Sunday
Sep202009

The Revolution of Jesus

by Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam

'The Revolution of Jesu' is a response to the question, “What is distinctive about Christianity?” Or, “What is really new in the Christ-event that was not already present beforehand, either in the biblical tradition or in other religious traditions of the world?” The background of this response is reflection on the Asian-Christian dialogue, and on the need for a clearer self-understanding that faces Christians in this dialogue. Its central idea is that Christianity is most clearly understood as an 'event,' standing out against a pre-existing background. The term 'revolution' is chosen to underline the contrast, for the sake of this clarity. The emphasis therefore is on distinctness rather than similarity and relationship, on discontinuity rather than continuity with the religious and cultural traditions which historically preceded Christianity. This exercise in contrast follows a first phase of dialogue in which the resonances and affinities were accentuated, and can lead in turn to a third stage in which a deeper integration is sought.

The Revolution proceeds through a series of seven phases, beginning with personal experiences and concluding on the scale of all humanity and the planet. The first two phases are preliminary: steps in one’s personal approach to the mystery of Christ. There follow the three central phases, which correspond to the Christ-event itself, and then to the personal rebirth or 'new creation' of baptismal initiation and to the new structure of life which follows from it. Finally there are two widening phases of consequences or implications of this central transformation. Phases I and III will be found to have particularly strong resonances with the Asian traditions. The whole sequence can be followed as a deepening and widening series of personal awakenings, but it is intended also to represent the unfolding of the objective event of Christ. Here, then, are the seven phases of the 'Revolution.'

Phase I: awakening to transcendence in the encounter with Jesus. This first spiritual awakening can take place independently of a such an encounter, or can be simultaneously a recognition of a deeper level of reality in Jesus, in oneself and in the world. Typical of the more general kind of spiritual awakening is the experience with which Bede Griffiths begins the story of his life in The Golden String (p. 9-10). Examples of spiritual awakening in an encounter with Jesus are plentiful in the gospels – for example when someone is inspired to seek healing from him, or is deeply moved by his words or miraculous actions. Nicodemus’ words to Jesus express the recognition of divine power in him: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him." (Jn 3:2) Awakening to transcendence or spiritual reality initiates a personal revolution by relativizing everything that one had previously experienced or known, opening a new depth of consciousness and a new relationship with this reality beyond the self. When the experience is deep and powerful enough to be life-changing, we have already entered the second Phase.

Phase II is a recognition of ‘the center’ in Christ. This has several levels: experiential, existential (or moral) and intellectual (or theological). One awakens to the realization that Jesus is somehow the center of reality; one finds that one’s life must be reordered to correspond to that realization; and, finally, one unfolds the implications of this centrality intellectually, along the various dimensions and levels of reality. Phases VI And VII (if understood as further stages of personal awakening) will continue this christocentric intellectual development.

The experiential recognition bursts forth again and again in the New Testament: from Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16); “Lord, to who shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:69); from Saul (to be Paul), “Lord, who are you?” (Acts 9:8). These are words that express an encounter and a turning at the center of the person; hearing or reading them we may feel the living wave of that event and tremble within. The existential effect is seen in the gospels when the first disciples leave everything behind and follow Jesus, when Zacchaeus the rich extortioner meets Jesus’ eyes and starts giving away his money, when Saul turns inside out and begins to preach the faith that he done his zealous best to extinguish.(1) The rich man who came to Jesus and then turned back sadly from Jesus’ invitation to give up his wealth and follow him (Mk 10:17-22) was unable to cross the threshold into this second phase.

Top of page

The intellectual realization(2) of the Christ-center is best seen in Paul’s letters. Planted in the ‘one thing’ which is “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2, cf 1 Cor 1:22-24), his mind awakens to a vision of heaven and earth, Jews and Gentiles, past and future – all gathered around that center.(3) The freedom, the exhilaration, the fresh breeze that blows through the New Testament – and the power of Paul’s theology – derive from this principle, from the falling into place of the true center.

The ‘center’ which is Christ is related to the metaphysical Absolute of the ‘perennial philosophy’ but profoundly differs from it; this realization leads us into the heart of the Christ event: here the word ‘revolution’ is irreplaceable. In Jesus the nondual Absolute is incarnated, becomes a physical human being. Once again, we realize that the mystery of Christ is a decisive event, emerging from the background both of primal and of Axial religious traditions. The center has become a bodily human person, and will be experienced within the human heart.

