Last week, the Diocese of Oxford posted a video, the first in a planned series of four, in which Olivia Graham, the recently-appointed bishop of Reading, gave a short theological introduction to the reasons why Christians should be concerned about the environment. In it, I think she said some unusual and (it turned out controversial) things:
2.48 The incarnation isn’t a single birth, but it began 14 billion years ago with an event we call the Big Bang. At that moment, God poured Godself into the emerging universe…every particle of it charged with the incarnate presence of God. The whole earth, then, is God’s body, the whole cosmos is incarnational…
3.22 Creation and incarnation are not two separate events, but one process of God’s self-giving and self communication.
4.22 All that happens is sustained and sanctified; every act of evolving nature is an act of God, because every act of nature’s growth is the energy of divine love. Evolution is not only of God, but is God incarnate.
5.00 Can there be any separation between the sacred and the profane?
5.16 Father, we praise you with all your creatures…they are filled with your presence and your tender love.
5.41 Today you [Jesus] are alive in every creature in your risen glory.
I wasn’t really surprised that there was a reaction to this, since anyone who knows a bit of biblical theology will have spluttered into their tea cups. Simply put, it is a central affirmation of Scripture, and of all orthodox theology in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that God is distinct from God’s creation, and should not be confused with it—in striking contrast to a whole range of other religious traditions. The term ‘incarnation’ does indeed mean ‘taking on flesh’, and by implication means that that which is incarnated was not previously embodied. This both means that the incarnation, the coming of the Word of God in human form, was a unique event, is theologically surprising (since God does not have a body), and that it is also something we bodily humans cannot do; our mission can never be ‘incarnational’, since (unlike God) we are have never been unbodied—even if our mission engagement is contextual and takes the form of concrete actions (which are much more helpful terms).
The idea that every act of creation is an act of God is bizarre—are the slaughter of one creature by another, and the previous mass extinctions, all acts of God? I think Stephen Fry’s position, that these are a source of offence to the idea of a loving God, is much more persuasive! Yes, there can be a separation of the sacred and profane; the only time when this separation is finally ended is when heaven comes down to earth in the New Jerusalem at the end of this age. No, all God’s creatures are not filled with God’s presence; if so, then there is no need for redemption. And Jesus is not yet alive in every creature—if so, then we would have nothing to proclaim.
(I also would want to take issue with other, more minor points. Environmental disaster is less a catastrophe for the earth (0.28), which will surely recover if humanity becomes extinct; it is primarily a catastrophe for us. Environmental concern might be important, but it is not ‘absolutely central to our Christian discipleship’ (1.20). I don’t think, amongst commentators, there is any serious claim that ‘dominion’ in creation permits us to exploit the earth (1.47). Stepping outside orthodox belief doesn’t merit the epithet ‘to go more broadly and deeper’ (2.05). No, we do not know the story of the incarnation too well (2.40); most in our culture now don’t know it at all. And Mary is not our mother (5.35). Though it sounds clumsy, I don’t actually have a problem with avoiding the male personal pronoun for God, for these reasons.)
Many of the reactions on social media took the form of rather personal attacks on Olivia, and some talked about her comments as ‘heresy’, neither of which I think are particularly helpful, and probably illustrate the way in which social media amplifies our emotional responses and reactions to things. It is sobering to note that, in a previous era, most of would probably never have heard about what a suffragan bishop said within his diocese, since there would have been no way of knowing. But now episcopal comment, even if whispered in the corner of a diocese, gets proclaimed from the rooftops of social media.
(It is worth adding that, following the reaction, the diocese issued a ‘helpful clarification‘ with an additional comment from Olivia. It opens with the comment:
Pantheism is defined as a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God
which does suggest that the idea that ‘the creation is God’s body’ is indeed pantheistic. Olivia adds an important clarification:
The event of the Incarnation of Christ, at a moment in time and in a place on Earth was unique, unrepeatable and salvic [she means salvific]. Through this event, as Colossians 1 puts it, we see in Christ, not only the image of the invisible God, but the fulness of God, and the whole of the created world has access to ultimate reconciliation with God… I can see that the words I used had a pantheistic ring to them, which I did not intend (God and creation are not the same thing). But I think that it is helpful, in considering our relationship to our world to think about the notion that the Divine pervades every part of the universe, while clearly being above, beyond and greater than the universe.
This is helpful as far as it goes, but the problems in the original video remain, and if she didn’t mean to sound pantheistic, then the video really needs to be withdrawn.)
I am also aware that Olivia has been well received by many in the diocese, who have been encouraged that she has wanted to promote the question of the environment as a theological issue. If you look further down the resources page, you will find links to excellent material, including a number of works by Richard Bauckham, books by Ruth Valerio, and works by Martin and Margot Hodson—including some Grove booklets! All good stuff.
But there are two issues that need some reflection: first, the theological issue, and second, the question of what we want our bishops to do.
