What is Conscious Evolution all About ?


"Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, ... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.”     Edward O. Wilson

The late, Barbara Marx Hubbard, American futurist and visionary, was the first to coin the phrase Conscious Evolution. The word evolution is defined as a process of movement and continuous change, a period of growth or development in a certain direction, usually from a simpler state to one that is more complex and functional. Behind the complexities of Darwinian evolution is a simple process consisting of growth, change and development. We observe this process all around us in the natural world and also within ourselves as individual people.

By employing the word conscious we enter into more controversial territory. For much of our history on the planet we felt like creatures at the mercy of alien forces which we strove to conquer and eliminate, but rarely succeeded. Religion very much endorsed this view. In Darwinian terms, the struggle was described as the survival of the fittest, encouraging a strategy of fierce competition always favoring the strong and dominant. In religious terms, the problem belonged to a fundamental flaw (called Original Sin in Christianity) about which humans could do nothing in this world unless they submitted to faith in Jesus and the salvation for humanity which he wrought upon the Cross.  Even if humans adopt the Christian faith they still have to live with a lot of alienation.

Increasingly humans inhabit a planet saturated with information, generating a new quality of awareness, which in scientific and spiritual terms is described as consciousness. Evolution today (material and human) is driven by a hyper sense of awareness – hence the phrase, conscious evolution. It feels like we are in the process of outgrowing – or desiring to outgrow – the mechanistic power of what the Darwinians call natural selection. Where once we were at the mercy of our environment, now our environment is at our disposal to re-configure as we wish. Conscious evolution suggests that humanity can choose advancement through co-operation and co-creation rather than self-destruction through separateness and competition.

A New Evolutionary Threshold

Mankind is on the verge of an evolutionary leap in consciousness, to a whole new way of thinking and being that – for weal or for woe – is changing our self-understanding and posing whole new questions on our inter-relationship with the web of life. Up to this point, the forces of evolution were understood to be external to mankind, with humans as passive recipients rather than conscious participants.

In terms of self-perception, for long we have viewed ourselves as isolated individuals battling for survival, competing with alien forces from within and without, eking out identity through a specific family, ethnicity, religion, nation-state, over-against all others who also took their identity from the same foundational configuration. Individuality (ego-identity) defined the person, the tribe, the religion, the nation State. And the dominant paradigm was neatly encapsulated in the scientific dogma: “The whole equals the sum of the parts.”

Along came Quantum Physics, and the evolutionary consciousness of the 20th century, and seismic shifts not merely disturbed, but actually shattered, our ego-identity. Now we are being moved along by a new consciousness – subconsciously for the greater part – in an universe where: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” It evokes a radically different set of perceptions and substantially new understandings of everything in our world. The “parts” are awakening to the power of the whole. Simply put, we are now living through the birth pains of the planetary mind!

Choosing the Way Ahead

Then comes the painful contradiction: many of our major institutions – political, economic, social, educational, religious – operate out of the old ego-focused identity. Business as usual! It is almost thirty years ago since two American theorists coined the phrase: permanently failing organizations, explaining the growing irrelevance and eventual collapse of the institutions on which we all rely for our daily existence. Of course, millions have walked away and continue to do so, leaving the institutions more and more petrified and reactionary. And for those who do walk away, the way ahead if far from clear.

At this juncture the advocates of conscious evolution offer a sense of utopian hope: “You can – must – choose your own way forward.” And the advice may not be as authentic as it initially sounds. In evolutionary terms, it is not so much about we humans making choices for ourselves, choices that will enhance control over our destiny, prolong our longevity, or improve the quality of our happiness and fulfillment. This could easily lead humans into re-inventing the all-powerful deity we desire to dislodge. Instead of all the emphasis on choosing to control, the wisdom of this moment requires us to make choices of submission. We need to learn to flow with evolution’s unfolding. We need to abandon our ego-superiority to the evolutionary lure of the future. That is how the great mystics did it – and they are our more reliable guides for this precarious and promising time.

Discerning Choices

Evolution is advancing in strides unknown to any previous generations. Assuredly we humans are evolution becoming conscious of itself. It is in and through us humans, that the awareness – the consciousness – is most cognitive and transparent. And enormous responsibilities ensue. With all the wisdom we can mobilize, we need to discern what is actually transpiring at this time (the sciences are probably our primary sources of enlightenment), its impact on our lives at every level, and the receptivity we need to attend and discern responsibly. In the past, religion claimed to be our primary resource for such discernment, but not anymore; religion itself has become too ensnared in dysfunctional disintegration.

