The Universe as God?

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

So said Joseph Campbell, an English professor from Sarah Lawrence College, and author of a celebrated book about comparative mythology entitled, “Hero with a Thousand Faces.”  Shortly before he died in 1987, he gave a series of interviews with PBS personality, Bill Moyers, which were aired as the “Power of Myth,” and which gave wide exposure to his ideas. (George Lucas credited Campbell as one of the principal influences behind his “Star Wars” saga.)

Campbell derived his key notion of “bliss” from the Sanskrit word, ananda, which is the bliss of absolute being or God-consciousness.  Campbell says that if we are to pursue such bliss then the “universe” will respond by opening doors and offering new possibilities – as if the universe were something personal, active, and purposeful. 

This personal, even anthropomorphic, way of speaking about the universe was not so common in the seventies and eighties when Joseph Campbell came into prominence. Today people frequently speak this way about of the universe.

“The universe has judged you. You asked it for a prize, and it [the universe] told you no.” These are the words of Gamora, the green alien in the 2018 Marvel blockbuster film, “Avengers: Infinity War.”  Gamora is speaking like any number of people today who want to affirm a vaguely conceived spiritual foundation to our lives, and invoke the whole of everything – the universe – in the same way others are more likely to speak directly of God.

This way of talking about the universe is all over the internet. Aglowlifestyle.com describes itself as “a small but impactful spirituality website that aims to help people live a life they love by cultivating their spiritual lives.”  One posting asks, “Does the universe care about us?” and goes on to say, “it cares about us because we are a part of it. It’s not external to us; it’s within us, and it connects everything. It’s the ‘god’ that is within all of us.” 

The writer identifies the universe with a divine inner self within each of us (like the Hindu, atman). At same time, the universe comes across as an overarching personal divinity who is said to “care about us.” In fact, the universe even seems to have a purpose for us in the same way that Christians and Jews speak about God, “Yes, the universe does have a plan for you. It has a plan for you, everyone on this planet, and the entire human race. There is not one person that the universe does not care about.”

We might be inclined to think of this as a harmless way of substituting the word “universe” for “God” in a secular culture in which people are no longer comfortable talking about “God” – when in fact, we are still talking about the same thing. And certainly, to speak of the universe as a sort of stand-in for God has a conveniently non-sectarian aspect to it.  But it rests on a profound misconception. We simply cannot equate the universe with God. This identification is completely inadequate to designate what we mean – and who we mean – by “God.”

God Reveals Himself in Nature

In the Epistle to the Romans the apostle Paul writes, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” (Romans 1:20).  Paul asserts that the natural order, “the universe,” reveals God’s “eternal power and divine nature” In the same way, the psalm proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

Paul makes a similar point in Acts 14, when he tells the citizens of Lystra to “turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them...he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons.” (Acts 14: 15, 17) Paul says that the creation is a “witness” to the living God. And who cannot pass through the beauty of the Adirondacks that lie at the center of Diocese of Albany and not take note of that witness?

Hence, we can say that it is possible to see God in the physical universe. But that is very different from saying that God IS the universe. The scriptures stress that in discerning the “glory of God” in the natural creation, we perceive a sort of watermark, an indicator, of the God who made the creation. Like the labels on our shirts that say “Made in China,” these signs of glory point away from the creation to its source. Psalm 19 says that great expanse of the sky is God’s “handiwork.” In so far as God is the great artisan, like any craftsman or artist, he pours something of himself into this workmanship.  But the thing that is made is distinct from its maker.

Over the course of time, human beings have shown a curious tendency to blur the distinction between creation and the creator, between the universe and the God spoke it into being. When Paul in Romans speaks of how God’s “eternal power and divine nature” may be “clearly perceived in the things that have been made” this is basis for his indictment of paganism and idolatry.  Yes, the creator is discernable in creation.  But as result, says Paul, “they are without excuse,” because human beings all too often fail to acknowledge the holiness of God - his essential quality of being set apart or distinct from the world.  Instead, they confuse the creation with the creator. Says Paul “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,” (Romans 1:21-22).

