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Russell, Robert John. “Finite Creation without a Beginning: The Doctrine of Creation in Relation to Big Bang and Quantum Cosmologies."

Robert Russell’s paper is divided into two sections. In the first section Russell focuses on inflationary Big Bang cosmology and the problem of t=0. The theological reaction to t=0 has thus far been rather mixed. Some (such as Peters) have welcomed it as evidence of divine creation; others (such as Barbour and Peacocke) have dismissed it as irrelevant to the core of the creation tradition. As Russell sees it, the argument on both sides has been shaped by the work of Gilkey in his Maker of Heaven and Earth. Here Gilkey acknowledges that the problem of relating empirical and ontological language is a fundamental issue for theologians, reflecting what he later calls the “travail of Biblical language.” However Russell is critical of Gilkey’s resolution of the problem, which begins with his use of the traditional distinction between what can be called “ontological origination” and “historical/empirical origination.” Gilkey, citing Aquinas, seems to view these as strictly dichotomous alternatives. One then either rejects the latter as theologically irrelevant (Gilkey’s position) or elevates the latter into the essential meaning of the former (the position Gilkey rejects). In the first case, science, insofar as t=0 is concerned, plays no role in theology; in the second case it plays a normative role.

Russell criticizes both extremes by attempting to undermine Gilkey’s assumption that the alternatives should form a strict dichotomy. Instead he believes that historical/empirical origination provides an important corroborative meaning for ontological origination, although it is neither its essential nor even its central meaning, a view, incidently, which he takes to be more in keeping with that of Aquinas. Russell then argues that an important way of relating historical/empirical origination to ontological origination is through the concept of finitude. This abstract concept, initially closely connected to ontological origination, can take on an important historical/empirical meaning in the context of cosmology, where the past temporal finitude of the universe is represented by the event, t=0. Hence he argues that t=0 is relevant to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo if one interprets arguments about historical origination (such as found in t=0) as offering confirming, but neither conclusive nor essential, evidence for ontological origination. In this way science plays a more vigorous role in the doctrine of creation than many scholars today allow but without providing its essential meaning. In particular, taking a cue from the writings of Ian Barbour, Nancey Murphy and Philip Clayton, he frames his approach in terms of a Lakatosian research program in theology. Creation ex nihilo as ontological origination will form the core hypothesis of this program, with t=0 entering as confirming evidence through the use of a series of auxiliary hypotheses involving the concept of finitude deployed in increasingly empirical contexts of meaning.

In the second section, he discusses the Hartle/Hawking proposal for quantum cosmology. Their startling claim is that the universe, though having a finite age, has no beginning event, t=0; i.e., that the universe is finite but unbounded in the past. How should this result affect the arguments in Part I? To answer this, he first critically discusses the positions developed by Isham, Davies and Drees regarding the theological significance of the Hartle/Hawking proposal. Next he presents Hawking’s own theological views and offers a counterargument to them. Finally, his constructive position is that the Hartle/Hawking proposal, even if its scientific status is transitory, can teach us a great deal theologically. First, given their work, we should distinguish between the theological claim that creation is temporally finite in the past and the further claim that this past is bounded by the event, t=0. This leads to the important recognition that the first claim by itself is actually quite sufficient for creatio ex nihilo. Hence Russell says we can set aside arguments specifically over t=0 and yet retain the historical/empirical sense of the past temporal finitude of creation. Moreover, this insight, which he terms “finite creation without a beginning,” is valid whether or not the Hartle/Hawking proposal stands scientifically; thus it suggests that we can in fact work with “speculative proposals” at the frontiers of science instead of restricting ourselves necessarily to well-established results, as most scholars cautiously advise. He views this generalization of the meaning of finitude as an additional auxiliary hypothesis to our research program, and following Lakatos again, look for novel predictions it might entail and without which it would be ad hoc.

Thus, Russell analyzes the temporal status of the universe in terms of quantum gravity and general relativity. The variety of ways time functions here (external, internal, phenomenological) and their implications for the temporality of the universe lead to important new directions for understanding God’s action as creator and the doctrine of creation. From one perspective, the combination of quantum gravity and general relativity describes the universe as having domains of a temporal, of a timeless, and of a transitional character. Accordingly we must reconsider God’s relation as Creator to each of these domains. Here the generalization of the concept of finitude to include an unbounded finitude might allow us to claim the occurrence of the transition domain as a Lakatosian “novel fact” of our research program. From a different perspective, however, taken as quantum gravity the fundamental theory replacing general relativity. Here God’s relation to the universe as a whole will need to be reinterpreted in terms of the complex role and status of temporality in quantum gravity. In either case, God’s activity as Creator is not limited to a ‘first moment’ (whether or not one exists) but to the entire domain of nature, returning us to the general problem of divine action in light of science. Russell closes by pointing, then, to the need to rethink the current models of divine agency and of the relation between time and eternity in terms of a more complex understanding of temporality from a Trinitarian perspective informed by quantum physics and quantum cosmology.

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