Yes, we are conscious with a degree of awareness that is very new for our species. On a global scale we are launched into a new web of interconnection and creative possibility. And we carry within us a deep hunger and passionate urgency to dislodge our oppressive past and embrace the new horizon with a kind of reckless freedom. Our subconscious sense of urgency could be our undoing, leading us to a new dangerous anthropocentric self-inflation that will only alienate us further from the creative freedom we desire. The responsibility to respond in a discerning way rests heavily upon us. It requires a quality of spiritual focus, largely unknown to mainline religions, and therefore, a resource we must also co-create at this time. The writings of the Franciscan Sr. Ilia Delio, formerly a theologian at Villanova University, are particularly helpful, offering an inspiring vision for our way ahead. 


"Evolution is less a mechanism than a process – a constellation of law, chance, spontaneity, and deep time. . . . Evolution is not simply a biological mechanism of gene swapping or environmental pressure. It is the unfolding and development of consciousness in which consciousness plays a significant role in the process of convergence and complexification." (Delio 2013, xvi, 98).

The evolutionary imperative I describe is not a cultural phenomenon that we can take or leave. Nor is it a movement over which we have human control, To the contrary, it is no longer a case of us evolving within a process over which we have a measure of human control. Rather the truth is that we are being evolved, in a momentous thrust within which we allow ourselves to become an integral part of cosmic and planetary well- being, or otherwise we become increasingly alienated from life at large. I am not in any way suggesting that all is determined, and that we have no choice other than get involved. Our coming of age is a wake-up call to realize that we are a derived species, creatures of a cosmic-planetary co-evolutionary process in which the growth and progress of each entity – ourselves included – is only possible when we opt to integrate our becoming with that of the larger reality.

Evolution Lures us forth

I also want to highlight the significant contribution of the former Georgetown professor of theology, John F. Haught, who almost single-handedly asserts that it is the lure of the future more than anything else that informs the evolutionary imperative of our time. This insight was initially proposed by the philosopher Karl Popper, and is now articulated anew by Haught (2010; 2015), namely, that the direction of evolution takes shape primarily in response to the lure of the future, and not merely solidifying what has served us well in the past. In the words of John Haught (2015, 52): “Evolution, viewed theologically, means that creation is still happening and that God is creating and saving the world not a retro, that is, by pushing it forward out of the past, but ab ante, by calling it from up ahead.” Theologically, I understand that the central attraction of the lure of the future to be the fruit and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Humankind is now in the process of shifting our normal state of awareness from an individual/ego point of view to a global/spiritual point of view, and our basic choice is to cooperate with that process and help it along. We must let go of all the patriarchal domination, still so endemic to our politics and religions. Empowered by the wisdom of the great mystics, we must learn to submit to where the Great Spirit leads, and make the many adjustments evolution is asking of us at this time. From here on we are called to be a participatory and discerning species, not a dominating and controlling one.

As we shift away from the old, self-destructive patterns of competing for energy and towards a higher spiritual potential, we evolve collectively towards a culture that is oriented to co-creative growth and less focused on outer technologies, as a means for survival. By being in harmony with the universal flow, we begin to “vibrate” at a frequency that brings us into unifying alignment with the Source and also with one another. In that way we move towards the new freedom, the deepest aspiration of all the great religions, and central truth of the great mystical traditions known to humankind.


Some recommended reading:

Delio, Ilia. 2013. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.
Haught, John. F. 2010. Making Sense of Evolution.
                        2015. Resting on the Future.  
Hubbard, Barbara Marx. 1998. Conscious Evolution.


ESSAY ONE: From Universe to Multiverse

(READER's NOTE: Officially, the word multiverse means several universes existing simultaneously. It is sometimes used to refer to the possibility that other universes existed before the present one, and others may succeed it. I use the term with BOTH meanings in mind).

Galileo was hammered by the Catholic Church for endorsing the Copernican theory  that the Earth revolved around the Sun, putting the Sun and not the Earth at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. We were awakening to a new expansive view of the universe, although it would take almost another 400 years before we would break the firm grip of ecclesiastical control and scientific reductionism. In 1650, the noted Biblical scholar, Archbishop James Ussher calculated that the creation of the world took place on Oct. 23rd, 4004 BCE, and that the end of the world would occur at noon on Oct 23rd., 1997. That became standard Catechetical teaching in many parts of the Christian world up to about 1960.

 Meanwhile, a mind-shift had happened in the early 1900s with Einstein’s theories of Relativity and the formulation of the Quantum Theory. It was no longer the Earth that engaged the searching mind but the universe at large, now so complex and mysterious that talk about its beginning or end seemed short-sighted and even irrelevant. 

Towards the Big Bang

With the Hubble discoveries of the late 1920s and the pioneering work of the Belgian priest-astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, the seeds were sown for the leading theory of 20th. century science: The Big Bang. The term was coined by Fred Hoyle in the 1940s but only became a formal theory after the discovery of the cosmic background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1963. From a single point of energy, 13-15 billion years ago, everything we know in creation today began to unfold, including Planet Earth which first evolved about 4.0 billion years ago.

