And the Word Became Primate?

Book cover
Ancestral Graceby By Diarmuid O’MurchuOrbis Books. 288p $22 (paperback)

A priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (M.S.C.), Diarmuid O’Murchu has published a number of religious books (Quantum Theology, Evolutionary Faith and The Transformation of Desire). Here, in 32 brief chapters, O’Murchu (who identifies himself as a social scientist) explains how the incarnation, which began unfolding seven million years ago among the primates, has not been sufficiently developed by Christian theology. The book tackles other aspects of theology and spirituality as well, or what the author considers to be the failures of Christian theology and spirituality to appreciate how human beings are intimately connected with the rest of the created world. He writes, repeatedly, that our thinking about God, ourselves and the universe has been gravely infected by the evil of patriarchy (for which the image of “birthing” seems to be his favorite antidote). He argues that Jesus, the embodiment of compassion, wisdom and the human being at one with the world, was seriously misunderstood by the apostles and (by implication) the Gospel writers, since they too had been contaminated by patriarchy. Jesus’ liberating message about the kingdom of God was eclipsed by the church’s increasing preoccupation with the messenger.

With respect to our distant ancestors, O’Murchu believes that we should pay particular attention to the bonobo communities—peaceful, non-patriarchal, sexually free primates—because their behavior helps us to understand how wisdom gradually entered the world, a primeval wisdom that continues to dwell in the depths of our subconscious. Deep in their consciousness, O’Murchu suggests, human beings realize that creation is an organism of which they are all a part.


With respect to the Incarnation he states: “Incarnation basically means God entering fully and identifying with human embodiment. God did that in our species for the first time 7 million years ago. Unambiguously, without reserve or regret, the divine became manifest in creation in a totally new way, namely, in human form.” And again: “The Immanuel of the Gospels is fully embodied in our ancestral inheritance of 7 million years ago, initiating a process of growth toward that fullness of life exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus—and also in the incarnational figures of the other great religions.” One is tempted to wonder whether the fourth evangelist, if he had been able to read Ancestral Grace, might have written, “And the Word became primate.”

O’Murchu would have been on much firmer ground if he simply said that divine self-communication began long before the birth of Jesus. In an essay entitled “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World,” Karl Rahner explained some 50 years ago that the notion of Savior “does not imply that God’s self-communication to the world in its spiritual subjectivity begins in time only with this person.... It can quite easily be conceived as beginning before the actual coming of the Savior, indeed as co-existent with the whole spiritual history of humanity and the world.”

The author is right when he insists that theology needs to be more ecologically sensitive, and that it needs to attend to the human being’s relatedness to the rest of creation. He is right when he complains that we need to approach reality less as folks who want to control and manipulate everything and more as people who try to see and listen to the world contemplatively. He is also right when he argues that the church needs to develop Christological perspectives that take into account contemporary sensibilities about the presence of the divine in other religions. I hope he is right when he claims that spirituality is innate: “We were born with it. We have always had it.” I agree with him further (as many theologians would) that excessive interest in how Jesus is divine led to a neglect of his also being fully human, that Christian missioners were often agents of cultural imperialism, and that clericalism compromises the church’s evangelical witness.

But then he goes overboard. Jesus was certainly spiritual; but, O’Murchu wonders, was he religious? The distinction, heard so often, has become tiresome, and the author’s appeal to scriptural texts is tendentious. The imminent collapse of priesthood, he notes, will spell the death of clericalism and, at last, “Jesus will be liberated to be the Christ of all people.” And then: “Jesus did not come to rescue human beings from anything.” On the one hand, he tells us, the notion of original sin has no footing in evolutionary evidence. But then he writes that the “past eight thousand years of patriarchal domination...has been one of our dark ages, and the massacre of 62 million civilians in the wars of the twentieth century amply verifies this.” But, he adds, 8,000 years are a mere fraction of our history: “Our God will forgive us for these cultural misadventures.”

Such events are not signs of a flaw but of a paradox. I have never heard anyone refer to such tragic events as “cultural misadventures” or suggest that evils like war and genocide are signs of a historical paradox that needs to be “befriended.” O’Murchu laments, correctly, that the “dangerous memory” that Jesus represents no longer subverts how we look at reality. But for him, that danger seems to have consisted in the way Jesus resisted patriarchy, defended women and drew attention to the earth that gives birth and mothers us. What happened to Jesus’ solidarity with victims and his being numbered among the crucified ones? Does that part of the story hold any theological significance? Apparently the dangerous memory housed in the cross belongs to our cultural misadventures.

O’Murchu quotes approvingly the biblical scholar Robert Funk: “Jesus himself should not be, must not be, the object of faith. That would be to repeat the idolatry of the first believers.” But not only does this view ignore much of what the New Testament says and centuries of Christian liturgical practice; the sentiment’s frustrating lack of nuance also overlooks Christian religious experience itself and how the mystery of God is discovered in and through the process of discipleship.

Since evolution seems to be a permanent feature of nature as we know it, the third part of the book begins to imagine what sort of beings we are evolving into. Here O’Murchu finds the terms “transhuman,” “protean” and “transpersonal” to be helpful expressions. Aided by technology, human beings will need to co-evolve with “the larger creation” as a new world order is born. The “culture of civilized imperialism” will mightily resist this birthing, of course; but the “evolutionary goals of life win out in the end, thanks to the power of ancestral grace that has always guided the process of evolutionary emergence.” And the Word became cyborg.

O’Murchu gets into any number of issues that educated believers might enjoy puzzling over. Occasionally I wonder: What would it feel like to be reading about the first-century world of Galilee if we should one day find ourselves residing on a different planet? I don’t know. But the Gospel story unfolds an imaginative world with historical, cultural, social, political and geographical determinants. I do not live back there, but neither would I relish the prospect of outgrowing or transcending the Gospel determinants of my religious identity.

Ancestral Grace wants incarnation without those particular historical coordinates that make us who we are. In a classroom setting, at any rate, the Christological ideas in Ancestral Grace would require a lot more straightening out than the effort is probably worth.

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