Friday, May 11, 2012

A 21st Century (and Some Might Say Sci-Fi) Christology

I just finished writing the following for my christology course at LTSP.  It's definitely sort of 'out-there,' so I'd love to hear your feedback.  I just cut and pasted from MSWord, so there's minor formatting issues.  Thanks so much!
I. Method
One of postmodern thought’s greatest contributions to theology is the notion that theology, and therefore christology, is highly contextual.  For theologians like Jon Sobrino and others who have long walked with the peoples of Latin America heavily weighed down upon by systemic sin and oppression, Christ’s preferential option for the poor is a source of liberating hope.  For other theologians like Douglas John Hall trying to living out the Protestant theology of fifteenth century thinkers in a contemporary context, the cross of Christ provides a lens to interpret the “ambivalence and contrarieties of life.”[1]  Indeed, we possess not one but four gospels in the Christian Testament, all of which portray Christ contextually and therefore somewhat differently.  At the same time, something must be said for the unity of faith in Christ; without some sort of unifying principle, contextual christology based solely upon the uniqueness of human experience becomes what John Polkinghorne describes as “only a babble of local dialects.”[2]  Borrowing from science, he instead argues for a more moderate theological approach called “critical realism” which throws off the shackles of modernism’s notion of unproblematic objectivity yet also shuns the postmodern temptation to view understanding as unattainable.[3]  Using the method of critical realism, this paper therefore proposes a christology that is highly contextual toward twenty-first century American life yet also submits that understanding to both the traditions of the Church and the community of saints, both alive and dead.
II. Context
            One’s context is defined through many aspects.  Perhaps the most easily defined aspect is place: the spatial aspect of my future ministry context will likely be in urban America, on the planet Earth.  A more difficult aspect of one’s context to define is social location.  While I am a fairly young, seemingly white but in fact bi-racial, educated member of the middle class, the social context of my future ministry will likely be much more diverse.  One also has an ideological context: I am liberal on most issues and civically inclined, while the ideological context of my ministry will perhaps be quite similar.  There is also an experiential aspect of context: I personally experienced a relatively happy childhood, yet also suffered from depression and the loss of my mother at a fairly young age.  A final aspect of context, and the one that most often gets overlooked, is time.  I currently live in an early twenty-first century context, a time of lingering economic distress, great environmental degradation and rapidly quickening technological progress.  This chronological aspect of my context for ministry will not always remain quite the same however: if I am ordained in 2014 when I am twenty-eight years old as planned, and if I remain in ministry until I retire around the age of 65, my life as a pastor will stretch roughly to the year 2050.  If my method for christological reflection is to be highly contextual, then I must take the chronological aspect into account.
            While we cannot predict the future with any high degree of accuracy, especially as far out as 2050, we do have some clues to help indicate what a future context for ministry might look like.  Ever since I read The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil as a fourteen year old at Camp Calumet in New Hampshire, the implications of technological progress has absolutely fascinated me.  A futurist and well-known inventor of items like synthesizers and print-to-speech reading machines, Kurzweil has been making predictions about the future since the early 1980s by extrapolating off of Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors you can put on a microchip doubles every two years.[4]  Essentially, this means that the power of computing (which Kurzweil measures as the amount of computing power you can buy for $1000) increases exponentially, rather than linearly.  Exponential curves begin by rising slowly, but eventually start rocketing up toward infinity, and Kurzweil would argue that we are now approaching part of the curve where it is becoming possible to notice that the pace of technological progress is rapidly increasing.
If we stay on our current course of exponential growth in computing as Kurzweil predicts, the results at twenty or thirty years out are absolutely astonishing.  By the end of the 2020s, you will be able to buy a computer for $1000 that roughly equals the intelligence of one human.  By the mid 2040s, you will be able to buy a computer for $1000 that roughly equals a billion times the sum of all human intelligence.[5]  The practical ramifications of Kurzweil’s claims are even more staggering.  For instance, as telling the difference between human and artificial intelligence becomes nearly impossible, the definition of being sapient (or perhaps of having a soul, theologically speaking) will be difficult to discern.  As off-loading information from one’s aging brain to a studier artificial brain becomes a reality, so does a type of immortality. While Kurzweil’s predictions certainly seem far-fetched, he has great credibility: in 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Bill Gates has called him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence."[6]  There are of course many who have criticized his work, but still, given Kurzweil’s credibility, his predictions at very least can prove useful in developing a contextual christology for ministry well into the twenty-first century.
