Monday, 1 April 2013

Neither faith nor reason: ex nihilo butchered


Another Sunday, another “Faith and Reason” column in the “Our Faith on Sunday” newsletter, another spectacularly confused piece on an otherwise interesting topic, and this time - to add insult to injury - a complete disregard for the fact that it was Easter Sunday!

Instead of reflecting on something to do with the Easter triduum (e.g., the resurrection, Jesus’ descent into hell or his abandonment on the cross, or a myriad other aspects that could have been looked at from the faith-reason perspective), yesterday’s column was the following (with its first, superfluous sentence removed):
“[…] Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) does not mean that, before matter was brought into existence, that there was absolute nothingness. If there had been absolutely nothing before creation, absolutely nothing could have come into existence. The nihil of ex nihilo refers to the nothing of material existence. Creation ex nihilo means that, before matter was called into being, there was no matter. God and the angels existed ‘before’ the creation of matter.”
Oh, man! Where to start? Before debunking the above hot mess, let me just put a couple of quotes from the Catechism on the table, so that the squirming irrationality of this week’s “Faith and Reason” column is counterbalanced by how the Church actually talks about God and creation:
“In [Jesus] “all things were created, in heaven and on earth... all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)” (§291)

“We believe that God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance. God creates freely “out of nothing”.” (§296)

“The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history are rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun. (cf. St. Augustine, De Genesi contra Manichaeos 1, 2, 4)” (§338)
Note how there is no arguing against the nothingness that preceded creation in the Catechism (neither in the passages quoted above nor anywhere else in its 2865 paragraphs) for it would be futile to do so. Even in the context of poetic (as distinct from philosophical, theological or scientific) language, both Genesis 1 (“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth”) and John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”) steer well clear of attempting to talk about what happened before “the beginning” in which God created the universe (i.e., space-time).

Why is that? Again we find the Church’s position in the Catechism as follows:
“Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.”(§40)

“God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.””(§42-43)
To me the key here is: “we can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point,” which you could transpose into Wittgensteinese as “we can only use the rules of games we have played.” In other words - the meanings of our language (using which we can “name” God) derive from our own, direct experiences, which take place firmly within the context of the universe and which therefore have a scope constrained to it. Instead of strictly following Wittgenstein’s “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” Christianity still talks about God and about what has been revealed to it about realities beyond the universe, but does so with great caution and with lots of “in some sense.”

To take the “ex nihilo” of God’s creative act and start qualifying it in the belief that it would otherwise preclude a pre-existence of God is jut confused, since before the “beginning” in which space-time were created, there is no before (which requires time) and to consider creation to be only of matter (and not of time as well - as the column’s author does) not only flies in the face of contemporary physics but also of St. Augustine’s insights, arrived at around 389 AD.

The crowning glory of yesterday’s column though is its assertion that “If there had been absolutely nothing before creation, absolutely nothing could have come into existence,” which is a direct denial of God’s ex nihilo bringing about of the universe (and of contemporary physics pointing to the same) and stands proudly alongside the same column barefacedly denying the incarnation the previous Sunday.

The most charitable interpretation of yesterday’s mental contortions is that they were a misguided attempt at trying to resolve a fictitious contradiction or a mistimed April Fools prank …

1 Previous ones having protested against the denial of the incarnation, the allegedly separate “orders of knowledge” of science and religion, the abuse of “cf.,” the perversion of philosophy and a plagiaristic ignorance of infinity.