Friday, 5 December 2014

The Catechism’s Universe

Genesis

After sharing sketches of how Pope Francis and Chiara Lubich have spoken about the universe, I will have take a quick look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the subject. As in the previous two cases, the terms “universe” (used 18 times), “cosmos” (6x) and “creation” (125x) are again used as synonyms, while the term “world” refers to social, cultural, economic, political realities (219x, two of which, however, synonymously with “universe”). Note also that the following overview will (with some small exceptions) follow the sequence laid out in the Catechism, since there is a clear logic to it and since that logic itself is worth paying attention to.

The Catechism’s exposition of a Catholic understanding of the universe starts from the central mystery of faith - the Trinity, where the universe is introduced as a source of clues about it and evidence for it:
“The Trinity is a mystery of faith in the strict sense, one of the “mysteries that are hidden in God, which can never be known unless they are revealed by God.” To be sure, God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation [...]” (§237)
The importance of the universe is then highlighted by pointing out that it is mentioned in the very first verse of Scripture (Genesis 1:1) and that the belief in its being created by God is part of the most succinct exposition of faith - the creed:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Holy Scripture begins with these solemn words. The profession of faith takes them up when it confesses that God the Father almighty is “Creator of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed), “of all that is, seen and unseen” (Nicene Creed).” (§279)
Very soon after the close bond between God and the universe is established, the good of scientific enquiry into the working of the universe is declared, as is its potential to enrich our relationship with God:
“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements... for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”” (§283)
Creation is then presented as the start of a sequence where a relationship with God follows the creation of the universe and that culminates in His own dwelling among us:
“Creation is revealed as the first step toward [God’s] covenant [with humanity], the first and universal witness to God’s all-powerful love.” (§288)

“The glory of God consists in the realization of [the] manifestation and communication of his goodness, for which the world was created. God made us “to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace,” for “the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.” [...]” (§294)
The deep rationality of the universe and God’s invitation for us to engage with it by participating in His own “being, wisdom and goodness” are presented next, alongside the affirmation of our human intellect being capable of understanding the universe (whose “measurability” is also declared):
“We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom, and goodness: “For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Therefore the Psalmist exclaims: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all”; and “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”” (§295)

“Because God creates through wisdom, his creation is ordered: “You have arranged all things by measure and number and weight.” The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the “image of the invisible God,” is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the “image of God” and called to a personal relationship with God. Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of his creation, though not without great effort and only in a spirit of humility and respect before the Creator and his work. Because creation comes forth from God’s goodness, it shares in that goodness — “And God saw that it was good... very good” — for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him. On many occasions the Church has had to defend the goodness of creation, including that of the physical world.” (§299)
The Catechism then also talks about our response to God speaking to us also through the universe, which takes on the form of us searching for Him:
“Man is in search of God. In the act of creation, God calls every being from nothingness into existence. “Crowned with glory and honor,” man is, after the angels, capable of acknowledging “how majestic is the name of the Lord in all the earth.” Even after losing through his sin his likeness to God, man remains an image of his Creator, and retains the desire for the one who calls him into existence. All religions bear witness to men’s essential search for God.” (§2566)
At the same time as creating an intelligible universe, God himself infinitely exceeds it both at the macro and micro scales and remains ineffable:
“God is infinitely greater than all his works: “You have set your glory above the heavens.” Indeed, God’s “greatness is unsearchable.” But because he is the free and sovereign Creator, the first cause of all that exists, God is present to his creatures’ inmost being: “In him we live and move and have our being.” In the words of St. Augustine, God is “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self.” (§300)
God’s relationship to the universe is not that of an absentee father who withdraws from his offspring. Instead, He “upholds and sustains” its being:
“With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured, if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living.”” (§301)
Instead of the universe having sprung forth fully-formed, it was created “in a state of journeying,” on a journey that contains the “free action of creatures”:
“Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection: “By his providence God protects and governs all things which he has made, “reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well.” For “all are open and laid bare to his eyes,” even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.” (Vatican Council I, Dei Filius 1: DS 3003; cf. Wis 8:1; Heb 4:13.)” (§302)
Coming back to its relationship with the Trinity, the universe’s links to all three divine Persons are emphasized:
“God created the universe and keeps it in existence by his Word, the Son “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb 1:3) and by his Creator Spirit, the giver of life.” (§320)
That the Genesis account is symbolical and a hint at the universe’s inner nature is presented next:
“God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity, and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine “work,” concluded by the “rest” of the seventh day. On the subject of creation, the sacred text teaches the truths revealed by God for our salvation, permitting us to “recognize the inner nature, the value, and the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God.”” (§337)
Then, God being the source of all that exists is underlined:
“Nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. 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.” (§338)
The Catechism then speaks about the universe’s beauty, which points beyond itself to the beauty of God, as the trigger for our desire to understand it, which - incidentally - is not dissimilar to how atheists like Richard Dawkins speak about awe and wonder1:
“The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will.” (§341)
Having sketched out the key features of how the universe relates to God, what it is and how our engaging with it is also an engaging with God, the intimate nature of the relationships between humans and the rest of the universe is laid out:
“There is a solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator and are all ordered to his glory: “May you be praised, O Lord, in all your creatures, especially brother sun, by whom you give us light for the day; he is beautiful, radiating great splendor, and offering us a symbol of you, the Most High.... May you be praised, my Lord, for sister water, who is very useful and humble, precious and chaste.... May you be praised, my Lord, for sister earth, our mother, who bears and feeds us, and produces the variety of fruits and dappled flowers and grasses.... Praise and bless my Lord, give thanks and serve him in all humility.” (St. Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Creatures.)” (§344)