On the question of theology, I do think there are some serious issues here, and that the key things Olivia said that I highlighted are clearly outside orthodox Christian belief, and in particular outside the doctrine of the Church of England. Roger Olson, in his broad and accessible text The Mosaic of Christian Belief, uses the language of the ‘Great Tradition’ and talks of the issues around each theological issue, the boundaries of the Great Tradition and diversity within it, but also identifies beliefs that are outside the boundaries of that tradition—and the idea of creation being the ‘body’ of God into which God has poured Godself is clearly outside it.
In his shorter and more recent The Essentials of Christian Thought, Olson explains, in two different sections in the book, the problem with this view. In chapter 6, ‘The Biblical-Christian Perspective on the World’, he notes two major alternatives to a Christian understanding as dualism and monism.
Alternative Metaphysical Visions of the World: Monisms
Monism’s idea of the world deifies it confusing the world—creation—with God or the absolute. Tresmontant rightly asserted that for both Judaism and Christianity, based on the Bible’s story of God and creation, the “absolute,” ultimate reality, is not the world; it is not creation but the one who created. And creation is the free act of a personal creator who acted out of his own goodness. And the free, good creator created the world, the universe, out of nothing (“ex nihilo”). The metaphysical structure of the Bible is duality without dualism. The world is not God; God is not the world. And yet they are intimately related as creator to creation by God’s grace, power, and self-limiting vulnerability—allowing the world to affect him.
Monism of all varieties, whether Indian (Advaita Vedanta) or Western (Spinoza’s speculative pantheism), opens the door to completely unbiblical and anti-Christian idolatry of creation. The apostle Paul identified this as near the source of all sin and evil in Romans 1: worshiping the creation rather than the Creator… (p 182)
Alternative Metaphysical Visions of the World: Absolute Idealism
German idealism viewed God as the “Mind” of the universe and emphasized God’s immanence in the world as its Absolute Spirit marching toward total harmony through the resolutions of history’s conflicts (Hegel). Its trajectory was panentheism if not pantheism. Hegel, the ultimate German idealist philosopher of religion, declared that “without a world God is not God.” In other words, the world is necessary for God’s self-actualization; God depends on the world as much as the world depends on God. Whitehead, the formulator of process thought, agreed, even though he was not a German idealist. For him, as for Hegel, the world and God exist always interdependently. “It is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God.” Panentheism, whether of the Hegelian or Whiteheadian variety, falls into conflict with the biblical-Christian metaphysic because it turns God’s relationality into dependence on the world and elevates the world to an undeserved status as more than God’s creation. In panentheism, God does not create the world ex nihilo, out of nothing, but strives fashion the world, his counterpart, into his ideal of harmony.
All of those extrabiblical views of the world exist in the twenty-first century and through various media seep into Christians’ thinking about reality. One way to resist them is to know and understand the biblical view of the world which is, again, that the world is God’s good but corrupted creation, dependent on God not only for its beginning but also for its fulfillment.
In his earlier chapter, ‘Non-Biblical, Non-Christian Views of Reality’, Olson has offered an overview of different forms of monism. One arises from Eastern religious, which a different form comes from German idealism, but they have something in common:
All deny the fixed gulf evident in biblical revelation between God and creation. All over-emphasize the biblical idea of God as immanent—present with his creation—to the point of letting go of God’s holy transcendence. They also all implicitly if not explicitly deny the biblical idea of creation—especially creation out of nothing—an idea implicit in the Bible and drawn out explicitly by the early church fathers in contrast to Greek metaphysics. All monisms have the tendency to deify humanity by asserting an underlying oneness between ultimate reality and the human soul or mind.
And yet, in spite of the stark contrast between monism of all kinds and the biblical-Christian metaphysic, various monistic philosophies have worked their way into Christian thought—both popular and scholarly. But this is syncretism at its worst and to be avoided and corrected wherever it rears its ugly head in churches and church-related institutions (p 117).
This serves to highlight the issues at stake here. Not only does the kind of monistic approach to the world which describes the world as God’s body distort our understanding of creation, and fails to see it as both good and fallen, it also distorts our understanding of atonement, and ends up with a thinly veiled universalism. If God is already in everything, and if ‘Jesus is alive in all of your creatures’, then people do not need saving, they merely need enlightening, so that they might realise what has always been true in them.
I would like to think that Olivia picked up these erroneous ideas from reading too much Spinoza, Hegel or Whitehead; alas, I fear the explanation is rather simpler. Richard Rohr, in one of his daily devotions (which seem very popular in the C of E just now) comments:
The first Incarnation was the moment described in Genesis 1, when God joined in unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. —John 1:1-5 We aim to see as God sees. Light is not so much what you directly see as that by which you see everything else. This is why in John’s Gospel, Jesus Christ makes the almost boastful statement, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12).