The progression through our seven phases can be arrested at any point. The christocentric intellectual revolution, when arrested, can lead to a vision which is not liberating but constricting. It can produce a ‘christomonism,’ reducing Christianity to the dimensions of a contained and containing Christ; that is, a Christ who has not been permitted to expand into his full magnitude, his full dimensionality. This is often a literalism or fundamentalism which wields the name of Christ as a blunt weapon, suppressing the dimensions of Father (or unitive depth) and of the Holy Spirit (or dynamism), insisting exclusively upon the objective image of Christ at the expense of the divinization of the person, the subjective realization of the Christ-event. The true christocentrism is a copernican revolution in which every mode of thought, every philosophical and theological structure, must give way and find its orbital relation to the Word Incarnate and to the Christ-event as the living and active center of history.

With Vatican II and the recovery of the centrality and sovereignty of the Christ mystery/event, we become newly conscious of this principle, which puts much of our theological tradition into question: e.g. the Platonic and Aristotelian structures which have often taken precedence over the central mystery.

Phase III, corresponding to baptismal initiation, is the basic personal revolution. It is a birth in God, or birth of God within oneself. The spiritual reality that was known implicity within oneself as it was recognized in Jesus, the absolute center that emerged in Jesus, is now known ‘ subjectively’ – as the divine Identity which is the ground or core of one’s personal identity.

In Christian tradition this experience has been understood as rebirth (cf Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John ch. 3: to enter the kingdom of God one must be born anew of water and the Holy Spirit) or new creation. It corresponds to the pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus in the gospels and recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters. In the light of the Asian traditions today it can be understood also as the realization of ‘nonduality’ or of ‘ Atman,’ in the sense of a nondual divine identity. This is the closest point of encounter of the Revolution with Hindu Vedanta or Buddhism or Taoism. It is also the basis of Christian contemplative experience and contemplative life.

This is a movement from mediated religion to immediacy: “God has no grandchildren.” There are texts both in the OT (e.g., Jer ch. 31:31-34; Ezek 36:25-27) and – abundantly – in the NT (especially in the Pauline and Johannine writings), that witness to this new union. What Jesus is – the Child of God in a radical ‘identity’ – we have become. This is the meaning of the central patristic affirmation: “God became a human being so that human beings might become God.”(4) This truth has been systematically forgotten in Western Christianity. Its fullness has rarely been recognized even in Eastern Christianity. It is largely our new contact with the Asian traditions that brings forth its realization today. In modern Western Christianity, this revolution strikes us with particular force because of the extreme dualism that had infected our theology and spirituality. The new identity received in baptismal initiation had practically been forgotten, and belief in the Incarnation was limited to the divine incarnation in Jesus himself. In the ‘ Augustinian’ Christianity of both Catholicism (before Vatican II) and Protestantism, the transcendence of God and the finiteness and sinfulness of humanity were emphasized to such an extent that God and the human person were conceived as almost entirely separate, related only through a bond of faith and love. It was not realized that this theological vision very nearly constitutes a reversal of the Christ-event, a reversion to the First Covenant.

Top of page

This truth of divine ‘identity’ has a particular relation to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity – though many would say that it relates more properly to the Holy Spirit. Bede Griffiths wrote again and again about the experience of the Self (Atman) and of nonduality (advaita) but did not relate this core of the Vedanta with Christian baptismal experience and identity. It was Abhishiktananda who took this step, recognizing in the baptism of Jesus, in the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel, and in Christian baptism, the presence of the same nondual Absolute that, in the tradition of the Vedanta, is experienced as Atman. The Gospel of John is centered, I believe, in the baptismal communication of the “Name” (expressed in Jesus’ selfidentification with the words ego eimi (I am) ) to the disciples, as promised in Jn 17:6.11-12.26. The words of Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son (Child); today I have begotten you,” sung in the liturgy, are to be understood as addressed not only to Jesus but to those baptized into him.

