The Future of God-With-Us by Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
What little I know of retail sales I learned from two masters, Stevie & Gus Breslauer. While attending seminary in Hyde Park in Chicago the Breslauers employed me as a part-time sales clerk in their department store of the same name, Breslauer’s. The store was located in the Hyde Park Shopping Center at 53rd St. & Kendall just west of the IC tracks.
Here is what Stevie taught me about selling shoes. Let the customers know that the shoes they like are both comfortable and affordable. This is the way you let the customer mentally buy into the purchase because they think surely such a comfortable shoe should cost more. Nothing like the old “Both/And” technique.
Theologians also exploit the beauty of “both/and” thinking. However, they do it at a level of what appears to be paradox. This makes the issue at hand particularly interesting. The tools of the theologian make it possible to ask the question (and not be accused of doublespeak), “How can something be both one thing and another thing at the same time?” We can ask this because there is an elegance in the theological aesthetic of proportionality, balance, may one say “fit-ness.” From St. Bonaventure of “way back” to the 1200s to Hans Urs von Balthasar of the 20th century we are indebted to this aesthetical appreciation of how two things that seem to be radically different are actually the same thing.
For example, we ask, “What happens in Eucharist?” What is the meaning of sacrifice? For many of us who can reach to our own personal “way back” we recall the pietistic conviction of our youth that talked about the sacrifice of Calvary, of Jesus being crucified, which happened at every Mass. This held such a strong grip on our spiritual and psychological character that it likely still resides in some recessed corner of our personal makeup.
But then came the rediscovered awareness of kenosis, namely, the appreciation that Jesus was about self-emptying, self-giving. He was no passive victim. His life among us is not the violently relived event of his murder so much as it is the pattern of valuing the fullness of life over the individual life of the here and now.
The same can be said when we ask, “What happens in Incarnation?” What is the meaning of Word become flesh? Is it only the narrowly scoped teaching on the birth of Jesus and his coming into the world? Or is it also about the wonder and beauty of God embodying godself in all creation?
Teaching on Incarnation is, in addressing this question, yet another instance of “both/and.” Theology as well as our daily lived faith informs us that Incarnation is both. It is not enough that we have a story to tell about this historical birth and this specific point in time of the Word becoming human. It is, rather, a comprehensive and total reach that God is All in All – all around, all through, all within, all over, and all under.
Why does this matter? Because the God who embodies godself in All makes it completely obvious that the value of God’s creation – from each subatomic particle through individual sentient and intelligent creatures to the far stretches of the universe – this value is a treasure of ultimate worth.
The future of valuing humanity – individually and collectively – is, it should be obvious by now, at risk in our day. Whether we hold to the belief that I am to be like Christ who was born into humanity and look to that piece of Incarnation as the basis of my conviction on human value, or whether we hold to the view that each of us is God present – the embodiment of Godself – this value is treading on thin ice these days. Keep in mind that theologians regularly steer through these paradoxical waters.
But we look for real life examples. How about this? In terms of the relationship between human value and productivity the future places on a collision course the distinction between being able to produce on the one hand and making enough money from one’s productivity to live upon on the other. Hard-line Governors and legislators, these days, declare that every able-bodied person must work and they make income supports dependent upon such a narrowly focused policy. Really? Without regard to mental health, physical well-being. minimum wages, location of jobs offered, and many other factors we get something akin to the “if you don’t work then you don’t eat” mentality from such politicians.
No wonder that valuing humans is so skewed these days. The future of grocery stores without cashiers, Uber controlled cars without drivers, and plenty of other automated realities (person-less automations, I might add) coming in this 21st century just might give us deeper reasons to consider the future of value. Or, to put it another way, “Where are the jobs?”
Along with human value the future also invites us to consider the cosmos with its far reaches and possible multiple universes. The theologian draws on Incarnation as God’s embodiment in all creation. The future, as seen through theological eyes, includes that “both/and” treat of the eschatological terminology of “already and not yet.” We who acknowledge the divine “already” within all creation may more clearly see the divine “not yet” in our visions of what is to come.
Consider this prospect raised by Ilia Delio in her book, “Christ in Evolution.” Scientists have determined what are the basic elements that make life possible. In combination these elements already traverse the universe in meteors and other sizes of space debris. Scientists also postulate that if only 1 in every 150,000 planets contain these life-establishing elements there would be one million life-worlds in our galaxy alone. One could presume that some of these life-worlds may contain intelligent life. Would we say that this intelligent life would be the embodiment of Godself in the Milky Way Galaxy? Let us count the ways.
Yes, the future has its realities that give us pause. But the future also has its allurements.
As we heard in today’s 2nd Reading, St. Paul writes encouragingly in 1 Corinthians that God’s wisdom shines in our lives. This is the God who, Paul writes, speaks with the Spirit’s Word to our hearts, minds, and spirits. God reveals this to us so that our hope is both to find God who is already within and to love God who is not yet. God-with-us is also God-yet-to-be. Or, to put it another way, “The not yet is present in the already.”
As Stevie Breslauer taught me many, many years ago those shoes need to be both comfortable and affordable.
A Prayer (JR)
Living One, in whose freedom
creation was born as gift;
free us from the need to possess, define,
and silence others,
that we might rejoice
in the surprising openness of your
where frozen misery breaks, cracks,
and moves on to upstart
We pray through your Spirit
who moves in a manner known only to you,
Creator God, now and forever.