He Upholds the Universe by His word and Power

Author: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

He Upholds the Universe by His word and Power

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

Fourth catechesis by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn on Jannuary 8, 2006 in the cathedral of St. Stephan in Vienna. Translated by Prof. John F. Crosby.

Is there any point in praying for good weather? In the late 1960s I heard a lecture by a theology professor who explained to us students that it is completely senseless to pray for good weather; since the weather is entirely determined by inner-worldly causes, God does not intervene and everything plays out according to natural laws. This is why there is no point in praying for rain or sunshine.

If a mother is sick with cancer, is there any point in her children and her husband praying for her to be healed? Suppose she is healed: has God intervened or have the forces of nature acted in a healing way? Suppose she is not healed: what kind of God is it that ignores the tears of the children and the pleading of the husband? Can God not help? Then He is impotent. Does He not want to help? Then He is cruel and merciless.

Praise of the Creator

Does God act in the world today? Our faith takes this to be an elementary truth. To believe that God exists is also to believe that He acts, and not just now and then, not just sometime back at the beginning, but constantly, since everything has its origin in Him and since He upholds everything and directs everything to its end. Is this faith just an arbitrary assumption, a kind of drug for numbing ourselves a little in this trying world, an "opium of the people," as Karl Marx (1818-1883) called religion? Does this faith have any basis that shows it to be reasonable, meaningful, beautiful, and good?

A psalm like psalm 104 is in any case beautiful, full of poetry, and expresses the entirely spontaneous feelings of many people about their experience of creation:

Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, thou art very great!
Thou art clothed with honor and majesty, who coverest thyself with light as with a garment,
who hast stretched out the heavens like a tent, who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the waters,
who makest the clouds thy chariot, who ridest on the wings of the wind,
who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.
Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken.
Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled; at the sound of they thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place which thou didst appoint for them.
Thou didst set a bound which they should not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.
Thou makest springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,
they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst.
By them the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.

From thy lofty abode thou waterest the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy work.
Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate,
that He may brings forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man's heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon which He planted.
In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the badgers.
Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep forth.
The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they get them away and lie down in their dens.
Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both small and great.
There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it.
These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season.
When thou givest to them, they gather it up; which thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things.

When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure for ever, may the Lord rejoice in his works,
who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke!
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to Him, for I rejoice in the Lord.

(Psalm 104)

Is the approach of poetry less real than the approach of science?

Yes, indeed, "may my meditation be pleasing to Him," as the psalmist says. Is it just poetry when we rejoice like this in the Creator and His works? Or is this poetry, this song of praise to the Creator, is it not based on a reality lying at the foundation of everything, the reality of the efficacious acting of the Creator? Put another way: is the approach of poetry less real than the approach of science? Let us hear the witness of the great Russian philosopher of religion and theologian, Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944). He speaks of his "going home" to the faith after wandering for ten years through the desert of scientistic atheism (quoted by M.-J. LeGuillou, Das Mysterium des Vaters, Einsiedeln, 1999, pp. 20-212):

I was 23 years old, but for almost ten years the faith had been ripped out of my soul; after passing through crises and doubts a religious emptiness took possession of it. O, how terrible this sleep of the soul, which can last a whole life long. While growing intellectually and acquiring scientific information my soul sank into self-satisfaction, superficiality, and vulgarity... Suddenly the following event occurred... The evening was approaching... we were driving through the southern prairie, bathed in the spicy aroma of honey, grass, and hay and shining the in the mild light of the setting sun. Off in the distance the first of the Caucasian mountains was already blue. I saw these mountains for the first time. I gazed eagerly on them and drank in the air and the light, listening to the revelation of nature. My soul had for a long time now been used to seeing in nature nothing but a dead desert covered by a veil of beauty, worn by nature like a mask that deceives. Suddenly my soul was filled with joy and trembled with excitement at the thought: what if there were... what if there were no desert, no mask, no death, what if there were instead the mild love of the Father, all this beauty being His veil, His love... what if the devout feelings of my childhood that I had in living with Him, standing before His face, loving Him, trembling at my inability to approach Him, what if my tears and my youthful ardor, the tenderness of prayer, my childlike purity, which I had made fun of by staining, what if all of these things were true and the death-bringing emptiness in myself were nothing but blindness and lies? Was that possible? Didn't I know from my years of study that God does not exist? Could there be any doubt about this? Could I acknowledge these new thoughts in myself without feeling ashamed on account of my cowardice, without feeling panic in the presence of "science" and its court of justice? O you Caucasian mountains, I saw your ice glistening from one sea to the other, I saw your snow reddened by the morning sun, your peaks reaching up into the sky, and my soul melted in ecstasy. The first day of creation shone before my eyes. There was no life and no death, just an eternal and unchangeable Now. An unexpected feeling arose in me and surged up: the feeling of victory over death.

