At about this time back in 2010, British physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking published a book entitled “The Grand Design,” in which he argued that there need not be a God behind the creation of the universe. He wrote that since “spontaneous creation is the reason . . . why the Universe exists,” physics can explain things without the need of a “benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.” Interesting – and this from a man who, little more than a decade before, suggested that to understand creation would be the “ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we should know the mind of God.”
Though Hawking’s assertions stirred a great deal of controversy at the time, I remember thinking that it was just the latest in a centuries-long series of attempts to explain how and why we exist, and at times to try to remove God from that equation. From the debates that have long raged about evolution and creationism, to the more recent use of the politically correct term “intelligent design,” the world has long been seeking to somehow get a handle on the assertion that as Christians we regularly make in our Statement of Faith: “You [O God,] call the worlds into being [and] create persons in your own image.” One has to wonder just how many intense discussions and arguments have ensued over the centuries solely on the basis of the first few chapters of Genesis!
It might surprise you to hear this, but I’ve always thought of the whole science vs. religion argument as regards creation to be a non-issue. It seems to me that however one views the creation story – whether it truly was something that happened in the space of six days, with a seventh day set aside for rest, or if “it all started with a Big Bang” – something, or more accurately, someone had to set the whole thing in motion. Whether “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” is seen as the end result of a long, methodical cosmic plan, or, as Hawking suggests, simply an instance of spontaneous creation, I have to believe that “in the beginning,” God flipped the switch and created the heavens and the earth.
In Christian theology there is an assertion that bears this out: in Latin, it’s called creation ex nihilo, which means “from out of nothing.” It’s actually quite a biblical conundrum; one, as I’ve discovered while teaching confirmation classes and Bible studies over the years, is also kind of fun to try to explain: you see, everything that we know to be fundamental and real about creation (the earth and sea, the stars and sky, right on up to all the galaxies spread across the universe), at some point had to have been created. In other words, they weren’t always there – at some moment of time millions or even billions of years ago, everything that we know now had to have begun to exist in some form or another. So if you accept that, then it follows that way back before creation began to exist, it had to have not existed – in other words, before there was anything, there first had to have been nothing.
And… what is nothing, anyway? How do you describe nothing? By our attempt to describe it, does nothing then become something? And if that’s the case, does nothing really exist? And if it doesn’t exist, then what is it?
And while we’re on the subject, there’s God… what about God? If God, as we believe, created heaven and earth out of nothing, then what is God? We can’t say that God is nothing… because we know that God is certainly something that exists and is as real to us as the very air we breathe, though God is not something that we can even begin to wholly understand. All we really can say is that before there was something, there was nothing, and God is something that in the midst of nothing and out of nothing created something… and, that, friends… is really something!
Are your heads spinning yet?
Ultimately, the greatest evidence of God’s power of creation is in the wonder of what we see all around us every day. This harkens back to the psalm we read in our worship last Sunday, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established…”(8:3) After all, we might well understand the biology by which a child is created and is born, but it can’t begin to express the divine image that we see in the tiny fingers and soft skin of a new-born baby in our arms. Our thirst for knowledge and understand will often lead us to immerse ourselves in the all of the “proofs, the figures. . . the charts and the diagrams” provided by Whitman’s Learn’d Astronomer, but still in the end we still find ourselves out “in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, [looking] up in perfect silence at the stars”(Walt Whitman, “ When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” from Leaves of Grass, 1900)
Indeed, it is our rich experience of life here within this little corner of the universe that leads us to our own bold assertion that God did, in fact, call the worlds into being, creating persons in his image and for his great purpose and pleasure!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry