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Originally written for a class project in January, 2014.

In his little book, ‘In the Beginning…,’[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expounds on the Catholic understanding of creation through a collection of four catechetic51LaTULerPL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_al homilies delivered in 1981 at the Liebfrauenkirche cathedral in Munich. Though dated, Ratzinger’s reflections remain relevant as ever in the 21st century American religious climate that is fraught with debates between biblical literalism and scientism, fundamentalism and rationalism. Ratzinger rejects these “-isms” in favor of a more balanced and nuanced view that both recognizes the truth of the images of the biblical creation stories, and at the same time avoids a literalist interpretation that disrespects the wealth of scientific discovery into the origins of the universe and the human species. At their core, Ratzinger’s reflections do not attempt to make scientific claims about the universe; though there is tension, science and religion answer different questions. Rather, he connects creation to the great questions surrounding the human person: Who are we? Where are we from? In these reflections, Ratzinger demonstrates the necessity of a strong creation theology rooted in biblical imagery to ground the truths of the human person: inter alia, the human person and creation are both dependent and exulted, and that our reason can begin to approach God and the universe.

Ratzinger’s work has many implications for connecting faith and reason today. Of great significance is the debate surrounding interpretation of the biblical creation accounts and the Christian’s relationship to science. The last century has seen great strides in scientific understanding, raising questions for the Christian who tries to make sense of the biblical stories of creation in light of these discoveries. Faced with this challenge, some Christians have unfortunately retreated to a fundamentalist view of creation that claims the bible to hold scientific truth. Others have retreated from belief in the biblical images (seven days of creation, humans made from clay, and so forth) to a rationalist position that exclusively stresses authorial intention in light of Christian experience.[2]   The intent of the creation stories, the rationalists’ posit, is to show that God created the world, freeing reason to allow humanity to approach God. While this position allows science and religion to peacefully coexist in their quests for truth, Ratzinger claims that it is not enough.[3] There is indeed truth in the images of the creation stories, and their abandonment impoverishes creation theology’s implications for the human person and his or her way of being in the world. This provides the framework for the rest of Ratzinger’s exploration of the biblical creation accounts.

Before heading to his conclusions about the human person, Ratzinger stresses a method of biblical interpretation that prevents fundamentalist, and therefore distorted, readings of the scriptureratzinger-desks. Ratzinger emphasizes that the creation stories, whether in Genesis or the Wisdom literature, must be read as a whole. This “whole” is not limited to the genre of creation literature or the Old Testament, but must focus on Jesus Christ as its center. A proper interpretation is one that looks forward instead of backward. Therefore, when focusing on the images of the creation accounts, the Christian cannot interpret them apart from the saving works of Jesus Christ.[4]  This being said, Ratzinger uses the images from the creation stories to expound on topics that get at the nagging questions that humanity has struggled with for centuries, including today.

Ratzinger’s conclusions offer concrete applications for 21st century faith. For example, Ratzinger’s analysis of the image of the creation of human kind provides a framework for both an understanding of the human person, and a praxis following from that understanding. In the Genesis creation account, the human being is said to be created out of clay, or dust. This biblical image both humbles and exults us. It humbles us because we are faced with our “creatureliness.” It exults because, unlike other creation images, we are not created out of dragon blood[5] or an evil spirit. In recognizing our “creaturliness,” we necessarily recognize that we are not the creator; we are dependents. Every human being, then, whether king or pauper, freeperson or slave, shares in this “creatureliness” and, hence, are rooted in a fundamental equality.[6] Ethically, then, it is our duty as Christians to express this innate equality through our actions and our voices; whether it be through preaching, social justice activities, or small acts of charity. Ratzinger goes on to flesh out more biblical images, from the creation of the world out of nothing,[7] to humanity being created in imago Dei,[8] to the basis of original sin in relationship.[9] All these principles, which stem from biblical images and offer humanity an ethic, show the importance of maintaining the truth of the biblical images instead of dismissing them in retreat of scientific thought.

 

“The Big Bang” and Ratzinger’s Creation Theology

Current scientific theories of the creation of the universe center on the Big Bang. The scientific account of creation provides a starting point for the dialogue between science and religion. Ratzinger touches on the theory in his book, though it should be noted that science has progressed since his books publication. Nevertheless, his theological accomplishment remains relevant. Ratzinger’s theology both melds and is in tension with current Big Bang theories as laid out in the television documentary “The Big Bang.”[10]

Before heading into a comparison of Ratzinger’s work with the documentary, it is important to point out what Ratzinger and the documentary did not say.  Ratzinger does not attempt to offer a scientific account of the creation of the universe, nor do the scientists on the documentary suggest an anthropology or metaphysics from their discoveries. Thibigbangs does not mean that science is concerned with the objective, and religion with the merely subjective; Ratzinger insists that the principles drawn from the biblical images are indeed objective statements about a reality that can’t be observed or measured. [11] Rather, science answers the question about the facts of the empirical world, while religion answers the question about the human place within it.[12] This being said, the documentary and Ratzinger’s theology still serve as dialogue partners, finding both points of agreement and tension.

The temporality of the universe is consistent with both Ratzinger’s theology and the theories produced by contemporary science. This was not always the case, however. The Enlightenment scientific theories painted a picture of a universe that had no beginning or end. All energy was conserved in a closed system, and the universe was fixed. However, with the discoveries of the theories of entropy, relativity, and the Big Bang, the idea of a static universe without beginning or end was turned upside down.[13] The Big Bang describes the origin of the universe from nothing, and the theory of entropy explains that the universe will end, perhaps through the dissipation of all energy back into nothingness. These discoveries brought the Christian account of creation and the scientific account closer together. Of course, Christianity holds the doctrine of creation ex nihilo,[14] God created the world out of nothing, and that there will be an end.

