Inner Life

'Word made flesh' transformative for all creation

By Deborah Guess

July 14 2016

In the unique incarnation of God in Jesus, God embraces the whole community of life on earth.” This environmentally significant message was conveyed by the Revd Professor Denis Edwards, the keynote speaker at a three-day symposium Care for All that Exists: A Symposium on Creation Spirituality held at the Carmelite Centre, Middle Park, Melbourne from 26-28 May. According to the event’s organiser, Philip Harvey, the aim of the symposium was to explore new ideas and ancient wisdom in relation to creation spirituality.

Professor Edwards, who teaches at the Australian Catholic University, Adelaide, chose as his topic “Deep Incarnation: The Meaning of Incarnation for the Natural World.” He began by saying that for many of us who are Christians the central event of the year takes place at Easter with the lighting the paschal candle which is the symbol of the risen Christ. As light spreads throughout the Church, he said, we listen to the story of creation and salvation illuminated by the light of the crucified and risen Christ, and this reminds us that Christian theology involves seeing creation from the perspective of Christ.

Tracing the history of ecological theology, Professor Edwards said that in reaction to what has often been an over-emphasis on redemption in the church, early ecotheology focused almost entirely on creation theology, with little or no space given to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This has been a problem, he said, because a genuine Christian theology needs to be related to both creation and incarnation. In more recent times, according to Professor Edwards, ecological theologians have more closely connected creation with incarnation: they are now certain that we cannot give an account of creation without speaking of the Incarnation of the Word which is both a completely unique event and is also an event which includes the whole interconnected biological and physical world.

Professor Edwards said that the notion of ‘deep incarnation’ originated with Lutheran theologian Niels Gregersen and has been taken up by thinkers such as Elizabeth Johnson and Celia Deane-Drummond. The essential idea of deep incarnation, he explained, is that the incarnation of God in Christ can be understood as radical or ‘deep’ because it is an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence. Professor Edwards went on to explain that this does not mean that God is incarnate in the things of the world in the same way that God is incarnate in Christ, as this would reduce incarnation to creation. Rather, he said, it is the case that the unparalleled event of the Incarnation (understood as Jesus’ life, death and resurrection), uniquely relates God not only to all humanity but also unites the Word to all biological and material reality in its evolutionary nature. In the light of modern science, Professor Edwards said, we now understand that, like each one of us, Jesus can be seen as truly made from stardust, with a biological ancestry stretching back to the first animals, even to the first microbes. Knowledge of the common evolutionary history of all creatures can be theologically understood to mean, Professor Edwards said, that the whole creation participates in the resurrection of Jesus Christ – the living God creates and cares for all creatures, even in their suffering and dying. These creatures, he said, are part of the flesh of the world, and the Word of God became united with that flesh in the incarnation. Therefore the death and resurrection of Jesus offers hope for the redemption of all flesh and the significance of this, Professor Edwards said, is that although there is a radical distinction between God and world, there is a divine self-giving which is the core of the world’s reality as God commits Godself to this universe.

Professor Edwards went on to say that the particularity of the Incarnation reveals to us that particularity and diversity are infinitely precious, not only in Jesus but in all the features of the natural world such as the flowering eucalyptus. Reflecting on the incarnation in light of our ecological context, he explained that it can help us to have a renewed appreciation that God is with all living things – that God is always a God of flesh and matter who binds Godself to matter for all eternity. The idea of deep incarnation is significant to our ecological context according to Professor Edwards because it questions the tendency, which has been especially prevalent since the time of the reformation, to leave creation out of the picture and tells us instead that the natural world is precious to God, that ecosystems have intrinsic value. This means, he concluded, that we should take seriously Jesus’ claim that no one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight, because God is revealed as infinitely relational and creatively present with every creature in its specificity.

Dr Deborah Guess is the Honorary Postdoctoral Associate, University of Divinity.