Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 1

Metanexus: Views 2001.12.17 2435 words

"Humans have told each other stories for thousands of years. At campfiresand in courts and temples, humans told stories about the origin of theirworld, of the hunting grounds of their tribe, of women and men, of thediscovery of wheat and of fire, of the sun and the moon. Creation storiesexpressed how humans understood themselves in relation to theirenvironment," observes Dutch theologian Willem Drees.

Yes, it is human nature (and perhaps even the very nature of what is soparticularly human) to tell stories, to create myths, and to thereby achievesome kind of understanding of all that is going on around us. But, as Dreespoints out:

"Such ancient myths are sometimes compared to science, as if the issue werefactual correctness, say about a worldwide flood or about creation in sevendays. When creation stories are judged in this way, they fail. When solelyseen as factual claims, these narratives of a distant past are ready for thedustbin, or perhaps for a museum of cultural history. 'That is how people inthe past thought about these things, but now we know better.'"

But do we really know better? Or are we simply reflecting the naturalarrogance of a younger, and thus somehow smarter, generation? We ought neverforget that phlogiston was once a trendy, hip, and obvious explanation. But,like many other incorrect scientific hypotheses phlogiston, just like acertain kind of ether, has gone the way of all flesh. But not so, thecreation myths. And why might this be? Prof. Drees observes that "creationstories can be appreciated as expressions of what moved people, what excitedthem, hurt them, made them feel grateful. In that sense, they go beyond thelimitations of their own worldview. We can recognize them and identify withthem, since we face similar challenges. Wonder about existence, awareness ofdependence upon forces that are beyond our control, a sense ofresponsibility: these are themes that can and should be articulated as wellin the language of our time."

And it is Prof. Drees' intention to attempt such an articulation via bothpoetry and prose in his book Creation: From Nothing Until Now (Paperback orLibrary Binding, 128pp; ISBN: 0415256534; Routledge; December 2001). And wewill be serializing excerpts from that text all this week here on Metanexus.About his book, Prof. Drees states that it is "not only an expression ofconfidence in the natural history of our universe, but also a quest forfaith in the context of the natural history of our Universe'. How can wehold on to a humane sense of meaning, how can we articulate religiousconvictions in the context of what we know about our world 'from nothinguntil now'?"

So, read on to find out about what we really know and what it just mightmean given all that has happened "from nothing until now".

Willem B. Drees is professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at LeidenUniversity, the Netherlands. He has an advanced degree in theoreticalphysics (Utrecht, 1977) and doctorates in theology (Groningen, 1989) andphilosophy (Amsterdam, 1994). For many years, he has been initiating andco-ordinating science and religion programmes at the Vrije Universiteit,Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He also held the Nicolette Bruining Chair forPhilosophy of Nature and of Technology from a liberal-protestant perspectiveat Twente University from 1995 until september 2001. He has been the editorof ESSSAT News and an active member of the Council of ESSSAT, the EuropeanSociety for the Study of Science And Theology, and chairedthe Star Island conference of IRASon 'Human meaning in atechnological culture' in the Summer of 2001. He is the author of a varietyof books and articles in Dutch, German and English, including Religion,Science and Naturalism (Cambridge UP, 1996) and Beyond the Big Bang: QuantumCosmologies and God (Open Court, 1990).

--Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 1From: Willem B. DreesEmail: <>



There is a great story to be told: the development of our world from thevery first beginning up to our time, a history 'from nothing until now'.Through the sciences we have learned a lot about the natural history of ourUniverse. Though our knowledge is neither complete nor final, someconclusions have been established beyond reasonable doubt. Hence, we have totake such scientific insights into account when we articulate and explicateour convictions. What does it mean for our view of humans, of human habitsand culture, to know that we have come to be what we are via a longevolutionary process? What does it mean for our view of the Earth when webecome aware that our planet is like a speck of dust in a huge universe - auniverse that apparently once started small itself? This book is anexpression of 'faith in the natural history of the Universe', of confidencein our current view of the natural history of the Universe - the history ofstars and of life on Earth.

Creation stories

Humans have told each other stories for thousands of years. At campfires andin courts and temples, humans told stories about the origin of their world,of the hunting grounds of their tribe, of women and men, of the discovery ofwheat and of fire, of the sun and the moon. Creation stories expressed howhumans understood themselves in relation to their environment.

Such ancient myths are sometimes compared to science, as if the issuewere factual correctness, say about a worldwide flood or about creation inseven days. When creation stories are judged in this way, they fail. Whensolely seen as factual claims, these narratives of a distant past are readyfor the dustbin, or perhaps for a museum of cultural history. 'That is howpeople in the past thought about these things, but now we know better.'

However, creation stories can be appreciated as expressions of whatmoved people, what excited them, hurt them, made them feel grateful. In thatsense, they go beyond the limitations of their own worldview. We canrecognize them and identify with them, since we face similar challenges.Wonder about existence, awareness of dependence upon forces that are beyondour control, a sense of responsibility: these are themes that can and shouldbe articulated as well in the language of our time. In that sense this bookis not only an expression of confidence in the natural history of ouruniverse, but also a quest for faith in the context of the natural historyof our Universe'. How can we hold on to a humane sense of meaning, how canwe articulate religious convictions in the context of what we know about ourworld 'from nothing until now'?

Narrative and justification

This book seeks to offer a justified creation story. It thereby is not justanother popularization of science. We will reflect on our place and task inthe light of the sciences. A first step in this project is the quest for newimages. Poets may be better qualified for this task. Nonetheless I give myown wording of some aspects of the history of our world, a kind of 'creationstory' - speaking of 'mystery', 'integrity', 'dependence' and'responsibility' in an interpretation of the history of our world 'fromnothing until now'. With such words, the story goes beyond the realm ofscience; it expresses a spirituality, a way of being in the world.

