Blogger’s Note: I can see from the stats and from correspondence that new readers are coming on board, and I thought it might be useful today to explain the Thursday Catechism page. Thursdays are devoted to a study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official text for teaching the Catholic Tradition. The Catechism is available for on-line reading here or in book form here. We look at one paragraph per week and are currently up to paragraph 32. The post is a combination of explanation, commentary, and launching pad for current ideas. Feel free to add any thoughts you may have in the comment section.
32 The world: starting from movement, becoming, contingency, and the world’s order and beauty, one can come to a knowledge of God as the origin and the end of the universe.
As St. Paul says of the Gentiles: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
And St. Augustine issues this challenge: Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky... question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?
This paragraph continues the theme of man’s innate desire for God. I had written earlier in the series that the medieval philosopher/theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from the thought and writing of the ancient Aristotle, produced a series of proofs of God’s existence. Para. 32 combines several of these “proofs” in one sequence: God as First Mover, God as contingent cause, and the teleological or final product proof. The paragraphs from St. Paul and St. Augustine are supporting sources drawn from Sacred Scripture and the writing of one of the greatest of the Church fathers.
The challenge over the centuries, particularly since the Enlightenment, is precisely whether these arguments for the existence of God are self-evident to thoughtful people. That the world “start[ed] from movement” as the text indicates, has the disadvantage of sounding so factually true that it is open to a wide range of criticisms. Even Genesis, with its two successive creation accounts—the seven-day litany and the Adam and Eve saga—reflect differing outlooks on the nature of creation.
Genesis 1:1-2 begins with a thought provoking description: “In the beginning (in Greek, en arche) when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and a darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.” This is creation in the form of bringing order out of chaos, describing God’s work as more providential overseer than master engineer. That there was a time when the material universe did not exist is possibly true, though modern science has not yet figured out that riddle. For religious purposes, it is more to our purview that God put the universe into an order that made the environment of the human species both possible and irresistible, along the lines of Augustine’s tribute above. I might add here that the Church has understood the theology of Genesis 1:1 since apostolic days. In St. John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is depicted as the fullness of creation, John opens his Gospel with the line: “in the beginning (en arche) was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God.”
Genesis 2:5ff, the second creation account, the author begins his account with a very terse mention about the earth—basically, the only material creating left to be done was the landscaping, and God immediately creates the first man, the complete reverse order of the first creation account. In Chapter 2 of Genesis man is a creation from the mud who contains the very breath of God; we are truly of both worlds—as would be Jesus, the divine Word born of a woman. It may be helpful here to add that both creation accounts were written rather late in Jewish history, the first written by priests of the Temple, the second by philosophers attempting to explain the presence of evil and suffering in the world.
The Adam/Eve Genesis account should give us some pause on the question of creation and First Cause. If, with Aristotle, we say that our Prime Mover, God, created everything, it logically follows that God created evil. Truth be told, Genesis 3:1 states this unequivocally. “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made.” Our reptilian friend engages with Eve with the erudition of a Socrates or Plato in convincing her to consume the apple from the forbidden tree. Jesus, in his own time, would say that evil comes not from the outside but from the inner heart of man. Genesis 2:5ff is a reflection upon theology and anthropology that continues with vigor to this day.
Interestingly, in our para. 32, Augustine demonstrates a hint of limitation in his glorious description of God’s creation. He writes, “These beauties are subject to change,” meaning that at some juncture they will be less beautiful or not beautiful at all. Put another way, Augustine’s assertion that the beauties of nature are a proof of God’s purpose/existence is not foolproof. Augustine’s position here in the text is a well-situated counterbalance to Paul, whose preceding sentence shows no hesitation on the full implications of creation.
The treatment of God in the Catechism in view of his role as First Cause and Creator is correct in a strictly doctrinal way, albeit a somewhat poorly nuanced one. As a young boy I was taught that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing, as something of a scientific marvel for our edification. As with much Catholic practice prior to Vatican II (1962-65), religious writing and faith formation was undertaken without an understanding of the burgeoning advances being made by Scripture scholars (and other theological disciplines, including history) throughout the twentieth century. The Genesis accounts were never intended as pure science but rather as mystery of love: why did God create in the first place, what is our final destination, and why, in Paul’s words, is “the spirit willing but the flesh so weak?” These are questions for the whole Church—but in some way we have to come to grips with them personally as well.