As promised last time, I am watching each of the recorded presentations from last November’s assembly of the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church in the USA and posting my comments here, in hopes of starting a robust discussion going forward.
The first presentation was titled From Light to Light: A Theological Cosmology for our Times. (You can watch it here.) Cosmology is the study of the cosmos, or universe: it’s origin, its history, and how (and why) it works the way it does. This might seem either hopelessly theoretical on the one hand, or quite far from religious interest, but I think it was a surprisingly good topic to kick off the Assembly. (Sadly, it took place on the day set aside for clergy talks, but I hope that some of it is used and expanded by our pastors and preachers in the coming year.)
In this talk, Professor Timothy Kearns (Philosophy, University of Connecticut) sets out to discuss perhaps the most basic questions for us as human beings: What is the meaning of life? And how are we to live: in other words, what is the meaning of the Christian life?
If the world has a creator, then that creator is in effect an artist. An artist can communicate ideas in both simple or complex ways, and in doing so can also reveal himself or herself to some degree. Kearns suggests that the God who created our universe has done all three, by creating simple, spiritual beings – the angels – along with much more complex physical creatures (living and non-living) whose very complexity reveals other ideas. Finally, God as author reveals Himself both in the kind of world that has been created and the way it works, and to some extent in the ways He intervened in human history up to the time of the Incarnation.
Thus on several levels, creation bears the imprint of its Creator. In particular, no thing is intrinsically evil, since it was created for a purpose and with certain characteristics by God. God is also reflected through the real acts of the things that have been created: the world itself is creative, as God is, and good, as God is.
Kearns explains the role of the angels as communicating God’s ideas, guiding and making (though not creating) the world, and the fall of some spiritual beings who chose to make the world of nature serve their own ends. This is perhaps not surprising: although there is no conflict within God, the created world is marked by struggle, making it a hostile and unstable place. Life is precarious and precious, and some of the world’s governing powers are opposed to God’s plan. So even if God did not intend evil, he intended that opposition between good and evil (if there is to be evil) IS part of the nature of creation. And in the middle of this, Man (in the sense of all human beings through history) united spirit and matter and stands at the center of creation, with the task of perfecting himself (with God’s help) and each natural thing. That is the reason for the Incarnation.
In redeeming man, God has made it possible for the created world to become ordered into a temple into which God can enter; even the lowest things can communicate him spiritually (water, oil, wood, gold). In this way, knowledge of God and the presence of God can be communicated by created things. In fact, everything we do CAN communicate the beauty God, and the saints (meaning what all of us should be) take the place of the fallen angels in helping to govern the created world for its own perfection and our own. This is the mission of humankind.
Of course, this has consequences, as Kearns points out: the need for works of mercy, conversion of heart, prayer, fasting,and almsgiving, along with the weekly Sunday Eucharist (thanksgiving) led by the local bishop or his representative. But that does not exhaust our responsibilities. Christians should garden, especially around the church or in cemeteries, and in all other ways aim for stewardship rather than exploitation of the natural world. All human beings ought to practice the arts, and churches should be centers of the arts, not just the liturgical ones. They should also pass on the meaning behind this mission to all and sundry, teaching both Scripture and tradition, and how to interpret both. The modern proliferation of knowledge means that MORE must be taught in church.
And finally, churches need real community: friends and potential mates for young people, care for the aged, and all the other aspects we can envision that allow people to live together toward goodness, beauty, and truth.
My comments: overall, an excellent presentation, which has strong echoes in the Eastern Christian tradition, especially the Cappadocian Fathers like Saint Basil the Great. My only real reservation is that Dr. Kearns sometimes seems to use the summations of Thomas Aquinas as a perfecting endpoint of the tradition, as if Eastern Christians might be better off to go straight to (good) Western scholastic theology. More explicit references to the broader theological tradition of Christianity (Greek and Syriac as well as Latin) would have been good to see.
But this talk did set the stage for the Assembly in describing a positive mission for humanity and the Church, and I am looking forward to the next talk. Please post your comments below!
(And THANKS to Jack Figel for recording these presentations!)