is no fundamental distinction between the realms of nature and salvation, because behind both is the same organising principle in the Person of the relational Christ, then there ought to be aspects of nature that are inaccessible without reference to him, just as there are aspects of authentic human life that are inaccessible without him.

That is a metaphysical divide from those to whom the universe is only the impersonal sum of its parts.

An alternative way of looking at this is through the lens of passages like Colossians 1: Christ is the Creator and Sustainer of the first creation in the same intimate way he is the Creator and Sustainer of the new creation. How much information about the new is accessible without considering him?


(Daniel Deen) #5

Yes, that would be my response. I couldn’t help but think about the tension between positivist and social constructionist understandings of science as I read through the chapter. Both positions are required to understand the aims and goals and success of the scientific enterprise, but one tends to lean and over-develop one at the expense of the other. WIrzba has the individual logos, but it is unclear to me how that actually operates from the slim chapter we read due to the over-development of the relational.

And it even gets darker when we perpetuate networks of sin in the name of Christ! Sometimes the very enmeshed relationships creates and sustain corporate sin.

What got me thinking down this line was the passage I quoted in question one:

It is the grafting language that made me stop and think. Is it really the aim to graft everything together? I got the sense, to use Niebuhr’s old typology, that Wirzba was tacitly committed to a Christ as transformer of culture view point. Is this sort of grafting really possible this side of Eden and is it really the aim of Scripture in terms of the central message of salvation? Is what Wirzba suggesting epistemologically possible given the metaphysics he pursues? I am raising a sort of epistemologically driven “ought implies can” problem.

I am more comfortable with a position as you recommend. We usually speak about God creating and sustaining. Perhaps a switch in language to Jesus Christ and his tropos does make a difference in the way we view creation and our relationships within it. I also do believe that the flip of vision that happens in conversion is grand as I hear you suggesting with Col. 1. We do “see” more richly than one who has not been converted. However, that aesthetic sense is still grounded in the forgiveness required to fuel the continued cultivation of relationships that I make and break due to my sinful human nature.