In the Beginning . . .

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