Posts filed under: creation

Just as no great travels are necessary to see the beauty of creation, so no great ecstasies are needed to discover the love of God. But you have to be still and wait so that you can realize that God is not in the earthquake, the storm, or the lightning, but in the gentle breeze with which he touches your back.

— Henri Nouwen

Nature is fleeting; we will outlive it. Even when all suns and mists are gone, each one of us will still be alive.

— C.S. Lewis

Isn't saying that nobody created Earth just as ridiculous as saying nobody created God? - Anonymous

Not sure where you’re going with this one, but the “nobody created God” is a pretty interesting dilemma. The answer of course is, yes, nobody created God.

The short and completely un-nuanced way to put it is that everything comes from something. Planets come from cooling protoplanetary disks, plants come from seeds, seeds come from plants, Coke comes from factories, etc. So if you keep asking where everything came from, ultimately you’ll get back to something at a Very Beginning. But what did that something come from? Or is there something that simply didn’t come from anything, that simply is, that is the very basis for our entire universe in every way?

Key point: If God is really outside space and time, he’s entirely outside our human eyes/ears/telescopes experience of spacetime. He’s entirely different. And maybe when we see him in Heaven as he is, we’ll understand a little better how ridiculous it is for us to think that he could somehow have been created.

Put simply, there’s no free lunch in metaphysics. It can’t be turtles all the way down.

God bless you!

- Father Shane

So, I know that we catholics believe science and faith should go hand in hand, thus we dont interpret the bible literally and we believe in things like evolution, while remaining creationists; my question being what is the catholic stance on the science of intelligent design. While I believe in evolution and in the big bang theory, I still see the presence of God in his beautiful creation, thus, in my mind, intelligent design and conventional science coexist with no problem. - amigocesar

Hey, good question, and so sorry to take forever to get back to you!

Discovering design in the universe (part of which we recognize as beauty) has always been part of the way Catholics have said that you can prove that God exists. Saint Paul essentially says it himself in Romans 1:20… “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.”

But how do we discover that design? Is it through human philosophical intuition, or can we actually prove scientifically that something is designed? The Catholic intellectual tradition has always said that it’s just through the first. The intelligent design movement, which dates from the end of the 1990s, says that it can be done scientifically, i.e., experimentally. Catholic philosophers and theologians tend to disagree with that: What conceivable experiment could show scientifically that something is or isn’t a product of natural processes or some sort of designer?

So yes, if intelligent design really seemed to be a scientifically tenable position, I too would be on that bandwagon. But what you won’t read in creationist circles is that ID has pretty much totally stalled out at a scientific level. Beyond a couple of books, mostly famously Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, ID really hasn’t produced any significant scientific output. A few people got into it but then got out quickly; there just wasn’t any real way to quantify design inference, and if you can’t do that, you can’t design an experimental research program. As far as I know, there has been virtually no peer-reviewed ID publication going on recently. Behe’s core claims and examples have been pretty much taken apart, and William Dembski’s follow-up attempt was imaginative but didn’t do much better (here’s a critique that is somewhat technical, if the philosophical lingo doesn’t throw you).

So there isn’t a “Catholic stance on the science of intelligent design.” The Church will simply leave it up to philosophers of science as well as scientists themselves to hash it out. ID, like a lot of seemingly fresh ideas in science, really hasn’t panned out in practice.

So I would just slightly modify your last sentence, and then I’ll agree entirely with you: “While I believe in evolution and in the big bang theory, I still see the presence of God in his beautiful creation, thus, in my mind, discovering and acknowledging design and conventional science coexist with no problem.”

I personally think it’s far more impressive to discover a God who brings galaxies and planets and gorillas and paramecia into existence by simply letting physical laws “set in stone” from the very beginning of time run their course and shape our universe than to think of a “mechanic” God who has to personally wire and configure every species that he sets in motion. Of course, the Church also has some very clear things to say about the human soul not arising from evolutionary processes (it would be impossible, since the soul is spiritual), but that’s really not the issue here.

Here are some more things I’ve written about evolution recently. A complex topic, to be sure!

God bless you.

- Father Shane

I heard this question the other day and have yet to find an answer of sound logic... How can a non physical being create a physical world? - romanesccaa

First of all, we do have to be pretty humble about this. Since we have no idea how you would go about creating something out of nothing in the first place, and since our technology can only rearrange physical (well, mass/energy) reality, we can’t get very deep into the “hows” of this.

