Science – Laws Which Cannot Be Broken in this Universe:
It is almost quaint and pastoral to discuss the beginnings of the universe. After all, if as some theorists speculate, we are but either a singular universe among many, the multiverse, or perhaps a universe growing inside another one, or even a continuation of contractions and expansions so that from an explosion we grow up until a point and then rapidly contract, only to begin again. If this is the case, then philosophers and theologians may better spend their time discussing the illusion of time in the eternality of matter and energy rather than the beginning of this particular universe, as if it was either the first or the last. This conclusion is not reach in brevity of speculation, but in consideration of the several laws of thermodynamics and the most ancient religion, mathematics. In this section, I want to briefly highlight several of the recent scientific formulations which prevent ex nihilo as a legitimate theology of the Christian faith. I draw from Brian Green and Lee Smolin as experts in the field of theoretical physics.
In Smolin’s 1997 book, the theoretical physicist becomes a deep philosopher, although with a stance against the use of religion to determine cosmic origins. Nevertheless, in the nooks and crannies of his esoteric theories will lead us later to be able to theologize his words. For how, however, he provides us with our starting point to determine how science proves wrong the ancient doctrine of ex nihilo. Smolin notes that at the start of the Copernican, the universe was thought to be “finite and spherical (1997:3).” Even with all of the discoveries, it wasn’t until much later that the universe was seen as something less than this. Oddly enough, it was almost prophetic mystic monk, Giordano Bruno, who pushed this envelop to conclude that space was indeed infinite, our sun was a star and stars were suns around which orbited other populated planets. Of course, these things would lead to his burning at the stake, but this mystic was, without question, ahead of his time.
Of theological interest, Smolin notes in several places the “intricately structured” (1997:11) universe which has a natural hierarchy from the minute neutron to the mirror of the atom, the solar system. His quest then, which he continues to maintain that the answer cannot be found in religion, is to discover the origin of this structure, much as biologists attempt to find the origin of life (1997:35). Yet, he is seeking to “understand the whole of the universe as comprising a single, interrelated system (1997:13).” He goes on to maintain several things which are important to our overall discussion, namely, that the universe is not eternal (1997:14). Thus, the laws of the universe aren’t eternal, ending philosophical hopes of pinning the laws to an eternal lawmaker. Calling the model of the eternal universe an “outmoded relic of nineteenth-century science” (1997:15), Smolin attempts to demonstrate that our universe, as opposed to the universe, is a product of evolution. This process includes the laws and mathematics associated with our universe. All of this allows him to inquire as to what existed before this universe. His conclusion, is that quantum physics ends the millennia old attempt by Greek philosophers and Christians to “escape nature and partake of heaven” as life is no longer reducible to physics (1997:25) and further, to meet Aristotle and Newton in the middle.
In writing of the eternality of matter and energy, he notes the work of Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, noting the difficulty in discovering what happened before and/or after the singularity which produced our universe (1997:79-81). It is this scientific theory of the singularity which propels Smolin to consider that black holes are singularities in the same vein of those which produced this universe. It should be considered then, that each singularity is starting with pre-existing matter and energy, following the first law of thermodynamics. He then notes throughout his work, that the universe is self-organizing along a similar pattern. None of this violates the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, as this prevents the idea of a closed universe because each succeeding universe would receive the initial energy to begin its organization from the previous universe via the singularity.
Brian Greene, counter to the previously mentioned William Lane Craig, notes that if we were to extrapolate “all the way back to “the beginning,” the universe would appear to have begun as a point… in which all matter and energy is squeezed together to unimaginable density and temperature. (2003:1476/7368).” Later, Greene notes that this unfurling of space is not simply a beginning, but contains the entirety of the universe, which falls well within the first law of thermodynamics. He postulates that the so-called Big Bang, was a hyperinflation of the cosmos in which this unfurling expanded from preexistent energy and matter and quite possibly, means that our universe is bigger, and thus older, than what we know of now. In a previous book, Greene notes that the Big Bang simply denotes what happened after “time zero.” Existing before were large densities of matter and energy and, most importantly, gravity. Again, all of these contribute to the implied properties of the point, something often missed by ex nihilo philosophers.
