Cardinal Schönborn on God and Creation

«It Is the Very Dignity of the Creature to Have Received Everything From Him»

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VIENNA, Austria, DEC. 19, 2005 ( Here is a provisional translation of a catechetical lecture given by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, last month on creation and evolution.

A translation of his first catechesis in the series appeared last week. See the Dec. 12 service of ZENIT.

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«In the Beginning God Created …»
November 13
St. Stephan’s Cathedral, Vienna

I hear that «March of the Penguins» is a wonderful film. Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen it. In just a few weeks it has become a worldwide hit. In a fascinating way it portrays how these waddling animals live, care for their young, and survive in extreme climates.

And yet we have once again a dispute over evolution. Some Christian commentators in the United States are impressed by the virtues of the penguins; they think that the ability of these animals to withstand extreme temperatures, the ocean, and their natural enemies among the animals, as well as to be exemplary and sacrificial monogamous parents, is evidence against the theory of Darwin and in favor of «intelligent design.» It is evidence for a creator and against Darwin, as some have recently said. The director of this film, a French director, emphatically resisted being co-opted like this; he says that he was «raised on the milk of Darwin» and simply wanted to make an animal movie, nothing more.

It seems to me that this controversy is typical for the state of affairs today. People get worked up over the issue, they are ready to quarrel about it, to call each other names. The controversy reminds us of something like a «culture-war.» Thus Salman Rushdie, writing in the New York Times as well as in Die Zeit, sharply attacks those religions with which no peace can be achieved and no compromise can be reached. He says, «Moslem voices all over the world declare that the theory of evolution is incompatible with Islam.» For him the theory of «intelligent design» is «the theory that wants to project into the beauty of creation the antiquated idea of a creator.» He even thinks that this theory deserves to be treated with scorn.

Just recently in Die Zeit one could read much polemic and aggressiveness against «those who say that they have been created by God.» Those who think this way are stamped as fanatics. Maybe some of them really are, or at least act fanatically, but just because people think that they are created by God does not yet justify such a fanatical rejection of their belief. In this article in Die Zeit we read that in Darwin’s time «most people accepted crude religious creation myths,» whereas this is no longer the case today. Leaving aside all polemics one might respond by asking whether the people who take delight in Haydn’s wonderful oratory, «The Creation,» accept «crude myths.»

It seems to me that the rude tone and the aggressive attitude in this debate, especially on the part of those who hold out against any criticism of Darwinism, is not a good sign. But let me add right away that religious fanaticism is also not a good sign.

Are all who believe that they were created by God blind fanatics? Or is delight in Haydn’s «Creation» just a romantic swelling of feeling? Can rational people still believe in a creator and see the world as created? That is the theme of today’s catechesis. I promise to listen without any polemical spirit to all that faith and reason have to say on this subject and to listen to all that is said about it.

A scientist wrote me in response to my article in the New York Times that he would like to believe in a creator but just cannot believe in an «old man with a long white beard.» I answered him saying that no one expects him to believe this. On the contrary, such a childish conception of a creator has nothing to do with what the Bible says about the creator and with the article of the creed that says, «I believe in God, the father almighty, the creator of heaven and earth.»

In my response I wrote him that it would be a good thing if his religious knowledge would not lag so far behind his scientific knowledge and if his vast knowledge as a scientist did not go hand in hand with what is after all childish religious conceptions. For an old man with a long white beard is certainly not what is meant by the creator. I recommended that he simply read what, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on this subject.

Now there is another misunderstanding that is constantly found in the ongoing discussion, and I have to deal with it right here at the beginning. I refer to what is called «creationism.» Nowadays the belief in a creator is automatically run together with «creationism.» But in fact to believe in a creator is not the same as trying to understand the six days of creation literally, as six chronological days, and as trying to prove scientifically, with whatever means available, that the earth is 6,000 years old.

These attempts of certain Christians at taking the Bible absolutely literally, as if it made chronological and scientific statements — I have met defenders of this position who honestly strive to find scientific arguments for it — is called «fundamentalism.» Or more exactly, within American Protestantism this view of the Christian faith originally called itself fundamentalism. Starting from the belief that the Bible is inspired by God, so that every word in it is immediately inspired by him, the six days of creation are taken in a strict literal way.

