Reflections on the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches
The Holy Spirit was the focus of the World Council of Churches at its assembly in Canberra, Australia, in February 1991. The delegates met to “deliberate the mysteries of God the Spirit” in the last decade of the 20th century, just as “the now famous Azusa mission [witnessed] an outpouring of the Spirit . . . at the beginning of the century.”1
The Spirit and Creation
The immediate interest of the seventh assembly was the work of the Spirit in the Creation not only of humans but of plants and animals and the planet itself “along with all the other planets of the galaxy, and all the galaxies of the universe.” The burden of the assembly was to establish the “integrity of creation” as the “agenda of the church in the next century.” The oneness or integrity of Creation was championed as a worldview that “sees all things in connection and continuity, which recognizes that to harm one part of the universe is to harm the whole.” In this worldview “the unity of creation is not discovered but revealed to the eyes of faith, which see all in God and God in all — in the trees, flowers, and lakes, and also in the foundries, high tension lines, and expressways. God is in order and in chaos, ordering chaos by the Word and ‘chaoticizing’ order . . . to prepare for new seedings of the Word. God the Spirit is in all, but God is more than that which is inhabited; all is in God the Spirit, but God is more than the entirety God encompasses. . . . The Holy Spirit is the integrity of creation” because the “work of the Spirit of God (Gen. 1:2) . . . [comes] before the Word of creation.”
In this view the Spirit and Creation are linked “through the consciousness of the believer. This linkage does not produce an illusory vision of reality; it rather opens the eyes of the faithful to see reality as God sees it.”
According to the seventh assembly, the linkage between the Spirit and Creation supersedes the “unbalanced preoccupation with Christology . . . , covenant and history.” Furthermore, it challenges the “highly articulated division between subject and object, observer and observed, actor and action, thing and meaning, event and interpretation.”
A Cosmic Monism
Essentially, the World Council of Churches has earnestly sought to reinvoke a cosmic monism (oneness) — a form of pantheism (God is everything; everything is God) or panentheism (God is in everything; everything is in God) in which God is inextricably immanent in all time and space, in all matter and energy, in all life-forms and, preeminently, in all human consciousness. The purpose is to sacralize or “reenchant” all Creation and thus to exalt Creation and protect Creation from its historic exploitation by man.
In such a worldview, however, all human relationships — all human freedom from domination, submission and dependence, and all freedom to live, love, work and play as human individuals in community — are submerged and annihilated. God ultimately initiates all, sustains all, effects all, constitutes all. The beautiful work of God in creating time and space, matter and energy, biological life and human consciousness, engulfs the beautiful freedom God has given for Creation to respond, to emerge, to develop, and to be free.
The “Kenotic” Worldview
In opposition to such cosmic monism:
1. The “kenotic” (from Greek, kenosis = self-limitation2) worldview visualizes a God who called the cosmos of time and space, of matter and energy, into existence and then “made room” for that cosmos to emerge and develop. In this process, for example, the natural explosion of stars — supernova — provides the heavy elements that condense over billions of years to form the planets.
2. The kenotic worldview visualizes a God who spoke and called the cosmos of biological life and of living forms into existence and then “made room” for those life-forms to develop through genetic mutation and evolution.
3. The kenotic worldview visualizes a God who spoke and called the cosmos of human consciousness into existence and then “made room” for consciousness to develop in history through cultural adaptation.
4. The kenotic worldview visualizes a God who is soon to appear to transform all humanity into fully and truly “human” beings who possess such creativity that they are freed from all domination, all submission and all dependence, and are freed to live, love, work and play in eternal human individuality and community.
5. Finally, rather than all meaning, value, significance and freedom vanishing in a “cosmic soup,” the kenotic worldview visualizes a God who transforms all relationships so that the “I and Thous”3 are eternally free, with infinite possibilities for development, exploration, realization and expression.
- Quotations are from Paul R. Fries, “Explorations in the Spirit and Creation,” Perspectives 6, no. 1 (January 1991): 10-13. (go back)
- The Greek word kenosis means “to empty.” Kenotic theology sees God as “emptying” himself, as limiting himself, as “corning down” — not to judge, condemn and punish humanity or to bind humanity in eternal subjection, but to embrace humanity as his own reality. See “‘The God’s Are Come Down to Us in the Likeness of Men,’” Outlook (Prolepsis 1991.1). See also Lucian Richard, Christ: The Self-Emptying of God (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 94: “ . . . God is considered as absolute letting-be, as self-giving, as self-spending. Kenosis [self-emptying] is understood as the way God relates to the world; creation is a work of love, of self-giving.” (go back)
- See Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923) (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958). (go back)
This article was originally published April 1991 under the Quest imprint.