Giberson notes in his book, The Language of Science and Faith, that the first law of thermodynamics, that which we have been discussing as severely limiting to the doctrine of ex nihilo, is the “best-established law in all of science.” As we have seen with both Smolin and Greene, neither of them approaches the destruction of it nor even considers that this law is not in some way absolute. Going further, Giberson notes that the expansion of the universe means that it must have had a starting point and that we are in the midst of an ongoing explosion. Tying these three scientists together, we approach the notion that our universe had a beginning, but that it was not ex nihilo. The preexistent energy and matter in this universe exists within laws and structures which have evolved to produce life as we know it, which occurred through its own similar evolutionary procedures. Regardless, we find in the presented credible scientific theories and continued discoveries a roadblock to the belief that either our universe is the only universe and/or that this universe sprang from nothing.
Our Evolving Theological Position: Panentheism
The Classical Theistic position was one which came to fruition against Gnosticism and Platonic thought at a time when Platonic logic was giving great support to the Christian faith. It was made in reaction to pressing issues. Today, we have pressing issues with the advent of science. There will be some who will dismiss the influence of science on theology, but if we are true to the historical picture, we will easily see that Christian doctrine has often been shaped, from the Canon to the Creeds, by reactions to outside pressures. It is not that the truths of Christianity are changing to match the times, just the opposite. The first chapter of Genesis was written to shape the identity of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, giving them hope in YHWH. They used Babylonian concepts to redefine the idea of Creation to stand against the onslaught of the cultural hegemony being promulgated through the exile. Today, we aren’t merely allowing scientific principles to become our theology and thus deny God, but we, like the Christians who formulated ex nihilo to withstand the approach of Gnosticism and to dismiss that anything existed alongside of God and the Israelites who threw out the Babylonian creation myths in favor of upholding YHWH, we can called to allow that all truth is God’s truth, and to change our truth to fit it. Creation ex nihilo is no longer a tenable position for the Church and must be changed; however, what changes it must answer the objections of the Classical Theists, meet the scientific revolutions of the past decades, and be true to the ancient creeds that God is the Creator of heaven and earth. To meet the scientific claims of this present age, much like our spiritual ancestors of the past, I propose that we do nothing new, but return to an older, allowable, Christian belief, creatio ex deo, and supplement this with panentheism.
I want to briefly rehearse some issues which I believe panentheism will solve. First, there is the first law of thermodynamics which states, simply, that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. This prevents a doctrine which states that at some point, all matter and energy was created by God. In what I would call a subsection to the first problem, there is the philosophical rejection of absolute nothingness. It is impossible to conceive it because absolute nothingness would then have to include God. Simply put, God cannot exist alongside absolute nothingness without being included in it, making God nothing. Second, there are Smolin’s statements that nothing can exist apart from what is created. Here, this borders on the ancient Greek belief that the gods existed alongside eternal matter, which is something that the Christian theologians rightly rejected as making God either equal to matter or in danger of being inferior to the maker of the matter. There is also the notion, contained within these two that a God who exists outside of his created cosmos would have only a small role to play in the continued order of it, having to obey his own established natural laws. Theologically, while free will is somewhat maintained, there is the notion of the sovereignty of God which must be dealt with in order to have a God who exists before and part from his creation. Finally, to this latter point, there is as Milton noted, the continued theological belief that somehow Creation is not good under ex nihilo.
What is panentheism? As Baruch Spinoza claimed in his book, Ethics, “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” This is not pantheism which posits that everything is God, but that everything exists within God. The term, first coined by Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, represents a concept which goes back much further than the recent scientific revolutions. We find this first articulated by the ancient Greeks such as Heraclitus and Plato. The former found a panentheistic expression in the use of Logos to dictate the pervasion of the cosmos by an ordering principle. Platonic Philosopher turned Christian Theologian Justin Martyr would later use Heraclitus’s Logos to define John’s Logos. This concept focuses on the divine omnipresence. In the West, it is found among Process theologians and in the East, slightly redefined to exclude a complete union between God and creation; however, given scientific principles, a complete separation may be impossible.
