The World Both as God’s Creation

and also as the Object of Science and Technology


by Dr. Arnd Hollweg


Berlin, Germany



The following extract is taken from the second part of an extensive publication I am planning, on “Lebensgrund in Gott” – The Ground of our being in God. This section follows discussions of aspects of the European history of faith, philosophy and science illustrated by selected examples. I have already discussed the inter-continental connections in my book on “Theologie und Empirie. Ein Beitrag zum Gespräch zwischen Theologie und Sozialwissenschaften in den USA und Deutschland“, Stuttgart 31974, which is here assumed.

Theologically I am trying to base understanding of the divine revelation on the third article of the Creed concerning the Holy Spirit. Through him we gain access to Christian faith in God who shares our human history. This raises the question of the significance of God’s acting through his Spirit in Christ Jesus for the conflict between traditional Greco-metaphysical and the present mathematical and physical world of thought in the global context of human history. What effect can the insights of Christian faith have on philosophical thinking and scientific research into the empirical, historic and social contexts of humankind?  The relationships within these contexts, which are constitutive for the Christian faith, are increasingly lost in the mental world of thought, and even of theology. This I consider to be a challenge to everyone, which stems from the otherness of each different way of understanding. What is at stake is the humanness of human beings in their life, understanding and actions.


Without the connection with the empirical, socio-historical human world Christian faith remains empty. The question of faith in God the Creator of the world has also to be seen in this context. In the history of the Bible, in the debate between monotheistic faith and natural religion, this question arose differently from the way it does today in the debate with science. The confession of God the creator of the world does not imply objective realities “ as such”, as mental sciences understand them, but refers to the Christian faith’s search for God’s pneumatic presence in human history. This issue also raises hermeneutical and linguistic questions.


To understand the world in faith

In our human life, our place for thinking, understanding and acting is in the socio-historical reality of experience. It also influences the circumstances and possibilities of empirical and theoretical thinking. Even when in our mind we manage to escape from our bodily conditions we still always remain present in it in our bodies in flesh and in spirit.[1] We cannot replace this reality by our human work because it is a given factor for us. It is and remains God’s work, who has created it. This is a statement of faith; our intelligence cannot retreat behind the reality in which we live.


We must not confuse faith with our own ideas of reality, nor with speculations, imaginings and convictions which take the place of our thinking and understanding.  Faith, when it is given by God’s creator Spirit, includes experience, knowledge, thinking and understanding. It understands in a light which does not come from us but from God. It is a personal light; it emanates from the contact of human beings with God in Christ.  In it, our humanity shares the energies of God’s Spirit which slumber in us and light up in our consciousness as a part of the pneumatic Christ-event.[2] We experience it in us, in the world in which we live.


I understand the term “world in which we live” to mean theologically God’s creation.[3] His eternal spirit is active in the world, in the limited time of our life on earth. The world of our thinking is not identical with the world in which we live. We really ought to give information about our understanding of world, reality, humanity, God, thinking and recognizing in our lives. The world is not simply an object of our scientific knowledge. It does not exist for us as a reality in itself. Rather, we as human beings exist in it. It is not grounded in itself, but in God whom we experience as the creative origin in our lives in the world in the context of nature and cosmos. As such he cannot be comprehended or seized by our rational understanding of the world, because he is always ahead of us in everything. But in his creative acts through his spirit and his word he reveals himself to us in the pneumatic Christ. In this revelation we recognise that the dynamic Spirit of God creates the inner coherence of our lives in the world.


For that reason, when dealing with our relationship with the world, I start with the working of his Spirit. When we open ourselves to his living word and, in our thinking and understanding, allow him to lead us, our inner life will be imbued by his power. Access to the understanding of the world as God’s creation therefore lies in us because the same Spirit of God works in the world as it does in the ground of our being. In it the cosmos and nature are linked together as of the world that is God’s work. Humans inhabit it as living creatures which he has created as his partners in a relationship of otherness.  In this relationship human beings find their identity which they retain in their dealings with the world. The powers at work in the world no longer dominate their lives, thoughts, behaviour and actions. Instead, in sharing and living in this relationship, they belong to God who has created it.


Thus the relationship between humans who have the ground of their being in the living God and the earthly world, in which they live their temporary lives, is characterised by the structure of otherness.  We know no other world. We are subject to its conditions but it does not absorb us because the ground of our being is our relationship with God in Christ Jesus. We are tied into the world with all its living and material circumstances but at the same time we are not simply a part of it. As we distinguish human beings and the world, we must also distinguish God and the world. His eternal world is not the earthly one; even in faith, it is for us transcendent, inaccessible, not at our disposal. Because of the otherness of both these worlds we can neither identify them nor see them as analogous. However, their connection can be experienced in human life on earth.


