Twentieth Century Theology

The three explanations above all

The idea we have of the universe has been transformed by experimental sciences in the last century. This directly affects philosophical thought and is also of direct interest to theological thought.

Juan Luis Lorda-January 12, 2017-Reading time: 7 minutes

On the origin of man and the world, we used to have only the Genesis account and some ancient myths and fables. Since the mid-19th century, we have had another account of the origin of species and of man, the one initiated by Charles Darwin, which has been completed and refined as we have come to know genetics better. And, since the middle of the 20th century, we also have a new account of the origin of the world: the Big Bang, the big explosion. According to the evidence we have, the present universe came from the explosion of an enormously dense point, and it is still expanding.

Both scientific theories are more than hypotheses because they have accumulated evidence in their favor that seems sufficient to support that both processes shape the history of our universe.

A unified universe

With this, our idea of the universe is very different from what they might have had, for example, a hundred years ago. Today we can tell a "story of the universe" from an original moment to the present moment. Certainly, we cannot tell the details, and we do not know many transitions, but we can tell the general lines and we know that it is a single story: a story where everything that exists today has arisen: all the structures of matter and all living organisms. Everything has been made from an original point and everything is made from the same thing. It is possible that there was something before, but, apart from the fact that we have no indication of that, it does not affect the statement that the whole universe as we know it today has had a single history and is made up of the same thing.

We have never had such a unitary idea of reality. The people of other times lived in a world full of seemingly unconnected mysteries. There were many partial explanations and many unknown mysteries. Today we do not know everything, but we know that everything comes from the same process and that it is related. This is somewhat new in the history of thought and perhaps one of the most important facts in the history of thought. Some people with a mentality, so to speak only "of letters", tend to consider scientific statements as statements that are too circumstantial and, for that reason, dispensable. But the statements we have made are really universal, about the whole of visible reality and, for that very reason, they really have a philosophical and, to that same extent, theological rank.

A wonderful world

The story of the history of the present universe is much more wonderful than a fairy tale and could even be told as a fairy tale: "Once upon a time there was a very small but enormously dense point, and suddenly it burst forth radiating a fabulous amount of energy. And then...".

For a Christian, this story is an almost self-evident manifestation of God's power. On the other hand, for people who have a materialistic vision, it is a pure display of "chance and necessity", to quote the famous book by Monod, Nobel Prize winner in medicine and modern representative of biological materialism. Everything has happened without any sense and in an unforeseen way.

Three models to explain the universe

As our modern scientific image of the universe has become so unitary, the possible explanations have been greatly reduced: there are very few possible worldviews left, very few global worldviews. At the outset, there are three:

The world comes "from below": there is no God and the world is self-made.The evolution of the world, by the casual emergence of internal laws that have directed the growth. This is the materialistic thesis, which is defended by many people, including scientific experts, although, generally, without reaching its ultimate consequences.

The world comes "from above": it was made by an intelligent being, God.. Therefore, the explanation of its internal order, of the emergence of structures and of its own laws, is that it has been thought by an intelligent being. Galileo said that nature has a mathematical entrails, but that marvelous order deserves an explanation.

The world itself is God, or at least divine.. This is the third possibility. Although, at first sight, it may seem surprising because it is unusual, this position is quite widespread. It is defended by some ancient pantheisms and some important modern scientists, such as the Nobel Prize winner in physics Schrödinger or the great popularizer Karl Sagan. The characteristic of this position is to transmit to the universe the most important characteristic that we know in the universe, human consciousness. They give to the whole a certain consciousness or at least they consider it as the foundation of all consciousnesses. This "whole" can be called "God", although they do not generally think of a personal being. It is more something than someone.

Three different men's models

The three global explanations give rise to three models of human beings:

-If the world is a meaningless chance, the human being is also a meaningless chance. And he is not worth more than the rest. This has untenable practical consequences. Our Western culture and our democratic institutions are based on the idea that every man has a special dignity that must be respected. But if it is a bit of matter accumulated by chance we do not see why it should be specially respected.

-If the world was made by God, the human being can be, as the biblical message defends, "the image of God". He is a person in the image of the divine persons. An intelligent and free being, capable of good and love, and who fulfills himself by loving, in the image of the divine persons. The radical explanation of the uniqueness of human consciousness would come from God.

-If the world itself is God or a kind of divine whole, everything is part of the same. Everything is divine or emanation united to the divine. Then, the human being can only be a transitory spark of the whole, a part that has temporarily separated and that temporarily manifests a personal consciousness, but that is called to unite and merge in the Whole, as the oriental pantheisms defend (it is appreciated in the Buddhist or Hindu tradition). There cannot be a strong personal identity, but only a transitory one. For this reason, it is frequent to find in these positions the belief in reincarnation or transmigration of "souls".