Paganism Old and New

In his great work, The City of God, Augustine describes at length the intricacies of Roman paganism. Ploughing the opening sections of the book, one finds oneself thinking, “when is the good bishop going to get around actually to talking about Christianity?” But in fact, Augustine is engaged in a powerful social critique of his own age, which, in some ways, mirrors our own. Drawing on the exposition of myth and religion by the Roman writer, Varro, Augustine shows that the problem of polytheism is not merely that the Romans worship “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16), honoring as gods what are not gods at all. Ultimately what lay behind Roman paganism was that same confusion of the creation with creator that Paul speaks about.  Roman pagans, says Augustine,

“…believed that religious worship should be offered to the order of nature which [in reality] is organized under the rule and government of the one true God. But such worship is due only to that God; and thus these Romans were, in the words of the Apostle, ‘serving the created order, instead of the Creator, who is blessed for all eternity”

Augustine recognized that the more sophisticated Romans were not truly polytheists, but saw the multiplicity of gods - Mars, Mercury, Juno, Saturn, and so on - as manifestations of one God, Jupiter the king of the Gods, who in turn subsumed in himself the entire creation. “If Jupiter is to be a god and, above all, if he is to be the king of gods, we are bound to identify him with the world, so that he may reign over the other gods who are, according to this theory, parts of himself.”

As king of the gods who are “parts of himself” Jupiter is identified with the world itself.  In this sophistical Roman paganism, says Augustine, “God is the Soul of the World, or as the Greeks say, the cosmos, and this world itself is God,” and again, “God is the Soul of the World, and the world itself is God.” It is usual among the pagans, says Augustine, “to attribute the whole universe to Jupiter; hence the poet says, ‘The whole universe is filled with Jupiter,’” (oddly similar and yet so different from Psalm 19:1 quoted above).

Nothing New Under the Sun

It is evident that ancient Roman religion was far more subtle than most Christians realize. This is why it tenaciously maintained the loyalty of the Roman educated classes, much as eastern mysticism and the new paganism appeal to many educated people in our own society, who are attracted by many of the same underlying ideas.

As Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) We see here that the modern predilection to speak of universe in the way people traditionally have spoken of God mirrors almost exactly the sophisticated paganism that was prevalent in the early Christian centuries. At its core is that same ancient error of confusing the creation with the creator. For as Augustine insisted, “The true religion distinguishes Creator from creature.”

This leads Augustine to make an almost credal confession – and one in which we can whole-heartedly share:

“We worship God, not the sky and the earth, which are the two elements of which this world consists; we do not worship a soul, or souls, diffused through all living beings; we worship God, who made the sky and the earth and everything that exists in them, who made every soul, the souls which simply exists in some manner, without sensibility or reason, and sentient souls as well, and those endowed with intelligence.”

 

Life AFTER Life After Death

A couple from my former congregation in New York State recently passed through Dallas. We went to dinner at a restaurant in Uptown near my new apartment. They are musicians; she is a classical pianist, he is a jazz trombonist, arranger, and composer with a master’s degree from the jazz program at the University of North Texas in Denton.  I got to know them well over the years; they came to my Bible studies, Brad was on the vestry, and he and I played music together. But I really got to know them one Palm Sunday when I got a call from Brad early in the morning before church, asking me to come over.  Jane’s parents had been killed in a car accident the night before. 

I spent a lot of time with them in the weeks that followed. Jane was utterly grief-stricken. It took close to ten years for her not to be ambushed by periodic bouts of depression and anguish. At one point I gave her a book that I thought would be encouraging. It was a thin volume by N.T. Wright entitled, For all the Saints. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to think seriously about the Christian message of resurrection. But in this case, it was bit of a misfire. 

N.T. Wright asserts that many Christians have got it all wrong when it comes to what we call “life after death.”  They have invested everything in the conviction that when we die, our soul will go to heaven where we will dwell in bliss and glorify God forever. I expect many readers will think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before – this is basic Christianity, right?”

N.T. Wright’s point is: “No, that is not right.” The message of the Gospel is NOT that if we believe in Jesus, we get to go to heaven for ever. The New Testament invites us to be joined to Jesus in an act of complete trust – signified in Baptism.  In our union with Jesus we share in his death, so that in a mysterious but very real sense we are on the cross with him, and he literally bears our sins – as Paul says in Colossians, our sins are actually “nailed to the cross.”

United With Christ in His Death

The crucial point – and St. Paul is very explicit about this – is that if we share in his crucifixion, we also share in his resurrection. “Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death...if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3, 5)

This is why Easter matters. The resurrection of Jesus is not a novelty. It is not a one-of-a-kind miracle that God performed merely to vindicate Jesus as the Messiah.  Every Jew knew what Martha tells Jesus about her brother, Lazarus, in the Gospel of John – that the dead will “rise on the resurrection on last day.” (John 11:23) The disciples knew that if Jesus was raised, this was just the beginning, the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of a harvest that would include them – and us. Jesus’ rising, body, mind, and spirit, from the tomb on Easter is a guarantee of our own resurrection to come.

The resurrection of the body is actually a more outrageous claim, and in my view, harder to believe, than the idea that soul is taken up to an eternal spiritual realm, leaving the body behind to decay into nothingness. The notion of a mere ascent of the soul is less awkward, less provocative, because it leaves the world unchanged and does not challenge us to think through the nature of God’s creation and his redemptive purpose for the world – nor compel us to question the determinist legacy of modernity. Why then would we believe that such a thing as resurrection is even possible?

To begin with, Old Testament speaks of resurrection. As Isaiah put it, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!…the earth will give birth to the dead.” (Isaiah 26:19) But the principal reason is this: we already have “Example A” in the actual event, in real time and space, of the resurrection of Jesus.   

An Intermediate State

Suppose, however, your parents have suddenly died and you have found comfort in the assurance that their souls are up in heaven waiting for you to join them forever.  Then all this talk of resurrection of the body seems to throw a wrench in the spokes. That is what Jane thought, anyway. She said, “I always had the image of my mom and dad in this beautiful place surrounded by a great crowd of people dressed in white robes.”

I said, “Jane, that’s not all wrong – that is actually in the Bible too.” I showed her the passage in Revelation where John writes, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) This is a vision of Heaven – and as the angel says to John, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Readers of Revelation have met them before. In the previous chapter, John says “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne…they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” (Rev. 6:9, 11)

These are the martyrs who have gone through the great tribulation. We might be inclined to ask, “what does this have to do with us and the comfortable placid lives we lead?” I believe that the “ones coming out of the great tribulation” include us as well. To cling to our faith in Jesus through the ups and downs of daily life is to defy powers and principalities of this age that deny the goodness and sovereignty of God and his triumph over death in Jesus Christ. We, too, go through the great tribulation; our robes are indeed washed white in the blood of the lamb.

Yet the setting depicted in this vision is provisional – it is only temporary. The text says that souls of the martyrs are “to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” Then what? Then comes the final act: the Resurrection of the Dead. Yes, at their death, the souls of the faithful are gathered into the presence of God in Heaven. Theologians call this “the intermediate state.” Joyful and glorious it may be, it is penultimate; it is not the last word, and it falls short of the Resurrection, and the New Heaven and New Earth.

N.T. Wright has a catchy phrase. He says the ultimate promise of the Gospel is not life after death, it is “life AFTER life after death.”

In the end, my parishioner recognized that the image of her parents gathered with the souls of the blessed in heaven had not been snatched away from her after all, but that this was only part of the picture; there is more! The Apostle Paul tells us that God’s power working in us “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) This is especially the case when it comes to the resurrection and our eternal future – it is greater than we can ask or imagine!

 

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This blog is written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.