This realization establishes a new and definitive ‘interiority’ in the person. It brings about a recentering of reality in this order: God – heart – person – world. Turning around this unitive realization – the ‘pivot of identity’ – life takes on a new unity and simplicity. The multiplicity of world and experience and existence itself is brought into unity from the unitive core of the person, with which one has come into conscious relation. This new divine unity or identity – corresponding to the objective event of Incarnation – is the fundamental revolution within the human person which becomes the immanent source of the further phases of Jesus’ revolution that we shall consider. It is worthwhile to bring it to mind again and again as we proceed through these other aspects, and to reflect on the relation of each of them to this fundamental reality.

Phase IV, immediately consequent to III, is a ‘reversal’ which can be regarded from several aspects. I shall mention three of them. First, human life changes its course from an ‘ascending’ to a ‘descending’ direction. (We find that reversal often in Jesus’ teaching, and it is implicit in Paul’s exhortation in Phil 2:1-11.) Secondly, the course of life reverses as one lives no longer ‘ from outside’ but ‘from within.’ Thirdly – and this, especially, is evident on the wider cultural level – we pass from a slavish and dependent ‘old participation’ in God, in human society and in the universe, to a ‘new participation’ on these three levels which is individualized, free and creative. This third ‘reversal’ has been developed by Owen Barfield.5 Phase IV, with its reversals, is the central phase in our series, between the peak of ‘Divinization’ in III and the descending way of Embodiment in V. Divinization and Embodiment correspond to baptism and eucharist in the Christian theological system.

It is Phase IV, this radical reversal, which is most obviously a revolution. It is a reversal of resources, of ground and origin, from outside to inside. And it is a reversal of our ‘economy’ or way of relating to the world – as if we should change from takers to givers, or perhaps even revert from black hole to star. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, this appears as the liberation of the person: the movement from slavery to freedom, from law to Spirit, law to grace. In John’s First Letter, it appears as the movement from fear to love. Analogues to the fontal reversal is found on many different levels of human experience and activity: in a sudden liberation from addiction, in the new freedom and lightness that some people attain through fasting, in the breakthrough from tedious effort to “flow” in athletics or musical performance, in the transition from active prayer to ‘passive’ contemplation.

It is the transition from an exterior principle of life (e.g. the Jewish ‘law’) – from ‘ heteronomy’ – to an interior principle of life (the divine Spirit) which is one with one’s own being. This is a new autonomy which is at the same time theonomy; it is a ‘synergy,’ in the language of Eastern Christian theologians. And what is important now is not what comes into a person but what comes out of a person.(cf Lk 11:37-41). The new freedom is inseparable from a new responsibility; in receiving the divine life – or ‘grace’ – one receives the vocation and mandate to communicate it to others, to contribute to the realization of the kingdom of God. From being a ‘consumer’ one becomes a supplier, a source. The reversal is analogous to that which one experiences in growing from child to parent: from a totally dependent person who receives everything – the necessities and goods of life – from others, to a mature person who bears fruit, having become a source of life for others. At this point a contemporary application to our society might be appropriate: cf the expression ‘consumer society’ for the western nations, and the exploitation of poorer peoples which supports this affluence.

This new dynamic of life – flowing from inner depths outward to other people – can be calledfontality. It can be illustrated abundantly in the New Testament writings. See, for example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospels, and Paul’s description of his own life in 2 Cor, ch. 4. Life flows wells up within and flows forward and outward as unhesitatingly as light, with the certainty of fire, not dependent upon the quality of its reception, upon the ‘feedback,’ the gratitude or admiration or lack thereof. “Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” While apparently similar to the wu wei of Taoism, this way of existence comes into being within a theological context in which it is understood as a communication of divine life, a participation and extension of the life of Jesus.

Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20: 21-23)

Many of the paradoxes of the Gospels – for example those of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount – can be understood from the perspective of this revolution, this reversal. The ‘law of the cross’ is a corollary of this principle of fontality. It is very important to understand that Jesus’ teaching on the way of the cross (cf Mk 8:34-37) is inseparable from the new divine identity; we could say that the new divine identity and the following of Jesus are the two sides of the new oneness of the disciple with Jesus himself. These are also the two great ‘lessons’ of the New Testament, and they correspond to two successive stages of the great process of Incarnation. The way of the cross is the way toward the communication of the divine life from and through one person to others. The Johannine Jesus makes this clear when his disciples tell him that some ‘ Greeks’ have become interested in him.

