Glynn Cardy 29th January 2023
There is a theological phrase, ‘Cosmic Christ’, that was first coined (probably) by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the 1920s. But the origins of what it attempts to express are far earlier than that.
You may be familiar with the distinction made between Jesus and the Christ. Jesus refers to the historical man, Yeshua ben Yosef, who lived, taught, and was executed in Palestine in the early decades of the 1st century. The Christ refers to the ongoing ‘life’ of this Jesus after his crucifixion.
So, depending on your theological leanings, this ‘life’ might manifest as an invisible personal saviour who abides in a skyward heaven (as some traditional doctrine implies), or might manifest in the community of Jesus’ followers (like when Paul suggested to the Corinthians that we, together, are the body of Christ).
It’s important to not think of Christ as a man, or a human even, but more as an essence, an energy, or spirit (with a lower case ‘s’) that can artistically be depicted in many forms. And yet this Christic essence/energy has a direct corelation with the essence/energy of the historical Yeshua ben Yosef. So, if we call for example this essence compassion, then how we understand compassion is framed (though not constrained) by the parables and other stories of and about the historical man Jesus.
The cosmic Christ though is different again, drawing upon the prologue of the 4th gospel and the pseudo-Pauline letters of Colossians and Ephesians. In the prologue this ‘Christ’ was present at the very beginning of creation/evolution, like the Jewish personification of ‘wisdom’ or the Greek personification of a ‘divine spark’ (which was translated into English as ‘Word’). Indeed, Paul calls the Christ ‘the wisdom of God’ – the personification of the wisdom of God.
On the one hand then, this cosmic Christic energy has always existed and is the genesis of life and consciousness. On the other hand, as spoken of by Irenaeus of Lyon in the late 2nd century, the cosmic Christ is that which restores and recapitulates all of creation into a unity of connection. For Irenaeus, and in the theology of Eastern Christianity, the resurrection of Christ is not primarily about Jesus as an individual coming back from the dead, but the restoration from the deathly ways and effects of sin and evil of all of humanity and all of creation.
So, this cosmic Christic energy is not only the beginning (the Alpha) of creation/evolution but is the restoration and fulfilment (the Omega) of creation/evolution.
As you might imagine in the second half part of the 20th century as we became, like never before, aware that not only could we destroy human and ecological life on a massive scale (like with nuclear armaments) but that we were already doing so through the warming of our planet, polluting our atmosphere, food, and water, and destroying forests, ecosystems, and species in nonrecoverable ways, eco-theologians in the West took a renewed interest in the concept of the cosmic Christ.
Rather than the idea of a personalized Christ saving individual souls and rapturing them to an off-the-planet heaven, the cosmic Christic spirit was about saving the whole planet and universe, and not through some cataclysmic Armageddon but by working in, with, and for the restorative power of love, mutuality, connection, and unity. Humans and all life, organic and inorganic, seen and unseen, working together, interdependently, to be bring renewal for all.
Scholars like Jürgen Moltmann, Matthew Fox, and Richard Rohr picked up de Chardin’s language to speak about the Christ’s concern for all creation. Note that by ‘the Christ’ they mean both the ongoing living essence of the historical Jesus manifested in the Church (and elsewhere!) and the Christic life energy that is alpha and omega.
Fox in particular saw this Christic energy and purpose manifesting on the margins of politics and religion (rather than in the mainstream), from those excluded from power rather than those wielding it, and especially amongst indigenous peoples whose traditions were more earth-centred and promoted an interdependence with the land, bush, creatures, and waters.
Fox though was not the first to understand the ecumenical (the whole earth uniting) ramifications of the cosmic Christ. In 1961 at the World Council of Churches meeting in New Delhi, Paul Devanandan argued that a cosmic Christ united all things including those of Christian and non-Christian religions. This rationale undergirded the interfaith dialogue work of M.M. Thomas and D.T. Niles on the subcontinent. In China too, the rationale of a cosmic Christ resonated, and can be seen for example in K.H. Ting’s work of dialogue between Christians and communists.
Maybe the roots of the phrase ‘cosmic Christ’ for Chinese theologians also is grounded in Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking and writing. For it was to China that the Catholic Church authorities banished him in 1923, and where he would remain until 1946.
