The Catholic Thing
In the Beginning . . . Print E-mail
By William E. Carroll   
Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Jewish philosopher and theologian, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), observed that Jews, Muslims, and Christians share a common belief that the world is created by God. Maimonides, following in the tradition of many Muslim thinkers, was not sure that Christians were monotheists, given the doctrine of the Trinity, but he was sure that Christians recognized that all that is depends upon God's creative act. With most believers, Maimonides identified creation with temporal beginning, as do most people today. But this has to be carefully examined to avoid unnecessary conflicts between faith and science.

Muslim and Jewish thinkers in the Middle Ages wrestled with the relationship between Greek science (especially Plato and Aristotle) and revelation in the Koran and the Hebrew Bible. What appeared especially troublesome was the common Greek view that the universe is eternal, a claim that contradicted the generally accepted belief in creation as a beginning of time. The discussion of the relationship between science and faith in medieval Islam and Judaism anticipated (and partly formed) the later debate among medieval Christians. The discussion continues today, especially as contemporary thinkers reflect on the implications of evolutionary biology and cosmology for religious belief.

The identification of creation with a temporal beginning tempted some in the Middle Ages to think that we can know that the universe must have a temporal beginning and, therefore, that the universe is created and has a Creator. Some famous Muslim theologians (the kalam) made this argument, and similar arguments exists today among those who think that Big Bang cosmology, in its usual acceptance of an initial singularity, offers scientific warrant, if not strict proof, for the absolute beginning of everything. If there is such a singularity, a point where our notions of space and time collapse, and natural sciences can offer no further explanations, then, so some claim, we have evidence for an act of creation.

But recent developments in cosmology seek to explain the Big Bang in terms of quantum tunnelling from nothing, or offer various scenarios for a pre-Big Bang universe, or speak of a series of big bangs, or even entertain the possibility of an infinite number of universes – a multiverse. All seem to challenge traditional belief in creation. Maimonides admitted that if science could demonstrate that the universe was eternal (without a beginning), then Biblical accounts that seem to affirm a beginning would have to be read metaphorically. For him, Gods revelation and the truths reachable by reason cannot be in contradiction. God, after all, is the author of all truth. Maimonides, however, did not think that it was possible for science to know whether the universe had a beginning. He believed it an error to think that one could reason from the current state of affairs to such a beginning.

Among medieval Muslim thinkers, the discussion about creation and science was especially sophisticated. Avicenna (980-1037), for example, argued that creation needs to be understood essentially as the dependence of all that is on God as cause, apart from any question of temporal beginning. In fact, Avicenna thought that he could demonstrate that the world is eternal and, therefore, Islam ought to affirm creation as complete dependence on God, not the beginning of time.

Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) learned a great deal from Maimonides, Avicenna, and other Muslim scholars, as well as from Christian predecessors. Thomas believed that the world has a temporal beginning, but that reason alone cannot prove it. The Bible reveals such a beginning, as the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reaffirmed. Thomas did not agree with Avicenna that the world is eternal, but he accepted that the fundamental sense of creation is that all existing things depend upon God as cause. Furthermore, he recognized this dependence as ongoing. Creation is not some distant event. If God were not causing all that is to exist, as it exists, there would be absolutely nothing. The expression creation out-of-nothing does not mean, first of all, after nothing. Rather, it means that in creating God does not use anything; creation is sheer exercise of divine omnipotence.

Thomas clearly saw the difference between the origin and the beginning of the universe. The universe has its origin in God. A temporal beginning concerns the kind of universe God creates. Thomas thought that an eternal universe would still be created. Although Thomas believed the universe had a temporal beginning, he advised against using scientific arguments to prove such a beginning. He always warned against using bad arguments in defence of beliefs.

If he knew contemporary cosmological theories that reject the need for a Creator by seeking to explain the world scientifically or to deny a Big Bang, Thomas would say such an analysis fails on two counts: 1) to deny a beginning is not to deny creation – whatever kind of universe (or multiverse) there is it would still require a cause; 2) speculations about a universe without a beginning (or with a beginning, for that matter) cannot be more than speculations, since, in principle, science cannot know whether there is a beginning. Cosmological theories can neither confirm nor deny creation. To the extent that creation can be grasped by reason, it is through metaphysics, not the natural sciences.

The singularity in traditional Big Bang cosmology may represent the beginning of the universe, but we cannot conclude that it is the absolute beginning, creation as believers understand it. Some contemporary cosmologists recognize there could very well be something before the Big Bang.

Discussions of creation and beginnings can provide opportunities for dialogue among Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and such discussions can help to clarify the relationship among the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology – important distinctions among these disciplines, as well as their complementary truths. Whatever beginning cosmology addresses, it is not the absolute beginning that faith affirms. Believers can admit, with St. Thomas and without fear of scientific contradiction, that even were the universe to have no beginning it still would be created.


