Christ's Primacy in Creation as Resource for the New Evangelisation

Richard Conrad O.P. FAITH Magazine September-October 2010

Richard Conrad, O.P., Vice-Regent at Blackfriars, Oxford, and Reader in Dogmatic Theology at Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, argues that the New Evangelisation should focus upon the access to the life of the Trinity which we gain through the Incarnation.

If we are to preach the Christian Gospel, it is not enough to prove that God exists. The central mystery of Christian faith and life is the Most Holy Trinity {Catechism of the Catholic Church, 234), into whom we are baptised. I will locate the theme I was given, Christ's Primacy, within a Trinitarian perspective on creation and humanity. Christ is the Creative - and Re-creative - Word. His mission, and the Spirit's, are inseparable (CCC 689f).

To prove that God exists is a hard enough task, made harder by the lack of concerted witness. Muslims suspect we do not take God's Unity seriously; maybe some Christians don't realise the extent to which we can stand with Jews, Muslims and Sikhs in proclaiming the world's One, transcendent Creator. But what I call the "A Team" of theologians -Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas - insist that our faith into the Holy Trinity involves absolutely no watering-down of God's Unity.

Many modern Christians have abandoned the widespread conviction of Mediaeval Jews, Christians and Muslims that the Unchanging God holds each and every reality in existence, moment by moment. Jon Sobrino, among others, holds that an omnipotent God would not be worth worshipping - He allows too much injustice and suffering. We have to help Him in His struggle against evil. While avoiding that error, we do need to address the problem of evil if evangelisation is to be effective.

Other theologians perpetuate the Deist view of a Watchmaker God who sets the cosmos going then steps back - even limits His knowledge of the future so that the Uncertainty Principle may hold. No wonder that Richard Dawkins can imagine that we suppose God has an impossibly large bandwidth.

Dawkins also objects to the notion that God demands His Son be punished for human sins. For the concept of a transferred punishment is alive and well (if not always expressed bluntly) despite having little (I should say no) basis in Scripture, Liturgy or Tradition.

Jesus Christ is the Divine Wisdom who took flesh and dwelt among us. Retaining the Divine Nature, He took on human nature, including a real human psyche. He revealed the Father who sent Him, above all by His Sacrifice, the New Covenant, God's irrevocable pledge of loyalty. Jesus had explained beforehand that He must "go away" if the Holy Spirit were to be given. In Dominum et Vivificantem, Pope John Paul affirmed Augustine's insight that the Holy Spirit is the Divine Love in Person, and explored how the Spirit came as the fruit of Christ's Sacrifice. The new Rite of Mass makes it clear that the Spirit still comes as the fruit of the Sacrifice. How can all this help evangelisation?

Unlike the Creator's existence, none of these specifically Christian truths can be proved without revelation. So teaches Aquinas, so affirms Vatican I. But though faith is not sight, it is enlightenment. Once we believe into the Holy Trinity, "things fall into place". The cosmos takes on a new lustre as held in being by the One God who is Father, Son and Spirit.

Augustine and Bonaventure delighted to find vestigia, footprints, of the Trinity in creation. We must not pretend they prove the Trinity. We may point to form, structure and beauty in the cosmos as the created reflection of the Divine Logos, just as things' being reflects the Father, and their goodness the Spirit. The creation is that much more "personal" when seen in a Christian perspective: Aquinas suggests that in uttering His Word, the Father expresses both Himself, and the truth of all creatures, as an Artist conceiving "beforehand" what to craft. In breathing forth the Spirit, Father and Son delight both in each other and in the whole creation.

An aside: the Uncertainty Principle is not due to God's self-limitation; as Fr. Holloway suggested, it is due to the "littleness" of things like electrons. They have less being, hence they have less truth. But the Divine Wisdom is in them, sustaining the patterns of interaction that are expressed by the formulae of Quantum Mechanics.

For Athanasius, we are in the image of the Logos. We are "logikoi", rational, able to discern the world's form, structure and beauty, though in the Fall we became warped in our thinking. Augustine went further: we are in the image of Father, Son and Spirit. There are vestigia of the Trinity in the structures of our psyche; in its core activities we find an irreducibly trinitarian structure that mirrors the Divine Trinity. In particular, our power to love reflects the Holy Spirit, as our power to know reflects the Divine Word. Thus Augustine refuted pagan philosophers who found pure unity in the heights of the mind, pointing to The One. Only once we believe into the Holy Trinity can we see how we are fashioned, and who by - and who for. Aquinasagrees: Prima Pars 93 says the goal of man's creation is to be in the image of the Holy Trinity, an image that comes to perfection in communion with the Archetype. This is what makes Christianity worth preaching, this offer of friendship with the Divine Trinity, where unity and personhood enhance each other, and our thirst for life, truth and love is alone satisfied.