That which gave us the evidence for the Big Bang threw up other imponderables, particularly the discovery of powerful gravity in the distant horizons of time-space. The strength of the gravity waves suggests that great quantities of matter exist out there somewhere. Its nature and location we know nothing about as yet, but scientists are forced to the bewildering conclusion that the observable world comprises at most 10% of the known universe, which means we know nothing about 90% of the created universe.

It has taken discoveries of this nature to challenge the arrogance with which we humans study and propose theorise about the created universe. The real issue of course is neither discovery nor study, but POWER. We feel we have the right to be in control, absolute control and this is still the driving force behind a great deal of modern science, and sadly behind a good deal of religious dogmatism as well.

Another Quantum Leap ?

Finally we come to the real big stuff: the multiverse. The story can be traced back to 1957 when an American doctoral student, Hugh Everett (supervised by the Princeton professor, John A. Wheeler), proposed the possible existence of several rather than one universe. His argument is based on mathematical equations derived from Quantum Theory which also leads to the notion that the universe is self-creating and poised for indefinite growth and expansion.

In the 1981, the idea of a multiverse got an added boost from Alan Guth’s inflationary theory. Quantum theory postulates the existence of an original empty space (hence, the quantum vacuum), consisting of energy movements (fluctuations) from which all matter is shaped and formed. Guth proposes that the fluctuations initially manifest like bubbles in a foam, and shortly after the big bang, these bubbles expanded (inflated) each becoming a mini-universe in its own right. A great deal of experimental evidence supports this proposal. And it is strongly endorsed by leading scientists of our time including Andri Linde (Moscow & Stanford), Marin Rees (Cambridge), Brian Green (Columbia), Paul Davies (Sydney).

I find the adoption of fractal geometry particularly inspiring: “Recent versions of inflationary theory assert that instead of being a ball of fire, the universe is a huge growing fractal.” (Andrei Linde). Fractals are revolutionary new mathematical image-like concepts, in which we find repeated patterns buried deeper and deeper (a bit like a Russian doll). The more we unravel the observable pattern (through computer simulations) the more we find it repeated in the subsistent layers. It is a wonderful exposition of the leading principle of the new physics: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, yet the whole is contained in each part. (for more on fractals see my book, Quantum Theology, 2004, pp.51-53). 

Theological Implications.

For those who wish to delve deeper, the web pages I cite at the end will provide additional information on these complex ideas. How do we relate these discoveries to the realm of faith, Christian or otherwise? I offer a few thoughts.

1. Long before religion ever evolved, humans believed that the divine was intimately involved in creation. All the religions support this idea. Is creation then a kind of primary revelation of God to us? If so, we need to attend carefully to how we understand creation.

2. Our human tendency especially in the past 2000 years is to reduce creation to a human artefact, one we can use and subdue to our advantage; all the major religions, to one degree or another, endorse this orientation. Consequently, we can no longer assume that the religious understandings of creation are in any way adequate - spiritually or theologically.

3. Although scientists also embrace the addictive preoccupation with power and control, many of their intuitions into cosmic and planetary life may be much more spiritually informed than the insights of formalised religions. On the other hand, several of these scientific insights are congruent with those of great mystics from all the religious traditions of humankind.

4. Christian theologians exhibit strong concern about the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). They wish to retain this belief in order to safeguard divine initiative, and presumably their understanding of divine power. Today, we understand the primordial nothingness as a substratum of seething creativity, better described as creatio ex profundis (from the depths). Perhaps, for God, the notion of a beginning-point is of no significance. Might it not be another anthropocentric fascination!

5. Scriptures of all traditions allude to the end of the world. It is very explicit in the Christian and Muslim traditions. Contemporary science is rapidly moving towards the notion of a world without beginning or end. Might this not be a stronger indicator of truth, rather than the anti-world stance that underpins some of the major religions?

6. The big fear – scientifically and religiously – generated by many of these new ideas, concerns our human place and role in the plan of creation. It is abundantly clear that we are not in charge, that we are not the ultimate species in any sense, that we rely on many other aspects of creation to survive on earth, that we are one small organism among so many others, and disturbingly, not as wise as we would like to think. So what is our purpose? Of all the responses to this question the one I find most challenging and inspiring is the proposal that we are creation becoming aware of itself. Our unique vocation – and contribution to creation – is to enhance the growth in consciousness. An awesome responsibility! (Perhaps, this is what all the great mystics were, and are, about!)

7. Theologically, the crucial issue is around the notion of revelation. If the divine has been disclosing creativity and meaning in the entire story of creation, throughout these billions of years, why restrict the empowerment of the divine to religiously-validated time and culture boundaries? Somehow, it does not seem to make sense anymore!

Useful Source material:

For a useful overview of current thinking on the Multiverse, see: George Ellis, "Does the Multiverse Really Exist?" Scientific American, Vol 305 (Aug 2011), 18-23.
John Gribbin (2009), In Search of the Multiverse.
Joel Primack & Nancy Abrams (2006), The View from the Center of the Universe.

