Alison on Creation in Christ

Excerpt from James Alison’s Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, the conclusion to Chapter 2, “The Living God,” New York: Crossroads, 1996, pp. 49-56.

Creation in Christ

Thus far [in the first three sections of chapter 2] we have God as brilliantly alive, totally without violence, in no way circumscribed by death, who has revealed himself as loving humanity by giving himself to us so as to allow us to live outside, and beyond, the culture of death. However, by means of the same process, a further dimension of God is revealed to which we will dedicate ourselves now. This is the understanding of God as Creator.

We are used to speaking about Creation and Salvation as if these were two rather different things. A scheme which crops up pretty frequently goes like this: first there was creation, something which happened at the beginning, then there was the “fall,” however that may have taken place, in which we fell into a state from which we needed someone to rescue us; then God sent Jesus to save the situation, and now, even though it seems that in reality nothing has been saved, we know that it has been, and we hope for heaven. Well, let us look at some of the elements of this model, which seems to be the story that’s in the background of both Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy. The first element which I want to bring out is that in this scheme the relationship between our present state and heaven is pretty distant; that is to say, it doesn’t look as though Jesus has made much difference, so we sit and wait, getting involved in immensely complicated moral struggles, hoping that finally we’ll be acceptable for heaven.

In the long run this model deserves the sort of criticism which it has in fact received, which is that it does nothing to encourage people to take seriously the things they might do to improve this life for themselves and others, except in the most superficial way, treating the symptoms and not the causes by means of works of charity and so on. The result of this has been the various movements, especially in the last century, though lasting well into this century, to reinterpret Christianity in terms of participation in a social progress towards an utopia, whether these movements have called themselves religious or not (and they have often conceived of themselves in fundamentally anti-religious terms). The problem is that the model “creation-fall-redemption-heaven” is much more powerful than it seems, and those who have rebelled against its explicitly religious form have found themselves, far too often, living out an even more cruel and distorted version of the same thing.

I don’t think that the problem with this model is to be found in the relationship between “redemption” and “heaven,” which is where the fighting has gone on, but in the relationship between creation and redemption. That is, the problem resides in the vision of creation and salvation as two different sorts of thing. First there was creation, an initial movement on the part of God, then there was salvation, a sort of rescue operation, in reality a very different sort of thing, with only the most tenuous of relationships with what went before. There is a great deal of difference between a factory, where cars are made out of raw matter, and a mechanic’s garage, where they are repaired when they break down. The operations are of a different nature. Well, if Creation and Salvation are two different sorts of thing, it is not at all clear that there is a real relationship between the Creator and the Savior; or, in other words, it’s not clear what God has to do with Jesus.

Now we have traces in the New Testament that this matter was considered by the apostolic group. That is to say, there are indications that the apostolic witnesses did indeed perceive that there is a clear relation between God the Creator and Jesus the Savior, and that to anchor oneself in saying that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it was not sufficient. That revealed God as love, indeed, but it didn’t show how that love had anything to do with God as Creator. The sort of God who sends someone to save someone might be like the worried father who rescues his child, or some treasure, from something over which he has no real control, like a burning skyscraper, or a sinking ship, something for which he is not really responsible.

The hints that we have that the apostolic group understood that this model was inadequate for the experience of God which they had starting from the presence to them of the risen Jesus are found in those passages which involve Jesus directly in Creation. These are the passages which deal with the so-called “pre-existence of Christ.” The most famous is John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made.

Then there is Hebrews 1:2-3:

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power…

Then three texts from the Pauline writings. First 1 Corinthians 8:6:

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.

Then there are the longer hymns, probably composed before the Pauline letters, and which are thought to be very early indeed, and because of this, especially valuable in their witness as to the understanding of the apostolic group after the resurrection. From these hymns I’ll give the example of Colossians 1:13-20, which includes this:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for through him were created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, thrones, dominations, principalities and powers, all things were created by him and for him.

