Evolutionary Biology With Molecular Precision

Evolutionary biology benefits from a non-reductionist focus on real biological systems at the macroscopic level of their natural and historical contexts. This high-level approach makes sense since selection pressures operate at the level of phenotypes, the observed physical traits of organisms. Still, it is understood that these traits are inherited in the form of molecular gene sequences, the purview of molecular biology. The approach of molecular biology is more reductionist, focusing at the level of precise molecular structures. Molecular biology thereby benefits from a rigorous standard of evidence-based inference by isolating variables in controlled experiments. But it necessarily sets aside much of the complexity of nature. A combination of these two, in the form of evolutionary biochemistry, targets a functional synthesis of evolutionary biology and molecular biology, using techniques such as ancestral protein reconstruction to physically ‘resurrect’ ancestral proteins with precise molecular structures and to observe their resulting expressed traits experimentally.

I love nerdy comics like XKCD and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC). For the subject of this episode I think there’s a very appropriate XKCD comic. It shows the conclusion of a research paper that says, “We believe this resolves all remaining questions on this topic. No further research is needed.” And the caption below it says, “Just once, I want to see a research paper with the guts to end this way.” And of course, the joke is that no research paper is going to end this way because further research is always needed. I’m sure this is true in all areas of science but I think two particular fields it’s especially true. One is in neuroscience, where there is still so much that we don’t know. And the other is evolutionary biology. The more I dig into evolutionary biology the more I appreciate how much we don’t understand. And that’s OK. The still expansive frontiers in each of these fields is what makes them especially interesting to me. Far from being discouraging, unanswered questions and prodding challenges should be exciting. With this episode I’d like to look at evolutionary biology at its most basic, nuts-and-bolts level at the level of chemistry. This combines the somewhat different approaches of both evolutionary biology and molecular biology.

Evolutionary biology benefits from a non-reductionist focus on real biological systems at the macroscopic level of their natural and historical contexts. This high-level approach makes sense since selection pressures operate at the level of phenotypes, the observed physical traits of organisms. Still, it is understood that these traits are inherited in the form of molecular gene sequences, the purview of molecular biology. The approach of molecular biology is more reductionist, focusing at the level of precise molecular structures. Molecular biology thereby benefits from a rigorous standard of evidence-based inference by isolating variables in controlled experiments. But it necessarily sets aside much of the complexity of nature. A combination of these two, in the form of evolutionary biochemistry, targets a functional synthesis of evolutionary biology and molecular biology, using techniques such as ancestral protein reconstruction to physically ‘resurrect’ ancestral proteins with precise molecular structures and to observe their resulting expressed traits experimentally. This enables evolutionary science to be more empirical and experimentally grounded.

In what follows I’d like to focus on the work of biologist Joseph Thornton, who is especially known for his lab’s work on ancestral sequence reconstruction. One review paper of his that I’d especially recommend is his 2007 paper, Mechanistic approaches to the study of evolution: the functional synthesis, published in Nature and co authored with Antony Dean.

Before getting to Thornton’s work I should mention that Thornton has been discussed by biochemist Michael Behe, in particular in his fairly recent 2019 book Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution. Behe discusses Thornton’s work in the eighth chapter of that book. I won’t delve into the details of the debate between the two of them, simply because that’s it’s own topic and not what directly interests me here. But I’d just like to comment that I personally find Behe’s work quite instrumentally useful to evolutionary science. He’s perceived as something of a nemesis to evolutionary biology but I think he makes a lot of good points. I could be certainly wrong about this but I suspect that many of the experiments I’ll be going over in this episode were designed and conducted in response to Behe’s challenges to evolutionary biology. Maybe these kinds of experiments wouldn’t have been done otherwise. And if that’s the case Behe has done a great service. 

Behe’s major idea is “irreducible complexity”. An irreducibly complex system is “a single system which is composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” (Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution) How would such a system evolve by successive small modifications if no less complex a system would function? That’s an interesting question. And I think that experiments designed to answer that question are quite useful.

Behe and I are both Christians and we both believe that God created all things. But we have some theological and philosophical differences. My understanding of the natural and supernatural is heavily influenced by the thought of Thomas Aquinas, such that in my understanding nature is actually sustained and directed by continual divine action. I believe nature, as divine creation, is rationally ordered and intelligible, since it is a product of divine Mind. As such, I expect that we should, at least in principle, be able to understand and see the rational structure inherent in nature. And this includes the rational structure and process of the evolution of life. Our understanding of it may be miniscule. But I think it is comprehensible at least in principle. Especially since it is comprehensible to God. So I’m not worried about a shrinking space for some “god of the gaps”. Still, I think it’s useful for someone to ask probing questions at the edge or our scientific understanding, to poke at our partial explanations and ask, “how exactly?” But, perhaps different from Behe, I expect that we’ll continually be able to answer such questions better and better, even if there will always be a frontier of open questions and problems.

With complete admission that what I’m about to say is unfair, I do think that some popular understanding of evolution lacks a certain degree of rigor and doesn’t adequately account for the physical constraints of biochemistry. Evolution can’t just proceed in any direction to develop any trait to fill any adaptive need, even if there is a selection pressure for a trait that would be nice to have. OK, well that’s why it’s popular rather than academic, right? Like I said, not really fair. Still, let’s aim for rigor, shall we? Behe gets at this issue in his best known 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. In one passage  he comments on what he calls the “fertile imaginations” of evolutionary biologists:

“Given a starting point, they almost always can spin a story to get to any biological structure you wish. The talent can be valuable, but it is a two edged sword. Although they might think of possible evolutionary routes other people overlook, they also tend to ignore details and roadblocks that would trip up their scenarios. Science, however, cannot ultimately ignore relevant details, and at the molecular level all the ‘details’ become critical. If a molecular nut or bolt is missing, then the whole system can crash. Because the cilium is irreducibly complex, no direct, gradual route leads to its production. So an evolutionary story for the cilium must envision a circuitous route, perhaps adapting parts that were originally used for other purposes… Intriguing as this scenario may sound, though, critical details are overlooked. The question we must ask of this indirect scenario is one for which many evolutionary biologists have little patience: but how exactly?”