And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn 12:23-24)

There immediately follows John’s version of Jesus teaching of the way of the cross that lies before his disciples as well.

The one who loves his life loses it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, that one must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor that one. (Jn 12:25- 26)

Throughout the gospels, much of the shock that is experienced by those who encounter Jesus is related to this reversal of human egoism which corresponds to the reversal of existential flow that we have been considering. Jesus teaches a way of life that is not possible until after the divine rebirth that will be opened to human beings through his own death and resurrection. Then the road of the cross begins to be illumined not only by the resurrection that lies at its end for the disciple, but by the immanent fullness of divine life that is possessed in faith – and by the intrinsic dynamism of this life, surging forward, outward and downward into the whole of humanity. Human life, with all its troubles and diminishments, takes on a final meaning in this light. It is the light that lives within the community of the Acts of the Apostlesin its struggles.

Top of page

Religion itself is transformed by this existential reversal. With the Incarnation, human life itself – lived in the ‘fontality’ which is faith, hope and love – becomes the essential worship. This had been true in Israel as well, in principle – as became progressively more clear and emphatic with the prophets’ teaching of a religion of the heart and a religion which was inseparable from social justice and care for the poor and disadvantaged. With the sacramental rebirth as a member of the body of Christ, however, the sanctification of human life is brought to a decisively new stage. If, in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of his body (after the resurrection) as the new temple, this body is constituted by his human members, by those who belong to him. Liturgical worship is a ritual expression of the ‘ontological’ worship which is the life of the ‘ whole Christ’ – a life which participates in the divine life by faith and love. Religion is no longer something superimposed upon life, once life itself has been consecrated by the immanent divine Spirit. (cf Jn 4:3-15)

The change which takes place in the flow of life in the individual person has been elegantly developed by Owen Barfield in terms of participation.(6) In his understanding, Jesus initiates “final participation.” which replaces an “original participation” of humanity in nature – and in the divine immanence which was experienced in nature. This conception of the Christevent is, I believe, faithful to Christian revelation, and deep and strong enough to support a comprehensive theological vision. Following Barfield, we can see this ‘reversal of flow’ that is Jesus’ Revolution in terms of a change from one level of participation – in God and in nature and in human society – to another. This comprehensive change can be seen in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: whether from the conditions of Gentiles or of Jews, from “the flesh” or from “the law” (“flesh” and “law” are not entirely distinct in Paul, however), it is a movement from a collective embeddedness and slavery to personal freedom and interpersonal communion.

Paul often presents the communal aspect of this new participation as an incorporation in the body of Christ. (see below, Phase V) Paul proclaims this both in speaking explicitly of the body – “You are the body of Christ.” – and in employing the expressions “in Christ,” “in him.” These terms become habitual Pauline language for expressing the new condition of the Christian. Jesus’ revolution, therefore, places us in a paradoxical new condition of 1) freedom and 2) incorporation: a profound and ‘concrete’ oneness in the body of Christ. This new freedom unfolds into creativity, – and therefore will generate a new history and a new phase of evolution.

Phase V, Embodiment, reproduces the descending path of Incarnation (see Philippians 2:1-11) in the life of an individual and in the life of a community or society. It generates a new community, the universal body of Christ. Judeo-Christian faith is inseparable from a concrete historical particularity which is repugnant to purely ‘universalist’ philosophies and religious traditions. This concrete core is constituted by a specific divine revelation, by an individual and collective relationship with the personal God of the Bible, and by the biblical ‘sacred history.’ For the Christian there is, in addition, the concrete particularity of the event of Incarnation and of the person of Jesus, which is extended in the concreteness and particularity of sacramental participation in baptism and eucharist and in the primordial ‘sacrament’ which is the church itself.(7) These concrete particulars, in their tight coherence, remain in the permanent, intensely participatory body – within and around which the developmental energies of freedom and creative fontality expand toward a human totality.

