Cosmic Meaning Versus the Cosmic Christ

What does an illicit romantic affair have to do with war? How does slavery pertain to human psychology? The psychoanalytic and biblical claim is that all share the same structure and they each generate meaning through this structure. All depend upon a split or divide which generates a struggle or drive in which the imagined goal of love, peace, power, or success, is equated with resolution to the struggle.

“True love” cannot be obtained through the law as the deep core of the self is, by definition, that which is beyond the law. I cannot possibly be equated with or captured in something so prosaic as a norm, a law, or a covenant. Deep within me resides the essence of who I am and this essence is in excess of the law, beyond the human symbolic order. The relationship to one’s spouse is the prototypical social obligation, but how can this obligation, this contract, this burden, capture my true essence. Social life consists of an externally imposed law in which I cannot possibly recognize myself. This bind in no way captures the fullness of my capacity for love or more precisely, for being loved; instead, it curtails the depths of my desire which pertains to my true self. Strangely, I experience this depth of love most completely when I feel the imposition of the law. When I feel the forces of society and law as an opposition to my love, then I know that the precious treasure at my core can only be loved without being submitted to the rule of law.

In turn, the very definition of peace is the resolution achieved through war. There is no peace apart from the war which defines it – it would be unrecognizable in itself. Just as perverse love depends upon its opposition, war is not only the means to peace but a symptom of an ever-elusive peace. Just as love is dependent upon the logic of exception (that which exists as an exception to the law) there is a notion of peace that is a symptom of war; more an exception creating the rule of continuous warfare than any positive entity in itself. The contradiction of achieving peace through war seems to pose itself even more directly than the notion that love is necessarily transgressive, yet the path to peace through total war and obliteration seems inevitable.

So too, there is only one way to be a master and that is through the slave. Apart from this enslaved other the subject of master cannot exist. The slave may have the advantage in freeing himself from dependence on the master (at least in Hegel’s depiction) but he cannot pass beyond the dialectic. He potentially reaches its core in recognizing the master represents fear of death and does not, within himself, contain enslaving control. One must still tarry with the negative or face the reality of death and the fear of death to come to this core realization. (Hegel simply exposes the nothingness at the core of the system, but his is a reified nothing that would still keep the dialectic up and running as the subject is this self-antagonism. The dialectic of the subject is the subject.)

The contradiction clearly shows itself when the slave/master relation is reduced to a psychology in which one must play the role of both master and slave. Only continual self-punishment will bring either the pleasure found in ultimate control or the overcoming of that control. Pain and suffering are the very substance of domination and power. As in the wars of the 20th century, only total war – the war to end all wars – will bring bring an end to suffering (peace as obliteration). When it is a dynamic reduced to an individual the pain is the pleasure and the suffering is the power, but each system, individual and corporate, consists of the same twisted logic.

The drive to gain life, peace, love, and substance is turned into a simultaneous drive toward death, war, transgression, and annihilation. The ultimate subject is gained through a final overcoming. The illusion is to imagine the goal (the object giving rise to desire) can survive beyond the struggle. In every instance the subject which would be obtained is simultaneously generated and made impossible by the system of its creation. That is, the lure of the system is to imagine the transgression, the conflict, the subjugation, is a means to an end when it is the means which is generating the imagined end.

If this is the problem of sin, what difference might it make if this system goes unrecognized and the work of Christ is made to fit the problem rather than to defeat it? This explains the various forensic explanations of the work of Christ in which God is the subject gaining satisfaction from his own self punishment. God is reduced to a dialectic struggle, with the Father deploying evil men to kill his Son so that he might have the satisfaction of his suffering and death. Eternal suffering in hell is equated with the suffering of the Son on the Cross, so that no distinction can be made between those that torture the Son in the passion and the Father who requires that they carry out this torture – only he requires eternal torture as part of who he is as eternal justice.  

Knowledge of God, in this understanding, cannot be separated from the dialectic of the law. Through the “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” according to Tertullian, the vision of God is made possible. According to Thomas Aquinas, “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed.” Oh, happy day when we can delight, along with God, in relishing the torture of the majority of the human race, knowing that God’s justice and human will (particularly in the unrepentant) continue to exercise ultimate power. The law bringing about this punishing God is the means and end of this God. Life, God, and truth are folded into law, and the power or sovereignty of God (God as master) or the free will of human beings become the primary subjects of theological discourse.

Hegel and Calvin represent the culminating point of this God, with God either taking death and nothingness up into himself or being directly equated with evil. Atheism and fundamentalism are near equivalents – with leftist Hegelians presuming God disappears and makes room for a corporate (Marxist) spirit (incarnate will) and fundamentalists equating all that happens, good and evil, with this God. In this system evil is a means to the good, death is the means to life, love is consonant with hate, and sin is the occasion for grace. There is no truth beyond the dialectic. Even the resurrection gains its meaning as part of a dialectic with death and sacrifice. Resurrection becomes a footnote – sacrifice accepted – rather than death defeated.

No part of the work of Christ need challenge the contradictory nature of the system. Revelation is not the revealing of a new truth exposing the lie of sin, but is an establishment of the law. The law is not mitigated, corrected, or suspended but it becomes the economy for explaining the work of Christ. Rather than the work of Christ exposing the meaning systems of this world, his meaning is subsumed into this world order. This explains why the name of Christ has been invoked for justification of holocausts, inquisitions, crusades, war, and the worst of human horrors. Christ is incorporated into the dialectic which supports sexual transgression, war, and slavery, and which aggravates and does not cure the human disease.

Christ as revelation, exposing the lie of this world’s violent wisdom, establishes an alternative truth, peace, love, and subjectivity. Christianity as Revelation exposes a world order built upon the death-dealing orientation of dividedness and dialectic. Christ as God, as the Cosmic Christ, as the full openness of God, is not an addendum, a proviso, or a fulfillment (in the way this is normally understood). Christ is revelation in a two-fold sense: his work is an exposure of the lying dialectic generating this world’s meaning and he serves as foundation to an alternative world of meaning and truth. Christ is the structuring order or the inner ground of creation and it is in him that creation’s purpose is revealed.

Salvation in Christ is not simply a negation of sin, or an effect of the Fall, but the goal of creation. A Christianity focused on the Fall is of the same order as love that needs transgression, peace which requires war, and self-mastery which includes self-enslavement. Sin becomes the essence of salvation where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation. So too every doctrine is reduced. In this failed system predestination is not about cosmic purposes but about who is in and who is out; the incarnation is not a revealing of the essence of God but a secondary manifestation; the resurrection is not about the defeat of death but about a payment accepted; and redemption is not about participation in the Trinity but about going to a disembodied heaven. The mission of Christ, reduced to payment for sin, misses the incarnation as the principle and purpose behind creation. It misses the fact that creation’s purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man), that redemption is cosmic completion, and that the Church’s part in a continued incarnation is a fulfillment of creation. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). In Christ, love, peace, and identity are not an effect or symptom of the law and sin but, in the words of Athanasius, an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the fundamental hurdle to a sin-based notion of Christ is the attachment to human decision, human history, and human time as the controlling factor in the purposes of God. The work of Christ is depicted as necessarily subsequent to sin, rather than as who and what has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). In Scripture there is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9). The will of God does not reside in some dark transcendent council as his will has been revealed in Christ.

Love, peace, and human wholeness cannot be adequately grounded in a salvation geared to deliverance as they will continue to be grounded in a failed cosmic order. Only by recognizing Christ as the foundation of a new order of meaning can we escape the cycles of transgressive love, war, and oppression. Salvation is the overcoming of sin but it accomplishes this overcoming only in a positive fulness and return to Christ as the completion of creations purpose. God’s plan in Christ is beyond human meaning as it is an outworking of love, peace, and identity as participation in the very essence of God.

The Cosmic Christ

Vitruvian Man

 A fundamental teaching of the New Testament, largely lost to the Western tradition but preserved (if left undeveloped) in the East, is that the incarnate Christ is the goal, the structuring order, or the inner ground of creation. Partially recovered by St. Francis and Karl Barth is this deep grammar of Scripture that makes of the Bible a “strange new world,” in Barth’s phrase.  It is only in recognizing that incarnation is not the fall back plan (utilized due to the accident of sin) but creation’s purpose, which provides coherence to key biblical doctrines such as salvation, predestination, and redemption. It is not creation and Fall which give rise to the necessity of incarnation; rather creation, in Athanasius’ explanation, is an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation, failed humanity and its potential recovery become the ground of meaning feeding into every key theological concept.  For example, the doctrine of predestination becomes an abstract doctrine about who is in and who is out, rather than about God’s purpose in creation found in Christ. For Barth this decision of God before all time, to be who he is for humanity, is the basic truth on which all other Christian truths are built. In his reformulation of the doctrine it becomes central to who God is as the electing God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together make a choice that the Son of God will become the elected man, Jesus of Nazareth.

But maybe Barth has still not fully recovered the original sense of there being no time before this predestined purpose. That is, among the earliest Church fathers it is not simply the disincarnate Word but Jesus, the incarnate Christ, around which creation’s meaning flows. As John Behr notes, Athanasius “barely even mentions the birth of Jesus” as incarnation is already the principle behind creation.[1] Creations purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man) and this is the meaning of predestination (he is the predestined One), redemption (as cosmic completion), and the Church’s part in a continued incarnation.

Jesus Christ as the unfolding singular purpose of all things is what makes sense of such passages as Romans 9-11, which is not a depiction of arbitrary cruelty and reward, as if some pots are made for destruction and that’s all she wrote. Israel’s election or predestined purpose had always involved being narrowed down to the preeminent purpose of the Messiah, who would be “cast away” not simply for Israel or a few lucky souls but for the redemption of the world. Paul notes first, that “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32), and then ends on a note of universality (found also in both Colossians and Ephesians): “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This is what and who has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). There is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9).