“How exactly?” I actually think that’s a great question. And I’d say Joseph Thornton has made the same point to his fellow biologists, maybe even in response to Behe. In the conclusion of their 2007 paper he and Antony Dean had this wonderful passage:

“Functional tests should become routine in studies of molecular evolution. Statistical inferences from sequence data will remain important, but they should be treated as a starting point, not the centrepiece or end of analysis as in the old paradigm. In our opinion, it is now incumbent on evolutionary biologists to experimentally test their statistically generated hypotheses before making strong claims about selection or other evolutionary forces. With the advent of new capacities, the standards of evidence in the field must change accordingly. To meet this standard, evolutionary biologists will need to be trained in molecular biology and be prepared to establish relevant collaborations across disciplines.”

Preach it! That’s good stuff. One of the things I like about the conclusion to their paper is that it talks about all the work that still needs to be done. It’s a call to action (reform?) to the field of evolutionary biology. 

Behe has correctly pointed out that their research doesn’t yet answer many important questions and doesn’t reduce the “irreducible complexity”. True, but it’s moving in the right direction. No one is going to publish a research paper like the one in the XKCD comic that says, “We believe this resolves all remaining questions on this topic. No further research is needed.” Nature and evolution are extremely complex. And I think it’s great that Thornton and his colleagues call for further innovations. For example, I really like this one:

“A key challenge for the functional synthesis is to thoroughly connect changes in molecular function to organismal phenotype and fitness. Ideally, results obtained in vitro should be verified in vivo. Transgenic evolutionary studies identifying the functional impact of historical mutations have been conducted in microbes and a few model plant and animal species, but an expanded repertoire of models will be required to reach this goal for other taxa. By integrating the functional synthesis with advances in developmental genetics and neurobiology, this approach has the potential to yield important insights into the evolution of development, behaviour and physiology. Experimental studies of natural selection in the laboratory can also be enriched by functional approaches to characterize the specific genetic changes that underlie the evolution of adaptive phenotypes.”

For sure. That’s exactly the kind of work that needs to be done. And it’s the kind of work Behe has challenged evolutionary biologists to do. I think that’s great. Granted, that kind of work is going to be very difficult and take a long time. But that’s a good target. And we should acknowledge the progress that has been made. For example, earlier in the paper they note:

“The Reverend William Paley famously argued that, just as the intricate complexity of a watch implies a design by a watchmaker, so complexity in Nature implies design by God. Evolutionary biologists have typically responded to this challenge by sketching scenarios by which complex biological systems might have evolved through a series of functional intermediates. Thornton and co-workers have gone much further: they have pried open the historical and molecular ‘black box’ to reconstruct in detail — and with strong empirical support — the history by which a tightly integrated system evolved at the levels of sequence, structure and function.”

Yes. That’s a big improvement. It’s one thing to speculate, “Well, you know, maybe this, that, and the other” (again, being somewhat unfair, sorry). But it’s another thing to actually reconstruct ancestral sequences and run experiments with them. That’s moving things to a new level. And I’ll just mention in passing that I do in fact think that all the complexity in Nature was designed by God. And I don’t think that reconstructing that process scientifically does anything to reduce the grandeur of that. If anything, such scientific understanding facilitates what Carl Sagan once called “informed worship” (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God). 

With all that out of the way now, let’s focus on Thornton’s very interesting work in evolutionary biochemistry.

First, a very quick primer on molecular biology. The basic process of molecular biology is that DNA makes RNA, and RNA makes proteins. Living organisms are made of proteins. DNA is the molecule that contains the information needed to make the proteins. And RNA is the molecule that takes the information from DNA to actually make the proteins. The process of making RNA from DNA is called transcription. And the process of making proteins from RNA is called translation. These are very complex and fascinating processes. Evolution proceeds through changes to the DNA molecule called mutations. And some changes to DNA result in changes to the composition and structure of proteins. These changes can have macroscopically observable effects.

In Thornton’s work with ancestral sequence reconstruction the idea is to look at a protein as it is in an existing organism, try to figure out what that protein might have been like in an earlier stage of evolution, and then to make it. Reconstruct it. By actually making the protein you can look at its properties. As described in the 2007 Nature article:

“Molecular biology provides experimental means to test these hypotheses decisively. Gene synthesis allows ancestral sequences, which can be inferred using phylogenetic methods, to be physically ‘resurrected’, expressed and functionally characterized. Using directed mutagenesis, historical mutations of putative importance are introduced into extant or ancestral sequences. The effects of these mutations are then assessed, singly and in combination, using functional molecular assays. Crystallographic studies of engineered proteins — resurrected and/or mutagenized — allow determination of the the structural mechanisms by which amino-acid replacements produce functional shifts. Transgenic techniques permit the effect of specific mutations on whole-organism phenotypes to be studied experimentally. Finally, competition between genetically engineered organisms in defined environments allows the fitness effects of specific mutations to be assessed and hypotheses about the role of natural selection in molecular evolution to be decisively tested.”

What’s great about this kind of technique is that it spans a number of levels of ontology. Evolution by natural selection acts on whole-organism phenotypes. So it’s critical to understand what these look like between all the different versions of a protein. We don’t just want to know that we can make all these different kinds of proteins. We want to know what they do, how they function. Function is a higher-level ontology. But we also want to be precise about what is there physically. And we have that as well, down to the molecular level. Atom for atom we know exactly what these proteins are.

To dig deeper into these experimental methods I’d like to refer to another paper, Evolutionary biochemistry: revealing the historical and physical causes of protein properties, published in Nature in 2013 by Michael Harms and Joseph Thornton. In this paper the authors lay out three strategies for studying the evolutionary trajectories of proteins.

The first strategy is to explicitly reconstruct “the historical trajectory that a protein or group of proteins took during evolution.”

“For proteins that evolved new functions or properties very recently, population genetic analyses can identify which genotypes and phenotypes are ancestral and which are derived. For more ancient divergences, ancestral protein reconstruction (APR) uses phylogenetic techniques to reconstruct statistical approximations of ancestral proteins computationally, which are then physically synthesized and experimentally studied… Genes that encode the inferred ancestral sequences can then be synthesized and expressed in cultured cells; this approach allows for the structure, function and biophysical properties of each ‘resurrected’ protein to be experimentally characterized… By characterizing ancestral proteins at multiple nodes on a phylogeny, the evolutionary interval during which major shifts in those properties occurred can be identified. Sequence substitutions that occurred during that interval can then be introduced singly and in combination into ancestral backgrounds, allowing the effects of historical mutations on protein structure, function and physical properties to be determined directly.”

This first strategy is a kind of top-down, highly directed approach. We’re trying to follow exactly the path that evolution followed and only that path to see what it looks like.

The second strategy is more bottom-up. It is “to use directed evolution to drive a functional transition of interest in the laboratory and then study the mechanisms of evolution.” The goal is not primarily to follow the exact same path that evolution followed historically but rather to stimulate evolution, selecting for a target property, to see what path it follows. 

“A library of random variants of a protein of interest is generated and then screened to recover those with a desired property. Selected variants are iteratively re-mutagenized and are subject to selection to optimize the property. Causal mutations and their mechanisms can then be identified by characterizing the sequences and functions of the intermediate states realized during evolution of the protein.”

If the first strategy is top-down and the second strategy is bottom-up, the third strategy is to cast a wide net. “Rather than reconstructing what evolution did in the past, this strategy aims to reveal what it could do.” In this approach:

“An initial protein is subjected to random mutagenesis, and weak selection for a property of interest is applied, enriching the library for clones with the property and depleting those without it. The population is then sequenced; the degree of enrichment of each clone allows the direct and epistatic effects of each mutation on the function to be quantitatively characterized.”

Let’s look at an example from Thornton’s work, which followed the first, top-down approach. The most prominent work so far has been on the evolution of glucocorticoid receptors (GRs) and mineralocorticoid receptors (MRs). See for example the 2006 paper Evolution of Hormone-Receptor Complexity by Molecular Exploitation, published in Science by Jamie Bridgham, Sean Carroll, and Joseph Thornton.

Glucocorticoid receptors and mineralocorticoid receptors bind with glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid steroid hormones. The two steroid hormones studied in Thornton’s work are cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol activates the glucocorticoid receptor to regulate metabolism, inflammation, and immunity. Aldosterone activates the mineralocorticoid receptor to regulate electrolyte homeostasis of plasma sodium and potassium levels. Glucocorticoid receptors and mineralocorticoid receptors share common origin and Thornton’s work was to reconstruct ancestral versions of these proteins along their evolutionary path and test their properties experimentally.

Modern mineralocorticoid receptors can be activated by both aldosterone and cortisol but modern glucocorticoid receptors are activated only by cortisol in bony vertebrates. So in their evolution GRs developed an insensitivity to aldosterone.

The evolutionary trajectory is as follows. There are versions of MR and GR extant in tetrapods, teleosts (fish), and elasmobranchs (sharks). GRs and MRs trace back to a common protein from 450 million years ago, the ancestral corticoid receptor (AncCR). The ancestral corticoid receptor is thought to have been activated by deoxycorticosterone (DOC), the ligand for MRs in extant fish.

Phylogeny tells us that the ancestral corticoid receptor gave rise to GR and MR in a gene-duplication event. Interestingly enough this was before aldosterone had even evolved. In tetrapods and teleosts, modern GR is only sensitive to cortisol; it is insensitive to aldosterone.

Thornston and his team reconstructed the ancestral corticoid receptor (AncCR) and found that it is sensitive to DOC, cortisol, and aldosterone. Most phylogenetic analysis revealed that precisely two mutations, amino acid substitutions, resulted in the glucocorticoid receptor phenotype: aldosterone insensitivity and cortisol sensitivity. These amino acid substitutions are S106P, from serine to proline at site 106, and L111Q, from leucine to glutamine at site 111. Thornston synthesized these different proteins to observe their properties. The protein with just the L111Q mutation did not bind to any of the ligands: DOC, cortisol, or aldosterone. So it is unlikely that the L111Q mutation would have occurred first. The S106P mutation reduces aldosterone and cortisol sensitivity but it remains highly DOC-sensitive. With both the S106P and L111Q mutations in series aldosterone sensitivity is reduced even further but cortisol sensitivity is restored to levels characteristic of extant GRs. A mutational path beginning with S106P followed by L111Q thus converts the ancestor to the modern GR phenotype by functional intermediate steps and is the most likely evolutionary scenario.

Michael Behe has commented that this is an example of a loss of function whereas his challenge to evolutionary biology is to demonstrate how complex structures evolved in the first place. That’s a fair point. Still, this is a good example of the kind of molecular precision we can get in our reconstruction of evolutionary processes. This does seem to show, down to the molecular level, how these receptors evolved. And that increases our knowledge. We know more about the evolution of these proteins than we did before. That’s valuable. We can learn a lot more in the future using these methods and applying them to other examples. 