Despite this similarity, Ratzinger’s and the documentary’s accounts are in tension around a few points.  One such dissonance is the description of the universe as a cosmic struggle. The documentary pointed to two points of struggle in the universe connected with both the universe’s creation and its end. The beginning of the universe consisted of the struggle between matter and “anti-matter.” Matter and anti-matter are oppositely charged and so destroy each other upon contact. These two phenomena made the early universe a “battleground.” Whichever “army” had more “troops” would win this battle, and would leave the universe either full of “stuff,” or matter; or would lead to a big empty space. Luckily for us, there was more matter than anti-matter, and all the molecules of the universe were created, including those that make up the human body.

Another source of struggle is bringing the universe to its end. This source is called “dark energy.” Contemporary science says that the Big Bang is the cause of the universe’s expansion. Thus, the big bang is still going on; the universe is emanating and radiating out from “ground zero.” Science has recently made another discovery that the universe is actually speeding up as it emanates. The cause of this speeding up is dark energy. Little is known about this phenomenon, but many theorists suggest that it is speeding up the death of the universe. Again, when looked at metaphorically, one can imagine the battle of two forces: the universe vs. dark matter. One would have to look at the universe through a valueless system, which is the goal of many scientists by the way,[15] to see it otherwise.

These two points are in tension, if not conflict, with Ratzinger’s theology of creation. He states that according to the biblical images (which is the focus of his book), the “universe is not the scene of a struggle among dark forces but rather the creation of his word.”[16]  According to the documentary, Ratzinger’s claim, if taken literally, is simply false. There even exists a literal “dark force” called “dark energy” that is indeed in “struggle” with the universe. Perhaps, however, one should not take Ratzinger’s words so literally. The biblical images are grounding the world in a value system, something that science cannot do on its own. So faith in these biblical images can still be true—the universe is not a struggle—if values are not being placed on the forces described by science. This is where faith informs the believers understanding of the universe. After all, according to Ratzinger, reason searches in faith and finds everything it is looking for.[17]

Another point of tension deals with the chance and necessity of the creation process. Science is coming to a greater understanding of chance in the order of the universe. The documentary showcased one scientist who did experiments on the influence of gravity on creation. This scientist speculates that we were simply lucky that the universe had just the right amount of gravity, and that perhaps other universes have been created with different levels of gravity. Some contemporary theologians like Elizabeth Johnson[18] and Garcia-Rivera[19] have acknowledged the role of chance in the creation of the universe, and have attempted to reconcile it with their faith.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, using the work of scientist Jacques Monod as a reference, implies that such a theory is “absurd,” and that a simpler answer would be God. The reason for mentioning Monod, however, was not to disprove his work. He doesn’t even attempt it. What he attacks instead is a method that refuses to acknowledge God or a creator as an even possible option. The method itself is flawed, or in his words, “pathetic.” Again, to say that Ratzinger is in flat out contradiction with contemporary science would be to hyperbolize. But Ratzinger’s words do raise questions about the meanings surrounding the origins of the universe, though he does not answer them in this little book.

In conclusion, Ratzinger’s theology of creation offers a balanced view of the relation between science and religion. He does not retreat into fundamentalism or rationalism, but maintains the truth of the biblical images offered in the creation stories. From these biblical images he reveals that God is the creator of the universe, that the universe is reasonable, and that the human person is both dignified and humbled. Several questions remain in light of science’s new appreciation of chance and struggle in the universe, which some believe would conflict with the Christians understanding of a creation of purposeful love. These questions charge the theologian to search for new ways to engage scientific discovery in the light of faith.

 

 

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…:A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995).

[2] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 4-5.

[3] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 6.

[4] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 8-10.

[5] Ratzinger expounds on the Enuma Elish story of creation and contrasts it and its implications with the Judeo-Christian account. Cf. Ratzinger, In the Beginning,10-12.

[6] Ratzinger, In the Beginning,42-44.

[7] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 10-12.

[8] Ratzinger, In the Beginning,44-50.

[9] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 61-64.

[10]  How the Universe Works, season 1, episode 1, “The Big Bang,” originally aired April 25, 2010, on Discovery.

[11] Ratzinger, In The Beginning, 82-92.

[12] For a deeper discussion on the relation of science and metaphysical analysis: Cf. Rivera, The Garden of God, 8-10.

[13] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 22-25.

[14] For an explanation of this doctrine and its biblical roots (or lack thereof), see: Neil Ormerod, Creation, Grace, and Redemption (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2007), 3-6.

[15] For a brief commentary on science and its claim of objectivity, and at the same time its pushing of value claims on religion, see: Rosemary Ruether, Does Science Have a Creation Story,” in Gaia and God, (Publishing info not available), 36.

[16] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 25.

[17] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 21.

[18] Johnson connects the element of chance with “Divine creativity.” She writes: “But chance occurring within law disrupts the usual pattern while being held in check, and over millions of millennia the interplay of the two advances the world to a richer state that would otherwise be possible.” Cf. Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God (Bedford Square, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007), 193-196.

[19] Garcia-Rivera describes “chaos” not “in terms of warring principles,” but as a “dynamism akin to spirit.” She writes: “It is the dynamism of a powerful love where chaos and order find reconciliation by forming ensouled bits of matter manifest as dynamic forms of striking beauty.” Cf. Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, “At Home in the Cosmos,” in The Garden of God: A Theological Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 12-13.

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