In the Beginning

a Catechesis by Fr. Dismas Sayre, O.P., LIGHT and LIFE - May-June 2024, Vol 77, No 3,
THEOLOGY FOR THE LAITY is a publication of the Western Dominican Province.

Baltimore Catechism (edition 4):

1 Q. Who made the world? A. God made the world.

The "world" here means more than the earth—more than is shown on a map of the world. It means everything that we can see—sun, moon, stars, etc.; even those things that we can see only with great telescopes. Everything, too, that we may be able to see in the future, either with our eyes alone, or aided by instruments, is included in the word "world." We can call it the universe.

2 Q. Who is God? A. God is the Creator of Heaven and earth, and of all things.

One of the quixotic quests in the mind of modern man seems to be, not merely to disregard God, but to prove that He does not exist, or that He is wholly unnecessary. This seems a strange thing, indeed, since it is almost impossible to prove a negative, especially one beyond the realm and scope of science, especially physics. And so, we go to various ideas, that well, there can’t be such a thing as “Big Bang,” because a “Big Bang” seems to be a little too conveniently “biblical,” or at least, “theistic,” requiring what the Ancient Greeks would call a “Prime Mover,” the one who would set everything in motion, who would kick off the show, so to speak, knocking over the first domino in a cascading Domino Effect.

And so, in the modern period, various theories came around to explain the observable universe, but tended to go toward some kind of eternally-existing model. In the 1920s comes along a young scientist-priest, Fr. Georges Lemaître, who, after Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the far-off galaxies all seemed to be receding from our humble little planet, which hinted toward an expanding universe. Ok, but if the universe is expanding, then, logically, we must be able to work backwards into a first kind of state, and Fr. Lemaître thus theorized that it must’ve had a singular beginning, beginning with a kind of primordial “atom” (here meaning something that you could not divide further).

“This atom is conceived as having existed for an instant only, in fact, it was unstable and, as soon as it came into being, it was broken into pieces which were again broken, in their turn; among these pieces electrons, protons, alpha particles, etc., rushed out. An increase in volume resulted; the disintegration of the atom was thus accompanied by a rapid increase in the radius of space which the fragments of the primeval atom filled, always uniformly. When these pieces became too small, they ceased to break up; certain ones, like uranium, are slowly disintegrating now, with an average life of four billion years, leaving us a meager sample of the universal disintegration of the past.” (LEMAÎTRE, G. The Beginning of the World from the Point of View of Quantum Theory. Nature 127, 706 - 1931).

Robert A. Millikan, Georges Lemaitre and Albert Einstein at California Institute of Technology, January 1933, Wikimedia Commons:

Fr. Lemaître tried to approach Albert Einstein about his theory, but Einstein himself was initially unimpressed, saying, “Your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable.” It seems the huge genius crowded out some of the tact in Einstein’s mind at the time. Eventually, however, proof of the expanding universe won Einstein over to Fr. Lemaître’s side.

This is not to say that Fr. Lemaître believed that he thought that this “proved” Genesis.

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt to familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the Hidden God, hidden in the beginning.”

His basic point is that the Bible is not trying to prove science, nor is science trying to prove the Bible, at least in so far as it comes to those very fundamental questions of natural science or of God. Each has its own proper sphere, but this has not stopped some on the science side from disproving Scripture, as I mentioned at the beginning.

Even St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Proofs” (more accurately, “Five Ways”), really show more how it is perfectly logical and reasonable to believe in God, not that this shows, through scientific experiment or mathematical proof, that God exists, or how that the God we believe in exists. Those things must come to us through divine revelation, and divine revelation is not easily testable under a microscope or inside a particle accelerator. But, then again, the ideas of “multiverses” and whatnot are almost certainly impossible to test for, even if they were to exist. Fr. Lemaître’s ideas could at least be proved, or at least supported, by later data, such as the cosmic background radiation.

In a way, Judaism and Christianity liberated primitive man from a kind of confusion between the two, because the pagans had often ascribed certain deities or divinities to what we would call natural processes or phenomena. Yes, God is behind everything as the Creator, but He is not micromanaging Creation. St. Paul tells us in a famous canticle, “For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). In much more recent times the Church affirms:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth": three things are affirmed in these first words of Scripture: the eternal God gave a beginning to all that exists outside of himself; he alone is Creator (the verb "create" - Hebrew bara - always has God for its subject). The totality of what exists (expressed by the formula "the heavens and the earth") depends on the One who gives it being. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 290).

This initial Creation is really what makes God the Creator. To bring something into being out of complete nothingness would require infinite power. One “solution,” then, in modern science, is to try to see what this “nothingness” was, if anything, or to go back to some kind of eternal model.

And so, then, the Creator?

But what does the idea of a Creator imply, then? “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5). A Creator obviously means that there must be or have been a Creation, but it also strongly implies a purpose or a design of some sort. Animals will at least act on instinct, and children out of boredom, but even there, children are still exploring or attempting to relieve boredom, and I do not believe anyone has seriously argued that God was bored before He created, and what does an omniscient God need to explore for? Here, we will not go into the whole arguments for and against Intelligent Design, since that is not necessarily related to us.

