|Second Catechesis: "In the Beginning God Created..." on November
13, 2005, St. Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna.
(Provisional) Translation from the German by Prof. John F. Crosby
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 6000 years old. These attempts of certain Christians at taking the
Bible absolutely literally, as if it made chronological and scientific
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
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 6000 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
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
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
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 year-long 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. 75 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). Some very recent research seems to indicate
that the expansion has been going on for 46 billion light years; but
with these huge magnitudes it does not make much difference, since they
are absolutely unimaginable. 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 Prof. 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" (Gen. 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
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
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
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 intervenes; 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
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 demi-urges, 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
In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: "He upholds all things by the word
of His power" (Heb 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 understanding 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 an 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 seems 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?
(© Christoph Cardinal Schönborn)