The Judeo/Christian tradition contains no information about the origin of the material world. I say this in the face of the creation stories in Genesis and the description of God in the Apostle’s creed as “Creator of Heaven and Earth”. The assertion that God is the agency behind the material world leads us into a morass of theological and scientific problems that continue to embarrass the Church in its attempt to speak to the world of natural science and which renders unrecognisable the God of the Bible.
Modern cosmogony is based on observation of red shifts, the structure of the universe, the age of rocks and much more. Christian theology has no knowledge of such things and cannot speak about the origin of the universe, except to say that it is entirely natural, i.e. does not contain spirit. This contribution is metaphysical rather than physical and is the basis of all natural science.
Our understanding of the creation stories in Genesis are too easily distorted by comparatively recent ideas about causation that we project upon them. We must remember that the Priestly account of creation by command in seven days is largely a polemic written in opposition to the Babylonian creation myths of Israel’s place of exile.
The period of seven days places it within the liturgical life of the nation which formed its understanding of the world. While they could proclaim their God as the creator of the world in opposition to the Babylonian creation myths, their conception was quite different from ours when we talk about scientific cosmogony. Certainly they had no idea of physical causation in the modern sense of phenomenon being explained by the interaction of matter according to its properties and motion. This was a late development that only came to fruition in the 18th century.
There is still discussion about whether that doyen of natural science, Sir Isaac Newton believed that God was the only causal agent, particularly when he considered the possible mechanism of gravity. Prior to the scientific revolution, God could be affirmed as the creator of Heaven and Earth without thought about physical causation. After the revolution such an affirmation automatically entailed God setting the physical constants of the universe and (according the recent theory) initiating the big bang that brought all things into being.
We must admit that the explanation of the world as causal mechanism, despite the strange causality at the quantum level, has come to dominate our thinking and is enshrined in the technology that it has produced. This is an understanding of the world as natural in that it does not contain immaterial agents and as such is not in conflict with the biblical notion of the naturalness of the world. That is, the world is free of demons and gods to be what it is. The sun and the moon are not gods that traverse the heavens but lights separating day from night.
To confuse our scientific cosmogony, with its theory of the big bang etc, with the creation narratives in Genesis is to make a category mistake. The creation stories are liturgical and legendary stories written by a people who had no notion of physical causality underlying the reality they saw before them and they do not belong in the same category as scientific theories of physical causation. Any attempt to combine the two will result in an endless conflict between natural science and theology and will rob the stories of their original purpose, that is, to locate man in an intelligible world with God at its centre.
The creation stories are theology, they are not scientific cosmogonies. Or, better, there are two kinds of cosmogony, the theological that makes metaphysical statements about the nature of the world and those generated by natural science that deal with causality. These two kinds are not contradictory since the former makes statements about matter being natural and the latter about how matter interacts.
The confusion between the two kinds of cosmogonies was set up by an earlier confusion that arose when the Church found itself in a Hellenic environment and had to find the language to speak to it. That is, it adopted Greek understandings of divinity according Plato and Aristotle and with those understandings the cosmogonies that went with them.
On the Platonic side (or, rather the neo-Platonic) the universe came about through emanations of the divine ideas. On the Aristotelian side the universe was produced by a divine demiurge, the unmoved mover. In short, the Greek understanding of the universe was as cosmos the result of ideas in the mind of God. The world was formed for a purpose and that purpose was to provide for the lives of men. This is a more complicated story but it is important to outline how the Greek gods, those fickle and only too human beings, were displaced by the loving Father of Christianity. It was an easy thing then to identify the Christian God with the Platonic One or the Aristotelian demiurge and to associate Him with care of the world in the unbiblical idea of providence.
However there was one big problem in this easy translation. The Greek idea of divinity was that it was timeless and existed above and beyond the human in direct contrast to the understanding of Israel and hence the Church that God was present to His people in time. In other words the Greek concept of transcendence was one of space, the gods or god were not in this world but were in another place. This is in contrast to Israel’s understanding of God being transcendent in time: He was present with His people in a particular time and place and could withdraw his presence.
The whole of the Middle Ages was dominated by this accommodation which inspired Ptolemaic cosmology with its separation of the earthly sublunar and divine lunar spheres. The medieval synthesis was inherently unstable because it had inherited the fault lines of Greek metaphysics and began to fall apart from about the 14th century. The eventual triumph of nominalism over the universals, the Copernican revolution and the Reformation left the medieval synthesis in disarray.
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