Today, Christians who have avoided the extremes of fundamentalism and rootless relativism thus find themselves mediating in an ambiguous territory between the two poles of particularity and universality. No single law or theological formula resolves the tension – spiritual, intellectual, existential – between the two principles, as their interaction continues to work itself out at the heart of life and history. From this interaction emerges, I believe, the meaning of history.

This fifth phase of Jesus’ revolution can itself be conceived in terms of two phases: an interiorizing movement from a material temple and external religion to the body of Christ, and a universalizing movement from the nation of Israel to all humanity.

i. From exterior religion and a material, constructed temple to the body of Christ and the Holy Spirit dwelling in the heart.

Israel was not by any means a merely external religion. It was a religion of the heart. But in the polarization that happens in the New Testament, the new Israel is contrasted with the old Israel as heart to exterior, as prophetic religion of the heart vs. external religion of the law, the institution. (as Bede might say, of dogma, ritual, and law. Though ‘dogma,’ in our usual sense, does not play a major role in Judaism)

We have already seen the revolution from external to internal principle of life. What we are confronted with at this point is a new, organic participation in a ‘body of Christ’ which is at once spiritual and physical, invisible and visible, eucharistic bread and human community. The connection of the ‘mystical body’ of Christ with the eucharistic body of Christ is of central importance. When this connection is lost, the Church easily becomes something like mere ‘ institution’ and spirituality becomes interiorized in an unbalanced, isolated and futile way

ii. From the nation of Israel to all Humanity.

The Revolution of Jesus is at the same time a movement inward, ‘to the center’ and to the heart, and a movement outward: from a particular race, family, tribe to all of humanity. This is very clear in the New Testament, and particularly in the life and preaching of Paul (cf Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul passim.) Paul understands the mystery of Christ itself as the enlargement of salvation from the small circle of the Jews to the totality that is all humanity. This is sometimes expressed in terms of a new unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, in the body of Christ. (cf Col 1:19-27; Eph. 2:11-22)

There is wonder and profundity in this simultaneity – or inner identity – of the inward and outward movements in Jesus’ Revolution. One way to understand the relationship is in terms of a movement to the unitive core of the person; at this ultimate depth the distinctions of the surface level of life are transcended.

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:25-28)

Barfield’s concept of participation – and its ‘reversal’ or ‘re-creation’ in Jesus – offers a good perspective from which to understand the movement from Israel to the Church: not only in its visible existence – as people of God, as institution – but in its mystical or theological reality, its inner and final being.(8)

Top of page

In the western world of today, many people become alienated from their Christian and Catholic background early in life. Often they experience so little vitality in their own religious tradition that they feel that they have to make a pilgrimage to find God. Some of them eventually return. It is a journey of two stages. The first step resembles a seeking for Initiation, for the experience of God in baptism, for the great awakening, the rebirth that is so powerfully expressed in the New Testament. First they go East, to attain an experience of 'spirit', of a reality beyond the ordinary reality they are used to - and the ordinary religious climate they grew up in. When, after some years, their hunger is still not satisfied. They begin to look West once again, and into Christianity - tentatively, cautiously. The first movement, ‘Eastward,’ is away from the past, the ordinary, the dead, and towards life, towards God, towards spirit. The second movement, ‘ Westward,’ is back from the experience of spirit, the awakening, the illumination toward Incarnation, towards a faith and a spirituality that can embrace all of humanity, all of life, that is not only spirit but heart. We can see something like this in the life of Bede Griffiths. The first movement corresponds to our phases I and III; the second movement corresponds to phases II, IV and V.

The movement of embodiment can be perceived in the history of the West – especially since about 1300 CE; we shall look at this incarnational history in our next phase. Our final two phases, VI and VII, will unfold the implications of these three pivotal phases -- III,IV, V – on the broad planes of human history and of the evolution of life on earth.

Phase VI is the unfolding of the Revolution (particularly phases II, III, IV and V) in the history of the church and of the world. The pattern can be seen particularly in the history of the West, since ‘the West’ is a culture and civilization which has largely been generated and consolidated by Christianity itself. Further, the West occupies the intermediate historical position between the Christ event and the emergence of a ‘global humanity’ in the postmodern age; this position has a pivotal theological significance. The historical effects of the Revolution come about through 1) a new creative freedom of the individual person, and 2) a new center and whole of embodiment – the ‘body of Christ.’ This body of Christ, ultimately, corresponds to the whole of humanity brought into unity.

i. Autonomy, freedom, creativity and historical progress.