III. Substance
Given the spatial limitations of this paper and the lack of pre-existing scholarly literature concerning the theological implications of an exponential progression of computing, developing a complete christology here proves impossible.  Instead, I will simply seek to make a number of contributions to this new avenue of christological inquiry, all supporting a thesis that “through His life and triumphant resurrection over the sin of the cross, Christ does for the cosmos what we sapient creatures cannot do on our own: Christ shepherds us into right relationship with God.
A. The Person of Christ
            In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously asked, “Who is God?”  By asking ‘who’ rather than ‘what,’ Bonhoeffer emphasizes that God is a ‘who’ who we can experience, rather than an abstract concept:
Not in the first place an abstract belief in God, in his omnipotence, etc.  That is not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world.  Encounter with Jesus Christ.  The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others.’  His ‘being there for others’ is the experience of transcendence.[7]

The person of Jesus Christ is the means through which we experience the transcendent God, a ‘who’ (and the only ‘who’) who is wholly there only for others.  While He is the means through which we experience God, Christ is also the greatest possible gift of God to a less than perfect cosmos, as He is the gift through which God is wholly there for all of Her creation.[8]  As stated in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all the ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”[9]  Thus, while Jesus Christ is God’s greatest possible gift to creation, Christ also is God, existing eternally as one ‘who’ with the Creator and the Spirit, yet also forever dancing with them in Trinity.  Through the person of Christ then, God also provides the gift of example to Her creation, as God demonstrates what is good by giving of Herself through Christ.
            Christ is God, of one ‘who’ with the Creator and Spirit, yet also eternally (and paradoxically) dances with the Creator and Spirit in Trinity.  I use the word ‘dance’ to describe Christ’s being with the Trinity to characterize it not as a rigid, static state of being but one that is always shifting, fluid and mysterious.  While Christ has traditionally been referred to as ‘the Son’ in the Church, ‘the Son’ may no longer be the best symbol to indicate Christ’s nature in some contemporary contexts.  As the masculinity of Christ has often been used to reinforce patriarchal structures and belief systems in the Church and wider society, it must be emphasized that ‘the Word/ Wisdom of God,’ another traditional symbol to indicate Christ’s nature in Trinity, has both feminine and masculine aspects.  While John 1:1 uses the masculine noun logoß, meaning ‘reason,’ ‘truth’ and most traditionally ‘word’ (among other things) to refer to Christ, the related concept sofia, a feminine noun meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ is another traditional symbol for Christ in Trinity used by Church, and should thus be emphasized for the sake of inclusivity.  As Christ is the means through which we have knowledge of God and is the gift of God through which the truth of what is good is revealed (both discussed above), referring to Christ in Trinity as the ‘Wisdom of God’ or the ‘Truth of God’ is accurate.
            While Christ is God, Christ was also “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became a human being.”[10]  While the Scriptures do attest that Jesus Christ was in fact a male human being, we must also emphasize that in the original Latin, the Nicene Creed states Christ “became a human being” (homo facus est), rather than “was made man” (vir factus est). [11]  Once again, as we minister in a context where the cultural norm is still to emphasize the masculinity of God, we must make it unequivocally clear that the gift of Christ was incarnate as human, not simply a man.  Christ was not only given by God for all of us, but was literally made of the same stuff as all of humanity.  As humanity was good enough for God to become incarnate as fully human, we must also recognize that all of humanity is worth our respect, care and love.  Furthermore, for some people at least (and we must remember not all), it is a comfort to know that God suffered and sacrificed on Earth as a human, not simply a man.  For others (and I believe this will become particularly more important as the line between human and artificial sapience begins to blur in the future), it is a comfort to know that God had to do all the little things that are part of being human as well… God as Jesus probably stubbed his toe a few times, God probably had a few bad hair days and God has experienced going to bathroom as fully human, and this can be very comforting news!