Modern theology sees the Holy Trinity as Archetype not only for the individual, but for the Church, the Family, the Religious Community. For Vatican II, we find ourselves in giving ourselves. Pope John Paul helps us see the Holy Spirit, the Bond of Love, as binding husband and wife, perhaps inspired by the Polish custom of singing Veni, Creator Spiritus before the exchange of vows. This development taps an insight of Augustine's; this in turn should warn us off a modern emphasis on "models" of the Trinity that tend towards tri-theism. We don't have to water down God's Unity for fear He won't inspire community. On the other hand, a suggestion of Rahner's does not seem to have been much tapped. As I understand him, he sees us as made for the Trinity's self-gift in ourhistoricity. Humans look back to our origins, and forward to our future. Thus we are receptive to the Incarnate Word as foundational Covenant, and can be led by the Paraclete into the Future the Word has pledged - into God.

Some people who doubt God's existence, or find the Church unconvincing, are attracted to Jesus. Too many scholars are not liberated from the prejudice that Jesus did not say (or even know) that He is God, so that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were developed by the early Church (for orthodox scholars, authentically developed). This makes it harder to locate Jesus' moral teaching within His offer of a share in His Divine Sonship, and so to preach His unique message. I think it is becoming more possible to reaffirm that Jesus did know, and did say, Who He is. Of course, He (and His earliest followers) drew on Jewish categories; the arguments of subsequent centuries, I should say, were due to the difficulty of adapting non-Jewishthought-forms to express the same truth.

Jesus is the pure, peaceable, gentle Wisdom from Above (i.e. from God; James 3:17). He taught the Beatitudes; He lived and died by them. If we can say: "The Wisdom that creates the whole cosmos, from its tiniest structures to its greatest, the Wisdom that enables the human mind to grasp and use these structures, has lived on earth to enable us to live in a divine way, now and for ever" - then we have a Gospel worth preaching, a truth to offer that is attractive by its beauty.

If we confidently proclaim Jesus as God Incarnate, we can to some extent defuse the problem of evil. God does not simply permit suffering; God quite literally suffers with us. He suffers as man, not as God; but it is God who suffers. God is in solidarity with us, both to redeem our suffering and to be our Friend as intimately as possible - hence the value of the Eucharist as an extension of this friendship, and pledge of eternal divine friendship.

As Fr. Holloway saw, Jesus' Agony in the Garden is not due to an imaginary guilt for which He must be punished, but to a profound compassion. As Pope John Paul explained, in Jesus, God's mercy takes flesh - to ennoble us by asking us for mercy! On the Cross, the Word reveals the Father: Jesus is not the Man looking at an angry God, but God looking at angry men - with forgiveness, with compassion, not merely inviting our contrition but handing over the Spirit (John 19:30) to create our conversion so that Jesus may powerfully draw all things to Himself (John 12:32) and work a cosmic redemption.

The defined doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and what I call the Johannine-Thomist view of Redemption (Jesus as the "blue-print" who traces out the divine plan for us, and accomplishes it by being the Channel of the Holy Spirit's coming), do not cause problems for evangelisation. If presented both authentically and accessibly, they amaze us by the attractive Friendship that God is and that God extends; they meet objections; they reveal our humanity and destiny in a new light. Despite much good modern theology, I fear these doctrines are not getting across as they should - neither to the secular world, nor to other Monotheists. Not always to Christians! - who remain under-nourished.

Augustine and Aquinas attribute creation to Christ as the Divine Wisdom; in His humanity He causes the new creation, eternal life. As Man, He is Lord of all history: what precedes His Incarnation is drawn forward by His Sacrifice. We need to show how Christ impacts on the whole of humanity: the Spirit is only ever given, to arouse the thirst for truth and goodness, because of Christ's Sacrifice at the centre of history. When Christ is preached explicitly, He fulfils all valid insights - but also calls forth metanoia, since the Spirit must purify what is false, and enlarge what is narrow, as well as bring home into Christ those "seeds of the Gospel" He has planted.

Echoing St. Paul, Fr. Holloway envisioned Christ Incarnate as key to the whole sweep of creation and new creation. For Vatican II, the Final Adam reveals to humanity both humanity and its destiny, as He reveals the Father's love and bestows the Spirit as down-payment on eternal sonship (GS 22). His human life and work blesses all human life and work; it is not to be opposed to God, even though this world's life and work is a pilgrimage. Christ, then, validates everyday concerns, as well as human science, but "relativises" them in the light of eternity, that we may not idolise finance or technology. He is with us in our everyday struggles, and points us through death to eternal life. We have a Wisdom to offer, a perspective that makes sense of the whole - Christ,the Divine Wisdom.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2010