Here is my question: what was it that enabled the apostolic witnesses to link together Jesus and Creation in this way? That is, to link creation and salvation in such a way that they come to be seen as the same thing? They are not asking a question about this, merely affirming it, simply and triumphantly, about the Jesus whom they had known: that he was in some way intimately involved in Creation itself. If we can find out what it was which they perceived to be the inner dynamic between creation and salvation, which enabled them to write verses like the ones we’ve read, then we’ll be in a position to understand something of the third dimension of the change in the perception of God that I’ve been trying to set out. We’ll also be in a much better position to understand the relationship between this life and heaven than we would be if we were to stay within the boring old arguments of the “creation-fall-redemption-heaven” model of understanding.

What I’m going to suggest now is new, and somewhat experimental, but, since it seems to fit in with the data of the apostolic witness, I’m going to risk it, and we’ll see if it takes us forward at all. My suggestion is that Jesus’ resurrection not only altered the perception of God by removing any last remnant of violence, and by allowing God to be understood as unambiguously loving of humanity, but it also produced a change in the understanding of God as Creator. Please allow me to get to this by means of an example of what I think to be wrong. This is the notion that belief in the Creator was simply part of the Jewish inheritance shared in by Jesus and the apostolic group, without any need of alteration, since it was already firmly in place. Jesus then, wouldn’t have made much difference, in any real sense, to the understanding of what it means to call God “Creator.” He’d just have added “salvation” to a pre-existing notion of God, so that God was both Creator, and then, a little later, Savior. Later on the apostles, through some sort of Christian apologetic trick, tacked on to the idea of creation the somewhat mythic-sounding notion that Jesus was involved in Creation.

Instead of this I’m going to suggest something different, which puts the element of myth in its proper place. It is precisely the idea of Creation in Christ which produces the final demythologization of the idea of creation. Now it is central to my approach that it be understood that the human perception of God as Creator is something which, itself, has a history, and is by no means a simple concept. Furthermore, Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection didn’t leave a received notion of God as Creator where he had found it, but worked the final change in the perception of God as Creator that had been developing throughout, and thanks to, the story of Jewish fidelity to God during their history. This we can glimpse as we look at the development of the perception of God as Creator. Of course, there are many accounts in different religions and cultures of a god, or gods, who create. What they do, in one way or another, is to separate out elements starting from an original chaos, and then produce the plants, animals and birds necessary for human subsistence. What they do seems beneficent to humans, for they implant order. There are traces of such a vision in the story of the creation in Genesis, where God appears creating not from nothing, but from an initial chaos which needs to be ordered.

This means that the god in question is responsible not so much for creating everything out of nothing as for producing the order of the world. This means that the god is tied to the order of the world, and the order of the world is a reflection of the god. However, we have just seen that one of the things which the resurrection did was to separate God from any link with the order of this world, which came to be understood to be a violent order, founded on death. In the Jewish tradition the development of the perception of God as Creator was not something rapid or sudden. The chosen people first had to move from a view which saw God as one among many gods, merely more important and powerful, to another according to which God was the only God, Creator of all things, including the enemies of Israel. It is possible that this intuition only came to be firmly established as a result of the Babylonian exile. That is, as a result of the apparent defeat of God by the Babylonic deities. We are talking about the movement from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism. However, the perception that God created everything is not the same as the perception that God created everything out of nothing [ex nihilo]. That perception was reached later, in the same period as the resurrection of the dead came to be understood.

Now it is very important that these two beliefs should have developed at the same time, and are apparently related. The principal evidence for this is in the text of 2 Maccabees. There it is understood that God has to raise from the dead those who have been so loyal to him that they have allowed themselves to be killed out of faithfulness to his Law. This was what happened to the Maccabee boys. That is to say, it was inconceivable that God, having given his Law, should deal with those who were prepared to die rather than disobey it, in the same way as their executioners. But it also means something fundamental: that the order of this world does not correspond to God’s order, since those who obey God are persecuted in this world. So, God’s order has to be of a different nature than the order of this world, it has to be an order of which God’s law is a reflection, and which cannot be easily lived in this world because of persecution. The perception that God raises those who died out of loyalty to the Law is thus a perception which allows a small but vital separation between God and the order of this world. God as Creator is not responsible for the order of this world, which turns out to be frequently contrary to the divine will. Creation cannot be understood as the establishment of order out of chaos, but has to be prior to the chaos, and the chaos has something to do with human violence.

So it was the persecution of the Maccabee boys, innocent because of their fidelity to God, which simultaneously opened two cracks in the old perception of God: the first crack is that there must be a resurrection life for those whom God loves, since God’s life cannot be limited to the prizes bestowed in this life, for in this life the just are killed; the second crack is that if God is to be understood as Creator, then that understanding cannot remain bound to the maintenance of the order of the world, which is not a reflection of God. In other words, God’s graciousness which raises up those whom God loves is the same graciousness as that which brings into being out of nothing. Because of this the mother of the Maccabees says:

My son, I beg you, look at the heaven and the earth, look at all they contain and you will see that God created it all out of nothing, and humans have the same origin. Do not fear this executioner, do not let your brothers down, but accept death. In this way through God’s mercy I will receive you back along with them. (2 Mac 7:28-29)

In the case of the Maccabees, this was still seen within a partial and moralizing vision of God. God created the world and would give back life to those who were persecuted on his account. That is to say, resurrection is a form of eschatological revenge, a post-mortem triumph, over the persecuting enemies, in the same way that Creation happened so as to bring Israel to existence. We are still in the world of the partial: the perception of God still has to be filled out.

I hope that this has made clearer the correction which Jesus’ resurrection made to this introduction of cracks into an image of God that was too bound to this world. It is important to notice that this correction was also made in the overcoming of a case of persecution, as with the Maccabees, but this time with certain differences. In this case it could not be affirmed that the persecution was carried out by a special group of iniquitous people, foreign to the chosen people of God. No, it was rather an indiscriminate mix of the chosen people and the representatives of the gentiles which put Jesus to death, each side for its own reasons, which were, in fact, no reason at all: They hated me without a cause.

The resurrection revealed that persecution was not the monopoly of any particular group, but is the logical result of the fact that all of humanity is locked into a certain sort of blind and murderous violence, no bit of it more or less than others. That this should have happened in the midst of the chosen people doesn’t mean that they were especially iniquitous, as a grotesque Christian discourse about “the people who killed God” has far too often had it, but merely, and sadly, that they, the best of the nations of the earth were also locked into the same mechanism of violence which flows from death to death.

We have seen that Jesus knew from the beginning what he was doing, completely possessed as he was by his quickened imagination of the ever-living God. It was this which enabled him to stage a solemn mime in the midst of this death-based culture, so that he might be killed as a way of leading people out of that culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be, that is, utterly and absolutely alive with Him. What Jesus’ entirely living imagination means, then, is that he was working so as to bring to existence what God had always wanted, but which had become trapped in the violent and fatal parody which we have seen, and which we tend to live out. So what Jesus was bringing into being was the fulfillment of creation, and this he knew very well as he was doing it. We will look in the next chapter at one of the most remarkable passages in Scripture, in which John portrays Jesus doing exactly this, with full knowledge of what he was doing.

This means something rather important: the understanding of God as Creator changes from someone who once did something to someone who is doing something through Jesus, who was in on what the Father was doing through him from the beginning. Creation is not finished until Jesus dies (shouting tetelestai [Greek] — “it is accomplished”), thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week. This means, and here is the central point: we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s graciousness which brings what is not into existence from nothing is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death-less self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death, and is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture. It is not as though creation were a different act, something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and the authority in Jesus’ works and words and signs. Through him the Creator was bringing his work to completion. The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death.

I hope that you see what it means that our underlying model for understanding the Christian faith has changed slightly, but significantly. Rather than the “Creation-fall-redemption-heaven” model, according to which we live between the redemption and heaven, the model is: “The redemption reveals creation by opening up its fulfillment in heaven and reveals at the same time the fall as that which we are in the process of leaving behind.” This second approach respects the order of discovery, that is to say, the fact that all these realities were only discovered at all as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Everything said up till now has been a long meditation on the change of imagination and perception worked in the apostolic group by the resurrection. If it seems hard to follow, it is because it is hard, demanding of us an effort to sustain a concentration on the utter effervescence of God which was revealed by Jesus. We’ve seen that the resurrection opened a new perception onto God: that God is entirely beyond, and nothing to do with, death; that God has touched our murderous world with love, allowing us to break out of death; that this is what Creation has been about from the beginning, and that Jesus, who knew all this, was thus the original man who was in on it all from the beginning.

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