But something we have to keep in mind is simply that our ideas about “matter” are based more on what we’re used to than on its superiority. Actually, material/physical things really aren’t that great! All of them will eventually decompose or die… even the universe itself is subject to entropy and probably eventual thermal death. Only God, angels, and the human soul are immortal and can’t be killed… precisely because they’re not material.

So to say “Hey, we can’t make material stuff” is, more than anything, an admission that we’re not very powerful at all, not even capable of creating stuff that we ourselves are made out of. And, that being the case, we certainly can’t create spiritual stuff!

A better perspective, and one that’s classic in Catholic theology and philosophy, is to say that God is Being itself and that our being is a sort of participatory gift from God. He sustains us in being, which is a sort of reflection of his own Being in the fullest and most intense sense possible. All of which may not make a whole lot of sense to you, but don’t worry! Anytime we’re talking about God’s nature, our tiny human minds are never going to be able to fully grasp it or stammer it out in human words. God is infinite, after all.

In summary:

  • Only a non-physical being can create a physical world, since physical beings can’t create physical worlds.
  • But the being of a new world can be brought about by Being, as a sort of pale reflection of itself.
  • And a finite world can be brought about by something infinite, as a sort of pale reflection of itself.

Can’t go much deeper than that, sorry! God bless you.

- Father Shane

Father, thank you for your insightful posts and responses to questions. You are a very bright light on Tumblr. I also admire the Catholic faith for how it rejoices in the intelligence God gave us and our capacity to learn about His creation. Not shying from the big questions and what our minds and science tell us, yet also mindful that we have to be humble, and that we as humans cannot know everything. I have long admired that about the Catholic Church. Thank you again for your time! - Anonymous

Thanks so much! I certainly couldn’t have said that better myself.

God bless you as we all seek the truth together!

- Father Shane

I have a question about Paul and how he refers to Adam. What is he doing when he relates Jesus to Adam? Is he saying that Adam is real, and if so how do i reconcile that with evolution and archaeological discoveries of early humans. Your answer would be greatly appreciated. - Anonymous

Sure! A couple basic parameters:

1) This is an open theological question and has been for 30-40 years. Theologians disagree amongst themselves, and the Church hasn’t given any hard-and-fast teaching that we have to follow. So there is a certain amount of room for exploration of new styles of answers to this, but that also means that there’s no “standard” answer I can give you.

2) What really differs between a Catholic response to this and a fundamentalist Protestant response is that Catholics don’t interpret Scripture “literally” (and never have, even going back to St. Augustine and before). In part because Scripture doesn’t make sense in a “literal” sense so very often. Instead, God uses it in many different ways: to speak to us in a spiritual way or even sometimes a literal way, etc., but Scripture isn’t the sort of cut-and-dried “history” that we have come to expect in the last couple centuries.

That means that we can discuss Genesis using terms like “mythical language.” Careful: We’re not saying that Genesis “isn’t true” or is simply “a pious fable.” What we’re saying is that the biblical writers felt free to employ means of expression that were in basic use by the peoples around them in order to deal with realities that nobody can fully explain in any sort of ordinary language. Everybody, even the peoples of the Middle East, know that serpents don’t talk and that God doesn’t have a body with which to breathe life into Adam or to walk in the garden… that sort of language instead is a vehicle for deeper truths.

Pope Benedict sort of echoed that idea in his Easter homily this year, which touches on some other very important points about creation that are worth reading if you’re interested:

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.

Having said that, we have to be *very* careful about how we apply it. Because what we’re going to get at is that Genesis 1-3 contains some critical truths about the world and our place in it, but that we end up assuming things that the writers didn’t mean if we take other things too literally. Just some of the truths present: the world was created good by God and it expresses order; man and woman are made for each other and marriage and sexual union are blessed by God; disorder in the world and strife among humans are somehow a result of very ancient human sin that disfigured us, etc., etc.

So if you read #397-399 of the Catechism, you’ll see right away that it defines that first sin in general terms, and then says “Scripture portrays” it. 

You know, of course, that the word “Adam” means simply “the man.” In fact, in Hebrew it wouldn’t even be capitalized, so though we use it as a man’s name, in some Bible translations you’ll simply find “the man” being used instead of the word “Adam.”