I believe God loves things by becoming them. God loves things by uniting with them, not by excluding them. Through the act of creation, God manifested the eternally out-flowing Divine Presence into the physical and material world. Ordinary matter is the hiding place for Spirit and thus the very Body of God. Honestly, what else could it be, if we believe—as orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims do—that “one God created all things”? Since the very beginning of time, God’s Spirit has been revealing its glory and goodness through the physical creation. So many of the Psalms assert this, speaking of “rivers clapping their hands” and “mountains singing for joy.” When Paul wrote, “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11), was he a naïve pantheist or did he really understand the full implication of the Gospel of Incarnation? God seems to have chosen to manifest the invisible in what we call the “visible,” so that all things visible are the revelation of God’s endlessly diffusive spiritual energy. Once a person recognizes that, it is hard to ever be lonely in this world again.
As I have highlighted previously, Rohr’s thought is marked by three things: a careless quoting of Scripture, making it mean whatever he appears to want it to mean within his argument; the blithe assumption that the texts obviously support his view, and how could anyone be so foolish as to not see this; a complete ignorance of alternative views, questions, and the very well developed history of thought in this area. It is striking to me that, as we have let go of core, historic, theological disciplines in our training for both lay and ordained ministry, the ideas of people like Rohr have spread far and wide within the C of E.
This then leads on to my second question: what do we think our bishops are for, and therefore how do we train and select them? For some commentators, this might be the moment when they noted that Olivia trained part-time on a course, and has a Certificate in Theology, and might then ask a question about whether that is adequate ordination training. Were I to do that, all those who have trained on courses would leap stoutly to her defence; a golden rule of all discussions about ordination training is that we are all convinced that the way we were trained is the best way!
I had the privilege of full-time training over three years, and my ordination training did have some useful and unusual content that might not appear in other syllabuses. As part of a collaboration between my college and the University of Nottingham, my first two years were spent in the university department, cramming the undergraduate degree into two years, with seminars and supplementary teaching in the college. That meant I was able to do courses in Modern Theology, looking at developments over the last 200 years, as well as a dedicated module on Philosophy and Phenomenology, which was, intellectually, one of the most useful things I studied. I am not sure I would argue that this is essential for every ordinand—but it provided the kind of foundation that is needed to understand some of the large intellectual movements in our culture, and quickly spot problems with the kind of monism that pops up thanks to Rohr. (Alternatively, we could just ask everyone to read Roger Olson!) If we now cannot afford this kind of training, or need people to part-fund it themselves, then at least we ought to be honest about that.
However, initial, pre-ordination training is not the only issue here. Olivia Graham trained in the 1990s; she has been ordained more than 20 years, has been in parish ministry for 15 of those, and has been an archdeacon. There has been plenty of time for further study! So this raises a question about the nature of continuing ministerial education, and the theological literacy of the Church as a whole.
And then comes the question of what we expect our bishops to do. I have previously spoken up in defence of our bishops, in response to criticism by Matthew Parris and Sarah Coakley. But on the way noted what impossible demands we now make on them:
The one thing I would agree on with Coakley (and possibly Parris) is the desire to bishops who model good preaching and teaching. The problem here is putting that alongside all the other demands that we make of them. They need to be good administrators (who wouldn’t want a quick reply to a request?); financial managers (how else will the diocese balance its budgets?); competent strategic thinkers (else who will lead us into growth?); concerned pastors (who else is looking out for the clergy?); effective in discipline (someone has got to keep everyone in line, even if that contradicts the previous concern); they must offer an effective voice in national debates (to raise the quality, as Parris argues)…and so on. As a recruitment consultant once commented, it is the multi-coloured unicorn brief!
Perhaps the question is not so much ‘What do we look for in a bishop?’ but ‘What can we do without?’ or, better, ‘What can be delegated to other people?’
I suspect Olivia Graham might well bring organisational skills, and experience of change management, from her time working with Oxfam. But are managerial skills really what we are primarily looking for in a bishop? Don’t we want them, first and foremost, to be able to teach the faith—both to believers and outsiders? Here are some extracts from the Ordination or Consecration of bishops, from Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer:
CW: Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission.
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
Will you lead your people in proclaiming the glorious gospel of Christ, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?
BCP: ARE you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach or maintain nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the same?
I am so persuaded and determined, by God’s grace.
WILL you then faithfully exercise yourself in the same holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer, for the true understanding of the same; so as ye may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers?
I will so do, by the help of God.
BE you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?
I am ready, the Lord being my helper.
The question then is whether we really believe this. Do we really think that Scripture is sufficient, and we don’t need to ‘go more broadly and deeper’ to other, non-Christian philosophies, in order to address contemporary challenges like the environmental crisis? Do we really look to our bishops to teach this biblical faith, and do the selection processes reflect this? Do diocesan education and CME departments also think this, so that all clergy can deepen their understanding of biblical theology as an essential part of their growth in maturity in ministry? (I wonder how many people in the diocese saw the script or watched the video, and had no comment to make on it.)
The Church of England is currently facing some serious challenges, and these will need careful thinking, courageous action, and good communication. But if the bedrock of all this isn’t a deepening of our understanding of our faith, rooted in Scripture, then we will be lost.