Nature's Sacrament: The Epic of Evolution and a Theology of Sacramental Ecology

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McDuffie, David
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School of Theology, University of the South , School of Theology Thesis 2017 , Evolution , Christian sacramental worship and ecology , Christian sacramental worship and evolution , E.O. Wilson , Ursula Goodenough , William Temple , Eucharist
The ‘Epic of Evolution’ is the scientific story that reveals that we live in an approximately 14 billion year old universe on a planet that is approximately 4.6 billion years old and that we are a part of the ongoing process of life that has existed on Earth for 3.5-4 billion years. This project focuses on the religious and ecological significance of the evolutionary epic in an effort to seamlessly connect the ecological value attributed as a part of an understanding of the evolutionary connectedness of life on earth with the Divine grace understood to be present in Christian sacramental worship. With a particular emphasis on the Eucharist, I argue that the sacramental perspective of grace being conveyed through material reality provides the potential for Christian sacramental tradition to make a significant contribution to protecting the threatened ecological communities of our planet. Focusing on the work of E. O. Wilson and Ursula Goodenough, I explore the sacramental significance of the Epic of Evolution itself as value is attributed through recognition of the connectedness and kinship characteristic of all Earthly life. Concurrently, by incorporating William Temple’s concept of a ‘sacramental universe’ from Anglican sacramental theology, I propose that the grace that is understood to be present in the substances of the bread and wine of the Eucharist points outward so that it can also be witnessed in all of God’s ongoing Creation. Therefore, the formal sacrament of the Eucharist is a part of a broader sacramentality in which the presence of Divine grace can be witnessed in all aspects of the natural order. Through our participation in the Eucharistic liturgy, we are immersed in the Christian narrative of Alpha, Chi, Omega and then sent out into the world to experience the broader sacramentality emerging from our sacramental universe. In addition to providing an outward trajectory pointing toward the attribution of value beyond the walls of the church to the ecological communities of which we are necessarily a part, the connection between the Eucharist and natural value also has a deeper theological significance. The Eucharist calls worshipers to recognize the Christian understanding of the primacy of divine incarnation in the selfless sacrifice associated with the life of Jesus. When this is understood as taking place in a sacramental universe from which ecological grace flows, the incarnation can be recognized not as a one-time event but as an ongoing sacramental process through which God is revealed through the perpetual emergence of life. Consequently, as the primary form of sacramental worship in Christian tradition, the Eucharistic witness to the incarnation of God in Jesus and thanksgiving for life overcoming death provide Christians with a ritual orientation for recognizing the incarnational presence of God as an ever present reality potentially witnessed in all that is. From the perspective of Christian sacramental theology, it is the responsibility of the priestly vocation, both lay and ordained, to cultivate an awareness of the presence of Divine grace in a sacramental ecology in order perpetuate the attribution of value to the ecological communities from which all life and value emerge. By incorporating David Brown’s theology of sacrament and tradition as an ideal framework for such a pursuit, I argue that this theological perspective is coherent with the Christian tradition of which it is a part as well as applicable to the ecological context in which we live our lives. Therefore, connecting Eucharistic grace with the value associated with an awareness of the ecological and genetic connectedness of all forms of life serves as a mutual enrichment of sacramental tradition and contemporary efforts to protect life on Earth.