Chardin was born in France in 1881 and trained in both palaeontology and theology under the guidance of the Jesuit Order. He also later trained in geology. So, he was both a scientist and priest, and would spend his life exploring the connection between the two.
He ran foul of the ecclesiastical authorities, which led to his exile, firstly around the doctrine of original sin. Teilhard argued that the fall of Adam and Eve into sin were difficult to reconcile with science for two reasons. First, fossils suggested that the human species emerged out of several different evolutionary branches, not from a single pair of ancestors. And second, an earthly paradise from which death was absent was scientifically inconceivable, given that the tendency toward physical disintegration is a condition of existence. Instead Teilhard read the early chapters of Genesis as allegories. The authorities at the time saw this an alarming deviation from orthodoxy, whereas to most of us its common sense. Creation is not an event but an evolutionary process of becoming.
Secondly, he questioned and challenged the dualism that divided so-called ‘secular’ matter and ‘sacred’ spirit. The philosophical origins of this division one can find in the Greek thought of Plato, and in the Christian thought of Augustine. Augustine talked about the ‘war’ between matter and spirit, body and soul, the former to be subjugated the latter privileged. Fox calls dualistic thinking the foundation of patriarchy.
Chardin however understood the incarnation as a manifestation that (I quote) “the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it.” Matter and spirit were no longer two things but two states or two aspects of one and the same cosmic stuff, both infused with divine presence.
Traditional understandings of the holy regarded secular work and the world as at best burdens to endure. Worldly knowledge, like science, was thought to lead to pride. Chardin upended this thinking – it was through work in science, technology, government, education, and the unity of peoples that Christians were called to collaborate in the development of the cosmos. There was no split between human work and spirituality. For God was not an outsider (a clock-winder God, distant and remote) but a creative God, still creating through the evolutionary process, inviting our collaboration. In Chardin’s words: “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined [the divine] as distant and inaccessible, when in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”
In this quote you will notice a move away from anthropomorphizing God by using the pronoun ‘its’ and the metaphor of fire. In 2018 the American bishop, Michael Curry, preaching at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex said that Teilhard had called fire one of the greatest discoveries in human history and said that “if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.” Elsewhere Chardin writes, “All realities, all experiences, all our activities, all our joys and suffering, have this potential for divinisation, for being set on fire through the outpouring of divine love.”
Above all else therefore the cosmic Christic essence/energy/fire is acts of love, no matter how small or hidden, drawing all into connection. Chardin believed, and we can hear in this the mystic more than the scientist, that this love energy is in every particle of the universe drawing everything that exists into connection. So, love isn’t just a human thing, but the very energy of evolution. Love is at the heart of reality.
While I admire much of Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking, and as you might recognize part of the ground of mine and many contemporary theologians’ and ministers’ thinking, we need also to be aware of its limitations. He was gripped by an optimism that science coupled with spirituality would lead us to salvation. He saw no need to put ethical boundaries around technological progress. Science was a good in itself. Nowadays we generally have a more measured view of science seeing it as a human endeavour, and like any human endeavour corruptible. He also saw the processes of evolution as making humanity better and better, physically, spiritually, and morally, constantly moving towards a point of perfection, the future giving purpose to the present. Not many today would share that view.
With his adoration of science, as the early eco-theologian Thomas Berry points out, Chardin, whilst he saw all matter as sacred, also believed in a hierarchy of humankind over every other kind. The earth was to be subservient to the human ends, and thus subservience was the sole way the earth could find its true meaning. Sounds like a license to exploit and pollute?
And Chardin’s belief in hierarchy did not end there. In the latter part of his life, and even after the horrors of the holocaust were revealed, Teilhard believed in a hierarchy of races, social Darwinism, and eugenics. So-called ‘superior’ races and people were to be privileged, and the so-called weak and poorest disregarded.
Again we are reminded of the fallacy of building a conception of the divine (the cosmic Christ) that loses reference and does not correspond to the teachings, ministry and mission of the historical Jesus. The Christic fire of love energy that can build connection between all things, and maybe is in all things, must be rooted in the compassion, justice, and breadth of the Jesus vision. Love is too vague a word, too easily to be manipulated for the ends of the powerful, to not have a reference point.