Jo Marchant’s fourth chapter in her book The Human Cosmos is entitled Faith. Into her story about our human relationship with the Cosmos, in particular with the skies and the heavens, she introduces in this chapter the experience of the Hebrews and the extension of this into the early Christian Church. This marks a big shift away from a sense of oneness with the Cosmos, as in the Paleolithic, to beginning to stand over and against the environment and the Cosmos. The key event is the ‘conversion’ of Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE.
What happened to Constantine that day, described by ancient authors such as Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, has acquired legendary status as one of history’s great turning points. 63
We left our story at the end of the last presentation with the thought that by the time of Christ there were three broad ways we humans looked at the heavens and hence the Cosmos, at least within the ancient near east. In the first way, we saw the heavens as the home of the gods who also inhabited our world in the form of idols and images. They were the primary focus of human community. The gods, often associated with stars or constellations, held sway by portents in the heavens and signs in the entrails, and the demand of such things as sacrifice, initially human and later animal. The gods and the heavens could be both benevolent and malevolent; all a matter of holding the community together, carrot and stick. Later this sort of relationship became individualised and personalised in various forms of astrology.
The heavens and the Cosmos held sway and were to be submitted to.
Most early societies worshipped the sky in some form, or associated their gods with celestial bodies. There are earthly gods too, of course, representing everything from animals and ancestors to rivers and crops. But the vast majority of religions – from all periods of history, anywhere in the world – have a prominent role for celestial beings. The very word ‘deity’ derives from a root that means ‘shining in the sky’.65
The second way emerged late in the peace when Babylonian mathematics joined Greek theoretical contemplation and astronomy was born. This way began seeing the heavens and the Cosmos through human understanding, and using that understanding to our advantage. The heavens and the Cosmos were beginning to be stripped of their gods and made subject to human thought, the start of the great journey leading eventually to modern science.
The third way is characterised by Abraham who in looking at the countless stars of the heavens heard a voice within promising to give him more descendants than all those stars. He believed the voice and so was born the invisible god of the Hebrews, known initially as the god of Abraham and later as YHWH or Yahweh which means ‘I Am’. Here there is a sense not of submitting to or of controlling through understanding but of relationship, symbolised in the idea of ‘covenant’.
All nations claimed that their own chief god was supreme, but this new deity was different. Unlike the Greek Zeus, say, who despite being the most powerful god in the universe still faced limits to his actions and could be thwarted by other gods, Yahweh was transcendent: not within the cosmos but above it, and no longer bound by its rules. According to Eliade, this ‘notion of God’s “power” as the only absolute reality’ was ‘the jumping-off point for all later mystical thought and speculation on the freedom of man’. 66
In general terms this mix has come down to our own time. And it was a mix. The power of the heavens continued strongly into the early Christian period. A favourite question for theological students has been, ‘Was Constantine really Christian? Was it a real conversion before the Battle of Milvian Bridge?’ Jo Marchant believes, with good evidence, that Constantine was a clever politician and played Christ off against the sun god Sol right up to his eventual baptism on his death bed. It ‘was a political master-stroke’ that ‘provided the bridge he needed to link sky worship with Christianity, allowing both pagans and Christians in his empire to unite behind one ruler and one supreme solar god’. 71.
Christ’s life became intimately identified with the annual cycle of the sun; his birth is still celebrated just after the winter solstice, when the sun begins to rise towards the spring, and his return from the dead just after the spring equinox, when the sun finally triumphs over darkness and the days last longer than the nights. Other Christian imagery reinforced the metaphor. As early as the first century, the twelve Apostles were widely regarded as representing the twelve signs of the zodiac, through which the sun passes in the sky. 71
It seems clear that Constantine wanted himself to be identified with Christ, at least in the minds of his subjects, according to Marchant. The reverse would also have applied, namely that Christ would be identified as an Emperor. This is a long way from a village carpenter turned itinerant teacher and preacher. But the movement Jesus had begun had already left the village carpenter behind. Even within the New Testament period, the focus is shifting from Jesus the man full of the Holy Spirit, to Christ the God who descended from Heaven. By the time of Constantine how he fitted in with God the Father was the burning question, and one Constantine was determined to have settled. He needed the unity of the Church to enable the unity of his Empire. Hence he called the Council of Nicaea in 325.
But as far as our theme is concerned, there is a much more pressing idea influencing the way people were thinking. The Church was continuing the Hebrew and Jewish idea that God, be he called Yahweh or Father, completely transcended the Cosmos. He stood over and against it. He had in fact created it out of Nothing, the doctrine known as creatio ex nihilo. Here was a whole new idea of Being that required no necessary connection with the Cosmos. The statement ‘I am’ had taken on a radical new interpretation of what existence is; God, the ‘I Am’ could be entirely separate from the Cosmos. But we can say ‘I am’. Does that mean we are able to think of ourselves as entirely separate from the Cosmos in our essence as well? In terms of our sense of existence, this shift did eventually occur culturally in the famous dictum of the philosopher Rene Descartes, “ I think, therefore I am”; our existence as a thinking substance is certain apart from the world and the Cosmos. The final twist in this very important story is that when scientific cosmologists decided the Universe or Multiverse began with a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the institutional Church saw this as an affirmation of creatio ex nihilo. But for modern science it was creation without God.
