For over 4,000 years mankind (male and female) has searched for ultimate reality. Primitive cultures saw this reality as gods who disclosed themselves in nature. Later, with the emergence of philosophy, mankind believed that there was an “essence” or “beingness” from which all other realities proceeded. The actual identity of this ultimate essence has long been disputed. Some have looked for the ultimate “particle” or “energy.” Others have searched for the ultimate “force” or “field.” Still others have sought the basic “vibration,” “wave” or “pulse.” Many are convinced that the final essence is “preconsciousness,” “subconsciousness” or “consciousness.” Yet, despite the debate over the actual identity of the ultimate essence, virtually everyone has agreed that individual entities are derived from some universal, pre-existent essence and that they eventually return to this essence.
Mankind also has considered the way in which individual entities supposedly emerged from a single, pre-existent essence. It has generally been assumed that the eternal essence was the initial “architect” of the universe and that this “essential” architect had an infinite collection of thoughts from which were developed universal models called “archetypes.” It also has been assumed that these models or archetypes were the original, uncreated patterns from which all created entities emerged, radiated, emanated, or were constructed. Furthermore, it has been thought that relationships or relationality could be established only when these created entities appeared. In other words, mankind has intuitively regarded relationality as emerging from individual entities and finally disappearing with the return of entities to the cosmic essence.2
Mankind also has assumed that the basic nature of relationships among entities is vertical — above and below — or hierarchical. Thus, the pre-existent essence has been seen, either as transcendently above or below all else, or as before and apart from all else. Later, this essence often came to be viewed as immanently possessed within all else. In each case the uncreated essence and the archetypes were regarded as superior to created entities. Thus, all relationships involved domination of or submission to uncreated reality as well as possession of or by such reality.
From these primitive assumptions arose the political power structures of ancient empires along with the ecclesiastical power structures of ancient religions. Finally, these assumptions gave birth to the communal or social power structures so familiar to ancient Greeks and to our modern world. All these have been based on ideas of collective superiority, domination and possession. Today we confront overwhelming evidence that humanity cannot survive dominating, possessive and derivative relationships, for they inevitably lead to violence, exclusion and extermination. We therefore face the global collapse of all hierarchical worldviews.
This crisis has led to an intense effort to replace “vertical” with “horizontal” thinking. The attempt to resolve the supposed hierarchical superiority of uncreated essence over created entities envisions that the universe of entities can finally return to full union with the eternal essence. Moreover, this worldview imagines that such a union has always existed at the “ground of being” but has yet to rise to full human consciousness. Actually, this conclusion harks back 2,000 years to belief in pantheism (God is everything; everything is God) or panentheism (God is in everything; everything is in God). However, in our day this belief has had a postmodern revival in a desperate effort to resolve vertical thinking and thus avoid the collapse of human culture and civilization.3
Tragically, belief in the universal union of entities with the ultimate essence is leading to the divinization of everything and everyone. The frightening prospect is a battle of the “gods.” If there is one supreme God (ultimate essence) and everyone claims to be that one God, then there must be universal contention to achieve and display the final “oneness” of “essential” dominion. The determination to do anything and everything to possess and express the self-existent essence can only magnify and multiply violence. Our world is thus moving toward human cataclysm. Thankfully, this delusional quest for transcendent dominance and possession through union with the ultimate essence is destined to fail. As we face this crisis, we now need to return to the “beginning.”
Whether regarded as historical, mythical or otherwise, the Genesis account is crucial to understanding our present crisis. Genesis opens with the words, “In the beginning God [Elohim] . . . ” (Genesis 1:1, RSV). Elohim is plural (Gods) — in apparent contradiction to the claim that there is just One God. As the Genesis Creation progresses from the first to the sixth day, Elohim states, “Let us make man in our image . . . ” (Genesis 1:26, RSV, emphases supplied). Yet, when Elohim finishes his Creation, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31, RSV). Thus, from the very beginning, we confront a fundamental paradox. There is just One God, but this One God speaks, acts and creates in the plural.
Understanding this paradox of Genesis is fundamental to understanding all reality. There is just One God, but that God is the God of relationality. Before there was anything or anyone else, there was divine relationality. This divine relationality has long been understood in terms of covenant. Covenant is not merely the consequence of divinity. Covenantal relationality is the very nature of divinity. Contrary to our “self-evident” intuition, God is not ultimate essence or “beingness” at all. Rather, God is ultimate relationality and “becoming.” Thus, “in the beginning” there was divine relationality (Elohim). Divine relationality interacted with itself, consulted with itself, and determined to begin the observable disclosure of relationality through Creation. So, in Genesis, God says, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light. . . . ‘Let there be a firmament . . . ’ And it was so. . . . ‘[L]et the dry land appear.’ And it was so. . . . ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation . . . ’ And it was so. . . . ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures . . . ’ And . . . it was good” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 7, 9, 11, 24, 25, RSV).