WEB Pages:
http://www.edge.org: edited by John Brockman,engages leading scientists in ongoing dialogue.


ESSAY TWO: Discerning The Meaning of Earthquakes.

 In late February, 2010, northern Chile was rocked by an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the richter scale, one of the most severe ever recorded. It happened around 3.00am, in the dead of night, with people at their most vulnerable. It left about 1,000 people dead and caused extensive damage to property. 

Earlier that year, January 2010, the island of Haiti experienced a major earthquake, 7.0 in magnitude. Nowhere near as strong as that of Chile, yet resulted in the death of 230,000 people.  In 2005, a quake measuring 7.6 hit Kashmir in Pakistan, resulting in the death of an estimated 100,000 people; a quake of similar strength hit Northern Japan around the same time, with no known human casualities. Finally, in 1991 the island of Guam was rocked by a violent tremor, 8.0 on the richter scale; quite a lot of property was damaged but there were NO human casualities.

The Crucial Issue

How does one make sense of these figures - and ultimately make sense of earthquake activity? What is the logic whereby 230,000 die as a result of a 7.0 strength earthquake (Haiti), but only 1,000 die from a shock of 8.8 (Chile), and the latter struck in the dead of night when everybody was much more vulnerable. Some earthquakes happen deep underground, while others vibrate more on the surface, leaving behind different degrees of destruction. But there is one factor, which more than any other, makes a difference: the quality of buildings. We know how to construct earthquake resistant buidings - they had them in the island of Guam in 1991 (where nobody died from a 8.00 earthquake) - and that can make all the difference when it comes to human casualities.

The Question of Meaning

Both Haiti and Chile are strongly religious countries, in which people turn to religion for answers when faced with calamity. Why is God doing this to us? Is God punishing us for some sin or waywardness (voiced by Indoesian Muslims after the 2004 Tsunami)? Or is it more a case of God allowing the earthquake without intentionally wishing it? In which case, why couldn't an all-powerful, omnipotent God choose another option? What kind of God are we dealing with? A strangely capricious Divine figurehead?

Scientifically, an earthquake is described as a shifting of the tectonic plates. These are large plates of rock, beneath the earth's mantle, forever changing, and in that process, shaping (and reshaping) the earth we know today. Tectonic literally means "pertaining to building." The shaping or building however has implications for the evolution of every life-form that exists on earth today. 

As the plates move, they clear way cluttered debris and reconfigure earth's potential for new possibilities of creative evolution. Earthquakes are ESSENTIAL to the healthy functioning of the earth body. In fact, without earthquakes no life at all would exist on earth; ours would be a dead inert planet.

The Quandry

So, earthquakes are essential to the earth's well-being and becoming, and yet can be incredibly destructive. How do we make sense of this apparent contradiction? Or is it right that we should call it a contradiction? Would it not be more accurate and intelligent to see it as one manifestation of the great paradox of creation-and-destruction which features throughout the whole of creation? It can also be named as the paradox of birth-death-rebirth.

We cannot - and must not - get rid of this paradox. If we do, we get rid of life itself. So, is God responsible for the paradox? I will answer YES, and go on to suggest that this is a timely reminder to us humans that we must cease trying to create God in our own image and likeness. The divine creativity is paradoxical and it needs to be that way to uphold the novelty and freedom upon which all life flourishes. Otherwise ours would be a deterministic universe; many among us would like it that way because WE would know where exactly we stood with things, but we would lack the freedom and creativity upon which "the fullness of life" flourishes.

Without an appreciation of this paradox, and its central role in the becoming and flourishing of all creation - we will not be able to make sense of suffering at any level - including that of the human. Suffering belongs to the paradox. The discerning question then becomes: how do we differeniate between meaningful and  meaningless suffering. What is the suffering that is necessary to the paradox, and what is not? And to what extent do we humans contribute to meaningless suffering, precisley because we don't take the paradox seriously?Many of our religious theories - especially around sin, salvation, and redemption - are attempts to get rid of suffering instead of cultivating a spirituality in which we learn how to befriend suffering in a more meaningful way. For many of us - Christians included - that is quite a daunting task. 

 Contemplative Justice

I conclude by highlighting two aspects of the different spirituality we will need if we are to make sense of earthquakes, and live more meaningfully amidst  the several forms of suffering that affect our lives today. We need to change our awareness - our consciousness - in quite a drastic way. This will impact significantly on our understanding of faith. And secondly, we need to take justice-making far more seriously; in fact, it will need to become a core element of our daily faith.

Firstly, the contemplative awareness: This I will illustrate by a well known story of the Morgan fisher-folk, living on the South West coast of Thailand, who on the morning of Dec.26th. 2004 noticed that the familiar sea-waters had receded far beyond their usual limits. Things felt off kilter. Nature was not at ease.