 The "capitalization" problem

We are used to talking about great human dimensions, such as love, justice, freedom and beauty. They seem so important to us that we can write them in capital letters: Love, Justice, Freedom, Beauty.

But if the world is chance and necessity, these human dimensions cannot have much depth or much sense. What sense can love or justice have in a much arisen from elementary particles by chance? In physics, there is mass or charge, but there is no love or justice. If they are not dimensions of matter, and there is nothing but matter, they can only be illusions of the spirit. Love can be nothing but instinct and, at bottom, physics. And justice, a human convention without any foundation in physics, which only knows about attractions and repulsions, nor in biology, where the law of the jungle prevails.

Only if the world was made by God can these very human dimensions be reflections of a personal God. Only to the extent that the human being is the "image of God" can there be in human life something that is truly love and justice and freedom and beauty.

The practical problem of materialism

It is easy to make materialistic statements, but it is very difficult to live as a consistent materialist, because it contradicts the most elementary aspirations and uses of the human condition. Every materialist should seriously question whether it makes sense for him to love his children, his spouse, his parents or his friends. And the same applies to his aspirations or his claims to justice: why should one aspire to love or defend justice instead of accepting chance and necessity?

And if materialism, which seems so serious, turns out to be so inhuman, is there not an error in our approach? If, starting from our reductive idea of matter, we end up denying the human, is it not because we have the wrong method? Should we not start from the existence of these human dimensions, which are at least as real as those of matter, to show that the world is richer than the materialistic vision? Or is it that justice does not exist because we do not have a thermometer to measure it?

The problem of freedom

The theme of the "capital letter" of freedom is a special one. Liberty is a great human dimension, much extolled in the history of our modern world. Important statues to Liberty have even been erected in Paris and, above all, in New York (a gift from the French State).

But, if the world is only matter evolved by chance and necessity, there can be no real freedom. Chance means pure chance; and necessity means determination, absence of freedom. If matter is not free and the human being is only matter, he cannot have freedom, at least as it has been understood in the Western tradition. Then all modern culture, even all humanist culture, would have fallen into a fundamental error. It would continue to live in myth and not in science.

Materialistic paradoxes in the face of freedom

Of course, here too it is impossible to be consistent. If we think that freedom does not exist and that everything we do is dominated by chance and necessity, many things would have to change. But any attempt to take this assertion seriously leads to a paradox, even a joke. For if we think that chance and necessity is the explanation for everything, we must also accept that we think this very thing out of pure chance and necessity, and not because it is logical. In fact, it would leave us with no arguments.

Pope Benedict XVI developed this paradox very well: "In the end, this alternative presents itself: what is there at the origin? Either creative Reason, the creative Spirit that realizes everything and lets it develop, or Irrationality that, without thinking and without realizing it, produces a mathematically ordered cosmos, and also man with his reason. But then, human reason would be a chance of Evolution and, at bottom, irrational." (homily in Regensburg, 12.IX.2006).

Confusions about indeterminacy

But let us go to the heart of the matter. If the human being is only matter, dominated by chance and necessity, he cannot really be free. The only materialistic way out of this argument (attempted by many) is to take refuge in quantum mechanics. It turns out that all physics is deterministic, except the physics of subatomic particles, quantum physics, where we cannot determine exactly the position and velocity of elementary particles (electrons, photons) nor their behavior (as a wave or as a corpuscle). This is, in short, Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. According to the current scientific view, matter is totally determined, except in this sphere. The solution would be, then, to try to relate human freedom to this sphere of indeterminacy. This is what Penrose did, for example (The mind of the emperor). And others follow.

But this is a misunderstanding. Indeterminacy means that we do not know where something is or how it will behave. But freedom is more than not being able to foresee what is going to happen. It is precisely deciding and creating what will happen. Seen from afar, the behavior of people can resemble that of subatomic particles because it is unpredictable. But free people think about what they are going to do and what happens next is guided by intelligence and not by indeterminacy. It can be said that the cathedral of Toledo was indeterminate before it was built, because there was no reason to suppose that there would be a cathedral on that land. But the cathedral of Toledo is not the fruit of indetermination, but of human intelligence and freedom: it is the fruit of projects and imagination and creative decisions. Therefore, it is full of thought, something that does not happen in the behavior of elementary particles or in any other sphere of matter.


We are free because we are intelligent. And intelligence is a mystery almost as great as freedom. It is the most evident proof that in the universe there is more than matter: there is intelligence. But also, in the human world, there is truth, justice, beauty and love. For a Christian, all these dimensions are reflections of the image of God. And they have no other possible explanation.

Read more
La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.
Banner advertising
Banner advertising