Stephen Hawking’s recent book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow (which I have just finished reading), has occasioned renewed discussion as to whether modern physics makes God the Creator obsolete.
Hawking’s writings and lectures have long fascinated the world at large; as a person, too, he merits general respect and admiration. His intellect, after all, is awesome in so many ways; despite the ravages of a devastating disease, he remains one of the world’s most adventurous and influential physicists. (His A Brief History of Time, which is also in my own library, has sold over a million copies.)
Hawking’s relatively rare allusions to religion, however, are at best ambiguous. To my mind, he writes and speaks as a scientist even when he touches on philosophy, which, in the right order of intellectual pursuits, transcends science. I personally doubt whether Hawking could seriously wrestle with Leibnitz’s philosophical challenge, “Why is there something instead of nothing?”
I do not write these lines disrespectfully; rather, it is because physical science itself speaks in other than a philosophical idiom – or a theological idiom. Besides, Leibnitz’s remark can be turned around completely, were it rewritten in the language of the scientists.
Shouldn’t this cause great scientific minds like Hawking to pause before even attempting to comment on a religious proposition such as whether or not God the Creator need be postulated as the Prime Mover of the Universe – in the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s view?
Whatever Hawking is suggesting, from the purely speculative probing of a physicist, he cannot really mean what he seems to say in his new book, as reported in the media. The media, of course, only confuse the issue, since they use their own invented idioms in physics, philosophy, and theology.
A review of Hawking’s book by Father Stanley Jaki, the late Templeton Prize-winning Distinguished Scholar at Seton Hall University, could have helped us immensely here, but Father Jaki has passed on to his eternal reward.
Thus it was that I read with special interest Jesuit Guy Consolmagno’s commentary on Hawking’s latest book in the 11 Sept. issue of the London Tablet. Father Consolmagno, who serves as curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory, argues that Hawking actually helps us by eliminating what is really a false idea of God. “God,” he writes, “is not a force to be invoked to swell a process, start a scene or two, and fill the momentary gaps in our knowledge.”
Instead, Father Consolmagno insists, “God is the reason why existence itself exists. God is the reason why space and time and the laws of nature can be present for the forces to operate what Stephen Hawking is talking about. What’s more, [he believes] in such a God not because of the absence of any other explanation for the origin of the universe, but because of the person of Jesus Christ – in history, in Scripture, and in his own personal life of prayer…”
Perhaps scientists, philosophers and theologians in general are still far away from the ability to communicate on a scholarly plane with each other; perhaps only the most expert and objective will ever be able to “bridge” the mysterious, formally articulated gap, as it were, between the worlds of science and theology – scholars like Fathers Jaki and Consolmagno. Yet there is a readily understandable Catholic approach to creation – understandable enough to satisfy the deepest intellectual curiosity.
One example of such an approach was offered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, surely among the world’s finest theologians, in a series of sermons preached in Munich’s Liebfrauenkirche, while he was Archbishop of Munich –Freising. These sermons, which originally constituted a Lenten series, were first published in the book, “In the beginning…” in 1986. The English version, dating from 1990, is available through William B. Eerdmans of Grand Rapids, Mich. This publication includes a summary essay by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
In this essay, the Holy Father closes by addressing the question as to whether the denial of the doctrine of creation has any real meaning in our lives. In other words, could it be true that, as some claim, creation is of no significance and totally lacks any real influence on our lives? In his response, he writes:
“…The question does have influence, and Marx would not take so much trouble to eliminate it if it were otherwise.”
Marxism, of course, “leads to a ban on questioning.” But a human being is not just another form of an ape. “The doctrine of creation is… inseparably included with the doctrine of redemption…
“Only if the being of creation is good, only if trust in being is fundamentally justified, are humans at all redeemable…”
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.