What “God Said” Matters

The pope recently remarked that it might seem strange to some people that his homily at the Easter Vigil liturgy should concentrate so much on the doctrine of creation. The Easter season, after all, is about Christs suffering, death, and resurrection. But Benedict reminds us that the events celebrated at Easter need to be understood in that “sweep of history that reaches back to the origins, to creation.”

Throughout his pontificate – and before he became pope – Benedict has often reflected on the doctrine of creation and the intelligibility of the universe, and in the process he has been a frequent defender of reason rooted in faith.  His homily on Holy Saturday offers us a reminder of what he considers to be a central question in contemporary culture: is rationality or unreason (and chance) the ultimate source of existence and meaning? 

It is worthwhile looking at his answer in some detail:

At the Easter Vigil, the journey along the paths of sacred Scripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did not interpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, but rather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and end of our being. . . .

The Church Fathers and others in the history of the Church tried to find some concordance between the opening chapter of Genesis, the so-called “six days of creation,” and what the sciences tells us about the world. But theologians like Thomas Aquinas remind us that what is essential to the faith in Genesis is the “fact of creation,” not the “manner or mode of the formation of the world.” The Bible ought not to be read as a science textbook. Galileo liked to quote the words of Cardinal Baronius: the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

In his homily, the pope reflected on the opening of Gospel of John as a commentary on the opening of Genesis:

“In the beginning was the Word.”  In effect, the creation account . . . is characterized by the regularly recurring phrase: “And God said…” The world is a product of the Word, of the Logos, as Saint John expresses it, using a key term from the Greek language. “Logos” means “reason,” “sense,” “word.”  It is not reason pure and simple, but creative Reason, that speaks and communicates itself. It is Reason that both is and creates sense. The creation account tells us, then, that the world is a product of creative Reason.

In revealing that the source of everything is creative Reason, which embraces love and freedom in Benedict’s reading, we have a far richer sense of reason from what has been celebrated in the modern world from the time of Descartes. This wider sense of reason incorporates but is not limited to the rationality central to the natural sciences and philosophy.  Furthermore, to identify Reason, Logos, as the creative source of all that is, is to recognize that appeals to randomness and chance as ultimate explanatory principles of nature must be rejected. 

Again, the Pope’s words:

Here we are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom, and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis. As believers we answer, with the creation account and with Saint John, that in the beginning is reason. In the beginning is freedom . . .

Do we recognize that the universe is the result of Gods free creative Word, that all that is depends, at every moment of its existence, upon Gods causal agency, or do we think that there is no ultimate source of things, that all that is just happens to be, and, ultimately, without reason?

Benedict says, “everything hinges upon” our response to this question. He is not shy in drawing the contrast in terms that reflect contemporary debates about the implications of evolutionary biology and cosmology:

It is not the case that in the expanding universe, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it. If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, Reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine Reason.

It is important here to recognize that the pope is not rejecting the tenets of evolution, which do involve appeals at some level to randomness and chance in the processes of change. What he is concerned about is failing to recognize an ultimate principle of rationality and intelligibility: creative Reason. He rejects the view that man is “merely a random product of evolution” or trying to find “rationality within creation” rather than recognizing that Reason stands as the origin of creation and thus is the source of the intelligibility of nature.

The popes homily is a theological reflection, rooted in faith, and directed to believers.  Although it offers an alternative vision to various forms of the “new atheism,” it does not engage the denial of creation on philosophical grounds. This is a task for another time and place.  But at the very least, he’s provided an example of theology defending Reason, the Logos, as the creative source of all that is and pointing to a concept of intelligibility that includes faith and revelation – a reminder to both believers and unbelievers that faith and reason are not opposing categories.

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