Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pope Francis’ Universe

Caravaggio

As I outlined in the first installment of this series, I am in the process of looking at how the universe is being thought of from different perspectives and by thinkers of different backgrounds. After a brief look at Chiara Lubich’s intellectual visions concerning creation, I would now like to share a high-level view of how Pope Francis has been speaking about this topic.

The first thing to note is that he uses the terms “universe,” “creation,” and “nature” (with the odd mention of “cosmos”) interchangeably, while referring to social, economic and cultural spheres when speaking about the “world.” With this categorization, we can look at what Francis thinks the universe is, how he speaks about approaching and understanding it, what value he gives it and what relationship he proposes for us to have with it.

The most important point in terms of which to read all that follows is the intimate relationship Francis sees between God and “the universe, the precious gift of the Creator”:
“[T]he Holy Trinity […] leads us to contemplate and worship the divine life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: a life of communion and perfect love, origin and aim of all the universe and of every creature: God.” (Angelus, 15th June 2014)
Not only is the universe God’s gift to us and a gift that has both source and destination in the inner life of the Trinity, but it is also permeated by God’s presence:
“God and Christ walk with us and are present also in nature, as the Apostle Paul affirmed in his address at the Areopagus: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality.” (Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 27th October 2014)
God is paradoxically, simultaneously present throughout the universe, giving it being, and at the same time investing it with laws and autonomy. He desires its development, but remains close to his creation. Francis then, in the same speech, elaborates on the significance of these God-given laws of nature:
“The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”
The world is not arbitrary, but has order, which it turn leads to repeatability and therefore rationality, making the universe knowable - an aspect of God’s gift that Francis values highly, and about which he speaks in the context of its relationship with faith and truth in the encyclical Lumen Fidei (§34):
“A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems. But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. [... F]aith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all. Nor is the light of faith, joined to the truth of love, extraneous to the material world, for love is always lived out in body and spirit; the light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that it calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.”
Believing in God being the creator of the universe is not an alternative to a scientific world view, but its enabler for the Christian scientist, who trusts in the inherent order of their object of inquiry and who responds to God’s invitation to know Him also through His creation. Francis elaborates on this point in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (§242-243), also calling for a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the universe:
“Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”,[190] the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself [...]. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God”[191] and cannot contradict each other. [...]

The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. […]”
In fact, on a separate occasion, Francis puts the Church’s appreciation of science in maternal terms: “as a mother rejoices and is rightly proud as her children grow “in wisdom, and age and grace” (Lk 2:52)” and adds art to the modes of engagement with the universe, saying:
“In every age the Church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness, and the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to bring redemption and rebirth to a world touched by the tragedy of sin and death.”
The sense of awe and wonder that drive both rational and artistic engagement with the universe (for believers and non-believers alike) is further emphasized in one of Francis’ catecheses about the Holy Spirit:
“When our eyes are illumined by the Spirit, they open to contemplate God, in the beauty of nature and in the grandeur of the cosmos, and they lead us to discover how everything speaks to us about Him and His love. All of this arouses in us great wonder and a profound sense of gratitude! It is the sensation we experience when we admire a work of art or any marvel whatsoever that is borne of the genius and creativity of man: before all this, the Spirit leads us to praise the Lord from the depths of our heart and to recognize, in all that we have and all that we are, an invaluable gift of God and a sign of his infinite love for us.”
And to round out this picture of how a knowledge of the universe complements faith, it is worth reading Pope Francis’ words from this year’s Epiphany homily, where he places the two side-by-side as “great books”:
“[O]ur life is a journey, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way, to find the fullness of truth and love which we Christians recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World. [… E]very person has two great “books” which provide the signs to guide this pilgrimage: the book of creation and the book of sacred Scripture. What is important is that we be attentive, alert, and listen to God who speaks to us, who always speaks to us.”
Pope Francis also points to Jesus himself having made use of this “book of creation” in his own teaching:
“When he speaks to the people, Jesus uses many parables: in language understandable to everyone, with images from nature and from everyday situations.”
Far from being optional or even frowned upon, knowledge of the material world is a guide to the Christian as is that of Scripture, which is further underlined by the universe being seen as good (as opposed to evil or even just neutral):
“In the first Chapter of Genesis, right at the beginning of the Bible, what is emphasized is that God is pleased with his creation, stressing repeatedly the beauty and goodness of every single thing. At the end of each day, it is written: “God saw that it was good” (1:12, 18, 21, 25): if God sees creation as good, as a beautiful thing, then we too must take this attitude and see that creation is a good and beautiful thing.” (General Audience, 21st May 2014)

““And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). The biblical account of the beginning of the history of the world and of humanity speaks to us of a God who looks at creation, in a sense contemplating it, and declares: “It is good”.” (Vigil for Peace, 7th September 2013)
What then ought to be our attitude towards a universe that we can relate to in truth (through knowledge), beauty (through the senses and art) and goodness (through contemplation)? Francis’ answer, unsurprisingly, is “respect and gratitude”:
“[I]f God sees creation as good, as a beautiful thing, then we too must take this attitude and see that creation is a good and beautiful thing. [...] Creation is not some possession that we can lord over for our own pleasure; nor, even less, is it the property of only some people, the few: creation is a gift, it is the marvellous gift that God has given us, so that we will take care of it and harness it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude. […] We must protect creation for it is a gift which the Lord has given us, it is God’s present to us; we are the guardians of creation. When we exploit creation, we destroy that sign of God’s love. To destroy creation is to say to God: “I don’t care”. And this is not good: this is sin.”
An important aspect here is the harnessing of the universe for the good of all, which Francis also ties to the universe’s “grammar”:
“The human family has received from the Creator a common gift: nature. The Christian view of creation includes a positive judgement about the legitimacy of interventions on nature if these are meant to be beneficial and are performed responsibly, that is to say, by acknowledging the “grammar” inscribed in nature and by wisely using resources for the benefit of all, with respect for the beauty, finality and usefulness of every living being and its place in the ecosystem. Nature, in a word, is at our disposition and we are called to exercise a responsible stewardship over it.”
And on another occasion he then links the care for nature to the care we must have for one another:
“All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole of creation. God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other.”
In summary, Francis’ universe is a gratuitous gift from God whose being He sustains and in which He is close to us, but also where He instituted laws and, at the same time, autonomy. It is a gift that has its origin and being in God and its destiny too, via its being harnessed for the good of all. It is a gift that exhibits goodness and beauty and whose nature can be expressed in truth. As a result it invites respectful stewardship for the good of all, contemplation and rational understanding. Francis, using a rich metaphor, therefore issues an “appeal for respect and protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it be indiscriminately exploited, but rather made into a garden.”