Critical Essay

Ecclesiastes for the ecclesia

A wisdom ecclesiology embraces the church’s earthly context—but without romanticizing it.

There has been no Copernican revolution in ecclesiology. It seems that theologians are still working with a geocentric universe when they talk about church, even as the world that scientists tell us about keeps getting vaster and vaster. Human members of Christ’s body are biologically and genetically part of the earth community, and part of the task of a wisdom ecclesiology is to insist that Christian communities of faith truly belong to the earth. Yet it is also appropriate for an ecclesiology that takes creation seriously to take a step back and consider our unimaginably bigger cosmic context as God’s creatures.

The current scientific consensus is that we live in an expanding universe, a galaxy-filled space that began some 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is an enormous system of stars, of which our sun is a single, rather insignificant member. We earthlings inhabit the third planet from the sun in our tiny solar system. Biological life on earth began approximately 3.5 billion years ago, roughly 10 billion years after the Big Bang. The hominid ancestor that we have in common with chimpanzees did not emerge until only about 6 or 7 million years ago, and anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago. Human beings take their place, alongside millions of other species, as latecomers to life on earth.

Astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson has dramatized the brevity of human existence within this larger cosmic story by laying out the whole history of the universe to this point over a one-year calendar. By prorating 13.8 billion years across an imaginary 12 months, deGrasse Tyson’s “cosmic calendar” shows that all of what we think of as human history takes place in the last minute, of the last hour, of the last day of the universe. As biologist Francis Collins observes, “God writes such short stories about humankind.”