As it happens this separation of the self from the Cosmos had already been mooted by the leading theologian of this early period, Augustine of Hippo, about a thousand years before Descartes. There are similarities between St. Augustine’s “Si fallor, sum” (If I am mistaken, I am) – and Rene’s “Cogito, ergo sum”, and when this was pointed out to Descartes he fully acknowledged it. And it was Augustine who strongly pushed the idea of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing.
The fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo cemented the mainstream Christian view. He had huge respect for Plato: ‘None come nearer to us [Christians] than the Platonists,’ he writes. But he dismissed the idea of a cosmos infused with God’s soul. ‘Who cannot see what impious and irreligious consequences follow, such as that whatever one may trample, he must trample a part of God, and in slaying any living creature, a part of God must be slaughtered?’ In effect, says Campion, Augustine ‘rejected the notion of the universe as a living creature . . . Instead, some parts of the world were no longer alive and were distinguished from those that were.’ 80
The idea that the Cosmos had been created by the One God emerged in Hebrew thought clearly for the first time in the writings of Second Isaiah, the unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile, 500 years before Christ. The final redaction of the Book of Genesis took place around the same time, and it is not clear whether creation was out of nothing or fabricated out of existing material; ‘Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters’ (verse 2).
Within the Greek world Plato was the first to definitely enunciate the idea of a creator, but Plato’s creator existed within the universe, fashioning the celestial spheres from the material he had available. ‘Out of disorder he brought order,’ Plato wrote in Timaeus, shaping a world that was ‘as far as possible a perfect whole and of perfect parts’. But within early Christian thought, as made clear in Augustine, that God had created everything entirely from nothing became official doctrine.
It’s a belief that allows for an all-powerful God, unlimited by the universe’s existing rules or resources. But that’s not all. It also has profound consequences for the cosmos itself. Plato’s cosmos was a living, intelligent creature, divine in its own right, with its own soul that spread through all of reality. Consequently everything within the universe shared in that soul: from animals and people, with our mortal bodies, to the stars, which Plato described as ‘divine and eternal animals’. 80
The effect of this idea on the human sense of relationship with the Cosmos is profound, something we will continue to explore. Marchant put it this way:
[Constantine’s] conversion marks the moment, for western civilisation at least, when humanity rejected the cosmos as a divine, living being, as all that there was. Instead, it became merely the product of a separate creator. Where once humanity’s fate was determined by the movements of the celestial bodies, and the stars gave home to the gods, now we were no longer at the centre of a universe that encompassed everything. It was possible to imagine stepping outside it and looking down. Our religious beliefs remain steeped with the influences of the sun, moon and stars. But one more tie with the cosmos was cut. 81
At the popular level it was not until James Lovelock’s idea of ‘Gaia’ gained attention in our own time that western human thought again entertained the Cosmos as something more than formed inert matter. At least some of us now can imagine to some extent being immersed in a creation, a Nature, that is as much mind as matter, if not essentially mind. Philosophically the triumph of matter had been challenged from the beginning of the modern period. It is inherent in Descartes philosophy; but technology, science and positivist philosophy has as yet trumped it, and the Christian creatio ex nihilo is seen as an important factor in that triumph.
The effect on Christian theology has also been important. Making the link between the entirely separate God and his creation is the incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity. God connected with the material universe by sending his Son to dwell in it. This may be a lot more link with creation than the monotheism of either Judaism or Islam. But it does put the primary focus on the second person of the Holy Trinity and that Jesus existed eternally before he was born. This idea is now so embedded in traditional Christianity that its strangeness is not even seen let alone questioned.
The one serious philosophical attempt from within Christianity to question the radical separation of God from Creation, from the Cosmos, was the philosophy of Hegel, who for the first time in the history of Christian thought took the Spirit as something central and far more than a ‘value add’ to believing in Jesus. The institutional church has struggled with the Spirit; enthusiasm is threatening and dangerous. Hegel however made the unfolding of Spirit into creation the central idea of his thought. He may have not got it all right, but the attempt is fundamentally important for the theme of Preparing for Parousia. Hegel has been largely ignored by the church and popular Christianity; others of us think there is something there that needs to be fully explored, including scientists such as David Bohm. The future of our little planet and our self understanding as its inhabitants may depend on re-finding a sense of real Presence in our world and Cosmos.