B. The Work of Christ in the Cosmos
Throughout his famous series Cosmos, agnostic scientist and thinker Carl Sagan frequently exclaims, “We’re all made of star-stuff!”  When thinking about the work of Christ in what has traditionally been referred to by Lutherans as “the Earthly Kingdom,” and what I call “the cosmos,” remembering the fact that we are all made of star-stuff can be extremely helpful.  Not only was humanity good enough for God to become incarnate as fully human, but also creation was good enough for God to become incarnate in creation!  Thus, if creation was good enough for God to become fully incarnate in it as Jesus Christ, we must further recognize that all of creation is worth our respect and care.  Furthermore, we are provided the gift of an example for how to be wholly there for others in creation through the words and actions of Jesus Christ, even if we cannot follow that example perfectly.  In a context where our very existence is threatened by environmental degradation, and in a future where the very meaning of what it means to be human will blur, we must move beyond an anthrocentric view of Christ’s work in the cosmos, to one that more greatly encompasses all of God’s creation.
            Jurgen Moltmann, whose christology “directs its attention towards Christ’s bodily nature and its significance for earthly nature as a whole,” has put forward the idea of a messianic Christ, which when set in the context of the messianic hope of Israel, argues that the work of Christ is not only to redeem a sinful humanity but also to answer the groaning of all creation.[12]  In the sense Moltmann uses the term then, it seems as if a “messianic christology” that concerns itself with the groaning of all creation is appropriate to our contemporary context, with one major exception.  Recognizing that we live in (and likely will continue to live in) a time where humanity is pushing ever farther beyond the bounds of the planet Earth, we must also move beyond Moltmann’s suggestion of thinking about only Christ’s earthly nature, or what I call a “terracentric” view of Christ’s work in the cosmos.  Christ did not work only for humanity, or only for creation in a local sense, but in fact for all God’s creation, which includes the entire universe, of which Earth is only a very, very small part.  In a context where humanity can do more and more wondrous things, it may be helpful to humbly emphasize the wonder and sheer expanse of what God does in the cosmos through Christ.
            What work though, does Christ do in the cosmos?  For thinking about Christ’s work in the most general sense, Genesis 1 and once again John 1 seem particularly instructive.  In Genesis 1, God begins by creating light out of “a formless void.”  In John 1, it states that “all things came into being” through the Word of God.  Putting these two concepts together then, one can recognize not only that God creates the cosmos through Christ, but also that God makes cosmos out of chaos through Christ.  God’s act of creation through Christ is not one where something simply pops up out of nothing, in a sense, but one where God takes something that is wholly chaos, and begins bringing it into order as God intends it, creating cosmos (the universe as a well ordered whole).  Unfortunately however, whether by human sin and/ or some other mechanism, we must recognize the cosmos is, as of yet, has not wholly evolved into what God intended it.
While God may have brought order to chaos “in the beginning” through the Word by creating day and night, roughly two-thousand years ago, through his words, actions and triumph over the human sin of the cross, Jesus Christ began bringing order to the chaos of sin, death and oppression.  This happened through various physically actions, but whether feeding people, healing people or hearing people, Christ signaled what has traditionally been referred to as “the in-breaking of the Kingdom,” or the ordering of chaos as God intended it.  Another important aspect of bringing God’s order to chaos is, as Jon Sobrino and others have argued, Christ’s preference for the poor: “The proclamation of good news to the poor simply because they were poor shook the very foundations of religion, and was the best way of showing God’s gratuitousness in a world that idolizes riches.”[13]  Reflecting the views of Delores S. Williams, Christ also brought God’s order to chaos through his resurrection and thereby victory over evil:
The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it…  The image of Jesus on the cross is the image of human sin in its most desecrated human form.[14]

Whether creating light from a formless void, combating the sin of human oppression by showing a preference for the poor, or triumphing over sin and death in Jesus resurrected, God does whatever She has to do, through Christ, in order to bring order as she intended it, creating cosmos out of chaos.
