In the Beginning…..

In some areas of our lives the functions of science and religion seem easily discernible. If I wanted to know something about the radio-active decay of uranium, I would be unlikely to seek out the advice of a priest (whilst admitting to the fact that some priests are well enough versed in science to be able to give a reasonable answer). Alternatively the average person looking to find meaning in their lives is probably unlikely to ask a scientist (notwithstanding that some scientists have a great understanding of spirituality).
But in some fields of knowledge science and religion compete for explanations and rationalisations. Not surprisingly, the areas where science and religion compete are often the very fundamental questions which Homo sapiens seems compelled to ask to understand its very existence. A case where there is some obvious conflict (but also in many ways some agreement) between science and religion is the issue of creation.
In a previous blog I related the natural tension that exists between science and religion, between mythos and logos, the two contrasting ways we try to make sense of our worlds. Science has adopted the way of logos and from that produced laws and theorems which seek to make the world intelligible to us. Religion takes the way of mythos to help us make our world meaningful. It takes the wisdom of mythos and embeds them in scripture. As Karen Armstrong writes:
“….. human beings have persistently sought a dimension of existence that seems close to our normal lives and yet far from them. Sacred scripture has been one of the principal means of introducing people to a world of ultimate truth, beauty, and goodness. It has helped human beings to cultivate a sense of the eternal and the absolute in the midst of the transient world in which they find themselves.”
Among the religious traditions of the world there are a variety of creation myths. But some religions don’t have a creation myth at all. The Hindu system consisted of cycles within cycles, of immense duration. The life cycle of Brahma, which is the overarching cycle, is said to last for 311 trillion years! So in such a scheme there is no beginning or end just a continuous cycling which has been likened to an inescapable treadmill. Similarly the ancient Chinese had a great indifference to the passage of time and restarted their chronological dating with each successive dynasty. But for simplicity’s sake. In this short essay I will concentrate on the creation myth fundamental to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as related in the book of Genesis.
Even among those religions that have a creation tradition there are vast differences. One of the principal differences (which had to be confronted by science as well) is whether the universe was created ex nihilo (from nothing) or was merely a reordering of pre-existent material.
The conventional reading of Genesis’s opening paragraphs, viz:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
has traditionally been interpreted as creation ex nihilo. The scholar and translator of the Hebrew bible, Everett Fox suggests that the opening lines of Genesis might be more appropriately translated thus:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters. God said: “Let there be light”! And there was light.
This interpretation suggests that God’s act of creation was merely putting order into extant material. In this version the waste of chaos and the primal sea were already in existence. This of course begs the question where did the pre-existent material come from? Or alternatively does there have to be a beginning?
Many ancient cultures were inclined to a view that the world has no beginning. Scientists say that if the universe had existed forever the night sky would not be dark. The light of every star would have had time to reach earth and therefore that would result in the earth being bathed in light, even at night.
The idea of an infinitely enduring universe was thwarted by the discovery of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law creates the arrow of time. It tells us that over time entropy increases and the universe must inevitably run down. Under its influence it is impossible for any physical entity to endure forever.
Here we seem to have some concurrence between religion and science. The most common interpretation of Genesis and the most prevalent scientific view is that the universe had a beginning and must have been created ex nihilo.
Sometimes the religious view of creation is clouded by what our concept of “God” is. There seems to be four principal concepts of “God” and how he (any reasonable concept of God would not attribute gender, so I use masculine gender for convenience) relates to the universe.
1. Deism. This is a belief in a divine being who starts the universe off and then “sits back” to watch events unfold. This seems to be the concept that Newton, for example, had of God. This is God as the “divine watchmaker” who having constructed his artifice wound it up and let it operate deterministically responding to the Laws of Nature.
2. Theism. Under Theism God creates the universe but then he continues to play a part in its development. This type of God is prepared to intervene (especially as his believers hope in their favour!).
3. Pantheism. Pantheists believe that God is synonymous with the physical universe. God is identified as nature itself; everything is a part of God and God is in everything.
4. Panentheism. Panentheism posits that (unlike Pantheism) the universe is a part of God but God is more than the universe. That is there is a part of God that stands outside the universe.
There are other more complex notions of God, eg there is a concept that God is embedded in the universe and his powers are developing as the universe ages. But most theologians would subscribe to one of the four categories defined above.
On face value it would seem that a God embedded in the physical universe would face the same fate as the physical universe. As a result one might have misgivings about a pantheistic God.
Deism seems to reflect a God who has no concerns about the human dilemma. Wind it up – let it go – and hope for the best! Deists would probably argue that a human’s temporal life in a determinist universe is but a preliminary event. It would be nice if such a God could give us solace along the way! And a God who is determined not to intervene again in his creation, as we have seen, has doomed it to a finite life.
It is probably only our human vanity that seeks to find a solution to creation that enables the continued existence and (hopefully) the evolutionary enhancement of the human race. Think of the many species, other than our own, that were sentenced to extinction during the evolutionary process.
It would seem logical that if God exists and he is a creator God, he must stand outside the universe (even allowing that the universe is part of him). This concept was hinted at by St Augustine. The God of the Judeo-Christian religions is proclaimed to be eternal. There are two ways of defining “eternal”. Commonly it is used to denote something that exists and will exist for an infinite duration. But a better definition of “eternal” is that which is beyond time. St Augustine maintained that God made the world “with time and not in time”.
As Paul Davies pointed out:
“By regarding time as part of the physical universe, rather than something in which the creation of the universe happens, and placing God outside it altogether, Augustine neatly avoided the problem of what God was doing before the creation!”
And of course Einstein led us to a similar conclusion – time does not exist independent of the universe; it is in fact one of the dimensions of the universe.
But the ongoing issue about creation still remains the one justifying “the first cause”. Atheist and agnostic sceptics will still ask, “Why is there a God anyway. How did he come to exist.”
The religious riposte will be to ask, “How is it possible for the universe to be created out of nothing?”
Most of the devout would make the argument, “How can the universe create itself.” They would maintain that the physical universe by itself does not provide a compelling argument for creation. They would maintain its existence ultimately demands something outside itself and that suggests divine influence.
Science would respond that the existence of a deity only takes the argument one step backward in trying to assign a primal cause. They would ask, “Well where did your God come from? Why does he exist?” They would also point out that developments in physics do have plausible explanations for creation ex nihilo.
The problem for most of us ordinary human beings is that the God story is increasingly improbable and the response from the physicists is equally beyond our capacity to understand!