Panentheism allows a focus on the ontological existence of Creation. Admittedly, we have grown as a species in our cosmological outlook since the days of the Hebrews, but we share some of the same concerns. What does it mean to exist? Further, panentheism allows that God continues to be involved and to evolve the processes which produce this cosmos. Polkinghorne argues that “It is the Creator who ordains the laws of quantum theory and general relativity… who ‘breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe.’” (Polkinghorne:99) Building upon this reality, we should be hesitant about redefining ‘Creator’ by our persistently wrong interpretation of a Creator who created out of nothing. Instead, when we understand the creeds and our canonical traditions to mean that God is creator, we must seek to understand this term both without existent biblical traditions and theology influenced by science. God is ontologically the creator, just as we are ontologically created, but what does this mean?
I argue for a liberal use of panentheism to answer scientific discoveries while maintaining the core faith of the believer, that there is indeed a God. In this view, matter and energy does not exist apart from God, but within God. Because God is an indescribable substance, it is entirely possible to maintain that the eternality of matter and energy are so uniquely related to the substance of God as to be indistinguishable from God. It is not that God created something out of himself, but that God formed all that there is through himself. This is not a true ex deo position, as I maintain that the cosmos is not out of God but still in God, or with God. Thus, the Creation is good because the fountain of it, as Milton said, is good. Here, I note Max Weber’s prophetic warnings of the growing dualism, almost as humanity had given up hope in Creation,
As otherworldly expectations become increasingly important, the problem of the basic relationship of god to the world and the problem of the world’s imperfections press into the foreground of thought; this happens the more life here on earth comes to be regarded as a merely provisional form of existence when compared to that beyond, the more the world comes to be viewed as something created by god ex nihilo, and therefore subject to decline, the more god himself is conceived as a subject to transcendental goals and values, and the more a person’s behavior in this world becomes oriented to his fate in the next .
Further, and I do not mean to go fully into this here, but the budding science associated with the ancient concept of mimesis explains the constant (if constant can be used liberally to cover the ‘slow’ billions of years which it takes to expand a universe through its own evolutionary processes) reordering of matter and energy, eternally preexistent, into the multiverse. Creation, uncreation, and the New Creation can more easily be described using panentheism in that God is reclaiming what is his, himself, from the ravages of time. This cosmic reordering, as found in Genesis, Isaiah, and Revelation has been misunderstood throughout the ages, but due to modern biblical scholarship, we understand the author’s meanings – that Creation is God centered and that sometimes, God reorders the existing materials to refocus it back on himself. This is a continual promise from the God of Scripture and fits neatly without panentheism.
Creation existing within God, as a part of God, inseparable will be difficult for many to accept but the idea of an interpenetration involving the Deity is nothing new. The Trinity is described as existing concurrently, or in perichoresis, a belief which was first articulated by Gregory of Nazianzus. It is entirely possible that what we have come to call creation can equally exist without the divine substance and we have the theological proof to allow our evolving position. Further, if both Smolin and Green are correct, and there is a multiverse system with new universes being created by singularities existing within black holes, then we have evidence of a natural interpenetration. We secure this idea when we consider that since matter and energy can neither be destroyed nor created, then all universes share the same matter and energy which is a cosmic example of interpenetration.
In returning briefly to the connection of Creation to ethics, which was an area explored by later Hebrews, Brueggemann suggests that the creation theology of ancient Israel is connected to the covenant testimony of Israel. While Creation is nearly absent in Deuteronomy, it is found throughout the rest of the Old Testament, and if we are connecting ethics to Creation as in Isaiah we discover that God’s view of Creation retains a more ethical consideration than usually attributed. However, the concept of Creation and Covenant is found in Israel’s testimony. After all, the God who creates, alone, is the same God who has ordered the universe according to His justice, and it was God’s justice to which Israel subscribed, depending on to bring them from exile. I would contend that an ex nihilo approach to an ethical covenant would actually dismiss some of the ethical connections where as a panentheistic approach resolves the tension and solidifies the connection between God and Creation.
