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"Christ in Evolution"

Written by Rob Deltete
April 1, 2011

Sr. Ilia Delio will join us on Mission Day and deliver the third and final lecture of the Catholic Heritage Lecture Series on Thursday, April 14. Her talk will be on “Theology After Darwin: Towards a New Religious Future.” (You can read more about these events in The Commons.) Delio is a Franciscan with PhDs in pharmacology and historical theology, who currently serves as senior research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Rob Deltete, professor of philosophy, has provided to The Commons the following review of Delio’s latest book, Christ in Evolution 

Christ in Evolution sketches the outlines of a Christology for the 21st century. Author Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun and Senior Research Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, writes that “every age must discover Christ anew” (40, 53), and in this recent book she suggests how we might proceed on the road that leads to that discovery in our own time. The key is spirituality: Delio thinks that a viable twenty-first-century Christology has to be grounded in Christian spirituality, especially in the spirituality of Christian mystics, and not in, as she puts it, “the sterile outputs of analytically oriented theologians or philosophers of religion” (4). “ the heart of Christology in this new millennium” (124, 131). 

Delio compares out present age to what she calls the “first axial age,” that period between 800 and 200 BCE, during which humanity experienced a radical shift in consciousness and, at the same time, established the great world religions. She claims that we are now in the midst on another critical period in history, a “second axial age,” when humanity must take another major step, one that again requires a more complex religious consciousness (23-29). Central to this forward movement, she thinks, is a more intimate, personal understanding of Christ and Christ’s action in today’s world that is capable of transcending cultural differences (29-31). 

Sr. Ilia Delio will visit SU on April 14 to deliver the third talk in the Catholic Heritage Lecture Series. 

But the “intellectual, abstract, and logical” (67) approach of Western Christology makes that difficult. As a result, Delio insists, the theologian who wishes to achieve a deeper understanding of Christ must be first and foremost a contemplative. Only a mystical mind, she says, will be able to break through to the core of the mystery of Christ, to experience the one who transcends the historical Jesus of the Gospels. “While Christology of the first axial period tends to be rational and demonstrative, the complexification of Christ in the second axial period through the evolution of human consciousness is more mystical, affective, and relational” (102). “Theology in the second axial period must be born of mystical insight.   The [true?] theologian is the mystic who leads us beyond the boundaries of intellectual reason into the mystery of God hidden in the heart of the world” (124). “Retrieving the mystical elements in Christianity is essential to developing theology in the second axial period...” (68; also 9-10, 12). “We need return to prayer, solitude, contemplation, and scripture as the source of spiritual life, and to spirituality as the source of theology” (151). 

Delio makes her case in five parts: An introduction to the complex subject of “Evolution, Christ, and Consciousness” (ch 1); a brief historical overview of Christology (ch. 2); some insights from Franciscan Cosmic Christology, especially that of St. Bonaventure (ch. 3); the christologies of several twentieth-century mystical authors (chs. 4-6); and the presentation of her own synthesis and constructive Christology for the twenty-first century. In so doing, she aims to liberate theology–and us–by encouraging us to do it (not just think it) from a life grounded in prayer, solitude, and contemplation. Many Christians think that Christology–roughly thought about the nature, action, and influence of Christ–is fixed, but Delio clearly shows that our understanding of the meaning of Christ has not been static, that it has evolved (chapter 2 is very good here). But she thinks that this evolution has become too intellectualized and ossified, so that it no longer affects Catholics at the most basic level. She seeks a more intimate understanding of the “cosmic Christ,” one that is able to transcend cultural differences. 

For assistance in this undertaking, Delio consults the lives and works of four spiritual guides: Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Catholic Hindu scholar Raimon Panikkar, and the Benedictine monks Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths. Those guides “open us up,” she writes, “to the mystery of Christ and indicate that we must liberate Christ from a Western intellectual form that is logical, abstract, privatized, and individualized” (180). “The insights of our spiritual guides indicate that spirituality is essential to doing theology in the second axial period” (175). “Their mystical approach to Christology combines experience, knowledge, spirituality and theology, searching the depths of the Christ mystery unfolding in our midst” (68). 

Each of these contemporary mystics, Delio says, reveals something of the cosmic and trans-cultural nature of Christ. For Teilhard, Christ is the unifying principle of the universe, the one who draws all things together in himself and gives meaning and direction to the cosmos.  Christ is the form of the universe, the force of love bursting into the cosmic milieu to set it on fire (75). For Pinikkar, Christ is the central symbol of all reality, the one whose power is discovered by experiencing the deep inner center of each human person. Panikkar rejects a one-size-fits-all Christology, encouraging instead diversity in our ways of understanding Christ (89-94). Merton focuses on the transcultural nature of Christ, who is incarnate in each person, and who, in his resurrection, has become the truly integrated person (131). Finally, Griffiths views the Christ event in the context of our present understanding of a larger dynamic and interrelated world and experiences Christ as the Self of redeemed humankind (116-117). 

Each of these writers also indicates some of the implications of their Christologies. Teilhard asserts that as created co-creators we are responsible for participating in the ongoing evolution of humanity, and so of cosmic evolution (82, 139-142). Confronting the problem of religious pluralism, Panikkar promotes open conversation with those who think differently. But instead of discussions about doctrine, he recommends an exchange of religious experience as more fruitful (89, 100). Merton encourages a trans-cultural consciousness that, once having discovered one’s true self, is capable of entering into solidarity with those perceived as other (104, 106). Griffiths calls for interreligious dialogue, which he considers a form of mystical experience, and challenges us to rediscover the unconscious intuitive dimension of the self that is nurtured by contemplation (103, 122). 

