For more than 1600 years, Christianity occupied the head seat at the vast communion table that came to be called Western Civilization. Appearing at a time when the Roman banquet was breaking up rapidly, Christianity provided a compelling vision of human identity, purpose, and ethics that breathed renewal into the Empire's lungs, and long outlasted it.
At the core of Christian thought was a luminous vision of relationships?—of the ultimate interconnectedness of all things?—the visible and the invisible, the earthly and the heavenly. Christians believed that all things had begun within a God whose internal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was relationship in its very essence. Made in God's image, human beings were to live in transparent, loving relationship with God and with one another. They were to live in a creative and respectful relationship with the earth (or "Garden," as Genesis terms it) and with all the other creatures that inhabited it.
Christians believed that it was the sinful disruption of these vital connections, that brought a Fall from the state of Grace in which humanity had been living. All the subsequent pain and loneliness, the injustice and conflict, the wandering and wounding were all seen as the result of this basic relational brokenness. But God, Christians declared, would one day restore the unity that had been lost. He would heal the division between God and humanity, between rich and poor, between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. As Paul put it in Colossians 1, it was God's aim to "reconcile to himself all things."
Christians believed that, as a beginning of that redemptive process, God had come to earth. The life of Jesus was all about picturing what a restored humanity looked like. The teaching of Jesus was aimed at picturing healthy relationships. The supreme work of Jesus, foreshadowed at the Last Supper and accomplished at the Cross, was, again, all about relationships. Christ's sacrifice there involved the voluntarily laying aside of the great "I, me, mine" mentality that so afflicted the world in order to reach out and connect with the lost. The blood of Jesus signified the passion and power of God to wash away the sinful divisions of this world and start the connections anew.
It was an amazing vision?a vision of cosmic communion that was to spread out over the coming centuries and wash the world in many remarkable ways. It would make the early Church a force that broke down the social distinctions of the day and created a new understanding of family. It would make the followers of Jesus a force for justice and compassion, for freedom and equality, for education and innovation, for community and creativity, the likes of which the world had never seen.
Don't get me wrong, the communion Christians established was far from perfect. There were some woeful Christians at the table. Significant fights broke out. Scandalous things were done in the name of Jesus at times. But this can't eclipse the larger reality that, for some 16 centuries, the Christian worldview served as the unifying framework and redemptive impulse at the head of the great banquet table we call Western Civilization.
The Age of Reason
And then, as the 1600's dawned, this cultural communion began to break up. There were many reasons for this, of course. The Church had grown corrupt and was now dividing rapidly into what would soon become many denominations. Political authority was breaking down everywhere. The printing press made possible the circulation of Christian ideas but lots of other ones as well. Most significantly, sudden advances in scientific understanding were laying bare the mechanics of the Universe.
The Age of Reason had come. For the first time in history, the idea arose that life was not so much a web of relationships to be humbly entered into as a great machine to be taken apart and controlled. We figured out the table of elements that compose everything. We got a telescope on the galaxies, a microscope on cells, a handle on molecules, and then on atoms themselves. Science was increasingly able to break the machine of life down into its constituent parts, to identify the "building blocks" and "mechanisms" that make life work the way it does.
And this radically increased man's sense of self-sufficiency. Learn the pieces and rules, and you can engineer it all. You can engineer your company, your family, your body, your future. Muster enough technology, education, and affluence, and you can become so independent, intelligent, and confident that it would become hard not to laugh at the superstitious few who still believe in ideas so ridiculous as an invisible kingdom, or a resurrection from the dead, or a three-personed God.
The Age of Relationship
And then, as it graciously has through the ages, the truth came to set us free. Ironically, the truth came from the laboratories of the scientific establishment itself and through a field now known as quantum physics. Quantum physics is the study of the even smaller stuff that makes up atoms.
In a particularly illuminating experiment, Albert Einstein and his colleagues managed to separate two related sub-atomic particles and push one of them off to a distance from the other roughly equivalent on that scale to my taking the person sitting next to you right now and launching him or her out to the dark side of the moon. Then they exerted a force on the particle they still had in their possession, making it spin in a certain direction. To Einstein's utter shock, the other particle, the one an almost eternity away, began to spin simultaneously, as if connected to its mate by an umbilical cord unseen.
Thousands more experiments have been conducted since that time, and dramatically more has been learned. Physicists have discovered that these subatomic entities have the capacity to transform themselves. At one moment they can show up as particles, as particular points of matter in space. At another moment, they can appear as waves of energy dispersed over a finite area. To add to the mystery, scientists don't know what their "normal" state looks like, because these entities change themselves in response to the act of trying to measure them.
As hard as it is for our brains to take in, these subatomic entities also have the capacity to be in more than one place at the same time. In fact, there are physicists who contend that these things are in all places at all times. They transcend time. They are everywhere. All that apparently empty space between planets, between people, and between the tiny elements that make them up is actually teeming with this stuff. It holds everything together. It is all interconnected. It exists and responds to stimuli like one life, in which "we live and move and have our being." Which is why, to paraphrase scientist James Jeans, some pretty bright people have observed that "The universe is beginning to look a lot more like a great Mind than like a great machine."
The Physics of Communion
It seems to me that I read someplace of some people who had experienced this kind of thing once before. They said that they had met a man who made the very strange claim that "I and the Father [of the universe] are one." He claimed to be two persons, actually three, actively working in separate places, yet united across a vast distance in thought and movement.
These people spoke of a time when they'd seen this same man "transfigured before them. his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light." It was as if he had the capacity to suddenly transform from mere matter into pure energy, and in the same manner pass through graveclothes and appear to them behind locked doors.
He had told them that the full reality of God could not be pinned down, measured, or controlled. "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with? … the Spirit."
He had said that though he was going to a place where they could not follow right now, "I will be with you always." They had not understood at the time how this could be so, yet they found in their experience that what he had promised seemed to be true, that "wherever two or three of are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
He had declared when breaking the bread on that Passover night that "this is my body given for you." How could that be so, they had wondered. Yet they had come to know that somehow his real Presence occupied the bread they broke when they came together and that his life was strengthening theirs.
John Archibald Wheeler was a theoretical physicist and colleague of Albert Einstein. The man who coined the term "black hole," Wheeler was possessed by the search for a unified theory of reality: "To my mind there must be, at the bottom of it all, not an equation, but an utterly simple idea. And to me that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so inevitable, that we will say to one another, 'Oh how beautiful. How could it have been otherwise?"
Christians are people to whom the simple idea at the core of all creation has been revealed in Jesus Christ: Relationship is everything. The apostle Paul put it this way in Colossians 1: "[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible? … all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.