In the western world – most obviously during the past five centuries – we can observe a new dynamism in human history, an ascending course of human progress. There is evident a new flourishing of rationality and personal freedom and, during the past couple of centuries, a new consciousness of progress itself. On the most visible level we find a widespread improvement of the standard of living, a broadening of education and of democratic political participation. All of this remains evident despite local and temporary setbacks and notorious regressions. From a thisworldly historical perspective, humanity seems gradually to awaken from a kind of cyclical dreaming existence and a passive relationship with nature, to an active collective posture and a progressive history. In this cumulative process, something – slowly and painfully – is being constructed. History has taken on a new dynamism and directionality – though the direction may remain a matter of debate. Today this ascent often looks negative, especially to the ‘postmodern’ eye. The shadow of the aggressively ascending West – with its colonial exploitation, its world wars and its ecological irresponsibility – sometimes nearly eclipses the benefits that it has brought to the world.

This ascending and individualizing component of western history, from about 1100 CE, can be described as a ‘western Axial’ movement, in the same direction as the Axial movement of the first millennium BCE which was identified of Karl Jaspers.(9) The human person emerges from its collective background, awakening to a new autonomy which is first experienced in the realms of spirituality, of subjective feeling and of rational thought.

This sense of individual identity, as distinct from the tribe and from nature, is the most characteristic mark of Axial consciousness. From this flow other characteristics: consciousness that is self-reflective, analytic . . . . This self-reflective, analytic, critical consciousness stood in sharp contrast to primal mythic and ritualistic consciousness.(10)

ii. Incorporation, Incarnation.

This western Axial time of Christian Europe, however, is characterized also by a descendinghistorical movement. I believe that we can discern an incarnational dynamism at work in the history of the West – and an incarnational ‘descent’ of the West with respect to the rest of the world. This, too, often seems negative: an abandonment of the high old values, the contemplative wisdom or the aristocratic culture of an earlier age. We can understand the movement theologically, however, as a progressive unfolding of the revolution – the event of Christ – in which the gifts infused into a limited part of humanity – say the Christian and then the postchristian secular West – are diffused through the whole body.

The eclipse of a wisdom theology by Scholastic rationality in the medieval West and the subsequent eclipse of metaphysics by empiricist rationalism are typical phenomena of this descending history of the second millennium. Theology has moved from the high spiritual and intellectual plane of its Platonist philosophical sources through the more this-worldly Aristotelian rationality of Scholasticism to the secular theology of our time. Theological attention has recently descended from the divinity to the humanity of Jesus; biblical interpretation in recent centuries has descended from spiritual and symbolic/allegorical to historical-critical exegesis. Serious literature has broken free of the limitation of its subject matter to the doings of noble heroes and heroines to to deal with ordinary people and ordinary lives.(11) The descent can be observed in every area of western civilization and culture, even in the series of European political revolutions that have punctuated the last thousand years.(12)

Top of page

In modern western Christianity there appears an “affirmation of ordinary life”(13) which was not to be found in the earlier tradition. Western spirituality, in the course of the centuries, has largely descended from contemplation to action; contemplative monastic life has yielded its predominance to religious life in the world, to secular institutes and (in theory at least, following Vatican II) to the empowerment of the laity. The liturgy has descended from the high sacral and clerical Latin to the vernacular languages, even in the Roman Catholic Church, and the celebration of the eucharist, in the time of Vatican II, has begun to descend once again into the midst of the people. Taking a fresh look back over this whole development since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries we may be inclined to see the eclipse of the Old Wisdom and the religious culture that was its matrix as the beginning of a long process of embodiment, analogous to the Incarnation of divine Wisdom.

* * *

I have already spoken of the ‘western Axial movement’: the long renaissance that began in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of our era as the individual person emerged from its collective religious and cultural background. The person experienced a new autonomy, which became most evident in the sphere of reason and of critical reflection. This revolution, still within the matrix of Catholic Christianity, was the beginning of what we know as the modern West, which has more recently evolved into a predominantly secular culture. I believe that there is a constitutive relation between these two unique phenomena in the history of humanity: 1) the event of Christ, and 2) the prominence of the West in world history during the past five hundred years. Let us, for a moment, think of the two millennia of western history since the time of Christ as a single period, divided into two great phases. Continuing with this same generality, let us call the first thousand years the age of unity, and the second thousand years the age of autonomy. During the first phase – in which Christianity becomes almost the exclusive religion of the West and the church gradually becomes the central unifying factor in European society – collective consciousness predominates. During the second thousand years, this collective consciousness of Christendom gives way before the emergence of the individual and then before the successive partitions which fragment the western world, and the emergence of a secular and individualistic modern western culture.

The whole of this two-thousand-year historical movement can be understood as the unfolding of the Christ-event of in the ‘birth’ or emergence of the human person. In the first phase, unity predominates and everything is held together in a common faith and a common ecclesial institution. In the second great phase – our ‘western Axial time’ – differentiation and autonomy become dominant, and divine potentialities are realized within the human person. As this phase progresses into modernity, one may speak of a ‘secular incarnation’ of the divine gift, a cascading of the grace of new divine birth downward onto the levels of cultural, scientific, technological and social creativity.(14) In the phase of unity the human person can be imagined as inclining back toward the transcendent and undetermined Source, while in the phase of autonomy the person leans forward toward its own individuation and realization in this world, and toward a humanization of the material world itself.

Our western Axial time, as we have seen, is distinguished by an ascending movement of individuation which parallels that of Karl Jaspers’ original Axial Period, in which personal consciousness emerged out of the matrix of collective consciousness. Ewert Cousins has written of a “Second Axial Period,” dawning in our present time, which is characterized by the emergence of a new global consciousness which recovers and further develops the dimensions of participation – in human community and in nature – that were sacrificed in the original Axial emergence. Thus the new consciousness, according to Cousins, is global both “horizontally” and “ vertically.”

Having developed self-reflective, analytic, critical consciousness in the First Axial Period, we must now, while retaining these values, reappropriate and integrate into that consciousness the collective and cosmic dimensions of the pre-Axial consciousness. We must recapture the unity of tribal consciousness by seeing humanity as a single tribe. And we must see this single tribe related organically to the total cosmos.(15)

Top of page

The historical unfolding of Jesus’ Revolution can be understood in the framework supplied by this scheme of a First and Second Axial Period. Imagining the Christ-event as situated historically between the emergence of personal consciousness (First Axial) and the emergence of global consciousness (Second Axial), we can see how the Revolution ‘transforms’ both of these movements; or, better, how the personal awakening is assumed into baptismal rebirth and how a twofold global consciousness is initiated in the eucharistic paschal mystery of Jesus. The same two movements – ascending and descending, awakening and embodiment – appear in the history of the West as the Revolution of Jesus unfolds in the ‘western Axial movement’ that I have described.

Phase VII is a final ‘concentric circle’ in which the Revolution of Jesus is manifest not only on the scale of human history but on the scale of the evolution of the universe. This perspective draws on the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Ewert Cousins.(16) As we have seen with human history (in Phase VI), the Revolution influences the path of evolution through these two factors: 1) a new creative freedom of the individual person (and consequently of humanity as a whole, giving rise to a new creative center within evolution itself), and 2) a new concrete center and whole of embodiment – the ‘body of Christ.’

How, then, does the Christ-event affect the evolutionary trajectory?

1) Firstly and most generally, Jesus enters the evolutionary trajectory ‘omnem novitatem portans: bringing all newness in himself, bringing the needed transformation, the consummation awaited by a dying (though ever evolving) world. This is the significance of the event of Christ as it bursts forth in the world of Jews and Gentiles, and the appearance of Jesus Christ in the story of evolution must be an event of the same magnitude and power. He brings in himself a ‘new creation.’ This newness itself provokes resistance, precipitates a crisis, brings about a moment of decision; the conflict pervades the entire New Testament. The newness of Jesus initiates a continuing drama and dialectic in the history of the world; human life and history take on a new theological intensity.