If this approach is not an illusion, the question arises, what kind of reality is it an approach to? Is this poetic-religious approach something leading to another realm of reality that has nothing to do with the realm that science is interested in? Karl Rahner (1904-1984) once said: "Theology and science can in principle not contradict each other, since from the outset they differ in their subject matter and in their method." ("Wissenschaft und christlicher Glaube," in Schriften zur Theologie, XV [Zurick, 1983], 26.) I too think that theology and science need not contradict each other, but not because their subject-matters are so different that they practically never come into contact. I am convinced that they must come into contact without contradicting each other. Even the poetical-mystical and religious approach that we just saw in Sergei Bulgakov must at some point come into contact with the scientific approach. Why this fear of coming into contact? If it is true that the creator constantly supports, preserves, and renews His world, if everything new that appears in the world has come and continuously comes from His plan for creation and from His creative power, then in some way it has to come into contact with the reality that forms the object of the sciences. But how is this to happen without science and theology encroaching on each other's domain but also without them simply having nothing to do with each other?

An existential approach

In the present catechesis we are concerned with the creatio continua, that is, with the ongoing creation, which has to do with the same sphere of reality that the natural sciences deal with. We cannot do without points of contact. Let us ward off the following possible misunderstanding right from the beginning: the reality of the creation that is now happening is not something that we can measure and hence reach by way of empirical methods. But in acknowledging this reality we do not contradict the scientific way of looking, for this acknowledgment is neither irrational nor unintelligible. To believe in creation as a present event that is happening even now is not only meaningful, it is not contradictory, but it is ultimately the presupposition for science having a meaningful basis. But this needs to be further clarified and justified.

First of all I want to focus more sharply the question about ongoing creation by proposing a third approach. At the beginning I referred to prayer, which is meaningful only if the Creator really acts in this world. Secondly we saw the example of the experience of beauty in creation; such beauty provides an access to the Creator. In the radiance of this beauty we can get a hint of and even have a moving experience of the active presence of the Creator.

Now I want to propose a third existential approach, one that is prominent in the proclamation of Jesus. I mean faith in divine providence, and not in an abstract and general providence but in a very concrete providence. Jesus teaches His disciples to have absolute trust in this quite concrete care, extending into the smallest details, of Him whom Jesus calls the heavenly Father. In the sermon on the mount we read:

Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? There do not be anxious... (Matt. 6: 25-31)

And in another place Jesus says much more clearly: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of the will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your heard are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." (Matt. 10: 29-31)

It is crystal clear that the Christian faith presupposes that God's providence is not just general but is very concrete, reaching down to the smallest and most unlikely details, even to the point that "all the hairs of our head" are numbered. Even the death of a sparrow does not fall outside of the care of the Creator. Is He not also concerned with atoms, molecules, and matter? These are questions that we cannot evade if the proclamation of Jesus and rational investigation are not going to break entirely apart. But if faith and the scientific approach are not going to stand next to each other without coming into contact with each other, then of course we face a very considerable intellectual challenge. Intellectual laziness is certainly out of place here. We can see that faith in creation and the scientific approach complete each other very well without interfering with each other. But that involves an intense labor of thought, and I cannot promise you that what I will treat in the following will be easy.

Before we turn for a closer look at the doctrine of ongoing creation, let me mention a phenomenon that surprises me and that has in my opinion shown itself more clearly in recent months. Just the other day one of the news agencies reported that the actor Thomas Kretschmann, 43, who played John Paul II in an American television production, is supposed to have said: "I have nothing to do with the Church. I do not believe in God, I believe in evolution, which seems to me more logical." (The Standard, Jan. 2006, p.5.) Does this mean that evolution is a matter of faith? The Christmas issue of Der Spiegel carried the title, "God vs. Darwin: a religious war over evolution."