So was Adam a real historical person? At times in the Church it’s been said that we have to believe that literally. But with recent Biblical scholarship, Church documents have really backed away from that. In part because it’s not really necessary in order for us to understand the truth of the story. No matter whether you consider evolution a scientifically credible explanation for human origins (I do) or not, there would have had to have been first humans. For us, it’s easy to speak of a number of humans (whether it’s two or two thousand) who were born from non-humans (i.e. primates without immortal souls) and to whom souls were given; for fundamentalist creationists, God simply fashioned man directly. Either way, that first set of humans would have been responsible for whatever it was that happened. It’s shrouded in history to such an extent that we probably can’t understand it fully without some sort of further revelation by God, but for some reason God seems to have thought that Genesis 1-3 was enough for us to understand it.

St. Paul’s contrast between “Adam’s work” (original sin) and Jesus’ work (redemption) is fine either way. Thanks to some action by some human or humans, sin came into the world, etc. 

Anyway, I think that if you take this perspective, it’s pretty easy to go back and read Romans 5 (as well as other passages; there’s a good list here) and see how St. Paul’s words apply perfectly well either to a mysterious scenario at our origins or to a man-woman duo in Eden.

Hope it helps! (And I think this is accurate enough, though if anybody with deeper theological knowledge of the issue can correct any points, I’d be happy to fix them.) God bless you.

- Father Shane

We are God’s work of art.

— Ephesians 2:10

Really cool. A shooting star seen from space, snapped from the International Space Station. Really cool.

God’s creation is awesome. And so is this astronaut living on the ISS who has a Twitter account. (?!?)

Peace be with you Father, I have with respect to how I view God and whether it is sinful to do so. I liken God to a great software designer who created our universe which isn't really "REAL" in that it is predicated on sensory perception. I use the Teleological Argument by Robin Collins as a foundation for that belief and I just wonder if its blasphemy to think of him that way. Is there a way I am required by the church to think about God? Is my way inaccurate? Is it sinful? - ricanvelli-deactivated20140606

That’s an interesting thought, and certainly you’re following in the footsteps of some notable thinkers who have taken that line of thought a little further.

I don’t think it’s blasphemy, really, so long as you’re still feeling your way towards the truth and you maintain an attitude of openness to the Church’s judgment. Something can be wrong (or, more often, only partially wrong) and yet not be blasphemy. Obviously all of us bend our knee ultimately before God’s word, since he’s the one who knows this wholly and entirely, far better than we. Feeling your way towards that truth is an admirable and very human way to go about it.

The Bible talks a lot about creation. A lot. Especially the Old Testament. But since it’s not done in scientific terms, or (usually) even philosophical terms as we would understand them today, understanding Scriptural statements in current language is an ongoing endeavor always.

I personally have a sort of mathematical bent — I imagine you do too, by the way you phrase this — so I’ve entertained thoughts about something like what you say. Here’s why I discounted it, though…

As human beings, we can make mathematical models of the world that describe it. They “say” everything about it but aren’t “real”… they’re just algorithms and datasets. Then, similarly, the ideas we create (unicorns, say, or tomorrow’s sunrise) are “in our heads” but aren’t “in reality,” no matter how vividly we imagine them. Our ideas and our models depend entirely on our minds, too.

The amazing thing about God’s ideas is that they are on a totally different level from us, which isn’t surprising. After all, it’s obvious that God is on an entirely different level in everything: he’s entirely spiritual, he creates universes, he gives grace, he hears our prayers, he creates and governs angels, etc. 

So when God thinks of something… it comes into existence. It gets created. Whoa. Read that again. God’s thoughts make things from nothingness, and then they can subsist autonomously (obviously not totally, since God sustains them in real existence, but you can clearly choose things that God doesn’t want, which can never be the case for a software program of ours). So it’s not just a semi-amazing thing by which God has great ideas that seem real to our sensory perception (as if we’re living in a Matrix-style world), but the totally completely amazing thing that God creates reality.

In other words, whenever we find ourselves assuming “God thinks/acts/feels like we do” as a premise, we’re practically always going to get to some erroneous conclusion. I think the danger here is assuming that God’s thoughts have the same reality that ours do.

Ultimately the question boils down to whether the universe is really predicated on sensory perception, as you say. Is it “appearance constructed by thought,” or really-real reality? I don’t think the paradoxes of the first can be overcome, which is why I vote for the second.

So when we recite the Creed and say, “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” I think it makes more sense to think of God as having created reality — with a single thought, through the Word — as a universe that is predicated on real material existence. Not that your idea couldn’t perhaps be compatible with the basic data of Revelation and our faith if you were to extend it and purify it a little, just that it’s a little too Platonic for my sensibilities.

God bless you!

- Father Shane

Cosmic Fireworks

Tonight is the night of the biggest meteor shower of the year… Details here. God’s creation is awesome.