C. The Cross of Christ
            In our contemporary culture, one’s theology of the cross is easily pulled in multiple and very divergent directions due to a variety of contextual concerns.  Whether manifested emotionally, economically, physically or in other forms, we live in a time of great oppression and exploitation of human beings under crushing systems of sinful injustice.  For many people, especially those who suffer everyday from such systems of oppression, the symbol of the cross can best function contextually as the ultimate symbol sin that Christ triumphs over in resurrection, a position argued by Delores S. Williams.  Folks completely beaten down by systematic sin do not need to be humbled any further by the cross... put in Lutheran terms, they have gotten a whole lot of law in their lives, and they just need the gospel!  For those individuals, it is only the good news of Christ’s triumph over the human sin of the cross that liberates and brings hope.  For others that endure great suffering however, we must recognize that there is something of God in the blood of the cross.  As Joanne Terrell has proposed, the idea of a “divine-sufferer,” of a God who has truly suffered and  died for us “highlights the egregious nature of every historical crime against humanity and the Divinity.”[15]  If one is to hold a highly contextual christology, one must hold both these opposing views in tension.
            For others, especially those who have not felt the sting of sinful oppression that strongly (we must bear witness though that all folks have to some degree though), the scandal and paradox of the Incarnate God present in the ultimate symbol of human sin is exactly what they need to hear about.  Such individuals, myself included, need to be humbled each and everyday by the scandal of God in Jesus Christ showing up in utmost humility where we would least expect Him: stripped, beaten, broken and left on a tree to die.  Only in knowing of such a humble Christ can we be turned away from worshipping ourselves and other human idols toward the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  While we live in a time when many face horrific oppression, we also live in a time of rapid technological progress.  If Ray Kurzweil’s theory of the exponential progression of computing power holds true, humanity will be able to do truly marvelous things within my own lifetime that we must begin to anticipate.  Although in one sense we have been co-creators with the Creator for millennia, we will move far further into this role in the twenty-first century, engineering matter on the molecular, atomic and even subatomic levels, and perhaps even creating what many would recognize as sapient or self-aware life through artificial means.  In such a context, we will need the humility of the cross to remind us that us that the one thing we cannot do alone is to be in right relationship with God.
D. The Work of God in Christ Before the Creator
            The work God does through Christ before the Creator (what traditional Lutheran theology terms “in the Heavenly Kingdom”) is similar to what God does through Christ in the cosmos: God makes cosmos out of chaos.  As Christ is wholly for others, we can be passively bound to Christ through no work of our own.  In such a union, Christ bears the burden of our sins and death, bringing us into right relationship with God as our Creator intended it.  By bringing us into right relationship with the Creator, God brings order to chaos, further creating cosmos through Christ.  For my own pastoral context that hopefully extends well into the twenty-first century, speaking of justification before God in terms of “bringing sapient creatures into right relationship with God” will become increasingly important.  As the line between humanity and artificial sapience blurs, humanity may eventually achieve a sort of immortality: the information that makes up our sapient minds at least, may become eternal, if we so will it.  Thus, if death no longer is a universal outcome of life but rather a choice, speaking of Christ as raising us from death to life will no longer hold any power.
            If we may eventually be able to do such marvelous things as create a type of eternal life, why, one might ask, could we not eventually bring ourselves into right relationship with God?  Quite simply, in all of Her eternity, it could never be possible to know exactly what right relationship with our Creator would even look like.  Revelation, even through Christ, is incomplete, and God has rightly ordained it this way.  For instance, as even the Bible is written contextually, we have very different portrayals of the life of Jesus.  Creating a perfect moral system even based both upon God’s revelation in the Bible and through human experience proves impossible, due the many ambiguities and contradictions in life and Scripture.  The question of sin itself is even filled with ambiguities.  In a future where humans have created and perhaps merged with artificial yet seemingly sapient creatures, is sin confined only to humanity?  Could “spiritual machines,” as Ray Kurzweil has termed them, be brought into right relationship with God?  Melanchthon’s description of original sin in his “Apology of the Augsburg Confession” can help us with this problem:
When they speak about original sin they fail to mention the more serious defects of human nature like being ignorant of God, despising God, lacking fear and confidence in God, hating the judgment of God, fleeing this judging God, being angry with God, despairing of his grace, and placing confidence in temporal things, etc.[16]

Essentially, Melanchthon describes sin as rebellion against God.  If another sapient creature (artificial or otherwise) were to know of God, belief in God, yet also have the serious defect of rebelling against Her, could it not be said that such a creature would be capable of sin?
