Spring 2011

The Given as Gift: Creation and Disciplinary Abstraction in Science

David L. Schindler

"Every distinction and abstraction in the cosmos implies a sense of the God-world relation."



If the God of the Bible is creator of the universe, then it is not possible to understand fully or even appropriately the processes of nature without any reference to that God. If, on the contrary, nature can be appropriately understood without reference to the God of the Bible, then that God cannot be the creator of the universe, and consequently he could not be truly God . . . . To be sure, the reality of God is not incompatible with all forms of abstract knowledge concerning the regularities of natural processes, a knowledge that abstracts from the concreteness of physical reality and therefore may also abstract from the presence of God in his creation. But neither should such abstract knowledge of regularities claim full and exclusive competence regarding the explanation of nature and, if it does so, the reality of God is thereby denied by implication. The so-called methodological atheism of modern science is far from pure innocence. It is a highly ambiguous phenomenon. And yet its very possibility can be regarded as based on the unfailing faithfulness of the creator God to his creation, providing it with the inviolable regularities of natural processes that themselves become the basis of individual and more precarious and transitory natural systems.1

This statement by Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg helps to set the context for the question posed in the present essay.2 It goes without saying that abstraction—the consideration of a thing or an aspect of a thing apart from the totality of its meaning or context, for methodological or disciplinary purposes—is necessary and legitimate in scientific research. Indeed, such abstraction is made possible by the Christian understanding of creation itself. The creator God in his generosity grants to the creature its autonomy, a law (nomos) proper to its own nature (autos, “self”). At the same time, as Pannenberg suggests, the relation of the creature to the creator God is sui generis, by virtue of its utterly foundational character: rightly understood, creation in Christianity is ex nihilo.3 If God is the source of my being and the being of all else, then relation to God is just so far given with and constitutive of being.4 Indeed, as Aquinas says, “God is in all things, and innermostly.”5 This means that this relation to God cannot but accompany each being everywhere and at every moment and indeed from its deepest depths.

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1. Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Theological Questions to Scientists,” in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. A. R. Peacocke (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981/1986), 3–16, at 4–5. The paper was originally presented at the Oxford International Symposium at Christ Church in September 1979. Reprinted in Communio: International Catholic Review 15, no. 3 (Fall 1988): 319–33.

2. This essay was first presented in summary form at the international symposium “Science, Reason, and Truth,” co-sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and Euresis (Associazione per la promozione e la diffusione della cultura e del lavoro scientifico), Repubblica di San Marino, 17–19 August 2007. It appears in David L. Schindler, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011).

3. Creation ex nihilo does not imply “creationism.” An absolute origin of being is not incompatible with evolution, though which theory of the latter is most adequate need not occupy us here. Cf. Michael Hanby, “Creation Without Creationism: Toward a Theological Critique of Darwinism,” Communio: International Catholic Review 30, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 654–94; and Adrian Walker, “Schöpfung und Evolution. Jenseits des Konkordismus,” Internationale katholische Zeitschrift Communio 35, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 55–70.

4. Cf. the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 109: “The likeness with God shows that the essence and existence of man are constitutively related to God in the most profound manner. This is a relationship that exists in itself, it is therefore not something that comes afterwards and is not added from the outside.”

5. Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 8, a. 1.