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Is God the cause of the world?

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 16 October 2009


It is true, I think, that our view of the world is dominated by the natural sciences. Our children learn at school that water is H2O and that salt is NaCl. The natural sciences form the background against which we understand what the world is. It would be difficult to receive an education in our culture that lacked this understanding.

This is the great difference between our way of thinking and the thinking of men and women before, say, the 16th century. When we look at the world we see physical causation, we know that the light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach us from its surface. When we look at the night sky we know that we see back in time millions of years.

How, then, do we read an ancient text about the origin of the world written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ? It is almost impossible for us to walk in the same shoes of the writers of these texts. We automatically understand them causally and when we do this we, just as automatically, summon up theories of modern cosmology. It is then that unbelievers scoff at the primitive notions of the creation stories and relegate them to the realm of quaint fairytale.

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Faithful Christians, thinking that science cannot contradict the faith, attempt to produce a common narrative that includes the activity of God and, for example, the big bang. The question inevitably arises, did God ignite the big bang, a completely fanciful idea.

When we look at the texts in the beginning of the Old Testament we come across not a scientific document that describes how God created the universe, perhaps setting the speed of light or determining the gravitational constant etc, but we encounter in Genesis 1:1-2:4a a document that is not scientific in its character but liturgical. The world is created by command, by the Word of God. This account of the creation is known as the Priestly account because of its repetitive nature and its concern for the seven days of creation.

It is significant that the culmination of the narrative is not the lighting of the stars by atomic fusion but the creation of human beings as men and women and the command to be fruitful and to multiply. The last and seventh day conforms to the priestly concern for rest on the Sabbath.

The second creation story begins at Genesis 2:4b and is a much older account that uses agricultural imagery. In this account God formed man from the dust of the ground. The entire narrative is anthropocentric: man is at the centre of creation, unlike the scientific narrative that has man as just another species inhabiting a speck of insignificant dust in one corner of a galaxy among millions of galaxies. This account has been called the Yahwist account because of the name of God used by its author or authors.

One thing that this account shares with the Priestly account is that the creation of man and woman are the pinnacle of creation. When the woman is created from the rib of the man and she is presented to him he cries out: “This at last is bone of my bones (literally) and flesh of my flesh.” We are told that “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”.

My point is that these two creation narratives from the Old Testament do not have cosmology at their centre but, remarkably, human marriage. The love that exists between men and women and the fecundity of that relationship is at the centre of creation. This is not cosmology, it is not an explanation of how the universe came into being but is rather an indication of where men and women are to find their lives, in marriage. In doing so it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. To the scientific mind it is absurd that human marriage lies at the heart of creation. Human fecundity cannot really be distinguished from the fecundity of any other species.

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The above observations lead me to conclude that when we say that God is the cause of the world we mix two important categories, that of a folk legend that is intended to indicate what kind of creature we are and the modern causal narrative of scientific cosmology. The result is the confusion we see in the arguments between the creationists and the evolutionists. The creationists have taken these ancient legends as scientific statements, which they plainly are not. Likewise the evolutionists mock them because they are plainly not scientific.

The first line of the Apostles and the Nicene creeds begins with “I believe in God almighty, maker of heaven and earth”. These are the creeds most said by Christians on Sunday morning. It is interesting that the Athanasian creed does not mention creation at all. It seems that the notion that God is the cause of the world is standard Christian belief. While “maker of heaven and earth” seems pretty water tight to indicate direct causation, the preface “I believe” opens a window for a different interpretation because we are immediately not in the realm of scientific fact but in the realm of faith, of belief. We do not believe that the earth revolves around the sun, we know it. Belief does not rest on evidence; it is a different way of knowing than that of scientific knowledge. It begins with assent rather than scepticism.

Rather than affirming that God is the cause of the world in the sense of material science, which was of course beyond the comprehension of both the writers of the creation stories and the creeds, what is being said is that the believer accepts, among other things, that the material world is only ours by gift, that humanity is not the creator and that there is a differentiation between what is God and what is creature. What we have here is not a statement of causality but the basis of a theological scheme.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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