While the praxis in relation to systemic theology has not been covered in this paper, there is one praxis which I would like to consider. Much of the Reformed Doctrine is built upon the sovereignty and holiness of God as defined through a Calvinist interpretation of an Augustinian understanding of Paul. This view leads to a violent God which allows that God would forever dismiss those from his sight who was not predetermined to be saved. Further, dispensationalism would lead us to believe that God has his intent to completely destroy the known cosmos through violence. While this is acceptable to some, the God revealed through Christ, while holy and a judge, does not act in violence. There is a considerable difference between the God of Justice and Mercy and the God of the dispensationalist Revelation in which plague and plague is poured out among people who could no longer repent. Further, there is a difference between a God who calls to all and a God who has predetermined whom will be saved and temporarily tease them with salvation. For panentheists, the questions would remain then, 1.) can God forever lose a part of himself and 2.) can God do violence to himself?
Creatio ex deo also leads us to the idea of the ontological Creator and the ontologically created. If all things exist within God, even the very cosmic order, then God continues to create, an implied attribute which is eternally his and his alone. If this universe is in a state of panentheistic creation, then God is always the lawmaker, always the creator, and thus does not have a shadow of changing in him. Further, we are always ontologically created and we ontologically exist. As part of the matter and energy which can neither be destroyed nor created, our vaporous life is always bound up in an eschatological hope that we will rise with him in the continuous new creation. The fact that God is an ontological Creator is made evident in the liturgical hymn of Creation in Genesis 1 in which the seventh day never ends. This is maintained as well throughout Scripture and Christian canonical tradition in which God is said to be an ever-present Creator, not a God who at one time in the past created. It is only because God is ontologically Creator that he is at times a judge and at times a savior and at other times the Lord of the armies of Heaven.
That science will continue to expand our theology is no historical novelty. We have accepted it, sometimes begrudgingly, with Copernicus, Newton and even the germ theory. Allowing that the first law of thermodynamics constitutes a massive rebellion against the long held but not necessarily biblical doctrine of ex nihilo does not make us either inventors of heresy or somehow compromisers of Scripture. Instead, we find ourselves rediscovering old truths and ancient theologies, minority theologies to be sure, which is in a position to be both more biblical (see Milton’s us e of Scripture which is compared the theological necessity of the time which developed ex nihilo) and more, to use a word which is quickly losing its meaning, universal.
The dual and interconnected doctrines of panentheism and ex deo present to us a theology which is acceptable to both of God’s inspired books – Scripture and Science. Further, if praxis is developed, we can see that this theology produces a praxis which connects all to everyone and everyone to God. It takes away the notion that we are simply living here until we leave, as if this cosmic order is somehow evil and apart from God. Further, it develops the notion that God is still ontologically the Creator of canonical traditions. There is also ecology and eschatological matters which arise along with soteriology which, I am convinced, would be beneficially shaped in conjunction with ex deo. Such a doctrine also answers the atheistic claim by those, such as Hawking, that there is nothing for God to do in creation. Indeed, if everything is in God, and through this God everything is upheld, then we find that God is not simply ‘doing’ anything, but is, as his most enduring appellation relates, is the very existence of everything.
He writes, “Thus, what I am presenting in this book is a frank speculation, if you will, a fantasy. This fantasy is inspired by diverse sources and issues, some physical and mathematical, some biological, and others philosophical.” (1997:6)
Karl Giberson argues against this very thing in his recent work with Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (Intervaristy Press, Downer’s Grove, Il 2011). While there is hesitancy to try to theologize every scientific discovery, I would contend that we allow these discoveries to push our theologizing about the natural universe.
Bruno was not the only Christian mystic to be ahead of his time. In future discussions on this topic, I will turn to Meister Eckhart who determined, long before theoretical physicist Brian Greene, that time was a mere illusion.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an enclosed space equilibrium will be achieved. Simply, it is seen when a cup of hot tea assumes room temperature. The orthodox doctrine of deification, or theosis, finds support beginning in the New Testament, 2 Peter 1.4, as well as in the earliest Christian writings. Fusing science and theology, I would suppose this process allows that when evil or injustice comes to the surface, it is removed so that only the good, or the divine godliness, survives.