These primitive people – with no formal schooling or education - spend their entire time fishing and live in simple hovels along the coastline. Fish is their daily diet; fishing their life-long occupation. They looked intently upon those receding waters and upon the fishes leaping anxiously. They consulted their elders and in union with them quickly reached a collective decision: within hours they intuitively knew that massive waves would break upon their shoreline.

They gathered their meagre possessions and headed for the hills. One the way they met a group of Western tourists, some of whom ridiculed their story. But a few took them seriously and accompanied them to further heights. Thanks to those Westerners we have inherited this amazing story. Those who dismissed and ridiculed their silly tale walked right into the eye of the storm and lost their lives. The fisher-folk and
 their accompanying visitors were totally safe!

By any set of standards this was a brilliant piece of discernment -and I use the term discernment in it's full Ignatian meaning. What a different world it would be if more people would use this gift of the contemplative gaze!

Which readily brings me to the second point of the commitment to justice-making. Japan frequently experiences quite severe earthquakes, yet we rarely hear of human casualities. Why not? Because Japanese law requires all city buildings to be earthquake-resistant. And the Japanese have the technology, money and resources to implement this legal directive.

The people of Kashmir (2005) and Haiti (2010) do not have earthquake resistant buildings. Why not? Because they are too poor to afford them. And why are they so poor? Ultimately, because we humans have devised international systems of politics, power, and economics that insist on dividing humanity into rich and poor. In a world of justice and equality, the people of Kashmir and Haiti have every bit as much a right to earthquake resistant buildings as the people of Japan or the Island of Guam. The central problem is that our world-system is fundamentally corrupt when it comes to justice and equality.

Question which will not go away

 All of which brings us back to the religious questions: Who or what killed 230,000 people in Haiti in January 2010? It was NOT the earthquake, and it was NOT God. It was GREEDY HUMAN BEINGS - who refuse to share justly and equally the resources of God's creation. It was humans blinded by power and self-aggrandizement who could not see as the Morgan fisherfolk could see, and could not deliver justice because they are trapped in destructive power games.

The people of Haiti cry out to God, but God is not the problem; greedy humans are the problem! And its not up to God to resolve the dilemma. Humans have been endowed with the wherewithal to befriend the earthquake. We can do it in USA, Canada, Japan, Malasyia, and even in the Island of Guam (a colony of the USA). And we have the economics and technological wisdom to do it all over the planet - in the name of divine justice.

It is a HUMAN responsibility - not a DIVINE one. The divine rescuer is a delusionary myth. We have been endowed with all the graces and resources to rescue ourselves. Let's face that reality and get on with it.

Christian Life (Essay 3)

Faith in the Postcolonial Awakening

No sooner are people getting used to postmodernism than up arises another slogan: postcolonialism. Like postmodernism, it is a complex subject and open to a range of interpretations. And it has been around for awhile, even predating aspects of  postmodernism.

Post-colonialism loosely designates a set of theoretical approaches which focus on the direct effects and aftermaths of colonization (or colonialism), noting particularly how the colonizing influence is subverted in forms of human exploitation, normalization, repression and dependency (cf. Said 1993; Bhabha 1994; Segovia & Sugirtharajah 2009). For instance, several postcolonial elements prevail in the way we teach history:

-          the normalization and validation of violence,

-          the priority of the ruling male,

-          making the loser invisible in historical text and narrative,

-          prioritizing the metaphor of the hero,

-          subverting what we don’t want the people to perceive.


Internalised Oppression

Internalised oppression is one of the more pervasive consequences of the colonial mind-set. It can be understood in both systemic and personal terms. The political regime of the late Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, as evidenced in the opening years of the 21st century, highlights the systemic mimicry often noted in postcolonial studies. Having thrown off the imposing control of the external colonizer (namely, the British), Robert Mugabe, and his cronies, have internalized the very domination they fought so hard to get rid of, and subsequently imposed it on the Zimbabwean people through forms of oppression and deprivation, some of which were worse than ever imposed by the British colonizers.

The personal nature of internalized oppression is best exemplified in the sense of victimization incurred by abuse – physical, emotional or sexual. The consequent sense of  inferiority and  unworthiness, with overt or covert feelings of guilt and shame, may prevail for years. These feelings may be buried deep in the subconscious, until brought into conscious awareness deliberately (as in therapy) or accidently (as in a traumatic experience). While the person feels victimized, the oppression is at work. When the person internalizes a sense of being a survivor rather than a victim, then freedom is more likely to ensue.

Colonization of Power

Power and powerlessness tend to be the two dominant dynamics being played out – at both the personal and systemic levels. All the formal religions seem to embody this destructive quality of power. In other words, religion carries a covert agenda of control over people’s lives. And in order to exert that control, people are made to feel unworthy, dependent, needing to suffer, and virtuous to the extent that they prove to be obedient.