Images can be misleading. We should attempt to speak clearly andcorrectly. As I see it, the critical attitude of modern culture is a greatgift. Thus, the larger part of this book is an explication and justificationof this creation story. In the justification I relate to mainstream scienceas it has developed over the last few centuries. It is, in my view, not agood strategy to seek to save 'faith' by constructing a 'science' of one'sown, as is done in fundamentalism (e.g., 'creationism') as well as byspiritual seekers (e.g., 'holism', astrology, parapsychology). Neither is ita good strategy to play down science too much. Science is not merelyoffering models that allow us to calculate the strength of a bridge. In myopinion, science is more than an instrument. With the theories and models ofthe last two centuries we are able to describe and explain very successfullylarge segments of reality. Through the sciences we are finding out about theway the world is.

We begin at the beginning, and thus consider ultimate questions - aboutthe origin of our Universe and its lawfulness (scenes 1-3). Then we willtake a closer look at the development of the Universe - the formation ofmatter and, on Earth, the emergence of purpose in a process driven by chance(scenes 4-6). One of the remarkable outcomes of this process, among many,has been the emergence of humans with their social and intellectualcapacities, with morality and religions, and - a few centuries ago - withscience and critical thinking (scenes 7-9). In three asides, I will considerthe impact of modern developments on our understanding of the nature ofreligion, of science, and of reality.

We are the product of a long history, 'from nothing until now', asconsidered here. Time does not end with us; we are also producers. We arecreative creatures. And, thanks to the sciences and to our socialorganization, we have acquired enormous powers; we can modify our world.Thus, we need to become responsible beings (scene 10). The epilogueconsiders further our creative nature, both our involvement in changing ourworld and our freedom to develop new images and ideas about humans, theworld, and God.


Humans are social beings. Those who came to hear me lecture on these issueshave stimulated me to express myself more clearly. Among them I countespecially the engineering students of the University of Twente. I amgrateful to the board of the Nicolette Bruining Foundation for entrusting tome the Nicolette Bruining chair for philosophy of nature and of technologyfrom a liberal protestant perspective. During the years this book tookshape, I have also been enriched by faculty of the Vrije Universiteit inAmsterdam, especially by my immediate colleagues at its Bezinningscentrum, acenter dedicated to interdisciplinary reflection on religious and ethicalissues related to the sciences. Furthermore, I have benefited greatly fromconversations with scholars and scientists from around the world.

As this manuscript is sent to the publisher, I am about to becomeexecutive director of ALLEA, the federation of ALL European Academies.Academies of science and of scholarship in the humanities have always soughtto recognize, promote and support academic quality and professionalintegrity. They also serve to communicate responsibly the best availablescience to policy makers and to the wider public. Even though the presentbook, with its mistakes, idiosyncrasies and biases, is fully my ownresponsibility, I hope that it may be an acceptable example of communicatingscientific ideas and their potential significance.

The creation story was originally presented as one of the Andreas IdreosLectures in May 1998, and subsequently published by Harris ManchesterCollege in Oxford. Versions have also been presented at Northwestern Collegein Orange City (Iowa), Trinity College (Toronto), the University of Guelph,a workshop organized by the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford, and at DartmouthCollege in Hanover, NH; precursors were published in Dutch and in German.Elements of the following, especially of the epilogue, were also used in theSamuel Ferguson Lectures presented in May 1999 at the University ofManchester.

With gratitude I mention my wife Zwanet and my children, Johannes,Annelot and Esther. To these children, and to their friends of generationsto come I dedicate this book. May the book inspire them to an open andresponsible engagement with the wisdom that can be found in our religiousheritage and with the knowledge uncovered by the sciences.


There was a time when there was no time, when time was not yet.

The time when there was no time is a horizon of not knowing a mist where our questions fade and no echo returns.Then, in the beginning, perhaps not the beginning, in the first fraction of a second, perhaps not the first fraction of the first second, our universe began without us.

After the beginning, perhaps not the beginning, after the first fraction of a second, perhaps not the first fraction of the first second, after our universe began, still without us,then the universe was like seething water without land and without air, like a fire without wood and without cold.The universe, as small as it was, created itself space, matter, and the cool of the day.In billions of galaxies the universe made itself from dust stars from stars dust.Much later, from dust from stars from dust from stars from dust swirled our Sun and from leftovers the Earth, our home.Thus, after ten billion years, there was evening and there was morning: the first day.

Life a modest beginning, undirected, a history of failing and occasionally a small success.A molecule carried information from generation to generation, history bred purpose, by chance.

Poison became a gift, oxygen a protective robe.Billions of years later cells merge, sex and aging, death and deception.A rare slow lungfish slithered through the grass; thus came amphibians to pass.Successful life a disaster, gone another tide.

Yesterday a few million years ago the East Side Story: groups of apes groom, hunt and call.Sticks, stones, fire eating from the tree of knowledge the tree of good and evil, power, freedom, responsibility:Beasts became us more was delivered than ordered, more than we can bear?

Religion cement of the tribe response to power of mountains, the storm, the sea, birth and death, power as large as gods.Yesterday ten thousand years ago Abel was killed by his brother, we farmers eat ashamed our bread, the earth cries, forever red?A new age, a prophet warns king and people, a carpenter tells 'a man who fell among robbers, was cared for by an enemy'.

Look, measure and count, challenge knowledge and authority!Enlightenment way out of immaturity.

In us our heritage, matter, information, and a box full of stories.Between hope and fear our neighbors life here on Earth,between hope and fear the great project of thought and compassionon a road of freedom.

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