“The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ.” (§374)

“By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die. The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice.”” (§376)
This harmony among God, man and woman and the universe is not only there as a good in itself, but also a basis for men and women to work with God:
“The sign of man’s familiarity with God is that God places him in the garden. There he lives “to till it and keep it.” Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation.” (§378)

“Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.” (§2427)

“The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and beneficiary. By means of his labor man participates in the work of creation. Work united to Christ can be redemptive.” (§2460)
The idea of God’s traces in the universe, introduced in the early paragraphs of the Catechism is picked up again and our capacity to intuit God’s actions from what is accessible through sensory perception is highlighted. The empirical here becomes a conduit for what lies beyond it (echoing St. Paul’s “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12)) - “the universal language of creation”:
“God speaks to man through the visible creation. The material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator. Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both his greatness and his nearness.” (§1147)

“Inasmuch as they are creatures, [...] perceptible realities can become means of expressing the action of God who sanctifies men, and the action of men who offer worship to God. The same is true of signs and symbols taken from the social life of man: washing and anointing, breaking bread and sharing the cup can express the sanctifying presence of God and man’s gratitude toward his Creator.” (§1148)

“The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty. Likewise, truth carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty. Truth is beautiful in itself. Truth in words, the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality, is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect. But truth can also find other complementary forms of human expression, above all when it is a matter of evoking what is beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God. Even before revealing himself to man in words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos—which both the child and the scientist discover — “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator,” “for the author of beauty created them.”” (§2500)
God’s presence in the universe, its being a gift to us and a means by which God speaks to us and we can strive to know him, also mean that it calls for respect and care:
“Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society.” (§1049)
And not only is care in order, but a just and universal access to the goods contained in the universe:
“In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.” (§2402)

“The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” (§2415)
And finally, the universe - as “the great book of creation” - is also presented as helping us to meditate:
“Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history—the page on which the “today” of God is written.” (§2705)
In summary, the Catechism presents a universe that is intimately linked with God, who is its source and who sustains it and who also speaks to us through it. This communication is in the form of God’s “traces” in the universe and in the form of an invitation to engage with it rationally (as a pointer to God’s wisdom) and through beauty (as a foretaste of the beauty of God Himself). The universe is more than just a teaser for the goodness, truth and beauty of what is to come and is a good in itself, to be developed and enjoyed by all in a just and equitable way. This is a universe that we are call to care for and think of in the context of the relationships among us and with God.



1 “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.” ― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder