Olivia Graham, recently-appointed Bishop of Reading, has given this short theological introduction about why Christians should care for the environment.
I have watched and listened to the whole thing, and agree with Ian Paul that statements such as the following make one’s ears prick up:
2.48 The incarnation isn’t a single birth, but it began 14 billion years ago with an event we call the Big Bang. At that moment, God poured Godself into the emerging universe…every particle of it charged with the incarnate presence of God. The whole earth, then, is God’s body, the whole cosmos is incarnational…
3.22 Creation and incarnation are not two separate events, but one process of God’s self-giving and self communication.
4.22 All that happens is sustained and sanctified; every act of evolving nature is an act of God, because every act of nature’s growth is the energy of divine love. Evolution is not only of God, but is God incarnate.
5.00 Can there be any separation between the sacred and the profane?
5.16 Father, we praise you with all your creatures…they are filled with your presence and your tender love.
5.41 Today you [Jesus] are alive in every creature in your risen glory.
Bishop Olivia attempts to provide biblical support for these views by appealing to Colossians:
15 [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.
She appeals also to the famous Prologue to John’s Gospel (ch. 1):
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…3 All things came into being through him…the Word became flesh and Dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.
Now, the attentive reader will notice that these texts say pretty much the opposite of what Bishop Olivia wants them to say. They assert that all things were created by and with and through Christ. But they do not assert that the creation is an incarnation of God. Far from it: according to John 1:18, the eternal Word of God (Christ) became incarnate when he ‘became flesh,and dwelt among us.’
‘Simply put,’ (writes Ian Paul)
‘it is a central affirmation of Scripture, and of all orthodox theology in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that God is distinct from God’s creation, and should not be confused with it—in striking contrast to a whole range of other religious traditions.’
Bishop Olivia wants us to ‘go more broadly and deeply’ into the incarnation. But to attempt to apply what properly only belongs to Jesus to the whole of creations is neither broad, nor deep, but rather bizarre and muddled.
Apparently, responses on social media have included personal attacks (which are, of course, inexcusable) to accusations of heresy. With regard to the latter, it is difficult to see how Bishop Olivia can avoid the charge of teaching pantheism (a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God). She has provided the following ‘clarification‘…
The event of the Incarnation of Christ, at a moment in time and in a place on Earth was unique, unrepeatable and salvic [sic]. Through this event, as Colossians 1 puts it, we see in Christ, not only the image of the invisible God, but the fulness of God, and the whole of the created world has access to ultimate reconciliation with God… I can see that the words I used had a pantheistic ring to them, which I did not intend (God and creation are not the same thing). But I think that it is helpful, in considering our relationship to our world to think about the notion that the Divine pervades every part of the universe, while clearly being above, beyond and greater than the universe.
…although this looks to me more like a piece of rather defensive back-tracking. As Ian Paul remarks, if she didn’t intend for her video to sound pantheistic, she should withdraw it.
As Ian Paul rather slyly remarks, it would be nice to think that Bishop Olivia got her ideas from reading ‘too much Spinoza, or Hegel, or Whitehead’. But the source may be simpler, and closer to hand. Richard Rohr has written:
‘Through the act of creation, God manifested the eternally out-flowing Divine Presence into the physical and material world. Ordinary matter is the hiding place for Spirit and thus the very Body of God…When Paul wrote, “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11), was he a naïve pantheist or did he really understand the full implication of the Gospel of Incarnation? God seems to have chosen to manifest the invisible in what we call the “visible,” so that all things visible are the revelation of God’s endlessly diffusive spiritual energy.’
This whole episode raises the question of how a person (male or female) can have trained for ordained ministry, have twenty years’ of experience behind them, then reach the office of bishop, but still imagine they are going into things ‘more broadly and deeply’ when in fact they are leading people into confusion.