the anthropocene and the incomprehensible holy mystery
For about the past 12,000 years, since the Ice Age, the Earth has been in the geological era that scientists call the Holocene. I’m not sure you’ve noticed but it’s been a relatively stable period with remarkably stable temperature range. It’s within this period that all of human civilization developed and spread across the planet, especially in the past five thousand years. With the growth of civilizations, however, humanity has actually wound up shaping the environment more than we have been shaped by it. In fact, some anthropologists and geologists believe we human beings have altered the environment to such a degree that by some time in the 1950s we had entered a whole “new epoch in the geological time scale,”[i] a new era, a new age. The International Geological Congress was held in Cape Town, South Africa in 2016. And during that meeting a working group of geologists voted to recommend an official recognition of this new epoch, and they adopted a term that a Nobel laureate named Paul Crutzen had come up with: the Anthropocene Era. You will recognize the Greek root anthropos––which means “of or related to the human beings.” What we mean by “Anthropocene” is that at this point in the history of the universe our very choices as human beings and our actions based on those choices are affecting the course of evolution! As a matter of fact, the force of natural selection (or evolution) has in some sense been superseded by human choice. Through our decisions and our actions based on those decisions, we human beings are changing the very trajectory of evolution in a way that no other species possibly could. Whether we know it or not, we are deciding which pathways of evolution will be shut off forever, and which can flourish.
I have mostly heard this described as a bad thing because of all the problems that stem from our ever growing population of now over 7.5 billion souls: industrial and other development that leads to increased resource use especially the overuse of fossil fuels, and leaves behind toxic chemicals and plastic wastes, as well as a reduction of wild lands and the killing off of wildlife in the world by half, to the point of what is being called the Sixth Extinction, that could result in 75 per cent of species going extinct by the end of the century. This is obviously the negative aspect of the Anthropocene, and the consequent need for conversion that Pope Francis addressed in his now famous encyclical Laudato Sì. Some folks on the other hand, like so many young people I meet who are studying environmental science and sustainability, are hopeful (if not always optimistic) that we human beings can actually have a positive influence too in this Anthropocene Era, and now start using our genius to protect what the Holy Father calls “our common home.” Some think that “a global sustainability revolution is underway.” [ii] The Pulitzer prize winning science writer Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a rather dire book called The Sixth Extinction, but she ends her book on a note of hope in humanity too, pointing to various efforts to conserve or preserve species going on around the world.
So let’s say we’re in the Anthropocene, the era when human beings and human choice are actually affecting, deciding, changing the very course of evolution! But it begs the question: What does it mean to be human? This is where I think the spiritual traditions and specifically Christianity have something to offer, some additional wisdom that scientists and environmentalists may be overlooking, something to add to the conversation. I would posit that the problem is that we are not human yet, at least not fully human, at least not fully human in the way that God intends us to be, at least not fully human in the way that glorifies God. Because we are not fully human until we are participating in divinity. We are not fully who we are meant to be until we are guided wholly by the Spirit of God. We are not fully human until the Word is made flesh in us.
So, if we’re going to have a positive influence in the Anthropocene, we need to keep coming back to this feast of the birth of Jesus. It’s as if the evolution of the human species reached its high point roughly two thousand years ago with the birth of this god-man, who we claim to be both the archetype and the goal of what it means to be human, both the blueprint and the finished product, the alpha and omega. We are not going to be able to pull this off––be a positive force in the universe––until we really discover what it means to be human. That’s what we are supposed to take from Christmas and the story of the Incarnation of the Word of God in this human child: Jesus is what it means to be human.
It is already shocking for folks to hear St. Augustine’s famous phrase for the first time, that “God became human so that humans might become God.” But the contemporary German theologian Johannes Metz offers us this variation on the theme that’s the next step: “God became human that we might become human.” What does it mean to become human? Well, according to Christianity, even more important than our upright spine and the leap into self-reflexive consciousness is what Karl Rahner called our capacity for “active self-transcendence.” Though I’m not sure I ever like using the word “transcendence” so much anymore, especially on the day when we are celebrating God’s con-descendence.[iii]
Perhaps we could put it another way: what makes us human is our evolution toward spirit, our movement toward divinity. That’s what it means that, “God became human so that humans might become God.” Actually we believe that all creation is moving in this direction––until God is all in all––but in the human person that evolution becomes conscious, participatory. That’s why Rahner calls it “active.” And it’s this movement forward, this capacity, that Rahner says is the essential foundation of the human person and also the essential foundation of our responsibility; it’s the essential foundation of religious experience and the essential foundation of mysticism, because this is the possibility of God’s self-communication to us in grace and in revelation. I like the way Judy Cannato says it better than Rahner; she calls it “the presence of the incomprehensible holy mystery” within us, an incomprehensible holy mystery that is pressuring us, urging us, impelling us to become more––“the incomprehensible holy mystery working from within the creature pressuring it to evolve.”[iv] God became human so that this could happen; so that the incomprehensible holy mystery would urge us, impel us to become more. God became human so that the incomprehensible holy mystery working from within us would pressure us to evolve, evolve to spirit, evolve to divinity. And when we discover that, the incomprehensible holy mystery that is the center of our being human, then we really become human: God became a human so that we might share in divinity and really become human!
It’s the Anthropocene Era. We’re in charge now. If we are to live in such a way and make decisions for the good of every species on the entire planet––and that’s a lot of responsibility!––then we have got some work to do. Because there is a knowledge that only comes from participation in divinity, that only comes from allowing the Word to make a home in our hearts, a knowledge that only the Spirit can give, a knowledge of the incarnation of divinity, a knowledge that glues all other knowledge together. And without that knowledge our very choices and actions based on those choices are going to be faulty. If we have not arrived at this point of being absolutely available to this holy mystery working within us, urging us, pressuring us to evolve, then we are not fully human yet. And the only way that the Anthropocene Era is going to be great is if we arrive at that. This is the real next step in evolution––our divinization, so that we can really be human. And the whole earth, all creation, the whole cosmos will benefit from it, as a matter of fact, St. Paul says the whole earth, all creation, is depending on it, groaning and in agony until we work it out.
That’s why we meditate on the incomprehensible holy mystery of the fullness of divinity dwelling in a human child bodily, the incomprehensible holy mystery of the Word Made Flesh, incomprehensible holy mystery of God incarnate. Let us adore it in the Christ child, and may Christ lead us to discover it in ourselves.
cyprian 25 dec 2017
[i] Brian Schmisek, Resurrection of the Flesh or Resurrection from the Dead: Implications for Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013), 104.
[ii] Quoting Al Gore. While our own administration in the US has backed away from recent emission reduction agreements China, for example, recently announced its intention to be the world’s largest financial market devoted to cleaning up the air by starting a giant market to trade credits for the right to emit planet-warming greenhouse gases. Whether they follow through or not and whether or not this is the best solution or not is another question…
[iii] Or “in-scendence” to use the word that Thomas Berry coined.
[iv] Judy Connato, Field of Compassion, 52,