Salvation is not simply deliverance from sin but fulfillment of who God is in Christ for creation. Where Jesus is reduced to helping us get rid of sin, what gets lost are the purposes for all of creation fulfilled in Christ but also in the Church as a continuation of incarnation. Certainly, salvation is the overcoming of sin but the fullness of redemption is the completion of creation’s purpose. Paul has moved our understanding of God’s plan beyond the earth and the human race to its cosmic impact as part of the outworking of the love (the very essence) of God. The whole point of who God is and what God was doing is summed up in the incarnate Christ (1:10). 

The completion of creation in Christ accounts for all the movements of history. The incompleteness of creation in the incompleteness of the first Adam points to the unfolding nature of creation’s purpose in history. The completion of man by the creation of woman means creation is an open-ended process (it has not ended with Genesis 1) in which the whole inner basis of humankind (contained in the name Adam) is an ongoing realization. The Second Adam completes the emergence of the human capacity for image bearing and the second Adam and his bride conjoin the human and divine for eternity. Paul pictures it both as an accomplished fact (“through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Ro 5:18, NASB)) and an unfolding process (“through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Ro 5:19)). The Church as the bride of Christ certainly indicates cosmic predestination was always the unfolding telos summing up all things. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Here is the revealing of “the mystery of his will” (1:9).

While we might argue about what caused the division between the sensibility of East and West (was it Augustine’s notion that no physician would have been sent apart from the disease of sin, or Anselm’s singular focus on satisfying God’s honor in light of the dishonor of sin?), what is certain is Eastern thought and small remnants of Western sensibility were not focused on the forensic accomplishments of Christ but the fulfillment of cosmological purposes. What was preserved in the focus on the “primacy of Christ” or “Christocentrism” is the Pauline notion that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature” (Colossians 1:15) or the Johannine notion of Christ’s recommencement of creation. What might be considered the fundamental doctrine of the New Testament, or the glue which holds it all together, is operative in Franciscan theology (as pointed out at the popular level by Richard Rohr), recovered in part by Karl Barth, but maintained as a key part of Eastern Orthodoxy. For example, Maximus the Confessor (among several Eastern theologians), held that the incarnation would have taken place without a Fall. In Duns Scotus’s terms (a Scottish Franciscan Friar), the Incarnation takes place in light of God’s glory and not due to any sin committed prior to the Incarnation. As Ilia Delio describes Scotus’s understanding, “The Incarnation represents not a divine response to a human need for salvation but instead the divine intention from all eternity to raise human nature to the highest point of glory by uniting it with divine nature.”[2] God is perfect love and wills according to the perfection of that love. Since perfect love cannot will anything less than the perfection of love, Christ would have come in the highest glory in creation even if there was no sin and thus no need for redemption

 In this understanding, the constitution and meaning of the cosmos is summed up by the incarnate Christ, who redeems fallen humanity but who is primarily the completion of the cosmos. This pertains not only to the integration of things in heaven and earth but there is a clearer integration of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ if we see in Christ the completion of creation and not the means of escape. The Western focus on the forensics of the Cross tends to split not only heaven and earth but the person and work of Christ. We might speak of the primacy of Paul and the Cross in the West and a downgrading of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Christ, and the resurrection, but of course, this is a misconstrual of Paul, in which key terms are abstracted from the person and work of Christ.

Among the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus insisted on the primacy of the incarnate Word, with salvation not restricted to redemption from sin but inclusive of a process by which all are led from “infancy” to a state of maturity and which, in his doctrine of recapitulation, includes the summing up of the entire cosmos in Christ as its head. With this understanding as background, key terms such as “justification” or “rectification” are cosmic in proportion – making things right for the cosmos in the apocalyptic act of God in Jesus Christ. Such terms as “faith” pertain to Christ not as object but as the ground of faith. Through the death and resurrection of this faithful one the powers which hold people in bondage are defeated as they take up the Cross. This pertains not so much to reduplication of faith but participation in faith’s origin. As Barth describes it we have a part in the faithfulness of God, established in us when we meet the Christ in Jesus. As John Paul II put it, “He (Christ) satisfied the Father’s eternal love, that fatherhood that from the beginning found expression in creating the world, giving man all the riches of Creation, and making him “little less than God,” in that he was created ‘in the image and after the likeness of God.’” Here our image takes on its proper likeness to the divine image, not because Christ satisfies the wrath of God but because he satisfies his love.

A stark illustration of the centrality of Christ is found in the mysterious history surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Ancient thinkers had long considered the circle as representative of the divine and the square as representative of the earthly.  Leonardo, with the spirit of his age assumed the divine proportion was contained within the dimensions of the human body (some think he is his own model for the picture). Christ as Vitruvian Man accomplishes the squaring of the circle (the principle Leonardo presumed was present in the perfect man). The ordering principle of the circle is fit to the square of the world in the notion that Christ is the center of meaning of the cosmos. In this reinterpretation of the renaissance ideal (seemingly already a secularized version of a Christian notion), creation is not anthropocentric it is Christocentric. Christ is redeemer but redemption is not simply being “saved from” but rather being made “whole for” God’s creation purposes found in Christ.



[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), vii.

[2] Delio, “Revisiting the Franciscan Doctrine of Christ,” 9.