            When speaking of Christ’s work before the Creator, one additional (and thankfully more near-term) issue must be discussed: does God save non-Christian creatures (people of other faiths or no faith) through Christ?  The second-century theologian Justin Martyr can greatly assist us with this question:
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom ever race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists… So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably… through the power of the Word, according to the will of God the Father and Lord of all…[17]

In our Christian tradition there exists language that states Jesus is the Word for every race of humanity, including atheists and those who lived before Christ, even if they were so evil as to slay those who lived reasonably.  How, then, could Jesus not be the Word for a pious Muslim, Jew or Buddhist?  Christ is for everyone and can act as the Word for anyone, regardless of that person’s faith or action.  God’s justice is not human justice, and while the humility of the cross reminds me that I cannot know this for sure, I wholeheartedly expect to see even those who I would consider the worst of humanity eternally worshipping the Creator with me when chaos finally evolves fully into cosmos.
IV. Practical Conclusions
            When using Polkinghorne’s method of “critical realism” to develop a christology, one must necessarily end up with a christology that is both high contextual in terms of space, time and relationship yet also bears witness to the ancient traditions of the Church and the community of saints both past and present.  One holding such a christology must necessarily be in relationship with a wide variety of individuals, and must do one’s best to attend to the diverse needs of all, working against oppression and thereby following Christ’s example of being wholly for the other.  Keeping one’s chronological context in mind also necessarily leads one to prayerfully and reverently try to anticipate the future, in order to best minister to those saints yet to be born (or perhaps, created).  When brought to bear on my own context, critical realism has led me to hold a christology which states “through His life and triumphant resurrection over the sin of the cross, Christ does for the cosmos what we sapient creatures cannot do on our own: Christ shepherds us into right relationship with God.”  This means recognizing that either “in the cosmos” and/ or “before the Creator,” Christ redeems all creation, not just humanity.  Doing my best to care for all of creation in all of its beautiful diversity therefore becomes a deep Christian calling; without doing so, I cannot be whole.  The cross however also reminds me that no matter how strongly held my christological convictions might be, I could be wrong, and I will never be able to bring myself into right relationship with my Creator on my own.  Luckily enough, the humility of the cross can also remind one to occasionally take a break from human reason, to go outside, look up at the stars, and soak in the marvelous gifts of the cosmos God gives in Her wondrous eternity.

[1] Marit A. Trelstad, Cross Sections: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 254.
[2] John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 2.
[3] Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology, 6.
[4] Lev Grossman, “Singularity Kurzweil on 2045, When Humans, Machines Merge” in Time Magazine (February, 2011),,9171,2048299,00.html (accessed April 18, 2012).
[5] Grossman, “Singularity Kurzweil on 2045.”
[6] Ibid.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1997), 381.
[8] As I am writing a christology for a cultural context in which it is still normative to think of God solely in masculine terms, I believe selectively using feminine pronouns at times for God is the only way to write inclusively, especially when speaking of the person of Jesus, who in history was male.  Furthermore, referring to God as ‘It’ is also problematic as this suggests that God is a ‘what,’ rather than a ‘who.’
[9] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2000), 22-23.
[10] Kolb and Wengert, The Book of Concord, 23.
[11] Daniel L Migliore, "Christology in Context: The Doctrinal and Contextual Tasks of Christology Today" Interpretation 49, no. 3 (July 1, 1995): 246, ATLA Religion Database 246with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 1, 2012).
[12] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in its Messianic Dimensions (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), xvi.
[13] Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 83.
[14] Trelstad, Cross Sections, 30 - 31.
[15] Ibid, 46.
[16] Kolb and Wengert, The Book of Concord, 113.
[17] Justin Martyr, First Apology of Justin Martyr: Article 46, Early Christian Writings, (accessed May 10, 2012).

Dustin is a Masters of Divinity candidate in his second year of study at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin really likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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