2) Secondly, I believe that the event of Christ brings a new directionality into evolution, at its culmination in the human person. In humanity, the vertical path of earthly evolution reaches its conclusion, as a bud and blossom terminate a stem. At this point, God newly enters into the evolutionary process in Jesus Christ, further ‘rounding off’ the ascending trajectory through a new incarnational dynamic which moves laterally (and even, in a way, downward) rather than upward. This view conflicts with theories in which consciousness (in the human person) continues toevolve to higher and higher stages, finally attaining a nondual divine level. From a Christian perspective, this ultimate consciousness is contained in the gift of baptismal initiation (cf 1 Cor 2:9-16). We have already observed such a change in direction of the movement of life from an ascent to a lateral or descending movement, in our consideration of Jesus’ revolution in history (Phase VI). The event of Christ thus appears as an apex or ‘crest’ of the figure of history and of evolution, as does full awakening and empowerment in the life of an individual person. In the widening incarnational descent, all things are gathered into Christ.

3) Thirdly, a power of newness (a participation in the intrinsic ‘newness’ of Jesus himself) comes into the human person, into the heart and mind: a new creativity that is divine and human at once. As we have seen (in Phase VI), this new power generates a new history. Christ brings a ‘new heart’ to humanity, both on the individual and on the collective plane. As Teilhard points out, humanity thus becomes a new ‘creative center’ within the evolutionary process, in such a way that the path of this evolution changes. The revolution “from cosmos to cosmogenesis” takes place under the influence of a divine creative power which has been infused into humanity.

4) Finally, Christ becomes the concrete focal point or Omega of a new ‘centration,’ a lateral convergence (in Teilhard’s language, socialization or planetization ). This new centripetal movement corresponds to the rounding-off of evolution in the emergence of the human person and in the Christ-event, mentioned above. With Bede Griffiths, we can envision the ‘whole Christ’ or the comprehensive ‘body of Christ’ as the final terminus of evolution.(17)

* * *

Because of the radical christocentricity of this approach, it may be seem one more expression of Christian and western arrogance. The whole ‘Revolution’ can be found in the New Testament, however. It is simply the unfolding of the event of Incarnation. Its principles are all present – most of them quite explicitly – in the Pauline letters. Its core is the divine-human ‘ newness’ that appears in Jesus. Ultimately a ‘strong’ Christian theology must be brought forward to the dialogue with the East, if the encounter is to be truly generative.

_______________________________

Notes:

1. Paul’s personal existential revolution is powerfully expressed in Phil 3:7-14.
2. This intellectual awakening to the Christ-center is developed further in “The Noonday of East and West” on this Wisdom Christianity page. Another christocentric view of the relationship of the Asian traditions and the Judeo-Christian tradition sees Jesus at the intersection of biblical‘ history’ and Asian ‘identity’ (nonduality), or of ‘prophecy’ and ‘wisdom’ (John Martin: see“ Father Bede – a Sage and a Prophet” in The Golden String, May 2003, p. 7-8)
3.cf Col 1:15-20; Eph 1:9-10,2:11-22.
4. This affirmation or its equivalent is found throughout the writings of the church fathers: e.g. in Irenaeus, in Athanasius, in Augustine. It was central to their defense against the heretical movements that denied the divinity of the Word or of the Holy Spirit.
5. See Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
6. Barfield, Saving the Appearances.
7. This conception of Christ and of the church as the primary sacraments has been revived in the documents of the Second Vatican Council: cf the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, n. 1,
8. Cf “The Myth of the Church” in Bede Griffiths’s The Marriage of East and West, p. 192-204.
9. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, cf Ewert Cousins, Christ of the 21st Century, p. 4-7.
10. Cousins, ibid, p. 6.
11. Cf Erich Auerbach, Mimesis.
12. See Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: The Autobiography of Western Man.
13. The phrase is that of Charles Taylor, in Sources of the Self.
14.This progression corresponds approximately to the movement from the “Ideational” to the“ Sensate’ culture of Pitirim Sorokin. See his Social and Cultural Dynamics, one volume edition, 1957, p. 20-39.
15. Cousins, ibid, p. 10.
16. See particularly Teilhard de Chardin’s The Future of Man, and Ewert Cousins’ Christ of the 21st Century.
17. See A New Vision of Reality, p. 273.