It is understandable that in the United States many people, using not only kinds of polemics but lawsuits as well, vehemently resist the teaching of creationism in the schools. But it is an entirely different matter when certain people would like to see the schools deal with the critical questions that have been raised with regard to Darwinism; they have a reasonable and legitimate concern.

The Catholic position on this is clear. St. Thomas says that «one should not try to defend the Christian faith with arguments that are so patently opposed to reason that the faith is made to look ridiculous.» It is simply nonsense to say that the world is only 6,000 years old. To try to prove this scientifically is what St. Thomas calls provoking the «irrisio infidelium,» the scorn of the unbelievers. It is not right to use such false arguments and to expose the faith to the scorn of unbelievers. This should suffice on the subject of «creationism» and «fundamentalism» for the entire remainder of this catechesis; what we want to say about it should be so clear that we do not have to return to the subject.

And now to our main subject: What does the Christian faith say about «God the creator» and about creation? The classical Catholic teaching, as we find it explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or more compactly presented in the Compendium of the Catechism, contains four basic elements.

1. The doctrine of creation says that there is an absolute beginning — «in the beginning God created heaven and earth» — and that this absolute beginning is the free and sovereign act of establishing being out of nothing. This is the main theme of today’s catechesis: the absolute beginning.

2. The doctrine of creation also says that there are various creatures. This is the distinction of creatures, «each according to its kind,» of which we read in the first chapter of Genesis. This is the work of the first six days as related on the first page of the Bible. I will speak on this subject in the next catechesis, in which I will ask what it means to say that according to our faith in creation God has willed a multiplicity of creatures.

3. We come now to a point of fundamental importance for the Christian belief about creation. It is also a point about which we will be speaking later today. We believe not only in an absolute beginning of creation but in the preservation of creation; God holds in being all that he has created. We refer here to his continuing work of creation, which in theology is
called the «creatio continua,» the ongoing act of creation.

4. And finally, the doctrine of creation most definitely includes the belief that God directs his creation. He did not just set it in motion once at the beginning and then let it run its course. No, the divine guidance of creation, which we call divine providence, is a part of the doctrine of creation. God leads his work to its final end.

There you have the basics of this yearlong catechesis. I will not only be concerned with the doctrines of the faith, but will try with each aspect of my subject to enter into dialogue with the natural sciences, at least as far as my limited scientific knowledge permits. What I am of course especially concerned with is the question of how the belief in creation is related to the theory of evolution.

Let us begin today with the question of the absolute beginning. The scientific theory of the beginning of the universe that is now generally recognized is the theory of the big bang. Seventy-five years ago the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, discovered that our universe is expanding at an unimaginable speed, the speed of light. In the meantime it has come to be assumed that the universe is expanding even faster.

It must, therefore, have once begun to expand at the big bang from a highly concentrated and compact point of beginning. It began explosively to expand. This theory is supported by observations and especially those concerning the «background radiation» in the universe, which is taken to be a kind of fallout from the big bang. Of course many questions remain wrapped in mystery and probably cannot be answered at all by the theory itself, but they surely remain as questions that invite the rational inquiry of scientists.

There is first of all the quite simple question: Where did the universe expand to? Did it expand into space? But there is no space «outside» of the universe, beyond the gigantic dimensions of the cosmos, which is 14 billion light-years in extent, as is generally assumed (light travels 186,000 miles per second). …

Our galaxy alone, the Milky Way, is 100,000 light-years across. Who can imagine such a thing? Well, beyond these gigantic dimensions of the cosmos there is no space. I recently read in Spectrum der Wissenschaft that the space in which we live «emerged with the big bang and has been expanding ever since.» There is no space outside of the universe.

The question of time is no less puzzling. For the big bang means that the universe had one beginning and moves towards an end. We are strongly tempted to ask what there was before the beginning. The answer can only be: just as there is space only because of the expansion of the universe — there is space wherever it expands — so it is with time. There is no time before time; it comes about with the big bang, just like space does. There is time only with the cosmos and within the cosmos.

In recent decades the natural sciences have tried to approach this origin of the universe. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, wrote in 1977 a famous book called «The First Three Minutes,» which dealt with the first three minutes of the universe. It is fascinating to learn what the science of today says about the decisive first moments after the big bang. Everything that developed later, the galaxies, stars, planets, life on our earth, all of it was decided in the very first moments.

Our well-known physicist, Walter Thirring, wrote in a book of his that came out last year and was called «Cosmic Impressions: Traces of God in the Laws of Nature»: «Had the big bang been too weak and had everything collapsed, we would not exist. Had it been too powerful, everything would have dissipated too quickly,» and again we would not exist. He compares the origin of the world with starting a rocket that is supposed to put a satellite in orbit around the earth.

He says, «If the rocket has too little push, it falls back to the earth, but if it has too much, it escapes into space.» He then adds that with the big bang the precision needed for bringing about our world was incomparably greater than for launching a satellite into orbit. The precision of this event is «so far beyond man’s power to conceive» that Professor Thirring exclaims, «What an absurd idea that this should have happened by chance!»

Do we have here the point at which we should insert our belief in a creator? Do we introduce him as it were at the limit reached by science? Does the creator begin to act beyond this threshold? Let us be careful! We must not be too quick to assume that God produced the big bang, as if in the smallest fraction of the very first second we come up against the wall behind which we find the creator, or reach the point where only the creator can explain what happened. This idea flits around in many scientific and even in some theological discussions. It is defended vigorously by some and attacked by others. Is God at work at the beginning in the sense that he gave the signal for the great game of the universe to begin?

I now invite you — and I promise you that it will not be entirely easy — to take a look at what the faith really teaches about these things. We will see that the Church’s teaching on creation is at once quite simple but also very deep and demanding, and that we have to get beyond many of our ideas and images if we are going to enter into the mystery of creation and to approach it by faith and also by reason. Let us begin again with the first sentence of the Bible: «In the beginning God created heaven and earth» (Genesis 1:1). «Bereschit bara,» says the Hebrew text. «Bara» is a word used in the Bible only for God. Only God creates. The Hebrew word is used exclusively for the creative activity of God. The Catechism (290) says that in these first words of Scripture three things are being affirmed:

1) The eternal God has called into existence all that exists outside of him. He has created everything, heaven and earth. The first sentence of the Bible does not say that God gave a signal or a push in the beginning, but that he called into being everything that in any way exists.

2) He alone is the creator. «Bara» always has God as its subject. He alone can call into being.

3) All that exists, heaven and earth, depends on God who gives it being.

In order to understand these three affirmations we have to clear away three misunderstandings.

1) The first and most usual misunderstanding is that God is seen as the first cause. He is indeed the first cause of all causes but he is not as it were at the beginning of a long chain of causes, like a pool player who hits a ball which rolls and hits another ball which in turn hits yet another — as if God were just the first cause in a long series of causes.

Here is another analogy that has been eagerly used since the Enlightenment: the analogy of a watchmaker, who produces a watch which then runs on its own until it has to be wound up again or occasionally repaired; the little thing runs as soon as it is made. The fact that Richard Dawkins sees no use for such a watchmaker in explaining our world, is not the point that makes him an atheist. Steven Weinberg, whom I cited above, formulates as follows the usual assumption about scientific method: «The only possible scientific procedure consists in assuming that no divine intervention takes place and then in seeing how far science gets on this assumption» (Dreams of a Final Theory). The scientific method, as understood by Weinberg and many others, is thus a conscious rejection of any «divine intervention.» They want to see how far we can get with this method without having to posit a watchmaker or a pool player or a starter at the beginning of the game.

Sometimes the way in which the scientific method excludes any divine intervention is called «methodological atheism.» I do not see it that way; this excluding is simply authentic scientific method and has nothing to do with atheism. The scientific method should not assume a watchmaker who i
ntervenes; it searches for the explanation of mechanisms, connections, causal relations, and events.

We believe in a creator, not in one cause among others, one which occasionally intervenes when the limits of all other causes have been reached. God does not intervene like a mother who intervenes when her children fight but who otherwise lets them play with each other. Of course there are wonderful interventions of God, as we will see later. God is sovereign in relation to his creation and he can heal a cancer with his sovereign creative power. This is what we call a miracle.

But at present we are talking about the act of creating the world, and this is not just the first push in a long chain of causes but is rather the more fundamental thing of sovereignly conferring being. «God spoke and it came to be." All that exists owes its being to this call, to this word, to this creative act of God. He created everything, heaven and earth, and there is nothing that was not created by him. He created everything in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible (for we believe that there are also invisible creatures, namely the angels).