How does the story of Adam and Eve fit into evolution? - Anonymous

If you think that evolution is a good explanation for how lifeforms came to be what they are today (and I think it’s an excellent one, though obviously the Church is right in saying that human beings can’t fully be explained by biological evolution, that we have a spiritual component that must have arisen some other way), then you’re just like a “6-day creationist”: You think that there were some “first human beings.” The first ones with real intellectual powers, full power of free willing, etc., everything that we Catholics associate with the spiritual soul.

Science can’t really tell us much about what those first human beings were like. But our faith does tell us something about them. Here’s how the Catechism puts it:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. (#390)

So their sin happened. What was it exactly? Well, that’s pretty difficult to ascertain from the story we’re told. The language it uses isn’t the journalistic style with which we would like it to be told to us.

Here’s an excellent video by Fr Robert Barron that explains the basic style with which we have to read those first 3 chapters of Genesis. (Then he got asked to explain further and recorded this.)

Hope that helps. God bless you!

- Father Shane

I'm having problems when it comes to the soul and evolution. When did God infuse us with a soul. If you could go intoore depth about evolution and the creation of the soul that would be much appreciated:) - Anonymous

That’s one of the thorniest questions in theology right now!

But it’s fairly easy to untangle in this sense at least… When did God infuse you with a soul? The answer of course is “at conception.” The soul wasn’t in a father’s sperm or a mother’s egg, and it wasn’t preexisting somewhere in heaven. It was given by God to you, forming you, at the moment you came to be.

So if that happens in the case of every single human being, as soon as, in the classic formulation, “predisposed matter” was there, it’s not actually that hard of a question to answer. Having a soul isn’t a biological property — it’s a spiritual one. So we shouldn’t expect biological evolution to ever have brought it about.

Rather, at some point, as “theistic evolutionary” theories have it, creatures that weren’t human — didn’t have a soul — gave birth to creatures that were given souls by God. Do we know much about that event? No. Did it change us a lot? Definitely.

We’re not random products of random events; God was somehow in his providence guiding the process by which human beings came to be. And the process by which you would come to be! God is good.

God bless you!

- Father Shane

What is the Catholic Church's belief about evolution? - Anonymous

Well, you really can’t have a belief about evolution. It’s a scientific theory, so either you’re convinced by it (after hearing it out and doing a careful and thorough evaluation in a competent and scientific way, something that folks on either side tend not to do with evolution and climate change) or you’re not. It’s not a matter of “faith” strictly speaking.

So the Church doesn’t rule on strictly scientific matters. But she does have a lot to say about creation and human nature, which brings up a few important points that can’t be neglected:

  • God is the one and only creator of the universe.
  • Evolution doesn’t imply either materialism or atheism. (Materialism is a philosophical viewpoint anyway, not science. You can’t prove with the scientific method that nothing spiritual exists.)
  • God doesn’t just cause existence, but he causes things to cause other things. So whatever means by which life came to be, he was the author of them.
  • The human person is totally unlike all other life forms since we have an immortal and immaterial soul — if you can’t figure out that we’re different from everything else just by looking around, then you wouldn’t make a good scientist anyway ;-) — and no spiritual life can arise from something merely material, so God must be the creator of our souls.
  • At some point, there were first humans, whose souls were created by God in the same way that yours and mine were.
  • Science is very powerful, but it can’t answer all of our questions about the human person.
  • So evolution isn’t in conflict with our belief in God the Creator, and any apparent conflicts with Genesis 1-3 are based on our own human misunderstandings of what Genesis 1-3 are trying to tell us.

So the YouCat says (#42):

Although it is a different kind of knowledge, faith is open to the findings and hypotheses of the sciences. Theology has no scientific competence, and natural science cannot dogmatically rule out the possibility that there are purposeful processes in creation; conversely, faith cannot define specifically how these processes take place in the course of nature’s development. A Christian can accept the theory of evolution as a helpful explanatory model, provided he does not fall into the “heresy” of evolutionism, which views man as the random product of biological processes. Evolution presupposes the existence of something that can develop. The theory says nothing about where this “something” came from. Furthermore, questions about the being, essence, dignity, mission, meaning, and reason for the world and man cannot be answered in biological terms. Just as “evolutionism” oversteps a boundary on the one side, so does creationism on the other. Creationists naively take biblical data literally (for example, to calculate the earth’s age, they cite the six days of work in Genesis 1).

I could go on and on, but we’ll leave it at that… God bless you!

- Father Shane

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