One of the modern attacks against believers is to diminish the place of man in the whole of creation. The universe is incredibly vast, so incredibly vast that adjectives like “incredibly” really do fail us. There are stars or celestial objects, that while an infinitesimally tiny speck of the universe, are far more massive than our own wondrous Sun. And somehow, we want to place Man at the center of Creation? Why, yes; yes, we do.

This is not a new observation. The psalmist sings, “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place — what is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him?” (Ps 8:3-4). The ancient Jews might not have known exactly how big the universe was, but they knew that it WAS immense, more than their imagination could capture. Despite all this, knowing full well of our puniness, God enters into a relationship with Man, and not only that, but elevates him, by grace, above ALL that wonder and majesty? This is not a cause for doubt for the believer, but a source of humility, gratitude, and inexpressible joy.

All this still doesn’t quite answer the question: Why? The First Vatican Council has a wonderful document on this, Dei Filius, but it summarizes it succinctly: "The world was made for the glory of God” (Dei Filius, no. 5). Or, more broadly, “This sole true God by His goodness and ‘omnipotent power,’ not to increase His own beatitude, and not to add to, but to manifest His perfection by the blessings which He bestows on creatures, with most free volition, ‘immediately from the beginning of time fashioned each creature out of nothing, spiritual and corporeal, namely angelic and mundane; and then the human creation, common as it were, composed of both spirit and body’ [citing Lateran Council IV, Ch. 1]”. Here, I think we run into problems with the limits of our imagination. It is difficult enough to capture the true scope of our material universe, and then we want to enter the mind of the One behind it all? But yes, someway, somehow, God will bring goodness and glory out of all this.

The World’s ACTUAL Oldest Profession

God does not place Adam and Eve in a factory, nor in an artist’s studio, nor in a print shop, nor in some computer room – He places them firmly and pointedly in a garden. But ever since the latter part of the previous century, the majority of mankind has been removed from the rural environment for which we could say he was created, into a workshop of his own creation – we are now an urban or suburban-majority race of sentient beings, who were not designed for such an environment. While it has made many good things and excellent things and possible and even increased our capacity and potential for knowledge, it has also withdrawn us more and more from the very natural environment from which God made us. Not only that, but ever since the invention of the light bulb, the very heavens themselves seem closed to us. We now have to return to the desert or the highest peaks to see the heavens as our ancestors did not that long ago.

Our connection to the skies and the soil itself is severed, as is our own original mission statement: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth” (Gen 1:26). Many politicians in the present age seem to make laws and dictates that are sometimes not at all connected to the reality of where and how food comes from.

While we think of manual labor now as a kind of punishment for sin, or a necessary evil for survival, this was not the intended purpose. Rather, it was to share in the goodness of God. God Himself gave us something good, in order to cooperate with Him in that which was good, not our own good as owners, but rather, as steward of God’s goodness. We read in the second creation story of Genesis that, “Then the Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it” (Gen 2:15).

Just as we delight in our own children’s goodness and creativity when they design something with the blocks or toys we give them, so does the Lord delight in the goodness and creativity of His creatures. But, again, with us to cooperate, not destroy.

In the Parable of the Talents, if one of the servants had melted down one of the talents to buy food to feed the victims of famine, I don’t imagine the Master would have been angry at all, but rather, well-pleased that His servant took the initiative to take care of an emergency that would affect his people. If the servant wantonly destroyed those talents, however, the Master would have had every right to be quite angry, indeed. Creation is a talent, in that sense, and a rather large one, that has been entrusted to us.

Pope St. John Paul II, in the World Day for Peace, 1990, stated that, "the earth is ultimately a common heritage, the fruits of which are for the benefit of all." In the words of the Second Vatican Council, 'God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples' (Gaudium et Spes, 69). This has direct consequences for the problem at hand. It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness - both individual and collective - are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence” (World Day of Peace, 1990, no. 8).

This isolation from the natural world that I referred to earlier shows itself, ironically enough, in the so-called “green” policies of many corporations and nations. Giant corporations seek to make more and more rapidly-obsolete gadgets that require more and more minerals that are extremely damaging to the environment to acquire. And, of course, exploiting these minerals will affect the poorest and most defenseless the most, whether in Africa, the Philippines, or China, leaving behind toxic sludge pots, while those who can afford such “green” gadgets live in relatively clean environments. A lot of “green” policy is performative political theater, at best, and deceivingly destructive, at worst, where we get the privilege of “feeling” green, while doing the exact opposite. This is what is called “greenwashing,” by some.

Pope Benedict XVIth knew of this phenomena when he remarked that, “It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet” (Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI, 50).

There is no easy solution that I can see from my limited vantage point. However, I do know one thing, drawing from the Font of Truth, and that is that we must be willing to have those difficult social and political conversations with each other, and not be satisfied at doing something merely for public appearances and approval – for we know well how Our Lord felt when some of the Pharisees did the exact same thing. May Our Lord, then, give us the Wisdom to deal well with the things of His world, and the courage to carry them out. Amen.

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Novena-Sacred & Immaculate Hearts-2024

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