One of the things I like about this kind of research is that it not only shows what evolutionary paths are possible but also which ones are not. Another one of Thornton’s papers worth checking out is An epistatic ratchet constrains the direction of glucocorticoid receptor evolution, published in Nature in 2009, co-authored by Jamie Bridgham and Eric Ortlund. The basic idea is that in certain cases once a protein acquires a new function “the evolutionary path by which this protein acquired its new function soon became inaccessible to reverse exploration”. In other words, certain evolutionary processes are not reversible. This is similar to Dollo’s Law of Irreversibility, proposed in 1893: “an organism never returns exactly to a former state, even if it finds itself placed in conditions of existence identical to those in which it has previously lived … it always keeps some trace of the intermediate stages through which it has passed.” In their 2009 paper Harms and Thornton and  state: “We predict that future investigations, like ours, will support a molecular version of Dollo’s law: as evolution proceeds, shifts in protein structure-function relations become increasingly difficult to reverse whenever those shifts have complex architectures, such as requiring conformational changes or epistatically interacting substitutions.”

This is really important. It’s important to understand that evolution can’t just do anything. Nature imposes constraints both physiologically and biochemically. I think in some popular conceptions we imagine that “life finds a way” and that evolution is so robust that organisms will evolve whatever traits they need to fit their environments. But very often they don’t, and they go extinct. And even when they do, their evolved traits aren’t necessarily perfect. Necessity or utility can’t push evolution beyond natural constraints. A good book on the subject of physiological constraints on evolution is Alex Bezzerides’s 2021 book Evolution Gone Wrong: The Curious Reasons Why Our Bodies Work (Or Don’t). Our anatomy doesn’t always make the most sense. It’s possible to imagine more efficient ways we could be put together. But our evolutionary history imposes constraints that don’t leave all options open, no matter how advantageous they would be. And the same goes for biochemistry. The repertoire of proteins and nucleic acids in the living world is determined by evolution. But the properties of proteins and nucleic acids are determined by the laws of physics and chemistry.

One way to think about this is with a protein sequence space. This is an abstract multidimensional space. Michael Harms and Joseph Thornton describe this in their 2013 paper.

“Sequence space is a spatial representation of all possible amino acid sequences and the mutational connections between them. Each sequence is a node, and each node is connected by edges to all neighbouring proteins that differ from it by just one amino acid. This space of sequences becomes a genotype–phenotype space when each node is assigned information about its functional or physical properties; this representation serves as a map of the total set of relations between sequence and those properties. As proteins evolve, they follow trajectories along edges through the genotype–phenotype space.”

What’s crucial to consider in this kind of model is that most nodes are non-functional states. This means that possible paths through sequence space will be highly constrained. Not just any path is possible. There may be some excellent nodes in the sequence space that would be perfect for a given environment. But if they’re not connected to an existing node via a path through functional states they’re not going to occur through evolution.

To conclude, it’s an exciting time for the evolutionary sciences. If you compare our understanding of the actual physical mechanisms for inheritance and evolution, down to the molecular level we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were a century ago. Darwin and his associates had no way of knowing the kinds of things we know now about the structures of nucleic acids and proteins. This makes a big difference. It’s certainly not the case that we have it all figured out. That’s why I put evolutionary biology in the same class as neuroscience when it comes to what we understand compared to how much there is to understand. We’re learning more and more all the time just how much we don’t know. But that’s still progress. We are developing the tools to get very precise and detailed in what we can learn about evolution.

Christ and the Uncanny

When Jesus taught that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood many of his disciples walked with him no more. Many of his teachings and actions were strange and unsettling. In a word, uncanny. Rudolf Otto similarly described the Holy as a numinous mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Something radically other. Flannery O’Connor evoked dramatic responses to the uncanny in her fiction through narratives of shocking violence. As much as it unsettles and disturbs, the uncanny also has remarkable power to provoke new ways of thinking and conversion.

Image from the PBS documentary “Flannery” (2021) by Kathleen Judge.

There are a lot of reasons people rejected Jesus. People disagreed with his teachings, his claim to divine sonship. They worried he would upset the religious and social order. But one of the reasons for rejecting him that I find especially interesting is that some of his teachings were just strange. And disturbingly so. I think the best example of this is in John chapter 6. 

“’I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.’ These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’ When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (John 6:51-66)

This is one of Jesus’ teachings that I’d put in the category of the uncanny. The uncanny is something that is strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way. Part of the problem was that Jesus was making great claims about himself:

“The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ And they said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?’” (John 6:41-42)

Who does this man think he is? That was a common criticism. But it was the other part that made even his disciples start to turn away. ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doubled down: ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life’. What a strange saying! They called it a ‘hard saying’, difficult to understand. I find this particular rejection fascinating because it’s not like Jesus hadn’t demanded difficult things before or taught things that were difficult to understand. He taught in parables and had required disciples to leave their families for his sake. But it was in this case especially that ‘many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more’.

There are other examples of the uncanny: strange and disturbing things in Jesus’ ministry. A couple that come to mind are Jesus casting the legion of demons into the herd of swine where the people ‘asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.’ (Luke 8:37) Also when Jesus cursed a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). In all these cases it’s possible to give a rational explanation but the rational aspects are not immediately apparent and they certainly weren’t apparent to the people experiencing them in the moment. These episodes seemed quite strange and unsettling.

The uncanny side of Jesus reminds me of the ideas of two religious writers: Rudolf Otto and Flannery O’Connor. I think these two have a lot in common actually. Both are fascinated by the uncanny.

Rudolf Otto lays out his theory in his book The Idea of the Holy. Otto explains the holy as a ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a great mystery that both fascinates and terrifies. Another term for it is the ‘numinous’, something mysterious or awe-inspiring. One way I like to think about this is that the holy is radically other.