William E. Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, University of Oxford.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
The Uncaused Cause
written by William H. Phelan, February 26, 2010
"If God were not causing all that is to exist, as it exists, there would be absolutely nothing." Of all the lines in this excellent piece, this is the one I find most relevant. The Gospels promise the world will end as it does for each and every one of us when we pass from it. That is why some of us practice traditional, prayerful Catholicism every day to anticipate being judged by the Savior of this world Who also created the next ones, Heaven or Hell.
written by John McCarthy, February 26, 2010
What a wonderful essay, and what a wonderful and important point of departure for dialogue between Christians, Muslims, and Jews...It highlights our total moment-to-moment dependence on God for our very existence...Thank you, Mr. Carroll.
\"absolutely nothing\"
written by Joseph, February 26, 2010
I find these discussions akin to figuring out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Fascinating to speculate, but hopelessly futile. Even if there were "absolutely nothing," as Phelan mentions, what that does that mean? If as Lucretius thought, the universe were filled with atoms and the void, then would there just be "void." Oh, the word games one can play in the wonderful world of metaphysics. Why not accept the Bible's stunningly simple opening explanation and be done with it?
written by Tom, February 26, 2010
Though it only skirts the topic, I just wanted to say that since first hearing about it, I have been drawn to the idea of an infinite multiverse. I think some physicists like it because it lessens the funny feeling that there is a need for a creator in the single big bang theory. Coming from the other end, I feel that an infinite creator would create an infinite creation. God and this universe are so out of proportion. Why stop until you have created every possible good?
About that \"singularity\"
written by George Sim Johnston, February 26, 2010
One thought about the "singularity" that I've never heard broached: Time, Einstein taught, slows in proportion to the weight/density of an object--say, a planet. The initial singularity had a nearly infinite density, and so whatever "time" was in that initial condition, it would hardly be distinguishable from a complete cessation of time--a kind of eternity. It would be pointless to ask "for how long" the singularity "was there" before expanding. This would still require a Creator.
To Joseph
written by Michael, February 26, 2010
I hardly think beginning of the universe discussions are futile. Evolution and the success science has had explaining the mysteries of the universe leave many modern believers unsure about the place of faith in the world. The point of this article is that faith still answers questions that science cannot, and that we modern believers should not be shaken by new scientific theories. I don't think an affirmation of the value of faith is irrelevant.
Joseph ...
written by Richard A, February 26, 2010
because, God gave you an intelligent mind that must wonder about things like that, and even if you do not, you are called to preach the Gospel to your fellow men who do wonder about things like that.
written by William H. Phelan, February 26, 2010
A video I would recommend to everyone is the scientific analysis done by Ben Stein, and others, on evolution done in EXPELLED. It actually shows him asking Richard Dawkins :Where did LIFE come from? After two or three attempts to answer, Dawkins finally blurts out that perhaps "aliens" introduced life to the world. Has anyone noticed that The Blessed Mother always selects young, unsophisticated people to whom to appear?
written by Andrew, February 26, 2010
Metaphysics is not just word games, unless you are willing to make bad assumptions like the logical positivists. Also, this article does a great job of ruling out those incredibly poor attempts to give "Aquinas" 1st cause argument, like: my parents caused me, and their parents caused them, and their parents caused them, and this can't go back forever, so there must be a first cause, God. This way of phrasing the 1st cause argument would make Aquinas role over in his grave! Great work Carroll
The Abrahmic Anomaly
written by Chuck, February 26, 2010
If the Universe was immanent (as everyone pre-Hubble, from Plato to Einstein once believed) then the light of every star in it would have reached us and so there would be no dark spots in Earth's night sky. Using the discoveries of Doppler and others, Edwin Hubble found (as Mnsgr. Georges Lemaître later confirmed mathematically) that the Universe was expanding and definitely HAD TO HAVE a beginning. The question is: How did Abraham know 40 centuries before Hubble? The only answer is: REVELATION
written by Robertz, February 27, 2010
In today's world, it is necessary to distinguish a "scientist" from a "theoretician". As atheist Dr. Roger Penrose might say,much of what we see today is not science, but closer to speculation and wishful thinking until actual empirical evidence is discovered. This is not to say that the notion like "multiverse" is wrong, but many today seem to accept these mathematical day-dreamings as actual and correct reality (especially atheists who think they have the intellectual ability to disprove God.)
For the record
written by Joseph, February 27, 2010
Once again, my remarks have been understood. Reiterating, the first sentence of Genesis satisfies me as to the origin of the universe. If others wish to explore the matter further, that is their prerogative, of course. Natural curiosity, however, impels me to ask those who come to conclusions that differ from the Biblical account to provide compelling evidence that would have me rethink my convictions.

Meanwhile, excuse me if I suffer in abysmal ignorance.
Eternal Creation
written by Billy Bean, February 27, 2010
Please enlighten me, as I am scientifically and philosophically uneducated. What does it mean to say that the universe is "created," yet "eternal"? How can that which has always existed be "created" in any meaningful sense, unless we simply mean "formed into a cosmic order from premordial chaos"? Genesis 1 includes, but also seems to go far beyond, the formation of order from chaos. "In the beginning was the Word" by which God made everything. Made things are not eternal. Wherein have I erred?
"created and eternal"
written by William Carroll, February 28, 2010
To be created fundamentally means to depend upon God as cause of existence. A universe without a temporal beginning (ie, an eternal universe) would still have to be created in order to exist. Obviously, a universe which has a temporal beginning is a created universe, but Thomas Aquinas saw clearly that it is intelligible to conceive of a universe which is created and eternal (in the sense of not having a beginning of time). He saw no contradiction in the very idea of an eternal universe.
Faith and Reason
written by RP, March 01, 2010
Joseph, While the Church accepts the Bible's account of creation, as Augustine argued long ago, since God is the author of both the books of Scripture and Nature, we should look for the truth in both as well. Both point to one thing, that any created thing has an existence that is dependent upon God.
Eternally Created.
written by Tom, March 01, 2010
BB: The diffence is if the universe is an object that like a clay jug, once formed the potter could leave and it would continue on its own or is it like an electrical current created in every instant just like at its inception. That current and generator could have existed eternally, but in every moment the current is created by the generator. Even if the universe had a moment of beginning, every Good is in & of GOD at all times; never seperate from Him. Hence created in every instant. Peace,

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