Vol I No. 7

What the world is

by Paul Julienne



Science tells us that our world is a cosmos, that is, it is a whole which we have found to be remarkably ordered according to mathematical principles that are intelligible to our human minds. This order extends from the inconceivably minute domain of elementary particles through the information-rich phenomena of life to  the inconceivably vast domain of clusters of galaxies.  Science has helped us see how it all is interconnected in deep ways.  Many, if not most, scientists will testify to being awe-struck by the wonder of it all.

How we deploy and use words is so important. So let us tackle head-on one of the more controversial ones: creation.  This short essay can at most make a preliminary foray in this direction.   While many contemporary scientists are reluctant to speak of science and creation in the same breath, the founders of early modern science like Galileo, Kepler, and  Newton could do so without hesitation.   Why might this be so?

In the popular mind, the idea of creation conjures up images of creationism to be contrasted  with science as an explanation of the world.   At great risk of oversimplifying such views, let me suggest that they see “God” acting like some being in the world, even if a “supreme” one,  to “tinker” in it in ways that compete with scientific explanations of how various forces act upon matter and energy to bring about the world we have.  Many will think science has rendered such a “tinkering God” implausible.   But what if such an implausible “God” is quite far removed from how God is actually conceived by a Christian theology centered on its classical understanding of Jesus Christ?

When retired Bishop Geoffrey Rowell was Chaplain of Keble College, Oxford, he gave a sermon on April 25, 1992, as part of a celebration to mark the bi-centenary of the birth of John Keble (1792-1866).  Rowell said (in The English Religious Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism):

Of the churches of the Reformation, the Church of England alone gave great prominence to the doctrine of creation.  Its greatest theologian, Richard Hooker, whose work Keble edited, wrote that ‘all things are partakers of God, they are his offspring, his influence is in them.’  The world is important, matter is important; they are in God’s creation, and to be seen and known as such.  The world is sacramental, pointing beyond itself to God.  And the worship of the Church is inescapably sacramental, embodied

Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was rooted in a more ancient tradition from antiquity where the world had not yet been “atomized” into individual parts to be analyzed in isolation from one another as mere things.  This older viewpoint, familiar to Hooker through the thought of Aristotle as transformed by Thomas Aquinas, was still capable of seeing the world as a whole with all the parts ordered toward a unity.   The material substrate of the world is not just “mere matter.”   Rather the matter in the world is a good gift for the sake of the world’s fulfillment of its intended ends.

A proper  view of creation depends on a proper understanding of what we mean by “God.”  Creation is a statement about a relation.  The doctrine of creation ex nihilo (from nothing) sees the cosmos as a free gift of contingent (dependent) being given and ordered to its ends by its transcendent source.

It is a fundamental category mistake to take God to be merely another force or cause in the world, alongside those studied by science.  Rather, God has his own mode of interacting with the created order, according to the relation of infinitely transcendent Creator to that which is created.  Philosopher Michael Hanby, having Aquinas in mind, tells us (in No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology, Biology):

Because the act of creation is distinct from (and presupposed by) all other forms of causation, the doctrine of creation is not a doctrine of temporal origins, and it does not answer the question of how the world came to be as it is in any conventional scientific sense. Rather, it is a doctrine of ontological origins, and it tells us what the world is at every moment of its existence.

Hanby goes on to point out that a proper understanding of God and creation allows to science its own proper freedom to be science without having to resort to theology as it goes about its business.    It is precisely in preserving the infinite distance between God and the  world that we can see God to be intimately present to it everywhere and always according to his own transcendent way of being.

Thus, creation tells us what the world is, not about the processes of the cosmos.  It gives us the spectacles through which we can see what is going on in the world, why science is possible in the first place.   It is a matter of vision, theoria.

It seems to me, from the standpoint of contemporary science, that what the sciences have actually learned about the world makes the most sense if seen through a holistic lens.  Science helps us see that our cosmos of matter and energy is an ordered and fine-tuned whole that supports the being of scientists who can comprehend that whole and participate in it.  To me that looks like the way Richard Hooker saw it.  Such a vision points towards wonder and worship where head and heart are integrated to appreciate the gift that the world is.