Everything is created reality. This is the first and most important affirmation to be made; later on we will inquire more exactly into how it is to be understood. But before going further, let us raise the following question: Is this affirmation a pure article of faith, or can each human being understand it with his reason? The Catechism answers (286): «Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason, even if this knowledge is often obscured and disfigured by error. This is why faith comes to confirm and enlighten reason in the correct understanding of this truth.»

With our reason we can in principle know that the things of the world are created, even though it is only revelation that fully illumines our mind about creation. What can reason know? It can know that the world and all of reality does not exist through itself. All is dependent. Nothing made itself. I set aside for the moment the much-discussed question about the self-organization of matter. At least this much can be said: Matter does not exist through itself. We have made neither the world nor ourselves.

Our very limited powers suffice only to change what already exists, sometimes for the better, but unfortunately sometimes for the worse. But we always work with something that is already given. Given is first of all the fact that this world exists at all and we exist in it. It may pain us to be so dependent and it may offend our pride, but the teaching about creation tells us that there is no humiliation in acknowledging our dependency. It is no humiliation to be dependent on the creator; this rather opens for us undreamed-of possibilities. The other side of this dependency is the very positive fact that the creator holds everything, bears everything, encompasses everything, sheltering us in his hand.

2. And so I come to the second affirmation about the creator and his act of creating. For a start let me say it like this, surprising and perhaps provocative as it may sound: From the side of God the act of creating involves «no movement.» Why? All making and producing and acting that we observe in the world is a moving or changing of something that already exists. A carpenter makes a table out of wood, he changes the wood, he forms it, giving a new shape to some pre-given material. Someone at home takes a bunch of ingredients and makes a wonderful meal out of them, shaping pre-given elements into something new. But it is not something absolutely new, it is not a real creating, it is only a shaping. Things are changed so that they become edible.

It is the same way with the artist, with the technician, even with intellectually creative people. Even my best ideas are not absolute novelties. They always presuppose that others have already done some thinking and that I have already done some thinking. My ideas come from the exchange of ideas with others, and when I get some special insight, it is only the forming of what is already at hand and already exists. Perhaps something really new sometimes comes about. This raises a question that we will treat later on in this catechetical cycle: What about the emergence of novelty in the world, especially when new kinds of being emerge in the course of evolution?

Now we see what is decisively different about the creative act of God: It is without movement. It does not change that which already exists. It does not form some pre-given material. In most of the creation myths that we find in the world religions the gods create by transforming something that already exists. They are demiurges, they form the chaos or some primal matter that is already there, they fashion worlds; but only the God who encounters us in the Bible is really a creator.

The early Christian writers oppose the many ancient creation myths, or rather the many ancient myths about the emergence of the world. Thus St. Theophilus of Antioch, writing around the year 180, says: «If God had drawn the world out of some pre-existing stuff, what would have been so special about that? If you give to a human worker some material, he makes out of it whatever he wants. But the power of God shows itself in the fact that he starts from nothing to make anything he wants.» This does not mean that «nothing» is something out of which he produces things, but that God’s creative act is a sovereign act of bringing into being. We can also say: It is a pure act of «calling into being.» God spoke and it came to be. That is what is so wonderful and so unique about the biblical belief in creation.

3. We have now to mention a third difficulty. The doctrine of creation says that God did not create in time, at some point on a time line. His creative act is not a temporal act. I know that this is hard to understand. All that we experience is experienced on the time line of yesterday, today, tomorrow (there is the beginning of this catechesis and the end of it). The creative act of God is not the first act in a long stretch of time, it is not once done and then over with, as if God has, as it were, done his job and can now put his hands in his pockets.

No, «in the beginning God created …» This beginning is always in God’s eternity. For us creatures it is a temporal beginning. Once I began to be 60 years ago. For God there is no temporal beginning. Once the universe began to be 14 billion years ago, but God’s creative act is not in time, he rather creates time. He is eternal. And his act of creating is not accomplished in this or that moment, but he calls the world into being and holds it in being. Creation takes place now, in the now of God.

In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: «He upholds all things by the word of his power» (Hebrews 1:3). This is why we have to say that if God would let go of us and of creation even for a second, we would fall back into the nothingness from which we came and from which he called us. I grant you that this is not easy to grasp. It requires us to try to transcend our temporal and spatial ways of thinking. Then we enter into a wonderfully coherent view of the world.

In conclusion I want at least to touch on two important points, and this for the sake of completing what has been said, or providing further background for it.

1. God creates in absolute freedom — nothing forces him to it, nothing requires it of him. He does not act out of need, as we do. We are always in need of something that we lack, like food or sleep, because want to realize something, to realize ourselves. God does not have to realize himself. By creating he does not complete his being. Creation is not a part of him nor are we a part of him, but we are freely set in being by him, freely created. This means that we are willed by him.

2. This has immense consequences for our understandi
ng of our world and our ourselves. Since God has created in sovereign freedom, he has given his creatures real independence of being. Creatures are themselves, they really have their own being, their own power of acting, the gift of their autonomy. This reaches all the way to the freedom of human beings, to the fact that God has created freedom, which is the greatest marvel of all in creation.

Before we look at the consequences of this, let us distinguish the Christian position from three other interrelated accounts of the relation between God and the world. a) There is the emanationist account according to which the world is an emanation of God, a «piece» of him that is of lesser value, an inferior form of God. b) The pantheistic account sees everything in God and as God. God is in everything but in such a way that everything is God, even the trees and the animals. c) The monistic account says that there is only one substance or being and that is God; all else either does not exist or is God.

All three of these accounts, which even today have many defenders in the esoteric literature, commit this one fundamental mistake: They keep God from being God and they keep creatures, which are only «parts» of God, from having any being of their own. These three accounts seem to be very «devout» and so they are always deceiving people. They seem to exalt the creature, raising it to a divine level, but the truth is the very opposite, as we will now try to see.

I said that creation has a real being of its own as a result of the fact that God creates in sovereign freedom without having any compulsion or urge to create, that he gives creatures their being and power of acting as a gift. If creatures were an «emanation» of the divine being, then they would not be independent in being, they would not have their own being and reality. It is just because we are created by God in complete freedom that we can really «be ourselves.»

In the next catechesis I want to explain the far-reaching consequences that this has. We will see that in evolutionism (remember that I distinguish the scientific theory of evolution from the inflation of evolution into the metaphysics of «evolutionism») one has a hard time acknowledging the «being of their own» that creatures have.

Everything is blurred in the stream of evolution, nothing has a basis, nothing stands in itself, nothing has its own reality. Everything is just a transitory image in the flow of time. How different is the belief in creation, according to which all creatures have their own being, their own form, their own power of acting, and, in the case of human beings, their own freedom. More about this in the next catechesis.

We have to draw the very important and essential conclusion that creatures have their own being because God is utterly free in creating them. They stand in themselves and exist on their own, for they are willed by God. St. Thomas puts it like this: God gives things not only being but also their own power of acting efficaciously. This principle finds its supreme realization in man: We are creatures who have not only received being but have also received spirit, will and freedom.

I know of no other teaching that combines in such an intelligible and convincing way the dependency of all creatures on their creator with the independence of these creatures. And the reason is simple: Since God creates in sovereign freedom, he gives his creatures the sovereign freedom to be themselves. Since he has no other reason for creating than his own goodness, he gives his creatures a share in his goodness: «And God saw that it was good.»

I hope that I have been able to show a little that the Christian belief in a creator is something entirely different from the belief in a deistic watchmaker who only sets things in motion at the beginning with a push from without. To be created means to have received being and existence. It means to be supported by the giver of all being, of all motion, of all life. It means to have received everything from his goodness and to remain encompassed and held fast by his goodness.

This faith in a creator takes nothing away from creatures, as many fear. It is a faith that unites both dependency and freedom, paradoxical as that may sound. For to be dependent on God is not to be degraded or to be treated like a child. God is not an arbitrary dictator nor is his action as creator the whim of a tyrant.

It is the very dignity of the creature to have received everything from him. Belief in the creator is thus the best way of guaranteeing and protecting the dignity of his creatures. If everything is just a product of accident and necessity, then we have to wonder why creatures should merit any special respect or dignity.

But is there a dignity proper to creatures at all, «each according to its kind»? This will be the question we ask in the next catechesis: Are there different kinds of creatures, as implied in «each according to its kind,» and are they willed by the creator?

[Copyright by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn]

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