Religious war over evolution?

How has this strange "sacralization" of a scientific theory come about? How did it happen that this scientific theory is, as far as I know, the only one whose name ends in "-ism." There is no "Einsteinism" corresponding to Einstein's relativity theory, and earlier there was no "Newtonism" and later no "Heisenbergism." Why then Darwinism? The American philosopher and historian of science, Stanley L. Jaki, has said that it is an urgent task to liberate the evolutionary theory of Darwin along with its later development in the form of Neodarwinian theory "from what is not science there," lest it turn into an ideology and cease to be real science. ("Non-darwinian darwinism," in Pascual, L'evoluzione: crocevia di scienza, filosophia e teologia [Rome, 2005], 41.)

Whoever wants to start a religious war over evolution does a disservice to science far and wide. To make the issues of evolution into instruments of war against belief in creation has nothing to do with scientific method and spirit, just as the dialectical materialism of Marxism with its allegedly "scientific" atheism had pitifully little to do with real science.

Needless to say, whoever is not satisfied with slogans and prejudices cannot avoid intense intellectual exertion. But it is worth the trouble.

In what follows I would like to invite you to take three intellectual steps that will enable you to get some idea of what ongoing creation is. Even if these steps do not prove this belief, they at least show that this belief does not contradict reason.

Before attempting these steps I would like once again to point out what ongoing creation is not. The German theologian Ulrich Luke, who has worked intensely on this subject, raises the question whether ongoing creation, when compared with the creation of the beginning of all things (creatio ex nihilo), is simply "a project of improvement undertaken by the great craftsman, the Creator out of nothing? Is the creatio continua something like a maintenance contract that is entered into at the time of the purchase of a product with a view to preserving the quality of the product, a kind of maintenance contract for the creatio originalis (beginning of creation)?" ("Creatio continua," in Theologie und Glauben 86/1996, 283.) Often people have the idea that ongoing creation means that God is adjusting and fixing His creation. If the acting of the Creator is understood as a kind of improving, then we get the idea that we only need to recognize Him where there are gaps in our knowledge, so that He can plug in the gaps that lie beyond the reach of our scientific knowledge.

The three steps that we now undertake will show us a different way. The first step is as it were a step back, a step in which we take distance to what goes on in the everyday practice of the sciences. It is a philosophical reflection on "contingency," which has in fact great existential importance for our life. There are many things about natural events that used to be un-understandable and inexplicable and that today have been explained by scientific research and thus become understandable. It is not God the Creator who appears in these scientific explanations but "only" material causal connections. The more explainable things become, the smaller the residue of the unexplainable. Is God's "space" getting "narrower"? No wonder that Der Spiegel concluded the above-mentioned article with the words: "It is getting tighter around the Creator" (p. 147). This is why it is important to remember that faith in the Creator does not start at the point at which our knowledge stops, but rather starts just where we do indeed have knowledge. The right approach is to consider all that we do know today. And that is, thank God, very much. We should not look towards that which remains inexplicable, trying to leave there some place for God, but we should look towards what we do know. And we should ask: what is the ultimate basis of this?

One thing we know with certainty, with philosophical, rational certainty: all that we observe in material beings once did not exist. The sun came to be, so did the moon, the earth, and life in all its forms, including man and reaching down to you and me. Material things that once were not, will one day pass away. What once came to be does not exist through itself. It is unstable in its existence, it can and it will pass away. And so it is meaningful and necessary to ask: what holds all of this in being? We have to try to answer this question.

Can we enter into this thought? Nothing that exists as matter exists "necessarily" but could as well not exist. The sun could have not come to be. The same holds for me. I am because I came to be. Philosophy calls this the contingency, the non-necessity of being. What then keeps us in being, why do we exist? Why do we not fall back into nothing? Psalm 104 answers: "When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust" (verse 29). Philosophy and theology call this preservation in being the continuing or ongoing creation. God holds in being everything that is. Without this support the contingent world would not be. The power of holding everything in being cannot be in turn a material power. It cannot be a material energy, cannot be a measurable reality, otherwise it too would have to be held in being by something, and this in turn by something else, and so on ad infinitum. This why the Jesuit philosopher Rainer Koltermann says: "The preserving power can ultimately only be something that is not in turn held in being by something else." It cannot be a power that has come to be, a finite and limited power, a measurable energy; it can only be a power that does not draw its power from another source. It must be an absolute power, beyond all time, infinite. "These characteristics are essential for God." (Koltermann, Grundzuege der modernen Naturphilosophie. Ein kritischer Gesamtentwurf [Frankfurt, 1994], 134.)

It is this power that we call the creatio continua, the ongoing creation. This is what "holds the world together from within." If God were to "let go" of creation, it would back into the nothingness from which it came. It does not exist through itself, it is held in being.

Our world is a world of becoming

From this follows a further thought, still within the setting of this first step. It is not only the being of all things that is preserved by this primordial source, this power of the Creator, but the capacity that all things have of acting efficaciously is also preserved by the primordial acting of the Creator. For the power of things to act is also contingent, is not necessary, could be otherwise. The ultimate cause for the power of acting on the part of creatures cannot be in turn some innerworldly acting, some finite and created energy. God acts so as to be "all in all," as St. Paul says, but not in the sense that He is one cause among others, but rather in the sense that He is the efficacious cause supporting and empowering all creaturely acting. This is the way in which we can understand the powerful line in the Letter to the Hebrews: "He upholds the universe by His word of power" (Heb. 1:3), He upholds everything that is and everything that acts.

This is the first step, which is perhaps not so hard to follow. The idea that all spatio-temporal being in creation is supported by the eternal and omnipresent being of the Creator can be rationally understood, or at least can be seen to be not absurd. But what about that creative activity which is more than just preservation? What do we make of God's creative power when something really new appears, such as life and especially man? Does the Creator bring about the "leap" from lifeless to living matter, or from animal to man? Are we back to those individual acts of creation which Darwin thought had been made superfluous by his theory of natural selection?

Let us venture upon a second step. There is no doubt but that our world is a world of becoming in which the cosmic development and the evolution on our planet has made it possible for us human beings to be alive today. In the course of this becoming some really new things break through. Can "more" arise out of what is "less"? Can what is lower produce on its own power what is higher and more complex? It would be absurd to say such a thing, even if this is often said to be the case. Nothing in our experience lends support to the idea that what is lower, acting without anything that directs and organizes it, can all by itself, and quite by accident, produce what is higher.

So then we do have to accept "particular creative acts"? But how can they be observed? How do they show themselves? Here we have to make a simple distinction that is commonly overlooked, the distinction between conditions and causes. All kinds of conditions were necessary for life to be able to arise on our planet and without these no life would be possible. But these conditions only set the stage for the emergence of life; they are not the creative cause of life. They "collaborate" with the emergence of life, but you cannot derive from them the new reality in the developing world that we call life. For life to arise there must be the creative act of God, the divine spark.

Scientific research working along its own line does not come across this divine spark, this "let there be...and so it was," as we read in Genesis 1; with ever greater precision and nuance it tries to grasp the conditions necessary for the new reality of life to be inserted into the process of becoming. Since the research into the conditions for life has made such tremendous strides, some people think that it has unlocked the entire reality of life itself. The conditions really do enable life to appear and in this sense they are co-causes, but they are not the creators of life. Let me try by means of two examples taken from human life to make clear what I mean.

a) A great deal of reading and thinking, of gathering ideas and discussing them, goes into preparing this catechetical series. Then the ideas are written down and finally delivered to the audience. There are many conditions for all of this, conditions without which the catecheses would not be possible. My brain has to be more or less working, I have to have time for preparing the catecheses; my sense organs have to perform their service; pen and paper are needed; so is the microphone that we use here in the cathedral. These are all conditions, they lend support to the coming to be of the catecheses, but they do not produce them. The new thing that comes to be here (it is not absolutely new) requires these conditions but it is not made by them. Neither my pen nor the microphone, nor even my brain have made the catecheses. These things were in a certain sense co-causes, each of them important, but they were not the creators of the catecheses.

In a similar way we can say, indeed we have to say that the great "leaps" by which evolution climbed higher and higher had in each case necessary conditions which however could not be the creators of the new realities. They are true co-causes but not the real creative cause. The great theologian, Cardinal Leo Scheffczyck, who died on December 8, 2005, says: "Thus evolution can in a way be understood as creation that does not shut out or annul creaturely collaboration but rather gives it full play: for on this view the act of something new coming into being presupposes the presence and the activity of creaturely reality with all of its proper energy, dynamism, and causality. Thus we are speaking here of a total act shared by God and creature." ("Gottes fortdauernde Schoepfung," in Schwerpunkte des Glaubens [Einsiedeln, 1977], 200.)

b) The second example is even clearer, since it has to do with the supreme case of the coordination of creaturely conditions and divine creative act: the coming to be of a new human being. If it is true that each human being is unique, then this uniqueness is not just the genetic uniqueness which keeps one human being from being completely identical with another one; it must instead be the unrepeatability of the person, which is most clearly expressed in the irreducible dignity of the person. Each human being has this dignity and has it independently of his origin, gender, accomplishments, or state of health. We say that this dignity inheres in man as a creature made "in the image and likeness of God" (cf. Genesis 1:26).

No doubt the parents are real co-causes of the new human child. Without them there would be no child. But they do not "produce" the new person, who is not a "product" of the parents, even though the new human person would not exist without his parents. The new reality that appears in the world as a new human child comes to be, as Scheffczyck put it, by means of a "total act shared by God and creature." This act is not equally shared, but rather shared in such a way that the parents, acting as cause on their level, contribute everything proper to themselves, while God causes the new human being by creating what only the divine act can create, namely a new person with an immortal soul and with a unique calling from God and for God.

Within this perspective of divine causality God does not act as a deus ex machina, as someone who plugs holes, who is invoked to explain that which is "not yet" explained. We do not think of His acting as an occasional intervention coming from the outside, but rather as the transcendent creative activity of God who alone makes it possible for our world to "hold together" and to rise, in accordance with His plan, step by step higher, so that really new things appear in it and finally man appears in it.

Whoever wants to replace the Creator's realization of this plan by a totally autonomous evolution, inevitably either ascribes some mythic creative power to evolution, or else abandons any attempt at rational understanding and explains everything as the blind play of arbitrary chance. This is what I called the "abdication of reason" in my New York Times article of July 7th, 2005.

And now I attempt the third step that can throw a little more light on the ongoing creation. We are at the beginning of the year celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. His creative genius stimulates me to the following perhaps somewhat light-hearted thought. For some time now I have been looking for analogies and comparisons to help make sense of the incredible variety and abundance of creation. Where does this boundless, playful abundance of life forms come from, indeed where do the forms of lifeless matter come from? Can all of this be explained in terms of means-end relations? Hardly. Some things can be explained in this way, but there is in nature far more than usefulness, there is also at work–such is the irresistible impression we get the more closely we explore nature–a lavish delight in variety, in beauty, and even in what is bizarre, frightening, uncanny, none of which conforms to the purely rational order of means and ends. The thought keeps coming to me that the Creator takes pleasure in the play of this variety.

And so I venture this suggestion: why should this variety and abundance not derive from His inexhaustible creativity? I was helped here by thinking of Mozart. All of his works are "contingent," they could as well have not come into being (which would have been very unfortunate for mankind). Most of them came to be for particular purposes, in response to commissions and orders. But many just came from the creativity of genius, including those which were commissioned. Purpose and beauty do not break apart here. A work of art may have a purpose, but it is more than its purpose. Works of art do not create something new out of nothing, they rather rely on models and in the case of music on pre-given harmonies, musical laws, the themes and melodies of other composers, they develop further what is already there; and yet each work of art is unique. The thought came to me that Mozart developed music further, and yet created unique works. No one would think that his works organized themselves. We admire and love and revere Mozart. Ideological evolutionism, hard-nosed materialism that it is, strikes me by comparison as dismal and unimaginative. Would it not be a good thing to consider one time the theory of evolution in the light of the creative power of a Mozart? Would we not draw closer to the Creator and to the way He plays His inexhaustible melodies in His creation?

But beautiful as this thought may be, in the next catechesis we have to deal with the urgent question of why there is so much suffering in creation, so much that is cruel and terrible.

(© Kardinal Christoph Schönborn)