This is one primary meaning of the Hebrew קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh) in the Hebrew Bible. The Lord God stands separate and apart. This radical otherness is a useful way to understand the often alien-sounding Holiness Code of the Torah. There’s a strangeness to God that Israel is made to remember through ritual.

In the apocalyptic visions of both the Old and New Testaments we see prophets confronting the strangeness and otherness of God as they struggle to describe their uncanny visions. For example in Ezekiel:

“Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ezekiel 1:15-21)

What a fascinating and strange vision! My response to this is that it is intentionally and quite effectively mind-bending. Whatever Ezekiel experienced it was something very different and it should challenge our assumptions about the way things are and expand our imagination of what is possible.

And this same divine otherness carries over into the New Testament. A crucial feature of Christian theology, one that’s easy to forget, is that Jesus is the same God as in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the same God who the Israelites had to approach so carefully in their holiness code. And even though Jesus reveals God in bodily form in a more accessible way. With the veil taken away, as Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:12-18), sometimes some of that otherness and strangeness still comes through in ways that upset and disturb his disciples.

In my opinion Flannery O’Connor captures this uncanny otherness of God perfectly in her fiction. Her ‘gospel’, so to speak, is well stated in the title to her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which is taken from Matthew 11:12 – ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.’ For O’Connor acts of God and of the Holy Ghost are shocking, dramatic, and overpowering. She provokes this response in her fiction through violence. Reading an O’Connor story can be quite emotionally taxing. In fact, my wife recently read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and it gave her nightmares. Literally. These stories are meant to be impactful, revelatory, and theophanous.

The O’Connor story that I think best demonstrates her use of the strange and uncanny is ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’. This story is classic O’Connor and I really encourage everyone to read it. It’s hilarious and has her classic clash between social classes and between urban and rural. For present purposes I’ll just focus on one part of the story. In the story the main character, a young girl, goes to a county fair with her older cousins. Her cousins attend a ‘freak show’ that she’s not allowed to go to, but that her cousins tell her about afterwards.

“It had been a freak with a particular name but they couldn’t remember the name. The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, ‘I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.’ The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. ‘God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.’ Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing.”

“The child felt every muscle strained as if she were hearing the answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself. ‘You mean it had two heads?’ she said.”

“’No,’ Susan said, ‘it was a man and woman both. It pulled up its dress and showed us. It had on a blue dress.’”

“The child wanted to ask how it could be a man and woman both without two heads but she did not. She wanted to get back into her own bed and think it out and she began to climb down off the footboard…”

“She lay in bed trying to picture the tent with the freak walking from side to side but she was too sleepy to figure it out. She was better able to see the faces of the country people watching, the men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite, with painted-looking eyes, standing as if they were waiting for the first note of the piano to begin the hymn. She could hear the freak saying, ‘God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,’ and the people saying, ‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’God done this to me and I praise Him.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’He could strike you thisaway.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’But he has not.’”

“’Amen.’”

“’Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple,

don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?’

‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.’”

“’I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.’”

“’Amen.’”

“The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a

regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep…”

Notice how O’Connor portrays this spectacle as a kind of reverent religious experience. “The men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite.” The carnival atmosphere is transmuted into something holy. Later, when the girl attends the Catholic Mass, the process is reversed and the holy is transmuted into the carnival. Or at least the two are merged to highlight their similarities.

“The chapel smelled of incense. It was light green and gold, a series of springing arches that ended with the one over the altar where the priest was kneeling in front of the monstrance, bowed low. A small boy in a surplice was standing behind him, swinging the censer. The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the ‘Tantum Ergo’ before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do. Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying, ‘I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.’”

In both settings – at the fair and at Mass – spectators are witnesses to something strange and uncanny. And at the Mass we see enacted the very thing that Jesus said that so disturbed his disciples: the preparation of his flesh and blood, to be consumed by the faithful. In both settings the usual categories and boundaries that we use to understand the world break down. Categories and boundaries like male and female, bread and flesh, wine and blood, God and human. It’s not that these categories and boundaries aren’t real. But with these uncanny incidents  we’re forced to see things in a new and jarring way that shakes us up. This is what the Holy Ghost does in O’Connor’s theology.

Sometimes revelation from God is shocking and strange. For some, Jesus was too strange. “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others among his disciples persisted.

“Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (John 6:67-69)

It’s interesting that in other passages of scripture Jesus says that this understanding – that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God – did not come from flesh and blood but rather from the Father (Matthew 16:17). What Peter and the Apostle came to know and testify was not something that was continuous with normal experience and expectations. It was discontinuous and came from outside the normal frame of events.

I suspect that this may be the value of the strange and uncanny features of the religion. There are things that break up the normal flow of things and force us to stop and think more carefully and to think in fundamentally new ways. That seems to me like the only way something like a real conversion could ever be possible. We’re usually carried along a habitual stream from one moment to the next with each action following predictably from our prior actions, according to our ingrained behavior. How then would conversion even be possible? Something has got to interrupt the flow, knock us into a different plane, and get us to see things differently. And what better way to do this than something truly unpredictable, strange, and uncanny? Some will recoil at the revelation and say, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others will convert and say, “We have come to believe.” There is real transformative value and opportunity in Christ’s uncanny teachings. So when we see them we should pay attention.

Ontological Pluralism

Jared and Todd talk about ontological pluralism: What exists? How do we categorize what exists? Are those categories intrinsic or man-made? A related idea is perspectival realism. We discuss the ideas of William Wimsatt and Scott Page, among others. Is reality monistic, dualist, pluralistic? Is the question even meaningful? And what (if any) practical implications would there be?

Outline – Ontological Pluralism

  1. People
    1. William Wimsatt
    2. Scott Page  
    3. Johannes Jaeger
    4. Lawrence Cahoone
    5. Spencer Greenberg 
  2. Ideas
    1. Rainforest Ontology (Wimsatt)
    2. Realms of Truth (Greenberg)
    3. Perspectival realism
      1. Meta-modernism (post-postmodernism)
  3. Ontologies
    1. Monism
    2. Dualism
      1. Matter
      2. Mind
    3. Trialism (Penrose)
      1. Physical world
      2. Mental world
      3. Platonic mathematical world
    4. Pluralism
  4. Reductionism
    1. Ontological: reality is composed of a minimum number of kinds of entities and substances
    2. Epistemological: reality is best explained by reduction to its most basic kinds of entities and substances
    3. Todd: in-principle epistemological reductionist but not an ontological reductionist. Everything that happens in a physical system evolves according to physical laws but those physical processes don’t constitute all there is.
    4. Can a macro-scale entity really be completely inexplicable in terms of micro-scale entities?
    5. Micro-scale events may only make sense in terms of macro-scale events.
      1. Ex: Enzymes and reactants
        1. Enzyme is larger and more complex than the reactants
        2. The speed of the reaction only makes sense by accounting for the enzyme
        3. But the enzyme is still explained in terms of smaller-scale entities (amino acids, atoms, etc.)
  5. Seven Realms of Truth – Spencer Greenberg
    1. Some things “exist” in the sense that they are in physical reality, like atoms (in “Matter Space”).
    2. Other things may “exist” in the sense that they are real experiences conscious beings have, like the taste of pineapple (in “Experience Space”).
    3. Still, other things may “exist” in the sense that they are shared constructs across multiple minds, like the value of money (in “Consensus Space”).
    4. Other things may “exist” in the sense of being conclusions derived from frameworks or sets of premises, like consequences of economic theories (in “Theory Space”).
    5. Some may “exist” in the sense that they are represented in systems that store or process information, such as the information in a database (in “Representation Space”).
    6. If universal moral truths “exist” (e.g. objective facts about what is right and wrong), then we can talk about moral rules existing (in “Morality Space”).
    7. Finally, if supernatural entities “exist”, such as spirits (meaning that not all beings inhabit Matter Space), then these beings are in a different realm than us (in “Supernatural Space”).
  6. Tropical Rainforest Ontology (Wimsatt)
    1. Contra Quine
      1. Willard van Orman Quine once said that he had a preference for a desert ontology.
    2. Robustness
      1. Criterion for what is real
      2. “Things are robust if they are accessible (detectable, measurable, derivable, defineable, produceable, or the like) in a variety of independent ways.
      3. Local
        1. Criteria used by working scientists
        2. “The nitty-gritty details of actual theory, actual inferences from actual data, the actual conditions under which we poised and detected entities, calibrated and ‘burned in’ instruments, identified and rejected artifacts, debugged programs and procedures, explained the mechanisms behind regularities, judged correlations to be spurious, and in general, the real complexities and richness of actual scientific practice.”
    3. Levels
      1. Dissipative wave (pro-reductionistic)
      2. Sharpening wave (pro-holistic)
    4. Perspectives
      1. “As long as there are well-defined levels of organization, there are relatively unambiguous inclusion or compositional relations relating all of the things described at different levels of organization… But conversely, when neat compositional relations break down, levels become less useful as ways of characterizing the organization of systems–or at least less useful if they are asked to handle the task alone. At this point, other ontological structures enter, either as additional tools, or as a replacement. These are what I have called perspectives–intriguingly quasi-subjective (or at least observer, technique or technology-relative) cuts on the phenomena characteristic of a system,which needn’t be bound to given levels.”
      2. “What I am calling perspectives is probably a diverse category of things which nonetheless appear to have at least some of the properties of being ‘from a point of view’ or to have a subjective or quasi-subjective character.”
    5. Causal Thickets
      1. “This term is intended to indicate a situation of disorder and boundary ambiguities. Perspectives may still seem to have an organizing power (just as viewing a thicket or shrub from different sides will reveal a shape to its bushy confusion), but there will be too many boundary disputes.”

The Apostles’ Creed

I love the Apostles’ Creed. If you ask me for a one-paragraph statement of what I believe, most fundamentally, this is it. Not just what I believe about religion, but what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality.

I love the Apostles’ Creed. If you ask me for a one-paragraph statement of what I believe, most fundamentally, this is it. Not just what I believe about religion, but what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality. The Apostles’ Creed gets right to the core of the most fundamental truths of all of it. It’s not scripture but a distillation of the truths of scripture that directs us toward the scriptures. Cyril of Alexandria (375 – 444) said that this “synthesis of faith” was made to accord with “what was of the greatest importance from all the Scriptures, to present the one teaching of the faith in its entirety. And just as the mustard seed contains a great number of branches in a tiny grain, so too this summary of faith encompassed in a few words the whole knowledge of the true religion contained in the Old and New Testaments.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. illum. 5, 12: PG 33, 521-524.) Here is the text of the Creed:

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Amen.”

What’s fascinating to me about this is that it’s not only a set of propositions, though it is partially that. It’s also a story. The Gospel is a grand story and we find our stories by making it our own. On the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit filled the Apostles and gave them utterance Peter told this story:

“’Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it… His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear… Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:22-24,31-32,36-38)

This is the Gospel. This is the grand story. I love Peter’s transformation here. The Spirit converted him into a confident and valiant preacher of the Gospel. When it grips you it’s exhilarating, like the “rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2). Paul had this same confidence and zeal for the Gospel. As he wrote to the Romans: “I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:15-16)

Let’s look at the Apostles’ Creed in detail.

I believe in God, the Father almighty

Belief in God is foundational to Christian faith. The rest of the Gospel story depends on this foundation. But it also works in the other direction because the Gospel story is the way God is revealed to us. There are rational reasons to believe and good arguments for the existence of God. Those are valuable for apologetics. But in the Bible, in liturgy, and in worship it’s in the story of the Gospel that we come to know who God is.

Scripture is emphatic that God is one. There is only one God. One reason for the emphasis of this in the Hebrew Bible is because the Israelites, like all other surrounding nations, very often were polytheists, worshiping gods other than the Lord, something pointed out by modern historians of ancient Israel. And it should be no surprise. Idolatry was the great struggle that the prophets railed against incessantly over the centuries. But on this point the Torah was emphatic:

 שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד ׃

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The Shema was to pervade all life:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)

This was especially stressed in Second Isaiah’s writings:

“Look to Me, and be saved, All you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22)

When Jesus taught us how to pray he taught us to call God “Father”:

“In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespesses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13)

Jesus further emphasizes God’s nature as Father in his parables. I also love the way Jesus portrays the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son:

“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:20-24)

Paul taught that the Holy Spirit leads us to call God “Father”:

“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” (Romans 8:14-17)

Thinking of God as Father makes a big difference. I think we are meant to understand this in a loving, nurturing way. It’s worth noting too that scripture also portrays God in maternal ways.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

“As one whom his mother comforts, So I will comfort you; And you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)

We are encouraged in scripture to think of God in this way, as a parent who cares for us, teaches us, disciplines us, and loves us, as parents do to their children.

Creator of heaven and earth

The Bible begins with God’s act of creation:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

There is much that is significant about God and among these things his role as creator is especially salient. Consider all that is. He is before all things. Even though creation doesn’t define God exactly it’s certainly significant among the ways that we understand him and think about who he is.

“You who laid the foundations of the earth, So that it should not be moved forever… O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions” (Psalm 104:5,24)

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord

We move now to distinctive Christian teaching. We believe not only in God the Father but also in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s son: 

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

The Father declared Jesus’s sonship at his baptism:

“When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17)

Furthermore, the Son, Jesus Christ, is the manifestation of God to us.

“For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9)

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Christian faith is distinctive for this focus on the man Jesus. In fact, our faith is exceedingly Christocentric, i.e. centered on Christ. And you really can’t go wrong with that. Phillip Cary has called it a Christian “obsession” with Christ and I think that’s right, in the best possible way (The History of Christian Theology).

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary

Speaking of Jesus, one of the things I find most fascinating about our faith is the Incarnation, that being Christ became physically embodied. The Son became an embodied human being like us. I don’t think we even begin to understand the Incarnation until we’ve reflected on it enough to be astounded by it. And essential to this process was a mortal woman, Mary. 

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.’” (Matthew 1:18-21)

“Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:34-35, 38)

The story of Mary is both miraculous and exemplary. Something I like to think about is how we can be like Mary in receiving and bearing Christ in ourselves, doing figuratively what she did literally. To say to God: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

This statement explicitly situates Jesus in history. The story of God is not abstracted from our world. It takes place in time and space. This is the God who covenanted with Abraham, who led the Israelites out of Egypt. And it’s the story of the Son becoming a man in a specific place at a specific time.

Furthermore, Jesus suffered. This is another crucial aspect of the wonder of Incarnation. Jesus lived and died in complete solidarity with us, suffering not only pain, but also abject humiliation.

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him. And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head. And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified.” (Matthew 27:27-31)

It’s certainly proper to reflect on this suffering and be moved by what Jesus was willing to suffer for our sakes. 

Was crucified, died, and was buried

The crucifixion is undeniably a scandal. We worship a man who was crucified as a criminal. In crucifixion he was executed in the most humiliating and actually cursed way possible. The Torah says:

 “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

This is embarrassing for Christians, but Paul leaned right into this and emphasized this point:

“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13)

Paul didn’t try to explain away Jesus’ cursed manner of execution. Instead he explained that this was precisely the point. Jesus became a curse for us. Regarding this article of the Creed Pope Benedict XVI said in his Introduction to Christianity:

“What position is really occupied by the Cross within faith in Jesus as the Christ? That is the question with which this article of the Creed confronts us once again… It is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others… Almost all religions center around the problem of expiation; they arise out of mans’ knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God… In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him… Here we stand before the twist that Christianity put into the history of religion. The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since, after all, it is they who have failed, not God. It says, on the contrary, that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19). This is truly something new, something unheard of—the starting point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the Cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the Incarnation, of the Cross. Accordingly, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship, too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharistia, thanksgiving.” (Introduction to Christianity, 161-162)

I think Benedict makes a very good point here about the radical inversion we see in the cross. This is truly something new. And how appropriate, since with Jesus “all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). No wonder people responded to Jesus with amazement and asked, “What is this? What new doctrine is this?” (Mark 1:27)

He descended into Hell

An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday reads:

“Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. the earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’”

It is fundamental to Christ’s victory that he redeemed the dead from death. Christ descended into the realm of the dead but he didn’t stay there. He entered as conqueror and took the dead with him.

“’When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.’ Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians 8-9)

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18-19)

“For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6)

“Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25)

Where are our dead? What is to become of us when we die? The state of unembodied death is not a place that we want to remain. And the announcement of the Gospel is that we won’t be left there, but that the dead will hear his voice and live.

The third day he rose again from the dead

Easter morning was the event that started it all. Jesus had a following before but it was the empty tomb and his bodily appearance to his disciples that launched the revolution of Christianity throughout the world. This was what the apostles announced:

“Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. (Acts 10:40-41)

Here is one narration of that day:

“Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ ‘He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father almighty’” (Luke 24:1-7)

“Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you.’ But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.” (Luke 24:36-43)

When Paul wrote of the significance of this event to the Corinthians he not only affirmed it with conviction but directed them to the many living witnesses who could affirm that they had seen the risen Lord.

“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [i.e. Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty

Christ’s ascension was another event witnessed and testified of by many. 

“Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)

His seat at the right hand of the Father is a place of honor affirmed by Stephan just before his martyrdom.

“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56)

From thence He shall come again to judge the living and the dead

Among the announcements of the apostles to the world was that Jesus would come again and that when he returns he will judge all who have ever lived.

“And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:10-11)

“Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:40-42)

“And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Revelation 20:12)

I believe in the Holy Spirit

Also unique to the Christian faith is our belief in the Holy Spirit alongside the Father and the Son. Scripture doesn’t give too many details but they leave no doubt about the Spirit’s existence and divinity. The Holy Spirit is invoked in the rite of baptism itself:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)

And the Spirit plays an active role throughout the history of the early Church:

“It came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him (Luke 3:21-22)

“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)

“This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33)

Jesus also spoke of the Spirit’s mission directly, as recorded in the Gospel of John:

“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you… These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:16-18,25-27)

The Holy Spirit testifies of Christ and brings the words of Christ to our remembrance. 

The holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints

Actually this is usually recited as, “The holy catholic church, the communion of saints”. Not only Roman Catholics profess the Creed or course. Christians of other denominations understand “catholic” here as small “c” catholic, in the sense of “universal”. For better or worse, there are multiple Christian denominations. But we still hold to one universal, catholic faith. Paul wrote in several instances about the importance of the unity of the Church.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Unity is key for Paul. But he also values diversity in the service of unity. The Church is the Body of Christ. And as a body it is an organic system with mutually interacting parts:

“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many… But now indeed there are many members, yet one body… But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14,20,24-25)

The forgiveness of sins

I think that one of the most important affirmations of the Gospel is that it is possible for people to change. I believe this but I actually find it more difficult to believe than many of the supernatural and miraculous aspects of Christianity. And that’s just because of the competing evidence of experience. We really seem to get set in our ways. Is it really possible to change? I think that believing this demands about as much faith as anything. But this is the message of the Gospel: that we can become new creatures.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Let’s look at some examples from the Gospels:

“When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you.’ And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, ‘Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’—He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” (Mark 2:5-12)

“Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ So he said, ‘Teacher, say it.’ ‘There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘You have rightly judged.’ Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.’ Then He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Then He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.’” (John 7:36-50)

This great transformation is expressed ritually in baptism:

“Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:6-11)

Baptism not only symbolizes death of the old self and rebirth as a new creature. It should also orient us in the way that we think about ourselves, as being dead to sin and alive in Christ.

The resurrection of the body

When I affirm the resurrection of the body it leads me to reflect on our nature as human beings. What are we? Critically, we are embodied, physical beings. When we die and our bodies decay we are no longer completely ourselves. We understand the intermediate state between death and resurrection to be one of peace for the righteous, but this immaterial aspect that is left of us is not complete. We can be ourselves fully only by being physically embodied. This is why resurrection is simply indispensable. The resurrection of our bodies is not just a nice-to-have. It’s absolutely essential to the continuation of our identities as human beings. Paul explained this very clearly:

“And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)

“So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Resurrection changes everything. I think of history in terms of two major epochs: the fourteen billion years before Christ’s resurrection and the couple thousand years after it. The universe changed fundamentally with Christ’s resurrection. Death is no longer absolute. And that changes everything.

And the life everlasting

I can think of no greater affirmation of the goodness of personal existence than the hope for life everlasting. In this way we say, “Yes. Life is good. I want it to last forever.” Maybe this seems obvious but we might ask, would life get boring eventually and actually become unbearable? If you’ve seen the show The Good Place this is a problem they deal with. I think this doubt is quite astute and I actually don’t think it’s really possible for us to comprehend how everlasting life would be endlessly joyful and engaging. But I believe this is what we affirm with our faith in everlasting life. A few thoughts on this. Jesus talked about everlasting life as living water. He said to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well:

“Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)

Working with this metaphor of the fountain of water, I think Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) had an important insight:

“The person who has drawn near to the fountain will marvel at that limitless supply of water that ever gushes out and flows from it, yet he would not say that he has seen all of the water. (For how can he see the water that is still concealed in earth’s bosom? The fact is that even if he remains for a long time at the gushing spring, he is always just beginning to contemplate the water, for the water never stops in its everlasting flow nor does it ever cease beginning to gush forth.) In the same way, the person who looks toward that divine and infinite Beauty glimpses something that is always being discovered as more novel and more surprising than what has already been grasped, and for that reason she marvels at that which is always being manifested, but she never comes to a halt in her desire to see, since what she looks forward to is in every possible way more splendid and more divine than what she has seen.” (Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 11)

I imagine here the wonder that a young child has at everything because everything is new. In Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphor this is what it’s like to look upon the divine and infinite Beauty. It’s always new, always surprising and novel.

The most important scripture pertaining to everlasting life is also the most well-known verse of the entire Bible:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

This verse’s fame is well-deserved. This is the Gospel, that the gift of life, everlasting life, is possible through God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Of course there is a lot more to Christian faith than what is in the Apostles’ Creed. But I like Cyril of Alexandria’s metaphor of the “great number of branches in a tiny grain”. The scriptures are interconnected in such a way that you can pick up at any point and quickly find yourself immersed in its vast network. Each of the scriptures here is part of a story and each story is part of a larger story. Reading these stories is the project of a lifetime of study. But the Apostles’ Creed distills the message so as to be able “to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It says what all of this is about and what God is about. And it’s what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality.