There are three fundamental doctrines that characterize the world view generally known as Christianity: Creation, Incarnation and Salvation. They are respectively represented by three famous passages from scripture:
- In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen. 1:1)
- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. (John 3:16)
- Then comes the end, when he (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God the Father…that God may be all in all. (1
Cor. 15: 24 – 28)
Superficially and out of context, these important lines suggest a very ordinary linear world view (first creation, then incarnation, finally salvation) and this is the way many of us learned Christian doctrine in Sunday school. But this is not the way early Christians understood their faith; nor is it how they viewed the world.
The letter to the Colossians, traditionally attributed to St. Paul, contains a very early Christian creed. Even before it was immortalized in this text, this creedal affirmation was recited during Christian liturgies, probably as a hymn:
“He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together…he is the beginning (foundation), the first-born from the dead that in all things he himself might be preeminent…For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things for him…” (Col. 1: 15-20)
It is hard to imagine that once upon a time people found deep spiritual inspiration in such an arcane and apparently impenetrable formulation. But find it they did because their sensibilities was attuned to the non-linearity that this creed celebrates. This creed, in fact, articulates a thoroughly non-linear, non-orientable world view.
In Colossians, Christ is presented as the image of God, the first-born of creation. Christ stands “before” all things, at the very threshold of the creative process.
(Here it is important to understand “before” not as a temporal reference but as a structural reference: Christ is the root of all things at all times; he is the universal substructure, the logos. There is no linear time in this cosmology and therefore a temporal interpretation of words like “before” and “beginning” would be inconsistent with the overall context of the passage. As in the Gospel of John (1:1), Christ is to be understood as the wellspring of the creative process, not as its precursor.)
In Colossians, Christ is (1) the substructure of the creative process: all things were created through him; (2) the locus of the creative process: all things were created in him; (3) the objective of the creative process: all things were created for him; and (4) the triumph of the creative process: in him all things hold together and through him all things are reconciled.
Without this final qualification, the universe could be a vast multiplicity of solitary events, a sea of ships passing in the night. There is absolutely no inherent reason why creative acts, even with Christ as their common substructure, locus and aim, should necessarily interact with one another, i.e. exhibit togetherness. In fact, it is counter intuitive that they would; in such a model one event does not require another for its origin, its content or its aim so any interaction between entities would be gratuitous and perhaps superfluous.
But through Christ, things do hold together and bccause they hold together they eventually come to be reconciled (with one another) for him. This holding together is not a passive process of grouping; it is an interactive process of relating. The world is more like an organism than a mathematician’s set. Things merely grouped together do not necessarily hold together, nor do they mutually modify one another; things in our world do.
Interactivity, relationship, is the glue that holds things together and interactivity bewteen two entities can only occur when those entities, though irreconcilably distinct, nevertheless enjoy elements in common. Without elements in common, entities would lead solitary, solpcistic lives. With elements in common, entities have the potential to engage in a process of mutual modification, harmonization, which can lead to mutual reconciliation. Ultimate reconciliation, in which the lion lies down with the lamb, is the state we know of as “Peace”. And that is Salvation, the reconciliation of all things through, in and for Christ.
And now at last we are ready to talk directly of Incarnation, the active, immanent participation of Christ in the creative process. Nowhere in the Colossians’ creed is there explicit reference to Incarnation…because Incarnation is the subject matter of the text itself. The whole hymn is about Incarnation.
It is because of Incarnation that all things share a common element and so undergo a process of mutual reconciliation and so ultimately hold together. It is Incarnation that introduces that common element: Christ.
According to the doctrine of Incarnation, Christ, the first-born of creation and of the dead, the locus, the aim and the triumph of the creative process, also enters the creative process directly as one of its quantum elements: a single historical event. Yet in Christ, “all fullness was pleased to dwell.”
The topology of reality is turned inside out. The whole (fullness) has become one of its own parts. But that part, which is also the whole, because it is the whole, is itself composed of all other parts. Every entity that ever was or ever will be exists in that special part, which is the whole! All things hold together in that special part, the whole. Therefore, that special part, which is the whole, has something in common with each and every other part, every entity in Universe. Every entity has itself in common with the “quantum whole” (Christ). This topology is what establishes the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of relation in Universe.
And so begins the process of reconciliation. Every entity is now engaged in a process of mutual modification with the Christ entity. Through this process of mutual modification, the Christ entity becomes an element in the constitution of every other entity. So everything is in Christ…and now Christ is in everything. In fact, Christ (the Omega) is preeminent in all things.
But this is not a mere static reality; it is a dynamic process. Indeed, it is the origin and prototype of all dynamics. It is the origin of the incurably restless advance of the cosmos.
Just as every entity shares something in common (i.e. itself) with at least one other entity (i.e. the Christ entity), every entity also has something in common (i.e. the Christ entity) with every other entity. And now comes the good part: every entity engaged in a process of mutual modification with the Chirst entity is therefore potentially in a direct relationship with every other entity.
No entity can fail to be in relationship with the Christ entity because then that entity would not be part of the whole and therefore would not exist. Therefore every entity shares a common element with every other entity. Therefore, through the agency of Incarnation, every entity is potentially in relationship with every other entity. Because of the Incarnation, there is solidarity.
Without Incarnation, Creation is trivial and Salvation (reconciliation) impossible.
The model of Christian theology found in Colossians undermines naïve, linear theological notions: past (creation), present (incarnation) and future (salvation). Colossians superimposes all three moments! Likewise, the Christian model undermines naïve notions of logical hierarchy (whole/part, set/subset) by simultaneously affirming and inverting those relationships.
In discussing the structure of reality, we necessarily use ordinary language and ordinary lanaguage (at least today, in our culture) is steeped in notions of temporal succession and logical hierarchy. It is important to realize that when we speak of reality using temporal or hierarchical terms, we are speaking allegorically. Incarnation firmly and finally (sic) eliminates the possibility that temporality or hierarchy could be substructural.
As we struggle back and forth between ultimate cosmological concepts and ordinary language, it is helpful to return, over and over, to the creed of Colossians, which somehow manages to capture the fundamental nature of our world with minimal reliance on temporal or hierarchical terminology.