On Creating the Cosmos

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

On Creating the Cosmos
Ted Peters


Introducing Ted Peters

Last year I introduced readers to one of the leading voices about Christianity and science, John Polkinghorne. I also helped BioLogos bring in another leading voice, Robert Russell. This new series introduces a third prominent Christian thinker, Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, theCenter for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Presently co-editor (with Robert Russell) of the journal, Theology and Science, Peters was a student of Langdon Gilkey. Gilkey is probably best known today for surviving a Japanese prison camp in China during World War 2, where he knew the famous missionary and Olympic champion Eric Liddell. I spoke to Gilkey myself just once, when I was fresh out of graduate school and he was one of the best known theologians in America. I knew of his experience in China, so I asked him whether he had known Liddell. Gilkey replied that Liddell was “the only saint I ever knew.” A few years earlier, Gilkey had testified at the famous Arkansas creationism trial, arguing that creationism is religion, not science—a crucial opinion for the subsequent legal fate of both creationism and intelligent design. Consistently with that position, Gilkey sharply distinguished science from theology, a stance that Peters criticizes below.

Langdon Gilkey
Langdon Gilkey looked pretty much like this when I met him at a small conference held near San Francisco in December 1987.

For more than 35 years, Peters has published insightful books and articles about an intriguing range of topics related to Christianity and science. For example, his early work on UFOs and God has just been reprinted, giving him opportunities to engage with audiences that most theologians never encounter. With Catholic biologist Martinez Hewlett, he wrote an excellent little book about theistic evolution that deserves to be better known. They also collaborated on a second book, an uncommonlyfair analysis of the origins controversy that has been praised by both Michael Ruse and William Dembski. His book about bioethics, Playing God?, which opposes genetic determinism, grew out of a major project on “Theological Questions Raised by Human Genome Initiative” that was funded by the National Institutes of Health, a rare instance of federally-funded research in Christian ethics.

The focus of this series, however, is Peters’ powerful affirmation of the central Christian doctrine of creation from nothing. Over the next few months, I’ll present edited excerpts from his classic essay, “On Creating the Cosmos,” originally published 26 years ago in a book from the Vatican Observatory. Although parts of it are dated, much is still timely and important. In this introductory excerpt, Peters emphasizes the equal importance of two ways of understanding the doctrine of creation: both creatio ex nihilo (“creation from nothing”), the classic notion that God created all things from nothing, and creatio continua (“continuing creation”), the idea that God is still creating new things now. In his view (which I share), many modern theologians have tended to elevate creatio continua overcreatio ex nihilo, in some cases to the complete neglect or even denial of the latter. The main goal of his essay is to rehabilitate creatio ex nihilo for our own day.

On Creating the Cosmos (introduction)

Painting: God creating the universe
God creating the universe, using the compass to measure its dimensions, manuscript illumination from an Old French Bible moralisée (c. 1208-15), Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. lv, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

We are living in a time ripe with opportunity to seek significantrapprochement between science and theology. The unlocking of nature’s secrets by the physical sciences seems to be opening up new doors for common exploration. British scientist Paul Davies says that “science has actually advanced to the point where what were formerly religious questions can be seriously tackled.” [Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, p. ix.] On the religious front, too, we see healthy enthusiasm. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the need for academic freedom and declared the “legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially the sciences.” [Gaudium et Spes, p. 59.] Pope John Paul II has gone considerably further. To the Pontifical Academy of Sciences meeting at Castel Gandolfo on September 21, 1982, the Holy Father announced that “there no longer exists the ancient opposition between true science and authentic faith.” He went on to say to the scientific community, “the Church is your ally.” [“Science Must Contribute to True Progress of Mankind,” L’Osservatore Romano, October 4, 1982, p. 3.] In short, there now exists an atmosphere of readiness on the part of many in both laboratory and church to explore avenues toward rapprochement.

Pope John Paul II
Karol Józef Wojty?a, Pope John Paul II, was known for his very positive attitude toward science.

It is in this atmosphere, conducive to fruitful conversation, that we undertake the explorations of this paper. Our thesis will be that the Christian doctrine of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) is sufficiently intelligible to warrant continued probings for complementary notions in the natural sciences. We will open by identifying our methodological stance as one of hypothetical consonance between theology and the sciences, a stance which corrects the excesses of the dominant two-language theory [i.e., the idea often associated with Langdon Gilkey that science and theology speak two entirely different languages about entirely different topics, such that genuine conversation is all but impossible]. We will then proceed to cosmology proper by tracing the theological origins of the idea of creation out of nothing. We will argue that the Christian idea of the creation of the whole world derives from the basic experience of divine redemption within history, especially the resurrection of Jesus on Easter. What is at stake in cosmology for the Christian theologian, then, is an understanding of the cosmos which is consistent with our understanding of a redeeming God as revealed in the event of Jesus Christ. This will lead to an examination of the logic of creatio ex nihilo and the possible consonance of this religious idea with the second law of thermodynamics and Big Bang cosmogony in physics. In particular, we will focus on the question of the relationship between the concept of ex nihilo and the temporal beginning of the cosmos.

As we proceed, we will assume two things about the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. First, in its abstract form it stresses the ontological dependence of all things upon God. Second, one concrete form for expressing this dependence is the cosmological assertion that, although God is eternal, the created universe began at a point of temporal initiation, i.e., the world has not always existed. In this paper we intend to get to the idea of dependence through the idea of beginning. It is, of course, possible for a theologian to speak metaphysically about the utter dependence of the creation on its creator without reference to a temporal beginning. However, it is the very idea of a temporal beginning which in our generation draws us toward possible consonance with scientific cosmology. The scientist cannot, within the canons of the discipline of physics, say anything about the utter dependence of the cosmos upon God. But the scientist can intelligibly discuss the possibility of a temporal initiation to all things, and this in turn raises the question of creation out of nothing in such a way that the theologian might be called upon.

We will then review arguments raised by some contemporary theologians which are contrary to creation ex nihiloand in favor of the notion of continuing creation (creatio continua). We will criticize these arguments on two grounds: first, these are false alternatives and they do not exclude one another; and, second, the theological idea of creation out of nothing—especially in the form of a temporal beginning—is just as consonant with contemporary science as is continuing creation. We will conclude that a healthy contemporary theology should advocate both creatio ex nihilo as well as creatio continua and seek possible consonance with science on both counts.

Hypothetical Consonance

Just what kind of accord may be established between lab stool and pew is still too far beyond the horizon to see. Yet we need to start somewhere. What I suggest is that we begin by seeking hypothetical consonance, that is by listening for the sounds of consonance, for those moments when we sense a harmony between disciplines. We begin listening for some preliminary resonating sounds. Then we proceed with the hypothesis that further accord can be discerned. We spell out the possibilities with the assumption that both scientists and theologians are seeking to understand one and the same reality; therefore, we should hope for, even expect, some sort of concord to arise from serious conversation.

The method of hypothetical consonance can be distinguished from the two-language theory—what Ian Barbourcalls … the “independence” relationship—which seems to have been the operative assumption of most serious scholars for much of this century. This is the assumption that the language of science and the language of faith exist in independent domains of knowledge and that there is no overlap. One version of the two language theory is the commonly accepted separation of fact from value. [SNIP]

Perhaps the strongest advocate of the two-language theory among today’s theologians is Langdon Gilkey. It is not only the difference between fact and value which distinguishes the two modes of discourse, according to Gilkey; there is also the difference between proximate (or secondary) causation and ultimate (or primary) causation. There is no translation between them.

All modern religious discourse, according to Gilkey, is limited to speaking about limit experiences, to the dimension of ultimacy in human experience. Religious or mythical language speaks only about “ultimate or existential issues,” he says. This means that it speaks only to us as persons. It does not speak about the world. Theology “possesses no legitimate ground to interfere with either scientific inquiry or scientific conclusions, whether in the fields of natural or of historical inquiry.” [Religion and the Scientific Future, p. 18.] Religious truths do not contain information. They are best classified as myths or symbols which make no authoritative assertion about concrete matters of fact. Gilkey’s position represents the paradigm example of neoorthodoxdualism which has confined matters of faith to the transcendent-personal axis and consigned all other matters dealing with the world we live in to the province of secular science.

What about the language of science according to the Gilkey scheme? Scientific language is informative. It seeks to inform us regarding facts which are measurable, objective, and publicly shareable. Science seeks to explain the facts of experiences in terms of laws which are automatic and blind. These laws can appeal only to natural or human causes and powers, forces which exist within the confines of the finite world. Science cannot appeal to supernatural forces nor even to purposes or intentions or meanings. It can support its conclusions only through testing of repeatable experiments, not through speculation about one-time historical events. In short, “the language of science is quantitative, mathematical, precise ... it is limited to describing the impersonal system of relations between the things or entities around us.” [Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock, p. 113.] If Pope John Paul II is correct that there is no opposition between science and faith, then Gilkey would say this is because the two cannot talk to one another.

Now the point of establishing the two-language theory is to make it possible for a religious person to speak both languages without cognitive dissonance. By confining scientific language to the sphere of the finite and observable world, it is disqualified from making judgments regarding the existence or non-existence of God. Inherently, science is neither theistic nor atheistic. It is neutral. It is objective. “It is because science is limited to a certain level of explanation that scientific and religious theories can exist side by side without excluding one another, that one person can hold both to the scientific accounts of origins and to a religious account, to the creation of all things by God.” [Creationism on Trial, p. 117.]

But I believe that we must now ask for more than simple avoidance of cognitive dissonance. I believe we should seek for cognitive consonance. [Peters credits the term “consonance” to the late Ernan McMullin, a leading philosopher of science and Catholic priest.] What I am advocating here comes close to the version of the two language theory we find in the work of Ian Barbour. Barbour recognizes the two languages but he will not accept a strict segregation. He wishes to explore the ways in which the two languages are complementary. This means, first, that we search for “significant parallels” in the methods of science and theology. Second, we look for ways to construct “an integrated worldview.” Third, we defend the importance of a “theology of nature.” Fourth, we permit the scientific understanding of nature to help us reexamine our ideas of God’s relation to the world. [Issues in Science and Religion, pp. 4-5.] What Barbour means here by “complementary languages” is akin to what I mean by “consonance.” We should look for those areas of correspondence and then spell out the possibilities which would permit what science says to illumine theological understanding and vice versa.

With this methodological commitment in mind, we will turn our ears now in the direction of resonating sounds regarding the creation of the universe. We will ask if there might exist an edifying consonance between scientific and religious concerns regarding the origin of the cosmos, especially the idea of creation out of nothing.

Looking Ahead

In the next excerpt, Peters gets down to brass tacks, explaining the biblical and theological origins of creation from nothing. He also underscores the deep connection between creation from nothing and the resurrection of Jesus. I rarely describe academic writing as exciting, but I think many readers will indeed respond with genuine excitement to what comes next: make it a priority to join us again.

References and Credits

Excerpts from Ted Peters, “On Creating the Cosmos,” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding (1988), ed. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, S.J., and George V. Coyne, S.J., copyright Vatican Observatory Foundation, are reproduced by kind permission of Ted Peters and Vatican Observatory Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves removing the odd sentence or two, or in some cases entire paragraphs—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] or an ellipsis at the appropriate point(s). I also insert annotations where warranted [enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information, often citing information from Peter’s own footnotes when it is important for our readers to have it.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis