BERESHIT – “In the beginning” (Biblical Hebrew:בְּרֵאשִׁית)
It is the first word of the first verse of the Book of Genesis and the beginning of the Genesis creation narrative – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1)
Early Creation beliefs were based on religious and cultural traditions, to explain how the world began, and how people came to inhabit it.
The Book of Genesis is a Creation belief dating back at least two thousand five hundred years, and a controversial text in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
There are those who advocate that Genesis is an exact account of the creation of the world. Others maintain that the Genesis text primarily affirms monotheism and denies polytheism, and that the authors intent was to proclaim that “our God is the only God”. The interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative has been an emotional issue for advocates of the many points of view of the argument.
Father William Stoeger, S.J. – Fr. Bill to those who knew him – was a Vatican Observatory cosmologist, theologian, and a colleague of cosmologist Steven Hawking.
12 years ago, he gave a lecture where he explained that “the Big Bang theory of Creation and the scriptural belief of Divine Creation with God as the Creator, are compatible and provide complimentary explanations for physical reality”.
At the end of his lecture, he was chastised by a member of the audience who said “Father, you need to read your Bible!”
Fr. Bill replied – “Actually… I have” and attempted to explain that the Bible is not a scientific document…BUT… to no avail. The man insisted that Genesis is a literal explanation of Creation. Fr. Bill could not convince his accuser to accept the complimentary explanations of faith and science regarding Creation. That emotional encounter is an example of an ongoing debate on Biblical exegesis – the interpretation of scriptures.
400 years earlier, interpretating scripture played a critical role in the “Galileo affair”, when the astronomer Galileo Galilei was prosecuted by the Vatican in the early 1600’s for his support of a cosmological theory published by Nicholas Copernicus in 1543.
We cite this complex episode even though it is mistakenly perceived as a conflict between religion and science. It really was far more complicated. But for this discussion, it can be described as a debate on Creation itself. It was a clash of views about how the Universe is structured.
Copernicus proposed that the Sun was the center of Creation and the Earth orbited about the Sun. Many theologians at the time said that this “Heliocentric” or Sun-centered concept contradicted scriptures that indicated an Earth-centered or “Geocentric” model of Creation. They said the Sun went around the Earth and, most critically, the Earth did not move as proclaimed by Psalm 104:5 “He set the Earth on its foundations, never to be moved”.
In his defense, Galileo would quote the Vatican Cardinal Caesar Baronius who said, “Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” But, unfortunately, Galileo could not provide proof to convince the Vatican to accept the Copernican theory.
And it is important to put the debate in its proper perspective. The Vatican Observatory’s Chris Graney clarifies that “for all that has been written about science vs. religion, the disputes at the time of Copernicus were not fundamentally about religion; they were ultimately a matter of two competing arguments of science.”
The “Big Bang Theory” is a popular contemporary scientific Creation theory. In 1927, Fr. Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest, sorry not a Jesuit, but he did attend a Jesuit secondary school, applied Einstein’s equations of General Relativity to cosmology. He proposed a theory that a very long time ago the Universe started as just a single point, a singularity, and that somehow the Universe began to expand and continues to expand to get as big as it is now, and that it could keep expanding forever. A very critical and controversial argument of this theory was that it proposed a Universe that had a beginning.
It is interesting that Einstein was initially skeptical of this “expanding universe” theory, but his reaction did not rely on observational data. He would later accept the theory after discussions with many astrophysicists, notably Edwin Hubble, whose observations provided evidence of the “redshift” or outward expansion of galaxies, that were still being referred to, at the time, as “nebula”.
The origin of the term Big Bang is an interesting anecdote. Fr. Lemaître did not refer to his theory as the Big Bang. Instead, it was the English astronomer Fred Hoyle, who was a proponent of a competing theory of Creation called The “Steady State Model of the Universe”, who created the term.
The Steady-State concept of Cosmology proposed that the observable Universe is always the same at any time and any place. It is always expanding but maintains a constant average density, with matter being continuously created to form new stars and galaxies. It stated that the Universe has no beginning or end in time. This theory denies the belief that the Universe was created in one single event. It proposes that the Universe might have existed for all of eternity and that there was no need for a Creator, and a Creator might not even exist.
Hoyle coined the term Big Bang on BBC radio’s Third Programme broadcast on March 28,1949 while hosting a show about astronomy in which he tried to explain the difference between his theory of an eternal Steady State Universe, and the competing theory of a Universe with a beginning. He was criticized for being pejorative with his use of the term, but he explicitly denied that he was being insulting and said it was just a striking image meant to emphasize, for the radio audience, the difference between the two theories.
To add perspective to Hoyle’s rejection of Fr. Lemaitre’s theory, it is important to note that he coined the term “Big Bang” because he didn’t want Creation to have a beginning, and with it, the implication of a Creator. And in Harper’s Magazine, April 1951 he said, “Religion is but a desperate attempt to find an escape from the truly dreadful situation in which we find ourselves.”
In contrast to Hoyle’s stated objection to a Creator, Fr. Lemaitre never referred to God in his Expanding Universe theory. His proposal was from a thoroughly physical point of view. Hoyle’s use of the term has contributed to a false perception of Creation because the Big Bang was not a “bang” at all. It didn’t explode in an inferno of shrapnel, fire, and sound. It was just a vast expansion of extremely condensed material. Whereas the concept of an explosion suggests expansion into a surrounding space, there was no space to explode into!
Fr. Bill teaches that the Big Bang theory of Creation was not an event, but simply a term for the past limit of the hotter, denser phases we encounter as we go back in time. It stands outside presently tested physical theory; it was NOT the very beginning.
Just as Fr. Bill and Galileo were challenged by arguments of interpreting scripture regarding Creation, there is a significant discussion about whether religion and science can co-exist at all. Hoyle’s critical remark regarding religion speaks to a perceived conflict between faith vs science.
In any discussion of faith and science we must turn to the wisdom of Saint John Paul 2. In 1988 he wrote to the Director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. George Coyne, SJ and explained:
“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS JOHN PAUL II
TO REVEREND GEORGE V. COYNE, S.J.
DIRECTOR OF THE VATICAN OBSERVATORY
A detailed discussion of faith and science regarding Creation was presented by Fr. Bill on January 9, 2013 in a lecture titled – “Big Bang Cosmology and Divine Creation – in Conflict or Complementary” where he compared the concept of the Big Bang, presented as Quantum Cosmology, with the philosophical concept of Divine Creation, presented as Creatio ex Nihilo – creation from nothing.
To summarize Fr. Stoeger‘s lecture:
He teaches that creation from nothing refers to the view that the Universe, the whole of space-time, was created by a free act of God out of nothing. There was no “outside” for the Universe to expand into. It was not an event but continues as an ongoing relationship with God, with an ultimate dependence on God for existence and order.
There was no Universe before the Big Bang. Creatio ex Nihilo means Creation out of absolutely Nothing!
It proposes a self-subsisting, self-explanatory “cause”, the Creator, who is the fundamental source of being and order, and in which all existing things participate. This Creator is not another entity or process in the Universe, is not scientifically accessible, and is not a substitute for physical causes or entities.
Divine Creation, properly understood philosophically and theologically, does not claim to provide an alternative to, or substitute for, the natural sciences (e. g. physics and quantum cosmology). It simply provides an ultimate philosophical explanation for the existence and order of reality. Quantum Cosmology, i.e., theoretical physics, cannot do that. Physics presumes existence and order and then sets out to describe it in detail, but it cannot provide an answer to the question of the ultimate source of the existence and order. This is one of the limitations of the natural sciences.
Following the guidance of Saint John Paul 2, Fr. Bill teaches that the Big Bang Theory/ Quantum Cosmology and the concept of Divine Creation are fundamentally compatible. They provide complementary – not contradictory – explanations for physical reality. Cosmology provides a description and an explanation of the different epochs of cosmic history and how they are causally related. Divine Creation does not do the same thing, but provides the ground and ultimate explanation for the Universe’s existence and order, as well as its eschatological (End Times) destiny.
The Creator and Creation cannot be completely described or understood – God is “ineffable”. We can understand something about both the Creator and Creation, but never arrive at fully adequate answers or explanations.
Fr. Stoeger concludes with this reflection
“Cosmology reveals a vast, complex, and very ancient Universe in which we are very tiny and apparently insignificant.”
“Faith reveals a God who deeply treasures and cares for each creature”
About the Author:
James Renn has been a Board member for the Vatican Observatory Foundation since 2018 and is currently a member of the Vatican Observatory Outreach Committee.
he has presented astronomy lectures to the public and school groups since 1970. His presentations focus on the relationship of faith and science and how they provide complementary, not contradictory, explanations for physical reality.
Jim, is currently presenting a series of lectures at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona on the topic of Creation based on the teachings of Vatican cosmologist Fr. Bill Stoeger, SJ