The first Genesis covenant was a covenant within divinity, within the Godhead. Because it was a covenant, it was relational. God himself is ultimate relationality rather than essence, and that relationality existed before all “things.” Again, against all human intuition, relationality — not essence — pre-exists all things or entities and calls them into existence. Individual entities do not pre-exist and then develop relationality. Relationality pre-exists entities, creates entities, and maintains entities in relationship. The question is not whether the chicken or the egg came first, for creative relationality acted to call both the chicken and the egg into relational existence. To use an analogy from the atomic world, it is as though the virtual and relational photons that pass between a proton nucleus and an orbiting electron pre-exist the atom — and that is so. It is as though the quantum vacuum or field of cosmic space precedes all matter and energy — and that is so. It is as though human personhood exists as relationality between an inner and an outer self — and that is so. It is as though the Triune God existed as Relationality before Creation — and that, too, is so.
Thus, when “Elohim” initiated Creation, he/they embarked on Creation as a consequence of divine relationality. Moreover, to preserve relationality, the Godhead always created out of the “other” rather than out of himself. The first “otherness” was “nothingness” (2 Maccabees 7:28), for “in the beginning” “no-thing” or entity existed. Because God engaged in creatio ex nihilo (Creation out of nothing), even the inaugural Creation was relational in nature. The Genesis account then continues its relational perspective. Next, the Godhead creates Adam out “of dust from the ground” (Genesis 2:7, RSV). And finally, God creates Eve “out of” Adam (Genesis 2:23, RSV). God created Adam and Eve as a consequence of divine relationality. Moreover, God created them out of created relationality into relationship with the created order.
Let us be clear that in Genesis the primal covenant is within the Godhead. God then made Adam (man) a secondary party of the Edenic covenant and a steward of covenantal Creation. In the emerging situation Adam was given dominion over the created order. Not surprisingly, Adam proceeded to assume a vertical perspective on everything. Furthermore, he soon began to assume that his destiny was to be a fully divine covenantal partner rather than a stewardship party of the covenant. Thus, when the serpent entered the garden, it tempted Adam and Eve with the promise that they would know (see Genesis 3:5). The Hebrew word for know is yada, which not only can mean to understand or to have sexual intercourse, but also to enter into covenant. Adam and Eve wanted to know — that is, to enter into a fully divine covenantal partnership.
In Genesis, man’s desire for divinity led to the termination of his dominion over the earthly created order. But despite this, mankind has persistently attempted to regain an assumed covenantal dominion. Although a created entity, man has imagined that he can achieve success in this attempt by somehow recovering the divine essence and existing apart from all relationality. So it is that, in the aftermath of his delusional “Fall” from relational stewardship with God, man has invented various power structures designed to regain his lost dominion.
In this situation God ventured to enter into a subsidiary or subordinate covenant with the chosen people of Israel. This covenant was finalized at Mount Sinai after the exodus of Israel from Egypt. In the Mosaic covenant God issued specific commands, laws and conditions under which he would be Israel’s God and Israel would be his people. This interim covenant is known as a suzerainty covenant, for it was between a ruler and those who agreed to be ruled.4 Israel was not an equal or parity partner, as in the Genesis covenant within the Godhead. Nor was Israel a full covenantal steward, as was Adam. Rather, Israel was a subordinate party within a suzerainty covenant. In response to God’s covenantal proposal, the children of Israel declared, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8, RSV). Nevertheless, they repeatedly broke their covenantal relationship.
God, however, did not break his covenantal relationship with Israel. Instead, he instituted the tabernacle and Temple symbols, which promised a new covenant with humanity. Here was foreshadowed a new Creation by the sacrifice of God himself. The Outer Court, with its Altar of Burnt Offering, symbolized his sacrifice. Next, the First Apartment, with its services, pointed to his embodied resurrection. And finally, the Most Holy Place, with its Ark of the Covenant and Mercy Seat, represented his enthronement. The new covenant, promised in the tabernacle and its services, was not to be hierarchical or vertical. It was not to be a covenant of transcendence or of immanence, of domination or submission, of possession or being possessed. Rather, the new covenant — new relationality, new Creation — would involve an egalitarian relationship (equal status) within humanity. This equality would be so radical that mankind would no longer be called the servants of God, but his “friends” (see John 15:15).
In this new covenant — new relationality — God himself would extend his relationality to embrace humanity. God himself would become human. The kenosis5 — self-emptying or condescension of God to become human — would involve his abandonment and rejection of self-existence, of transcendence and immanence, of domination and submission, of possession and being possessed. It would convey his repudiation of essence, “beingness,” and of archetypal derivatives. In the promise of the new covenant, God declared that he himself would be present. His presence would be relationality itself and, therefore, the ultimate source of all Creation. Yet that presence would have to be unobtrusive in order that it might be truly human. If God had come to earth and overtly declared or demonstrated his pre-existent divinity, he would have totally compromised his humanity. For this reason the true reality of God as Jesus Christ had to be encoded, encrypted, and only gradually disclosed to human understanding through such metaphors as the “Messianic servant.”
This progressive disclosure was central to the prophetic witness. Thus, the sacrificial death of the Messianic servant:
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
— Isaiah 53:4-9, RSV.
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo.” — Zechariah 12:10, 11, RSV.
And thus, his embodied resurrection:
For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. — Psalm 16:10, KJV.
But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me. — Psalm 49:15, KJV.
And thus, his enthronement:
Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in holy array;
tremble before him, all the earth!
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yea, the world is established, it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
— Psalm 96:6-10, RSV; see also
Psalms 24, 47, 89, 93, 97, 99, 146.
In Old Testament times the chosen people assumed that the tabernacle symbolized their political, religious and social power structures. They apparently failed to grasp the divine implications of their own tabernacle/Temple and its services as well as their own prophetic witnesses and canonical writings.
Nevertheless, the Christ event can only be properly understood in the context of Old Testament Judaism. Furthermore, the Christ event can only be understood over against the departure of the chosen people from their unique gift of covenantal Creation and their adoption of political, religious and social power structures assumed to possess the primal “essence” or “beingness.” This departure has been embraced by all mankind, bringing our world to the brink of human collapse. Yet this imminent collapse is actually the signal for the disclosure that there is no original or final “essence” upon which to rest relationality. Moreover, it is the signal for the disclosure that Judaism has given us preeminent and radically counterintuitive6 truths:
1. Ultimate reality is a primal relationality that precedes all entities.
2. Ultimate reality is a final relationality that is present to all entities.
3. Ultimate reality includes all entities as the “face” or observable manifestation of created relationality.
- See “Outlook Articles,” e.g. “The Gospel for the Postmodern World,” Parts I-VIII, Outlook (November 2007 - June 2008), at worldviewpublications.org/outlook. (go back)
- See Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954); “Escape from History I: Interpretive Review of and Commentary on Mircea Eliade,” Outlook (Prequel 1997.1); “The Mythical Battle Against Chaos,” Outlook (Prequel 1998.5); “The ‘Other’ Question,” Outlook (July/August 2004, originally published as a January-March 2000 prequel to subsequent online Outlook articles and therefore not duplicated as an online Outlook prequel). (go back)
- See “Change or Die!” Outlook (Prequel 1999.1). (go back)
- See George E. Mendenhall, “The Suzerainty Treaty Structure: Thirty Years Later,” in Edwin B. Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss and John W. Welch, eds., Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). (go back)
- See Wikipedia, s.v. “Kenosis,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenosis. (go back)
- For a foundational study of counterintuitive relationality, see James E. Loder and W. Jim Neidhardt, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of the Spirit in Theology and Science (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, Publishers, 1992). (go back)
- See note 1.(go back)
- For a reflection on the implications of “God is love,” see “On the Philosophical Necessity of the Trinity Based on the Attributes of God.” Thus, “ . . . [T]he trinity [or some kind of plurality] becomes philosophically necessary for God. Yes there is one God only but this God is love and is relational. And hence there needs to be ‘interaction of giving and receiving within the Godhead.’” Cf. “The Gospel for the Postmodern World I: The ‘Good News’ of the Triune God,” Outlook (November 2007). (go back)
- For a new interpretation of St. Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, see Sarah Heaner Lancaster, “Three-Personed Substance: The Relational Essence of the Triune God in Augustine’s De Trinitate.” Thus, “ . . . [T]hose who are concerned to stress God’s relationality often view Augustine’s position as a barrier to this understanding because Augustine is taken to have given priority to the one substance over the three persons. Thus, it is said, he has stressed absolute essence at the expense of relationality. . . . In contrast, I will try to show that rather than giving priority to substance over relation, Augustine is trying to bring the reader to an understanding of God in which substance is itself three-personed. The substance itself is the relations of the persons.” Cf. note 10. (go back)
- The Latin word persona, from which three “Persons” evolved, was employed to describe the mask or role an actor used on stage. However, with the evolution of language, “three persons” has come to mean three people. Yet no good theologian of the church catholic has ever taught that God is three different people. Cf. note 9. (go back)