The Creation of the World: the Crossroads between Theology and Science 6 July 2017
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The matter of the creation of the world is, in itself, a field where the religious and scientific views of the world meet. Any investigation of this ‘world-shattering event’ would certainly involve pausing to remark on the dynamic which is evolving in the ranks of the scientific community. Ideas come and go, arriving and departing, and all the time constantly being tested against observable data. This dimension is of importance when the scientific view is contrasted with the religious concept of creation. The religious concept appears to be static and well-established in sacred texts, which were written when an entirely different world-view prevailed, and in social environments with a completely different educational composition from our own.
Very often, religious objections revolve around the (relatively) short life-span of scientific theories and this is not entirely unfair. It can be forgotten, however, that scientific positions, at least during the last few centuries, have been well grounded in the timeless language of mathematics.
But this has more to do with those apologists for religion who (from insecurity or a need to dominate) choose a confrontational or censorious stance towards scientific views of the world and its creation. This attitude in no way expresses the spirit of Church tradition.
In the first place, and contrary to what is widely believed today, the tenor of ecclesiastical literature is especially positive towards research. Besides, it’s accepted that it’s possible, through the study of nature, for someone to be brought to the Creator Himself, since a receptive mind can recognize Him in His creation. This is precisely the reason why many researchers understand their research as a kind of prayer, because, through the study of nature, as they themselves confess, they come into direct contact with the works of the Creator and wonder at His wisdom.
Even more so, God is understood in a personal relationship. Not as an invisible entity, as a general principle which governs the universe. Often in the past, and also more recently, the apologetic method was content to present God as the presence necessary to deal with the gaps in scientific research. He was the ‘God of the gaps’. A genuine attitude to the natural world- liberated from the anxiety for confirmation- seeks a personal character, a relationship with things which transcends cold detachment from them and a dry, intellectual approach. Fr. George Coyne, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, expressed that attitude clearly: he said he tried to understand a universe which was created by the God Who loves him and that he’d rather have a Father God than an mechanic who fixes the gaps.
This moral dimension of scientific research, which largely confirms the dynamic of the natural philosophy we mentioned at the beginning, is complemented by another feature: irrespective of their metaphysical positions, scientists engaged in research as a rule display a kind of humility and moderation which is hard to find in our own Church thinking (despite the promotion of the via negativa and of humility as a virtue). This is due precisely to the recognition that, despite the impressive progress which has been made in our understanding of the world, there are still many unknown areas which demand that we restrain our cognitive enthusiasm.
Finally, as regards the central issue of one’s conviction regarding the creation of the world, it’s worth noting that the dimensions of our God-given freedom are enlarged in a fundamental way in this case. If we agree to retain the congruity between content and the underlying principle behind it, then the principle of personal freedom gives us the answers we’re seeking. A Being Who creates the world freely chooses to do so in such a manner that He is freely recognizable through His creation! He can be recognized through the manner of creation and also through the things created, though not in a binding fashion. Such a constraint would violate human freedom in a subtle but substantive way. Again, it’s the position of each individual and the perspective they have on their kind of relationship with things which defines the answer in the end. And that is to be entirely respected.