What's it all about?" is a fundamental question of meaning. It reflects a desire to understand one's life in the larger context of all reality.
Questions concerning the meaning of life inevitably expand to include questions of origin ("Where did we come from?" "Why are we here?") and destiny ("Where are we going?" "What is our purpose?).
Since meaning is sought within a context, questions of personal origin and destiny must interact with questions concerning the nature of reality. If our sense of meaning is to be grounded in ultimate reality and our place in it, we must ask questions like:
- What is our relationship to the rest of the universe?
- Is the universe the product of some supernatural agency working with some conscious purpose in mind? Or did human life emerge as part of a blind process that is not the product of any intelligent design?
- Is there a transcendent meaning to life or is life nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?"
Our view of the meaning of human life is shaped by our understanding of the nature of reality. For evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the universe is purposeless, amoral, and indifferent:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil. And no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference... DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Dawkins at least invites us to dance to the universe's indifference. The philosopher John Cottingham is not quite as optimistic, reducing human life to status of slime:
We humans may pride ourselves on our intellectual and cultural achievements, but against the backdrop of unimaginable aeons of time through which clouds of incandescent hydrogen expand without limit, we are a strange temporary accident, no more significant than a slime or mould that forms for a few years or decades on a barren rockface and then is seen no more.
The views of Dawkins and Cottingham are set in direct contrast to Catholic author George Weigel, who roots his sense of meaning to God's creative purpose: "To believe in... God... is to believe that order and reason, rather than chaos and indifference, are at the root of things."
Questions concerning origin and destiny are not just for scientists and philosophers. They haunt human existence - lurking in the background, demanding resolution. They haunt us because we are meaning-seeking creatures.
Science and Religion
In our survey of the account of creation in Genesis, we are not concerned with the mechanics of creation, but with its meaning. Put simply: we are not so much addressing the question of "how" but of "why." We must not get bogged down with questions Genesis does not attempt to address. Its purpose is not scientific, but theological. It is concerned with questions of meaning and not of mechanics - of metaphysics, not physics.
Ultimately, belief in divine creation is a matter of faith. It provides us with a perspective we bring to the world - a lens through which we view reality. We should readily admit this. The most foundational statement of faith expressed in every major Christian creed is, "We believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth." This accords with the scripture's testimony that "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible" (Hebrews 11:3).
By faith, we believe that the world is good, orderly, and dependent on God. Clearly, we are going beyond mere physics and embracing metaphysics (a set of claims concerning the most general characteristics and constituents of reality). We affirm that the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is not self-explanatory from the physical evidence alone. All the "how's" in the world will not provide us with a "why"?
Our "why" comes from faith and not from science. Science cannot provide us with answers to the "why" of reality - to the meaning of it all. When it claims to possess this answer it has transgressed the boundaries of science and ventured into the domain of philosophy; it has left physics and entered into metaphysics.
Science is limited in its explanatory power. Take, for example, Big Bang theory. Scientists refer to the original singularity that represents the foundational matter from which the universe was born as t = 0. At this moment,
The whole universe was the size of an atom with a density that was an incredible 1096 times that of water.
What happened at t = 0? In standard Big Bang theory, t = 0 is a singularity to which the laws of physics do not apply. It would have been a dimensionless point of pure radiation of infinite density.
The known laws of physics do not apply to this original singularity. Therefore, it is impossible to even speak of the Big Bang without going "beyond" physics. Indeed, the description of the singularity itself takes on "godlike" qualities - "a dimensionless point of pure radiation of infinite density."
But fundamental questions remain unanswered: What actually "triggered" the Big Bang? What is the origin of the small, hot, dense singularity that birthed the universe? And even if these questions someday are answered, the ultimate question remains: Why did this singularity explode this present universe?
Try as we might, we cannot escape the questions, "What does it all mean?" "What's it all about?"
When it comes to the Big Bang, it is not only impossible for science to provide a "why"; science fails to adequately explain the "how." Known physical laws fall short of providing a complete explanation of the universe's origin precisely because known physical laws do not apply to the Big Bang:
Putting together the evidence from astronomy and high-energy physics, a plausible reconstruction of cosmic history can be made for events starting three minutes after the Big Bang...
The farther back we go before three minutes, the more tentative are the theories, because they deal with states of matter and energy increasingly farther from anything we can duplicate in the laboratory.
Science's inability to account for this leaves plenty of room for belief and for God:
In the early moments of the universe, inflationary cosmology postulates enormous density, unthinkable heat (technically, 1028 degrees -- more than some thousand billion billion times the temperature at the core of the sun), infinitesimal brevity (the tiniest fraction of a second -- technically, around 10-35 seconds), and unbelievable speeds that all absolutely defy the possibilities of our imaginations. "A violent growth spurt, ballooning from submicroscopic to astronomical size in the blink of an eye." Says Greene: "This means that in a brief flicker of time, about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second ATB [after the Bang], the size of the universe increased by a greater percentage than it has in the 15 billion years since." Plenty of room exists for plenty of belief -- either way: with or without God.
Clearly, science is limited in its explanatory power. This leaves room for religion. The conflict between science and religion has been overstated by scientific materialists and biblical literalists. When it comes to matters of ultimate reality, religion and science answer different questions. When science stays within its boundaries, religion and science are not enemies; they dwell in harmony.
Science, in order to be true to its methodology, must reduce its scope of enquiry to material reality. When it ventures into the realm of philosophy, it has transgressed its boundaries. At this point, the scientific method has been abandoned.
Science only considers impersonal experience, reality encountered as an object that we can manipulate and put to the experimental test. Its questions are framed in terms of efficient causes and not in terms of meaning or purpose. Its official discourse deals with measurements and not with values. As a methodological strategy, this narrow view has proved an effective technique for certain kinds of discovery. It would be a grave mistake - and one fatal for any serious quest for the basis of eschatological hope - to suppose that the whole of reality can be caught in the wide meshes of the scientific net.
There is no essential conflict between science and religion. But there certainly is a conflict between the philosophies of materialism and theism. Materialism is the belief - a belief, not a proven fact - that matter is all that exists. This belief is not a foregone conclusion of the scientific method, but rather, a metaphysical stance - a philosophy through which one views reality.
Some scientists slip their materialism into their conclusions, and at that point, their statements are not foregone scientific conclusions, but rather, statements of belief. The most famous example of a philosophy of scientific materialism masquerading as science is Carl Sagan's well-known beginning to his popular Cosmos series: "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." This is a metaphysical stance and not the fruit of scientific research.
It is because of such triumphalistic statements of materialism masquerading as science that many Christians assume that science and religion are enemies. But theism is not incompatible with science - including evolutionary science. However, theism is incompatible with the philosophy of materialism.
Both theism and materialism are cognitive philosophical frameworks. They are "fiduciary frameworks" - not products of the scientific method. Therefore, theism (and atheism and agnosticism, for that matter) are compatible with science. Dr. Francis Collins, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project, writes,
It seems to me the scientific and the spiritual world views are not just compatible. They're actually complementary. You learn things about each one by consideration of the other. Science allows you to ask some pretty interesting questions. Faith allows you to ask other interesting questions. They are both ways of seeking truth. They are both ways of knowing. And to decide that you have to put a wall between the two in order to avoid some discomfort just does not feel right to me at all. I am very much opposed to the dualism arguments and very much in favor of the notion that we can be complete worshippers of God and at the same time people who study his creation using science.
This faith framework - or "fiduciary framework" - impacts how we view reality. Pascal argued that there is enough evidence of God's existence for those who want to believe, but never enough for those who don't want to believe. With this in mind, we may hold our religious convictions without fear of being perceived as primitive and unintelligent. We must also be gracious to those who hold different beliefs. Polkinghorne provides a healthy perspective that is gracious to dissenters without losing a sense of conviction: "I think I have good reasons for my beliefs, but I do not for a moment suppose that my atheistic friends are simply stupid not to see it my way. I do believe, however, that religious belief can explain more than unbelief can do."
Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich in his outstanding book, God's Universe, demonstrates how one can remain convinced of theism (and in his case, even a robust Christian faith) while remaining committed to solid scientific research:
I am personally persuaded that a superintelligent Creator exists beyond and within the cosmos, and that the rich context of congeniality shown by our universe, permitting and encouraging the existence of self-conscious life, is part of the Creator's design and purpose.
God in Genesis
The opening line of Genesis, "In the beginning, God..." holds the key to the meaning of the creation account. Contrary to scientific materialists and biblical literalists, Genesis is not written to counter or support evolutionary theory but to reveal God and God's intentions for creation.
Genesis 1:1-2:4 is primarily about God. Though we often focus on creation, it is God who is the focus of the chapter. The word God (Heb. Elohim - the mighty one) is found thirty-five times in thirty-five verses. God is the chief actor in the creation account ("God created... saw... said... divided... called... blessed, etc.").
Through the divine work of creation, God reveals Godself. The divine artist, working on the largest palette of all - the universe - reveals something of Godself. Just as a work of art reveals the heart of an artist, so creation reveals something about its author.
This is the pattern for divine revelation: God acts, and through God's actions, God reveals something regarding the divine nature. Throughout the sacred scriptures, God is consistently presented in light of God's works, and not in abstract definitions of God's essential being. Put most simply: What God does teaches us about who God is.
What Does Creation Reveal about God?
The obvious question is: What does creation reveal about God?
The most fundamental revelation is so obvious that it is often missed: Before all things, God exists. Scripture never attempts to argue for the existence of God. God's existence is assumed to be self-evident through God's creation. The apostle Paul argues that God's existence is so self-evident that it must be intentionally "suppressed" in order to be rejected, and therefore, all who fail to acknowledge God are "without excuse":
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 eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)
Perhaps the most important truth revealed in the creation account is not that God exists, but that there is only one God. Monotheism is belief in one God. This perspective was unique to Jewish religion. It was permanently etched into Israel through the daily repetition of the shema: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Ultimately, the creation account is polemic. It is an argument for monotheism and against polytheism. It maintains that there is no God but God - the creator of heaven and earth. For the original audience, words like "water," "sun," "moon," "stars" "sea monsters," "birds," "cattle," and "insects" would be associated with the many gods of Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions. We moderns do not hear these words in this way. But the people of Israel certainly would. We may mistakenly assume that the creation account is a polemic against evolutionary theory or scientific materialism. But it is not evolution that is opposed; it is polytheism. The fact that we often fail to see this is a reminder that we must first read the ancient text in light of its original recipients and the questions and concerns of its host culture, and not immediately in regard to our own cultural issues.
The creation account reveals the power, greatness, and sovereignty of God. We must never lose a sense of wonder for all that God has created. It literally boggles the mind to consider God's creativity. And we moderns have even more reason to be mystified when we consider how much more we know of the complexity, enormity, and beauty of the cosmos.
The forming, filling, and ordering of God's creation reveals the wisdom of God. Everything is shaped with divine intention and purpose - the result of intelligent design. The fine-tuning of physical constants to support life - sometimes called the Anthropic Principle - evidences God's desire for conscious life to exist. Ian Barbour quotes Stephen Hawking, "If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million it would have recollapsed before it reached its present size." Barbour continues, "On the other hand, if it had been greater by one part in a million, the universe would have expanded too rapidly for stars and planets to form." Barbour also notes the fine-tuning necessary in the formation of elements so that we are not left with a universe solely composed of hydrogen or helium. Stephen Hawking concludes, "The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications." Barbour admits that "the Anthropic Principle does not provide a conclusive argument for the existence of God." Yet, "[t]he fine-tuning of the physical constants is just what one would expect if life and consciousness were among the goals of a rational and purposeful God."
"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the earth proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1). Indeed, "the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3). Like a magnificent work of art, creation reveals God's greatness. The beauty, order, and majesty of the physical world offer us a window to contemplate the glory and grandeur of God.
Responding to the Creator
The glory of creation calls us to a three-fold response of humility, gratitude and praise.
We respond with a posture of humility and trust to the God of unfathomable power and creativity. We say with Jeremiah, "Ah, Lord God! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you" (Jeremiah 32:17; cf. Job 42:2-6)
We stand in gratitude to the God of life, who chooses to share life with us in a world designed for human flourishing. Creation is not our doing. It is a gift of love.
We worship God alone. God's creation is so glorious that we are often tempted to worship the creature rather than the Creator (see Romans 1:23). But to do so is to be guilty of idolatry. We do not worship the art, but rather, the Artist. We sing with the heavenly creatures, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created" (Revelation 4:11). With the ancients, we pray the Hebrew Prayer, "How wonderful, O Lord, are the works of your hands, the sun and the stars, the valleys and the hills, the rivers and lakes all disclose your presence. The beasts of the field, the birds of the air bespeak your wondrous will. In your goodness you have made us able to hear the music of the world, a divine voice sings through all creation."
With humility, gratitude, and praise we celebrate the beauty, goodness, and meaningfulness of God's creation. God has created all things. Belief in a creator God is an invitation to view all reality through the lens of faith. It gives meaning to the whole of human existence. "It gives a direction, a weight, a dignity to human life, which a fixed 'ultimate point', a highest idea or a principal natural law could not possibly provide." Though we cannot possibly comprehend the magnitude and meaning of it all, we can rest assured that, in the divine mind, the universe "makes sense" and is not "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." We do not need to resign ourselves to a sense of futility and cosmic alienation, but rather we can respond with grateful trust and heartfelt praise to the God of creation.
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene V.
 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.
 John Cottingham, On the Meaning of Life (New York: Routledge, 2003), 4.
 George Weigel, The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explained (New York: Cliff Street Books, 2001), 8.
 Ian G. Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 41.
 Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, 40-41.
 Antony F. Campbell, The Whisper of Spirit: A Believable God Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 28.
 John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 44-45.
 Bob Abernethy and William Bole, The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World (New York City: Seven Stories Press, 2008), 44.
 Owen Gingerich, God's Universe (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 112.
 Gingerich, God's Universe, 39.
 Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, 57.
 Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, 58.
 Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, 59.
 John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, Faith in the Living God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 28.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008