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Is the Universe Designed?

So successfully has this harmonization of Jerusalem and Athens to produce a doctrine of cosmology and/or creation that came together in “one universal sympathy” penetrated our understanding, indeed our very language, that when the second of our three Cosmic Questions is raised, “Is the universe designed?” it is almost automatic to associate it primarily with the tradition of Jerusalem. That happens regardless of how one answers it: in the negative, and even if one dismisses it (although Lucretius did not so much dismiss it as rule it out of court as unanswerable); or in the affirmative - giving either answer on either theological or philosophical or scientific grounds (or, more usually, on some combination of these, whether one admits it or not). A search of the Hebrew Bible for its own answer to this Cosmic Question, however, comes up with significantly fewer proof texts than might initially have seemed obvious. The immediate contexts of two of the most familiar such texts, which have often been cited in discussions of this question of design - the words of the Psalmist, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained,”Psalm 8:3.and the divine version of the Cosmic Question addressed as a summons to Job out of the whirlwind, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”Job 38:4.- show that both passages are intended primarily not to propound an argument from design, as in the traditional proofs for the existence of God, but to point to the epistemological and ontological chasm between the Infinite and the finite, between our “know[ing] in part”1 Corinthians 13:12.and Ultimate Mystery.

Because the New Testament, by contrast with the Old, has Gentiles and nonbelievers in view as well as believers, it refers to design somewhat more often: in two appeals of Paul directly to the Greeks, arguing that God “left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons,”Acts 14:17.and again, more familiarly, that “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands. . . , though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live and move and have our being: as certain also of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring’“;Acts 17:24, 27-28.and, most familiarly of all, spoken not to the Greeks but about them, “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead”Romans 1:20.- although the phrase “from the creation of the worlds [apo tēs ktiseōs tou kosmou]” here probably does not mean “on the basis of the creation of the world,” as it has often been taken,Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven, 1993), 65-66.but “ever since the creation,” as all the significant twentieth-century English versions have rendered it: The Revised Standard Version; The New English Bible; The New Jerusalem Bible; New Revised Standard Version; The Revised English Bible.

For a direct and explicit consideration of this second Cosmic Question, it is nevertheless necessary to turn first not to Jerusalem but to Athens, beginning, as one might expect, with the genius of the pre-Socratic natural philosophers. The brief but incisive chapter on “The Teleological Thinkers: Anaxagoras and Diogenes” in Werner Jaeger’s Gifford Lectures connects their metaphysics to their physics:

The idea of this preconceived world-plan is quite worthy of the rational physics of the fifth century [B.C.E.]; it is peculiarly fitting in a period that ascribes decided significance to technē in all realms of being and even finds it present in nature itself. The mechanism of the creative vortical motion is the ingenious device by which Anaxagoras, like other of his contemporaries, tried to explain the formation of the world. The fact that he made the divine Mind guide the vortex in a specific direction gave his physics its new teleological aspect. That is what caught Plato’s attention.Werner Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers: The Gifford Lectures for 1936 (Oxford, 1947), 163.

Despite such anticipations, however, Francis Cornford is correct in concluding, on the basis of the contrast both with pre-Socratic philosophy and with the cosmogonies of Homer and especially of Hesiod, that it was Plato in the Timaeus who “introduced, for the first time in Greek philosophy, the alternative scheme of creation by a divine artificer, according to which the world is like a work of art designed with a purpose.”Francis MacDonald Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology: The “Timaeus” of Plato Translated with a Running Commentary (reprint edition; New York, 1957), 31.

According to Plato in the Timaeus, “the supreme originating principle of Becoming and the Cosmos [geneseōs kai kosmou . . . archēn kyriōtatēn],” or, as he had called it a bit earlier, “the Cause wherefor He that constructed it constructed Becoming and the All,” could be stated this way: “He was good, and in him that is good no envy [phthonos] ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, as far as possible, like unto Himself.” But this answer to the second of our three Cosmic Questions, “Is the universe designed?” was in turn based on the presupposition he had just formulated in the previous paragraph: “When the artificer [ho dēmiourgos] of any object, in forming its shape and quality, keeps his gaze fixed on that which is uniform, using a model of this kind, that object, executed in this way, must of necessity be beautiful [kalon].”Plato Timaeus 28A. But Plato also insisted, on the basis of this relation between the kalon model and the kalon created object, that “if so be that this Cosmos is beautiful [kalos] and its Constructor good [agathos], it is plain that he fixed his gaze on the Eternal [pros to aïdion].”Plato Timaeus 30A. That was also why, as he said much later, relating goodness, beauty, proportionality, and design, “All that is good is beautiful, and the beautiful is not void of due measure [pān dē to agathon kalon, to de kalon ouk ametron].”Plato Timaeus 87C. Harking back to the pre-Socratic consideration of the relation between creation and technē, Plato argued in addition that although “the most of men” considered the empirical causes of empirical effects to be “primary causes,” they were actually only “auxiliary Causes [xynaitiai],” by comparison with this “Form of the Most Good [tēn tou aristou. . . idean].”Timaeus 46C-D.

It is, nevertheless, more than slightly disingenuous to attach the credit (or, if you prefer, the blame) for our second Cosmic Question, “Is the universe designed?” so exclusively to Athens, and not to Jerusalem as well. For when God the Creator, in the Septuagint Genesis, completed one step of the creation after another, he saw that it was (in the key word of Timaeus) “kalon”;Genesis 1:4; 10; 12; 18; 21; 25 (LXX).for good measure, the Septuagint even added one such “God saw that it was kalon” to the account of the creation of the firmament, where there is no corresponding statement in the Hebrew text.Genesis 1:8 (LXX). Thus to become the comprehensive cosmogony it was to be in the form that it eventually acquired, Plato’s answer in the Timaeus, that this pattern for making things and model for creation, which he called “paradeigma,” was the design of which the cosmos was an image, which he called “eikōnPlato Timaeus 29B.- or even Aristotle’s version of causality and teleology - required a further clarification of the monotheistic problem. And that clarification came not from Athens but from Jerusalem, from the primal creed of Israel as confessed in the sacred formula of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord,”Deuteronomy 6:4.and then from the elaboration and defense of monotheism in the opening words of the only truly ecumenical creed of Christendom, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, “We believe in one God the Father all-powerful, maker of heaven and of earth, and of all things both seen and unseen.”Norman F. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (2 vols.; London and Washington, 1990), 1:24 (following his capitalization and punctuation). The generation of fourth-century Greek Christian thinkers who wrote that creed of 381 also systematized this transition “from tychē to telos.”Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture, chapter 10, “From Tyche to Telos,” 152-65. In the Latin West it was above all Augustine who brought together Athens and Jerusalem, cosmology and/or creation, into his own distinctive version of the answer to the second Cosmic Question, “Is the universe designed?” by setting forth an interpretation in which the divine design resembled a poem or psalm that preexists as an entity in my mind but assumed linear temporality when I recite it.Jaroslav Pelikan, The Mystery of Continuity: Time and History, Memory and Eternity in the Thought of Saint Augustine (Charlottesville, 1986), 52-69.

Contributed by: Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan

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Jaroslav Pelikan

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