It is also in the religions that we see colonization and internalized oppression working hand in hand. Segovia and Sugirtharajah (2009), in their analysis of the New Testament, surface several examples. They suggest that the iconic language of the Kingdom of God is a deliberate ploy to counter the rhetoric and power of the Kingdom of Rome (Roman Imperialism). But in the process of confronting and denouncing imperial power, the early Christian preachers, teachers and writers, re-enact some of the very power-dynamics they so vociferously denounce.

Jesus and Postcolonialism

Kathleen Corley (2002) suggests that even Jesus himself at times fell foul of this “postcolonial mimicry.” A vivid example is that of the Syrophoenician woman (Mk.7:24-30) whom he initially tried to dismiss because she did not belong to the sacred enclave of Israel, thus exposing her to the risk of further victimization. While Jesus seems to accept and include women, contrary to the cultural norms where they were often excluded, he seems nonetheless to adopt misogynist values and attitudes as in his re-iterating the derogatory appellation of “harlots” entering the Kingdom of God (Matt.21:31-32). Instead of calling them women (or persons), he seems to reinforce the derogatory label already in use.

We can never be sure, of course, whether it is Jesus himself or his various biographers, who are replaying the postcolonial rhetoric. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel is unashamedly colonial in his portrayal of a powerful Jesus, even to the extent of Jesus declaring himself to be King (Jn.18:37)! The intention may be to highlight the counter-culture to Roman kingship, but placing the words on the lips of Jesus seems like a blatant contradiction to the understanding of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, a Jesus who forthrightly denounces kingship and all its aspirations to power and domination.

The baggage of history

In terms of Christian history, the most serious collusion happened at the beginning of the fourth century when Gelarius accepted Christianity as the formal religion of the Roman Empire and his successor, Constantine, fully endorsed the implementation. From there on royal power, pomp and glory became an integral part of Christian faith. In truth, it has only been in the latter half of the 20th century that scholars have confronted more directly the mis-use (abuse) of the notion of the ‘kingdom of God’ in the New Testament, reclaiming its subversive intent and its challenge to all forms of imperial power (see Crossan, Horsely).  

In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King, in response to growing nationalism and secularism in mainland Europe. The people of Europe, seeking more democratic forms of government, began to reject kingship and its imposing royal domination. Many of the royal families, being Catholic, looked to Rome to halt the slide into modernism, and challenge the people to retain kingship as the more authentic (divine) form of government. The Church fully endorsed the retention of the royal families and their mode of governance – oblivious it would seem to the denunciation of kingship at the heart of the Christian Gospel. 

Postcolonial trappings

Christian faith is still saturated in the baggage and culture of colonial oppression. Several inherited hymns and prayers acclaim Jesus as Lord and King. Church clerics dress in garb that one time belonged to kings or princesses, or to the nobility in ancient Roman society (e.g., the vestments worn by priests for Eucharist). Gestures of homage are sometimes expected from and delivered to Church dignitaries. Investiture ceremonies often follow royal protocol of former times. The oils used for rites of anointing are the same as those used to anoint Kings of yore.

Faith as a disposition of humility, passivity, submission, compliance is extensive in the modern world, although progressively in decline. However, several religious leaders (those in authority) still expect this quality of response. And sacred learning is still the reserve of those at the top, although that too is changing especially in Christian countries of the West. A cult of blind obedience is much more widespread than many care to admit, with the phenomenon of the suicide bomber being one of the more conspicuous examples in our time.

From power to empowerment

How do people outgrow the culture of the postcolonial? In short, by becoming more adult in one’s faith, and collaboratively empowering each other in more grace-filled living. This involves bringing to the understanding and practice of one’s faith a more critical mind, a more perceptive spirit, a more dignified sense of self-awareness. Above all, our world needs religious adherents who embrace their faith as a conscious adult choice, continually in dialogue with peers on how to interpret and integrate inherited sacred wisdom.


Truth is not merely the reserve of the few but the outcome of the community, the primary locus of Christian discernment. In the empowerment of the Spirit we are called into being as persons and as community. By mobilizing the diverse gifts of the community, inspired by the unifying Spirit, we stand a better chance of breaking through the false powers that ensnare us and instead move forward towards empowering liberation. This is the true freedom that God desires for every living creature, without which the New Reign of God on earth cannot be fully realized.



Bhabha, H. (1994), The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.

Corley, Kathleen (2002), Women and the Historical Jesus, Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press.

Crossan, John Dominic (2007), God and Empire, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Horsley, Richard A. (2003), Jesus and Empire, Minn: Augsburg Fortress

Said, Edward (1993), Culture and Imperialism, New York: Vantage.

Segovia, Fernando & R.S. Sugirtharajah (2009), A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament, London: T & T Clark

Christian Life (Essay 2)

Let's get rid of "The Kingdom of God".

The phrase Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew's Gospel) occurs over 140 times in the Four Gospels, mainly in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Most of the references allude to words spoken by Jesus himself, and among scholars who question the authenticity of what Jesus did, or did not, say. Many of the statements by Jesus about the Kingdom are considered to be authentic. In other words, these are sayings that can almost certainly be traced back to what the historical Jesus actually said. Moreover, there is also widespread agreement that for Jesus the Kingdom of God was a concept of primary and foundational importance, perhaps even the core of the Gospel message.


What did Jesus Actually Mean?

There seems to be a growing consensus among scripture scholars on the central significance, for Jesus, of the phenomenon of the Kingdom of God. That much seems very clear. Difficulties arise in trying to discern what precisely Jesus meant by the statement. James G.D. Dunn (2003, 383-387) is one of several contemporary scholars who provides a comprehensive overview, and using the parables as primary evidence reaches this conclusion: "The inherent polyvalency of the parables of the Kingdom subverts any attempt to draw a single uniform picture of the Kingdom from them" (486-487); also see the online overview by Kurt Struckmeyer (2007) :http://www.followingjesus.org/vision/reign_god.htm

We are dealing with what Norman Perrin (1976) describes as a  tensive symbol, whose set of meanings can neither be exhausted nor adequately expressed by any one referent. This is a complex multi-faceted phenomenon, what N.T Wright (1996) calls a grand narrative, although he confines the narrative to the biblical themes of exile and restoration (of Israel). The tendency to short-circuit this foundational meaning - of broad scope and complex significance - has bedevilled scholarship for several centuries and is now evoking a greater thoroughness and transparency as we seek to discern the authentic truth(s) of our Christian faith.

The actual historical meaning is further jeopardized by the language we popularly use. In English the word, Kingdom is masculine, while the Gospels written in Greek use the word Basileia which is feminine. Scholars assume that Jesus spoke Greek and would probably have used it in debate with Scribes and other intellectuals of the day. However, his home language was one or other version of Aramaic, the language he would have used in his ministerial discourses especially among his followers. In Aramaic, a likely translation is that of  Malkuta which is feminine, and in the corresponding Hebrew, Kindom is rendered as Mamlaka which is also feminine.


The preponderance of feminine words suggests that Jesus used the word Kingdom with a very different meaning from our conventional Western understanding (useful notes in Douglas-Klotz 1999; also web-page: www.abwoon.com). Even a translation like New Reign of God (used by several contemporary scholars) probably does not do justice to the original meaning. Whereas Kingdom denotes royal power and domination, privilege, exclusion and hierarchical control, the feminine versions used by Jesus denote something much more egalitarian, liberating and empowering, a quality of leadership that enables and empowers others to take the next step(s).


Kings and kingly governance at the time of Jesus were considered normative, not just culturally and politically but in religious terms as well; the king was considered to be the primary representative of God on earth. Because Christianity, for much of its history, colluded with kingly power and fortune, often modelling its rules and norms on those of patriarchal kingship, it has taken us several centuries to come to terms with the counter-cultural impact of Jesus, who seems to have rejected forthrightly the kingly conditioning, offering instead a radical alternative characterised by empowerment from the bottom up rather than power from the top down. That, in short, is the revolution embodied in the Gospel phrase, The Kingdom of God. (Aptly, the Canadian writer, Donald Kraybill  (2003), describes it as an Upside-Down Kingdom )


The Frightening Domestication


Things began to go wrong from a fairly early stage. Robert Funk (1996) suggests that the early Christian followers (including the twelve) were so conditioned by the concept of brokerage (laying down conditions) that they largely missed the unconditional giftedness Jesus was proclaiming and living under the rubric of the new vision. Next, there followed the long process of ecclesiastical ordering, which already within a few centuries was producing the equation: the Kingdom = the Church. Attention was focussed on that which was more visible and tangible, ensuing in the notion of the Kingdom fading into the background.


Another major deviation, or domestication, happened in the fourth century when Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. By declaring Jesus as Pantocrator (ruler of the universe), Constantine unmistakably brought Jesus under the bar of imperial, earthly governance, effectively suppressing for several centuries the counter-cultural vision of the upside-down Kingdom. Perhaps, as a compensation, several leaders and movements began to spiritualise the notion of the Kingdom of God, one of the more recent being Pope Benedict XV's book, Jesus of Nazareth (2007, pp.46ff). According to this interpretation, the Kingdom of God is an inner disposition characterised in daily behaviour by adopting the mind and outlook of Christ. Cultural, social, political interpretations are considered to be deviations, or at best, secondary consequences.


Despite the domestication, and its many articulations, there have been periods in Christian history when the alternative vision of the Kingdom of God blossomed forth – usually not with the approval or blessing of the Church. We note this in the 12-13th centuries when several feminist and ecologically-based movements (e.g., the great St. Francis) flourished; interestingly, many Church historians describe that period as a dark age of the Church. In the 19th. century, some liberal German and British theologians tried to retrieve the primacy of the notion of the Kingdom, with limited success. Since about 1960, scholars have progressively reclaimed this priority. Church leadership is still far behind, and many lay people are largely unaware of the significance of  this key concept of Christian faith.


An Empowering Horizon


One of the most daring and visionary retrievals of the foundational vision was published in 1986 by a little known American scholar, Thomas Sheehan (1986; electronic version: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/thomas_sheehan/firstcoming/bibliography.html ). Sheehan claims that in adopting the rubric of the Kingdom, Jesus was seeking to transcend all religion, and empower people towards life in abundance (cf Jn.10:10), to be realized in the context of their daily secular reality. For the greater part most other commentators have concentrated on highlighting the limitations of our conventional understandings, and our failure to see the patriarchal, regal underpinnings then and now (e.g., Crossan 2007; Horsley 2003; Schussler-Fiorenza 1985).


Catholic scholars (such as Fuellenbach 1996) often present what to me seems a compromised vision. Seeking to honour the priority of the Kingdom, and its extensiveness beyond the Church, they still seek to defend the position that despite all its limitations, the Church is, and must be seen as, the primary embodiment of the Kingdom on earth. The evidence of history does not sustain this conviction, and it carries little weight for more enlightened Christians in our time. That Jesus envisioned faith communities to subsequently embody his vision is beyond question, but something akin to Basic Christian Communities, rather than an institutional Church, is probably what he had in mind.


Among scholars, the Kingdom of God continues to be a field of intense study and research. Paradoxically, it does not feature strongly in the formation programmes offered either in theology schools or in seminaries. The ambivalence of many centuries still seems to undermine our resolve to follow Jesus more fully. Or it might be natural human reluctance to take on a vision that could lead us to places we would rather not go!


Naming our Vision Afresh

To resolve the dilemma of our ambivalence we may need to do something a good deal more drastic: change the terminology itself. As several philosophers have indicated throughout the twentieth century, language dictates and limits consciousness. Language controls our lives to a far greater degree than most of us are aware. A new language is often necessary to move us in the direction of new possibilities.


For many years, I have encountered people, particularly women, who find the term Kingdom of God alien and oppressive. Many people have never had a direct experience of living under the governance of a king (or queen). And many educated people today readily see the archaic imperialism which inherently belongs to such language and the imagery it begets. Perhaps the time has come – as I indicate in the title – to get rid of the terminology itself.

And what would we replace it with? John Dominic Crossan (1991, 421-422) offers one of the best suggestions I know: a companionship of empowerment. Certainly this is what all the parables are pointing towards. And if we take the miracles as the first signs of the Kingdom happening, then the miracle stories also support this re-naming. It also attempts to honour the Aramaic rendering, malkuta, which literally translates as the right to rule, but the underlying connotation (signalled by the feminine word) is that of the power of vision and leadership that empowers others towards a more empowering future.


The companionship of empowerment also challenges and transcends the competitive individualism so endemic to our time, and quite alien to the time and culture of Jesus. The empowerment envisaged in the life and ministry of Jesus is that of setting relationships right, co-creating communities and networks through which we incarnate transformative justice, healing and forgiveness, empowering love and enduring liberation. The counter-cultural call is not that we look to others to do it for us (the kingly, hierarchical model), but that we mutually empower each other to do it together - for each other and for the earth we inhabit. This is also the vision of the Beatitudes, the radical option for which Jesus lived and died.


So, let's get rid of the language of the "Kingdom of God." Delete it from the Gospels , and replace it with the "Companionship of Empowerment." And let's not wait for scholars or churches to do it for us. We are not destroying tradition, or tampering with sacred writ. Rather, we are seeking to reclaim something closer to the originality and dynamism of what Jesus was on to in the first place, a vision which Christians of every age and culture are invited to embrace. With this new language, and the vision it embodies, Christianity stands a much better chance of becoming once more the dangerous memory it was always meant to be.           

                      Crossan, John Dominic (1991), The Historical Jesus.
                                                            (2007), God and Empire
                       Dunn, James G.D. (2003), Christianity in the Making, Vol.1: Jesus Remembered.                      
                       Douglas-Klotz, Neil (1999), The Hidden Gospel.         

                       Fuellenbach, John (1996), The Kingdom of God.
                       Funk, Robert (1996), Honest to Jesus .
                       Horsley, Richard A. (2003), Jesus and Empire.

                       Kraybill, Donald B. (2003), The Upside-Down Kingdom.
                       O'Murchu, Diarmuid (2012), Christianity's Dangerous Memory.
                                    (2017), INCARNATION: A New Evolutionary Threshold 

                               Perrin, Norman (1976), Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. 
                       Schussler-Fiorenza, Elizabeth (1985), In Memory of Her.      
                       Sheehan, Thomas (1986), The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God became Christianity.   
                       Wright, N.T. (1996), Jesus and the Victory of God.