180. Creation: In the Beginning

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1-2, NRSV]

Guilin-Lijiang River National Park 桂林漓江

In a small volume titled In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, Pope Benedict XVI packs some very interesting insights for reflection and dissemination.

The human threat to all living things, Pope Benedict says, has generated a new urgency to the theme of creation. This finds a strong resonance in Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology – Laudato Si’. And yet, Pope Benedict notes, creation account was noticeably lacking as late as the 1970s and 1980s in catechesis, preaching, and even theology. Worse yet, compounding the problem has been a practical abandonment of the doctrine of creation in influential modern books on theology. To make his point, he specifically names as significant examples a “new” German book on the Christian faith, and a French book on fundamental catechesis.

What in these books have prompted Pope Benedict XVI to take up this project of speaking and writing on creation?

He harshly criticizes what he considers to be a semantic betrayal in the occasional use of the term “creation”. For example, the authors of the German faith-book claim that:

  • “concepts like selection and mutation are intellectually much more honest than that of creation”;
  • “‘Creation’ as a cosmic plan is an idea that has seen its day”;
  • “The concept of creation is withal an unreal concept”;
  • Creation means a call addressed to the human being. Whatever else may be said about it, even in the Bible, is not the message of creation itself but rather its partly mythological and apocalyptic formulation”.

He takes to task a reductionist approach that causes the term “creation” to completely lose its original meaning. For example, in the 736-page French book on catechesis, creation is defined in these terms, completely emptying “creation” of its original meaning:

  • “Thus, in speaking of God as Creator, it is affirmed that the first and final meaning of life is to be found in God himself, most intimately present to our being.”

In a way which is really disappointing in a major catechetical textbook, the French author listed four points of “current objections to creation”, without offering his average readers any point of Christian response.

So there is an existential reduction where creation gets interpreted only in an existential sense. Pope Benedict judges that such a poor use of the creation theme causes a calamitous loss of the reality of faith. Thus diminished, the God of such a poor version of faith “no longer has anything to do with matter”.

Against this background, Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in 1981 set himself the task of giving catechesis to Catholic adults. He gave four Lenten homilies in the cathedral of Munich, which later formed the main body of the text in the book.

In it, the Pope points out a task to be accomplished: to reclaim our faith in creation, we must first bring it out of obscurity on account of its suppression in various quarters.

  • He exposes “the spirit of modernity”. The 15th and 16th centuries saw the transition from medieval to new thinking, in which three ways deviated from creation faith. First, the earth’s dependence on God became unacceptable; second, the “exact” sciences considered everything else as arbitrary, so that the humanum was no longer seen as comprising an essence (a given identity) and a task (what is given to do); third, the dichotomy of grace and nature started by Martin Luther set grace up to be in radical opposition to creation.
  • He refers to the theological concealment of  the concept of creation as a deviation in the idea of Martin Luther, who sought to establish a pure Christianity free from Greek influence. Luther saw creation as having been stained through and through by sin. To be saved, we must be liberated from the chains of the past, from the curse of the existing creation. Luther insisted on either grace or nature and ended in the slogan “sola gratia”. Benedict calls it an attempt to get behind creation which ultimately ended up in radical opposition to creation. To break the dualistic dichotomy, we insist on grace-and-nature. So Benedict calls for a good effort to develop a Christian pedagogy that accepts creation, and gives concrete expression to the two poles, but in the right order – first the physical, then the spiritual (1 Cor 15:46).
  • Of the forms of concealment of the concept of creation today, Benedict shows  keen interests in unearthing the inadequacies of the scientific concept of nature when compared to the creation faith, particularly in three respects: first, physics and chemistry do not explain the “nature of humans” or “natural rights”, and thus cannot provide foundations for moral theology or ethical propositions; second, science does not decide decision-making; and third, humans cannot be in a formless freedom.

Pope Benedict’s aim and hope are that others may use the materials to pursue the message of God who is the Creator, and that the message may find appropriate place again in contemporary proclamation of the Good News. The task is urgent, for the loss of faith in creation is no less than a loss of faith in God as Creator of the universe, with dire consequences both to humanity and the environment in which they live.

This book provides a good entry point for dialogue. We shall reflect on a few selected themes relative to creation over the next few posts. In doing so, we shall join the psalmist who sang: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well” (Psalm 139:13-14).

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, July 2017. All rights reserved.

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