A fundamental question
Paul Gauguin has painted a famous painting entitled, “What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” The artist’s question relates to the origin as well as to the finality of human destiny and existence. The materialistic and humanistic worldview of many of our contemporaries leads them to postulate that ultimate reality is infinite and impersonal and is essentially defined in terms of matter and energy. But how can such a perspective account for the complexity and the intelligent design of the universe as well as for the unique character of humans qualitatively distinct from the other living creatures?
The biblical perspective postulates that ultimate reality consists of an infinite and personal Being. This is the starting point of all philosophy based on divine thought as revealed in Scripture, and such a global outlook offers an answer to the questions of origin. It takes into account the unity and the diversity of reality and highlights a unique anthropological concept, in its psychological, social and cultural aspects.
This infinite and personal being took the initiative to create all things ex nihilo by the sole power of his word!1 This key notion is expressed in the first chapter of Genesis. The verb “to create” (bārā), used only with God as subject, describes a unique creative activity.2 The Hebrew root is used three times: in relation to the creation of the universe, of aquatic and flying beings, and of the human being: man and woman (Gen 1:2, 20-1, 27-8). God’s specific intervention is apparent in the realms of physics, biology and anthropology. The last divine act underscores the unique character of the human being, created in the image of God. Consequently, the answers given to these questions bear on the way the universe and the destiny of humanity on earth are understood.
The present debate
Historically, the different stages of this debate are connected to the advent of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and to its impact on natural sciences, thus leading science to becoming an end in itself. This collusion has gradually given birth to a science cloaked in modernism, thus becoming captive to rationalistic philosophies, which then used science to undermine the biblical and classical Christian view of creation. As a matter of fact, from Copernicus until the advent of the Marxist materialist ideology, through Darwin and Freud, these two world views, 'scientific' and 'religious' (Christian), developed side by side without much contact with each other. In the Christian community, without denying the existence of a Creator and the doctrine of creation, the tendency has been, to various degrees, to recognize and to accept the 'scientific' explanation of the origin of the universe and of mankind. As a consequence the emphasis was progressively placed on redemption to the detriment of creation.
As time went by it became evident that it was inappropriate to speak about redemption without bringing creation into the picture. But the renewed interest for this doctrine carefully avoided the questions related to the origins. It was thus argued that the biblical narratives of creation purposed to shed light on the fragile human existence. Human life unfolds in a dangerous and hostile environment. In the light of this dramatic threat, the stories of creation appease, comfort and reassure. They only have existential value. They fulfil a threefold purpose: doxological, polemical and soteriological. In other words, creation texts invite the believer to praise the unique God, reject idols and welcome salvation offered by the Lord.
However, to confess the Creator God is only significant if the biblical perspective is intellectually true and trustworthy. The answer that we bring to the question of being necessarily bears upon that of meaning. Is the belief in the Creator and in creation only the product of my imagination, of my philosophical-religious perspective, or is such a statement based on the fact that God has really taken the initiative to create the universe and that this work is of an objective nature? To be sure, the first chapters of Genesis are not to be compared to a scientific treatise as defined today, but when the biblical narrative bears witness to the intervention of God in the realm of reality, we can expect it to speak in truth. God is also the Lord of science. If questions with regards to the origins still fascinate our contemporaries, it is no doubts because they make up the DNA of our identity as men and women who live in the midst of this world. The question of the origins is indeed linked to that of meaning!
The astrophysicists’ pertinence
While much of contemporary theology of creation eludes the question of the origin of being, curiously astrophysicists have made a significant contribution to the debate. Their discoveries have led them to reconsider the question of being and the origin of the universe. They have had to face the challenge of the zero moment of the universe with all its implications. Thus to postulate that the universe has a beginning, introduces the creator God at the centre of the picture where they thought he had been definitely excluded!
Anglo-Saxons call 'Big Bang' the 'zero moment' of our universe in the hypothesis that this universe would be in constant expansion. As Trinh for Xuan Thuan argues, these
recent discoveries of cosmology have shed a new light on the most fundamental and oldest of questions. And it matters that any serious reflection on the existence of God take this new evidence into account. After all, the questions asked by the cosmologist are strikingly close to those that concern the theologian: how was the universe created? Is there a beginning to time and space? Will the universe have an end? Where does it come from and where is it going? The sphere of God is that of mystery and of the invisible, that of the infinitely small and of the infinitely large. This sphere no longer belongs exclusively to the theologian, it also belongs to the scientists; science is there, it adds up discoveries and disrupts preconceptions. The theologian has no right to remain indifferent.3
But neither should the astrophysicists, as many do, sidestep the question of God. Indeed the ultimate issue isn’t the encounter between God and modern cosmology, but the Davidic acknowledgment that 'the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork' (Ps 19.1). In fact this is what Jastrow does in his own way when he states not without humour,
The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation … It is not matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement or another theory; at the moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.4
While a majority of modern theologians have sought to avoid the obstacle embodied by the question of origins, astrophysicists, confronted by scientific evidence, have been led to reconsider the question of the existence of a creator God and have gone as far as to challenge theologians to take part in the examination and study of the fundamentals of reality. To meet such a challenge is to recognize that divine revelation is one and that its various components are complementary. It also implies the recognition that the issue of the meaning of life is linked to the existence of the infinite and personal God who has indeed created all things including humans by the power of his word of wisdom.
1For a detailed argument of this theme, cf. P. Berthoud, En quête des origines (Aix-en-Provence: Excelsis et Kerygma, 2008) ch. 7, pp. 177f.
2It is important to indicate that bārā does not usually express the idea of a creation ex nihilo, but conveys the idea of a divine activity starting from nothing as well as from a pre-existing reality/matter.
3Trinh Xuan Thuan, La mélodie secrète (Paris: Gallimard, 1991) 296-297. The author advocates the Big Bang theory and does not believe in chance and necessity.
4Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York, London: W. W. Norton, 1992 ) 115-116.
Professor Emeritus, Faculté Jean Calvin