Perhaps Delio’s most original, intriguing, and challenging contribution is in her last chapter, “Christ in Evolution, Technology, and Extraterrestrial Life.”  “The meaning of Christ in evolution,” she writes, “includes our [the human] ability to transcend ourselves through the creativity of technology” (165). In her view, therefore, technology is as much an integral part of the story of Christ in evolution as it is of human evolution, the evolution of “techno sapiens.”  “If Christ is indeed the goal of the universe,” she writes, “then we must begin to consider this goal in view of the emergence of christic techno sapiens” (163). Here she discusses the “Singularity” prophesy of Ray Kurzweil (160), but doesn’t seek to evaluate it. Are there extraterrestrial forms of life? Delio doesn’t commit herself, but Christology should make us wonder. What are we to think about the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Jesus if, in fact, there is intelligent life in other parts of the universe? Perhaps, as Teilhard once suggested, the human Christ is simply one “face” of the cosmic Christ (165). Delio is willing to entertain that possibility, as she also is Karl Rahner’s suggestion that there may have been multiple Incarnations and Resurrections of a single Christ (171). “For the whole concept of evolution has liberated Christ from the limits of the man Jesus and enables us to locate Christ at the heart of creation, the centrating principle of evolution, and the Omega point of an evolutionary universe” (174; also 165). 

Delio’s approach to Christology is innovative, optimistic, and strives to be down to earth. Along with Rahner, she not only believes that Christology must “make sense on the basis of our experience of ourselves and of our world” (68), but also seeks to show how this might be achieved. In Christ in Evolution, she weaves together Christological threads from her spiritual guides with those of the tradition (scripture and Bonaventure, e.g.) in a way that is accessible to non-theologians, challenging to biblical literalists, and encouraging for all those (including me) who wish to participate in the reintegration of Christ into a relevant cosmological vision. 

As such, her book is worth reading; but I have concerns. One is that the title is ambiguous: Is it Christ who is evolving? Or is it the cosmos that’s evolving through Christ’s influence? Delio apparently thinks that it’s both. She takes very seriously the Teilhardian idea that the cosmos is Christ’s “third nature” (6, 76, 126). So if the universe, and we in it, are evolving, then so is Christ, its center and goal. Delio quotes approvingly passages from Teilhard where the two sorts of evolution are mixed: “The one who is in evolution himself is the cause and center of evolution and its goal” (72-73); and “Christ is the evolver, the centrating energy of the evolutionary movement....Christ is in evolution because we, human and non-human creation, are in evolution” (152, 158). Does this evolution have a telos, a goal? Delio thinks it does. “Christ is the goal toward which the whole cosmos is moving and in whom the cosmos will find completion” (63, 157). “Because the universe has a ‘plan,’ we can speak of the evolution of this plan as the unfolding of Christ in the universe” (9). “The cosmos, or universe, is evolving toward its full realization in Christ, the Omega, who is the energizing principle underlying the process of evolution” (83). This is all that Delio offers by way of explicating the “mechanisms” of evolution and design, which are not central to her project. But talk of Christ’s “centrating energy” likely won’t impress a lot of non-mystical readers. 

A second concern is Delio’s discussion of Christology in terms of two axial periods, which seems to me problematic. I am not a theologian, or an historian of Christian religion, but it seems to me superficial to divide the Christian understanding of Christ two periods, “first axial” and “second axial” (especially given her very sensitive account of the development of Christology in the patristic period). For Delio, the interval between the first and second periods appears to be, excepting certain oases, pretty much a barren desert. “While Christology of the first axial period tends to be rational and demonstrative, the complexification of Christ [I assume his real evolution, not just our better understanding of him] in the second axial more mystical, affective, and relational” (102). She occasionally suggests that the two approaches can complement one another (e.g., 151), but trying to reconcile them is clearly not part of her project. 

Another concern, in consequence, is Delio’s prose. Again I emphasize that I am not a theologian and probably don’t adequately understand the way theologians write. But while I find her prose sometimes emotionally evocative, I often find it intellectually pretty mushy. Some passages already cited reveal the rhapsodic, almost mantric, quality of her writing. Here are a couple of more examples: “Christ is the meaning and goal of the universe....Christ is the goal toward which the whole cosmos is moving and in whom the cosmos will find its completion. The meaning of Christ therefore extends to all people, the Earth, all planets, indeed, to the entire universe and all universes” (65, 75). “The one Christ who emerges out of an evolutionary universe and who is the center and goal of this universe will come to completion only at the end of evolution, that is, the Christ of the physical universe, the Christ of all humanity, the Christ of all religions” (158). “When the adjective ‘cosmic’ is used to describe Christ, it means that Christ is the instrument in God’s creative activity, the source and goal of all things, the bond and sustaining power of all creation, the head and ruler of the universe” (50). 

A final concern: Delio’s understanding of the world is explicitly Christocentric, but it is also, perhaps unintentionally, hugely anthropocentric: “Our [human] participation in the Christ mystery is necessary for the fulness of Christ. Christ must come alive in us if this universe is to find its fulfillment in God. What took place in the life of Jesus must take place in our lives as well if creation is to move toward completion and transformation in God” (152, my italics). And “without our participation, creation will not attain its destiny in God” (153, my italics). Whoa!  Most Catholics I know don’t think of themselves as such grandiose cosmic actors. But, then, maybe that’s Delio’s point: they should. 

(Christ in Evolution.  By Ilio Delio, OSF.  Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008.  xii + 228pp. $18.00 pb.  ISBN 978-1-57075-777-8.)  

Rob Deltete is professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences.