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A Theology of Creation

by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon


The present article is another presentation by the reverend Metropolitan of Pergamon fr. John Zizioulas, on the topic of Creation and Man's stance towards it.  The presentation was a homily delivered in Zurich on the 10th March 1989.


"Man is an animal called to become God," said one of the Fathers of the Church. And that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification. But there is also another, terrible path man has wanted -- and still wants to make of the world his prey, to be its tyrant and not its king and priest. He has made for himself, out of the potential transparency of all things when restored in Christ, the mirror of Narcissus.

Today that mirror is breaking up; the maternal sea is polluted, the heavens are rent, the forests are being destroyed and the desert areas are increasing. We must protect creation; better yet we must embellish it, render it spiritual, transfigure it. (...) But nothing will be done unless there is a general conversion of men's minds and hearts (in the Bible, the mind and the heart are the same thing). Nothing will happen unless our personal and liturgical prayer, our sacramental life, our asceticism regain their cosmic dimension. Today I wish to sketch out a theology of creation.


Reuniting the whole universe under one Master, Christ.

Cosmology is a form of knowledge which is given to us in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

"The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word," wrote St. Maximus the Confessor, "contains within itself the whole meaning of the created world. He who understands the mystery of the Cross and of the Tomb knows the meaning of all things, and he who is initiated into the hidden meaning of the Resurrection understands the goal for which God created everything from the very beginning."

If this is so, it means in effect that everything has been created by and for the Word, as the Apostle says (Col. 1:16-17), and that the meaning of this creation is revealed to us in the re-creation effected by this same Word taking flesh, by the Son of God becoming the son of the earth. (...) The Word is the archetype of all things, and all things find in him their consummation, their "recapitulation". (...) such is indeed the "mystery of the Father's will" which the apostle announces to the Ephesians: "That he might unite all things in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:10).

Thus, it is the Church as eucharistic mystery which gives us knowledge of a universe which was created to become a eucharist. The eucharist as spirituality and as action corresponds to the eucharist as sacrament. "Make eucharist (i.e. give thanks) in all things," as Paul says (1 Th. 5:18). In this perspective the Fathers maintain that the historical Bible gives us the key to the cosmic Bible. In this they are faithful to the Hebrew notion of the Word, which not only speaks, but creates: God is "true" in the sense that his word is the source of all reality, not only historical but also cosmic reality. In the priestly account of the creation, things exist only through a divine word, which raises them up and maintains them in their being. (...). The relationship between Scripture and the world corresponds to that of the soul and the body: he who has in Christ a spiritual understanding of the first will be given a profound understanding of the second.


A dynamic movement towards transparence

What does this profound understanding which comes to us by way of the Fathers and the prophets of all the ages of the Church tell us?

First it makes two complementary affirmations: it says that the creation has its own consistency, but is animated by a dynamic movement towards transparence. Then it speaks to us of the part man his to play, and thus of creation in the history of salvation.

The universe is not simply a manifestation of the Godhead. (...) It was created radically new, from nothing (...) as is implied above all in the two creation narratives in Genesis. The notion of "nothing" here is a kind of "limit" and suggests that God, who has no "beyond", makes the universe appear by a kind of "self-withdrawal": the location of the world is thus within the love of God, a love which is supremely inventive while at the same time it is sacrificial. (...) The universe springs from the hands of the living God, who sees that it is tov, that is, "good an beautiful". Thus it is willed by God, it is the joy of his wisdom, and exults in that reverential joyfulness which is described in the Psalms and in the cosmic passages of the Book of Job.(...)

The biblical and patristic conception of creation breaks down the cyclical obsession of the ancient religions. Creation, the perpetual passage from nothing into being through the magnetic attraction of the infinite, is a movement in which we are given simultaneously time, space and matter.

So in the Christian vision, nature is a true reality, dynamic, in no way divine in itself -- we know that Genesis, from this point of view, "desacralizes" both stars and living things -- yet is willed and wanted by God, finding its place and its vocation in his love.


Nature is inseparable from grace

At the same time the early Fathers, like the Orthodox religious philosophers of our century, when meditating on the great Pauline insights, have rejected the notion of any such thing as "pure nature". Uncreated grace, the glory of God, the divine energies which shine forth from the risen Christ, are at the very root of things. Nature is inseparable from grace, and the carnal, in its very density, is spirit-bearing.

Everything expresses in its own way the divine glory in accordance with the living word by which and in which God brings it into being. Prayer is at the heart of all things; their very existence is ontological praise, and there is a hiddenness in the openness of their testimony. For as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:41, "There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory." It is the word doxa that is translated here by "glory".

The world is a gift and word from God, and all the words that God sends us are contained in the eternal Word, who is himself inseparable from the breath which gives us life. "The Father has created everything by the son in the Holy Spirit," wrote St. Athanasius of Alexandria, "for what the Word makes takes on life in the Holy Spirit." In the very existence of the world, in its rationality and in its beauty, the Trinity reveals itself. The Church of the first centuries liked to comment in this sense on Ephesians 6:4: "One god and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all." God "above all", the source of all existence -- the Father; God "through all", as structure and intelligence -- the Logos, Word, Wisdom and Reason of the universe; God "in all" -- the Spirit, the dynamism of fulfilment and of beauty.


How to decipher the universe in a creative way

It falls to man to decipher in a creative way the "book of the world, this immense logos alogos, or speechless word", as Origen defined the world. In Genesis God asks Adam to "name the animals", a naming which includes all modes of knowledge and expression, from contemplation to art and science. Man is a microcosm, a synthesis of all creation, which he can therefore know from within; he is the interface between the visible and the invisible, between the carnal and the spiritual. But man is above all a person, in the image and the likeness of God. As such he transcends the universe, not in order to leave it behind, but in order to contain it, to give expression to its praise and there my cause grace to shine forth within it.

Nicholas Berdyaev, a great Orthodox religious philosopher of the first half of our century, wrote: "The person is not a part and cannot be a part of any whole, even if this should be the entire universe (...). Only the person is capable of possessing a universal content; it is, in its unicity, potentially the universe (...)."

Man should listen to the cosmic words that God is speaking to him, and return them to him as an offering, after having marked things with his creative power. And when I say man, I mean of course man in communion, I mean humanity in its vocation as a "collective, cosmic Messiah".

Thus man, for the universe, is the hope of receiving grace and sanctification. But he brings with him the risk of failure and downfall as well, for, when turned away from God, we only see the appearances of things, the "shadow which passes", as Paul says, what is available to our senses, what we can "get our teeth into", as popular language says significantly. Blocking partially the radiance of the divine light, we condemn the world to death and let chaos overcome it.


A vocation to transparency

Cosmology is inseparable from the history of salvation. Orthodox theology, spirituality and all the experience of Eastern Christianity stress that the Fall, the occultation of man's condition in paradise, constitutes a truly cosmic catastrophe. But it is a catastrophe which is not accessible to science, because it took place in another dimension of reality and because scientific observation belongs inevitably to the modalities of our fallen existence.

God did not create death. But He has used it in the present stage of evolution, up to the point of becoming incarnate, so as to crush spiritual death and give back to man his vocation as created creator and to restore to matter its sacramental character.

Christ, through His Incarnation, His Resurrection, His Ascension and His sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. (...)

Absolute personal existence, the Lord as a divine Person, "One of the Holy Trinity", as our Liturgy says, not only lets himself be contained by the universe at one particular point in space and time, but by realizing at last the vocation of the person, he contains the universe hidden in himself. He does not want, like us, to take possession of the world; he assumes it and offers it up in an attitude which is constantly eucharistic; he makes of it a body of unity, the language and flesh of communion.

In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency. And so we have the miracles of the Gospel; in no way are they "wonders" to impress us, but "signs", anticipations of the ultimate re-creation of the world. A world without death comes into sight, where things are presences and men, at last, are faces. (...)


The metamorphosis of the cosmos

At the same time this transfiguration remains a secret, hidden under the veil of the sacraments, out of respect for our freedom. Though illuminated in Christ, the world nevertheless remains darkened by us, fixed in its opacity by our own spiritual opacity, delivered over to the forces of chaos by our own inner chaos. "The desert is growing", said Nietzche a century ago, speaking of man's heart. And today we can see it growing in nature. (...)

The metamorphosis of the cosmos requires not only that God should become man in Christ, but also that man should become God in the Holy Spirit, that is, should become fully man, capable of the gentleness of the strong and of the love which knows how to submit itself to all that lives, in order to make it grow. Christ has made men capable of receiving the Spirit, that is, of collaborating with the cosmic coming of the Kingdom.

In Christ, in His divine-human body, in His divine-cosmic body where the Spirit blows, the ultimate stage of the "cosmogenesis" has begun, with its upheavals and its promises. "The fire hidden and stifled under the cinders of this world will burst forth and divinely set alight the crust of death," said St. Gregory of Nyssa. And no doubt this ultimate conflagration will be an irruption, a breaking-open, but it is for man to prepare for it by sweeping away the cinders, by bringing the secret incandescence to the surface of the world.

Such is, such should be, the role of the Church. Between the first and the second coming of the Lord, there is the Church, whose cosmic history is that of giving birth, the giving birth to the universe as the glorious body of a deified humanity. The Church is the womb in which is being woven the universal body of the new Man, of renewed men.

This theme of giving birth runs through the whole of the Bible, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, from Eve to the land "flowing with milk and honey" (Ex. 3:8), from Mary at the foot of the Cross to the woman "clothed with the sun", "who was with child and cried out in her pangs of birth in anguish for delivery" (Rev. 12:2). In the Epistle to the Romans Paul writes: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail ... until the time of its regeneration ... with the hope that it will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:20-22).


Article published in English on: 16-2-2009.

Last update: 16-2-2009.