Integral ecology

The temptation to divinize the universe

The universe has always been, since ancient times, the subject of debate about the affirmation or denial of God.

Juan Arana-October 23, 2021-Reading time: 3 minutes
south pole telescope

Photo: South Pole Telescope, Biceps2 photographed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. ©2021 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Since ancient times, the consideration of the universe has served as a prelude to the affirmation of God... or his denial. The opportunity or the conflict certainly did not arise among the Greeks nor in any of the cultures that preceded them, because the idea that everything visible (the Earth, the Sun, the Moon and the stars) could have been created by a divinity very rarely occurred to our most remote grandparents. The main difficulty was not in admitting that such an immense thing could have been taken from the Earth, but in admitting that it could have been created by a divinity. from scratchbut that Something or Someone, however exalted it might be, could be located beyond its borders. 

Although some of the early philosophers were accused of impiety and atheism, it was certainly not because they denied the existence and power of God, but rather because they challenged the dominant beliefs. Their defiance was not surprising, since Greek religion had declined after centuries of syncretic recasting. Having lost confidence in traditions that had become unacceptable, these men relied on the staff of reason to rebuild a creed that did not violate the intelligence of the true or the conscience of the just.

A philosophical religion

Thus, they created what Varron called a philosophical religionThe first one, as opposed to the forms of devotion known up to then: the mythical and the civil. The extraordinary thing about this story is that, faced with the need to choose between these three alternatives, St. Augustine did not hesitate to place the Christian alternative next to that of the philosophers, as the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recalled in his investiture speech as Doctor of Philosophy. honoris cause by the University of Navarra. Therefore, the strategy that Hecataeus, Xenophanes, Anaxagoras or Plato chose to search for the true religion, the only one capable of quenching the thirst for God that all men have, was not so bad. 

The mortgage that conditioned the attempt of the Greek philosophers was that the notions they handled were not enough. The one that was probably the most burdened by their way of thinking was that of spirit. To conceive both God and the human soul, they resorted to clumsy semi-corporeal imitations, such as puffs of air, fatuous fires, faint simulacra and the like.

After many battles, in which the first Christian philosophers occupied a glorious vanguard position, things began to become clear: God was not a star, nor the immanent principle that moves the cosmos, nor is his "sky" the one traveled by the planets. He was beyond time and space, beyond the wheres and wheres, and his reality went far beyond what can be touched, seen, smelled or heard. It was another matter that his vast wisdom and power, as well as his extraordinary goodness, found the means to make his elided presence tangible in the world we inhabit, the only one with which we are familiar. 

Paradoxically, it could be said that the physical universe could only begin to be conceived as such, as a physical world without more, from the very moment that the last Greek philosophers, already Christianized, took God out of it, and began to conceive it only as their work, their creation, endowed with its own consistency, solid, perfectly regulated and knowable.

The disenchantment of the world

At first sight paradoxical, nothing could be more logical: cosmology only became possible as a science when God ceased to be conceived as a tenant of the cosmos to be recognized as its author. The disenchantment of the physical world forced to stop looking for souls and elves everywhere, to investigate instead the facts and laws that manifest the action of a powerful, wise and good Cause outside the universe itself. 

However, the temptation to fall back into confusion has been constant ever since. To return to identifying God with nature was always the great temptation, in which poets and philosophers fell again and again, especially since Benedict of Spinoza became its most representative spokesman. The elementary consideration that such an overflowing Presence would not be overwhelming only for creatures, but also for cosmic reality itself, was disregarded again and again. It did not matter to have to sacrifice man's freedom or to convert into mere appearances the evils and limitations that appear everywhere.

When the cosmologist Lemaître pointed out to Einstein that an expanding universe (thus resulting from a physical singularity) was much more consistent with his theory of relativity, he could only reply: "No, not that! That is too much like creation!".Leaving aside the details of this debate and others that followed (such as the attempts to preserve temporal eternity in stationary universe models, or spatial infinity in multiverse speculations) the goal has always been the same: to adorn worldly reality with some divine feature, even at the cost of sacrificing its harmony, beauty, or even rendering it rigorously inconceivable. It would seem that it is not only the Jewish people who are stiff-necked; it seems that it is the whole of mankind who persists in continuing to kick against the goads. 

The authorJuan Arana

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Seville, full member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, visiting professor in Mainz, Münster and Paris VI -La Sorbonne-, director of the philosophy journal Nature and Freedom and author of numerous books, articles and collaborations in collective works.

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