Historical and social empirical reality of life and operational processes

It is a miracle in itself that the socio-historical world in which human beings live is embedded in the events in nature and the cosmos. We experience this every day even if the horizon of our understanding is limited. But when the creator Spirit of God enlightens us from the inside we become conscious of the miraculous nature of the events in which we live as human beings on earth. God’s Spirit is at work in the lives of all people even if we do not notice him because his acts occur beyond the reach of our consciousness.  God alone knows what happens in our hearts and consciences. But, as those who perceive, we are part of everything we perceive in the world. Descartes’ “I” in a vacuum is pure fiction. We cannot construct a mental world in our heads in order to derive from it the world in which we live, of which we already are a part. This would mean confusing mental, imaginary worlds with the real world which God has created. Knowledge of this real world is the primary condition for all our understanding.  In order to see this we need the living light of God’s Spirit in us. Through this light we must also distinguish socio-historical empirical reality of life from the technological and operational processes which occur in it through human instrumental thought structures and activities.[4] These structures appertain to the working environment of our industrial and media world and are therefore subject to different scientific disciplines in the context of our society’s division of labour.


Scientific thinking about society does not constitute society. If it did we would deny the place where understanding of society happens in the socio-historic context of human life.[5] Physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, astronomy etc. do not constitute new worlds comparable to the socio-historical anthropological world in which we live. Rather, the various scientific disciplines are concerned with understanding the activating factors in our own human work which is embedded in the world in which we live. We cannot replace these factors by concepts and categories essential for our thinking. Our activity does not create a new world for our life but pre-supposes its existence. It is what it is, and remains what it is, even when we create structures to help us find what we need in order  to be fully human as physical and spiritual beings.


We also need to construct imaginary worlds in our minds to form the basis for our instrumental actions in the operational processes. In these processes we produce objects which are necessary for our lives. These objects belong to the world in which we live but are not identical with what we do in our lives.[6]  This distinction is essential if, in the technological and functional structures of our scientific society, we want to remain human and not just become functions of this society. We are being endangered by our own work if we confuse it with the events in the world in which we live, or project it onto the world or identify with it. The imaginary world of our mind has no reality in itself. It is no transcendent or transcendental super-world and thus not the ground of the reality in which we live. Rather, it is included in this reality and is anthropological by nature. It is based on our thinking and acting in human life in the world, in the context of events in nature and in the cosmos.

Empirical reality of life as a living social whole.


Humans did not create the world in which they live. They find it when they are born and are socialised into it. It does not come from nothing. If we try to explain the origins of the universe by an original “big bang” even scientific knowledge admits that only nothing will come from nothing. If we want to explain the origins of human beings mono-causally by positive or negative selection during the evolution of nature, then human beings’ spiritual existence will be derived from their bodies and their organs. But this ignores the anthropological reality whilst only emphasising the biological reality. We live in our anthropological world in relation to others. These others cannot be arbitrarily ignored. Man and wife, parents and children, neighbours, life and cosmic processes, life and action, eyes and seeing, spirit and thought, spirit and word, intellect and instrumental action, none of these can be experienced in isolation from each other. These relationships with each other cannot be separated by theories of different origins even though these theories contain empirical building-bricks.


When we see a car or a television set we do not see the person who has made these concrete objects for our use. But we cannot conclude that that person does not exist and that these objects just came from nothing. From the mere existence of the car or the television set we cannot deduce only a material reality without an anthropological one. We can only understand the world in which we live if we acknowledge people, objects, machines, nature and spirit in relation to each other, as the Biblical creation story illustrates so vividly: human beings and the world belong together in their otherness like man and woman, plants, animals and everything that we find in the world in which we live. We do not need to deduct mentally one from the other, or explain one by the other.


On the contrary, we have to understand the human world in which we live as a structured whole which is differentiated in itself and in which we are contained. We cannot dissect it. We cannot analyse and explain it in categories of cause and effect. We must become conscious of ourselves within it, in all we think, understand and do. We exist only in relation to it; it is the presupposition for our human life with all our thoughts, behaviours and actions. If we accept this anthropological reality a priori we do not mentally need to derive our human existences in it from whatever cause. However, in the operational processes within the world in which we live we work with causal thought constructions. These are the basis for our actions and our work but not for our thinking in our living spirit. This happens in the personal wholeness of our existence as physical and spiritual entities, based on God’s creative act.


If we look closely we discover in his work that his thoughts, his knowledge and his acts far exceed any ideas we have when we work in his creation. Our lives are three-sided: we share in God through the working of his Spirit in us, we share in the nature on the basis of the organic life in which we are embedded by our bodies, and we share in the interpersonal relationships in their historical and social context. Operational processes also share in the anthropological world in which we live. It requires our responsibility to God, to ourselves and to our fellow humans.


Shaping our human world meaningfully

We can intervene creatively in the physical and organic processes in the world but only within our socio-anthropological reality of life. Our relations with it determine whether our theoretical and technological interventions will be helpful or harmful for our lives. They can only be useful for our lives if we use them “correctly” i.e. responsibly, in our circumstances. They are only sensible if they do not entangle human lives and thus destroy them. They do not change God’s creation. Humans cannot replace creation through their work. By separating God from his created world today we increasingly forget that a functionally operating society is not identical with the events occurring in nature and the cosmos. This leads to the development of a feeling of omnipotence, we think we can basically reconstruct the world in which we live and re-shape it according to our ideas. We cannot rid ourselves of this illusion by ourselves. The new technological possibilities do not help us but rather increase our dilemma when we lose sight of the conditions of our life and actions.


In order to shape our social life in the world we need something opposite to the world if, when dealing with it through the technological functional processes, we do not want to lose our human identity. In that case we would no longer be able to shape or direct our own life. This would lead on the one hand to collectivist and totalitarian structures in our social life and, on the other hand, to technological and operational processes without limits. These processes would become increasingly autonomous and, in their autonomy, escape from our control. This raises the question of free will in human life, or the lack of it.


If we act without being conscious of ourselves in the world we live in and of its possibilities then we imprison ourselves. This increases our entanglement in matters of the world and destroys the inter-personal relationships of our social life. If we are no longer conscious of our own lives as human beings in the world the structures of our lives will become identical with the technological and instrumental thought structures and therefore become instrumental. Then we only function as machines in competition with other machines which we ourselves have constructed using our technological intelligence. In our living physicality we perceive ourselves to be material bodies. As such we are directed by alien powers in whose work of destruction we actively participate.  Thus our actions in the various contexts of the world become counter-productive and self-destructive. These actions lose their inner meaning in our lives and activities and lead to the social impoverishment which we experience today in the midst of the industrial and academic society.  This can be harder to bear than simple poverty.


Thence there is no access to the empirical anthropological world in which we live.  Theoretical, rational scientific knowledge nears its end when the thinking person does not manage to find a different form of access to himself in the inner world in which he lives as a human being.  Rational scientific knowledge therefore needs direction from God’s Spirit in Christ. Otherwise it can change into the construction of a fictitious world which separates us from the basis and the conditions of the life in which we personally participate, as entities of body and spirit. God who dwells beyond the earthly world is active here in human lives through the Spirit of Christ, so that his pneumatic powers can thoroughly penetrate them.  From this new basis of life humans respond to God by using their thoughts, knowledge and actions to shape a human world in which their powers, and those of their fellow humans, can develop fully, personally and socially, physically and spiritually, culturally and ethically, according to God’s intention.


The origins of the world in the context of anthropology

It is necessary to distinguish between personal events and operational processes, and between the reality of inter-personal relations and the functional area of work.  The area of work does not develop in isolation, it remains embedded in, and dependent on, the world in which we live, which is God’s creation. Creation is not just matter or nature and is not identical with happenings in the cosmos which influence life, and to which all life is related. Creation is not only visible but also invisible in our physical and spiritual life, which however is also part of it. But at the same time, in creation, we belong to the creator of all life and all realities. We do not only see his creator Spirit in his creation but experience it in the pneumatic Christ-event in which he establishes communication with us.  Through him we become aware of the ground of our personal being, of his Spirit working with our spirit and of our close link with everything that is created. In physical theological language one could call this spin, the axis around which rotates all movement in the world, through which all that is alive is linked, both internally and externally.[7]  The creative power of the eternal God, who has created heaven and earth and human beings on it, works in us in the pneumatic Christ. Through this power our physical human lives remain linked to the whole of creation. [8]


Without God’s Spirit we cannot recognise that the world is God’s creation, his work, by which we live every day. The Biblical witness says: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible”. (Hebrews 11:3). In other words this means that, in the living God as creator of the world, nothingness is abolished. He himself takes the place of nothingness, his eternal life replaces the transience of our earthly life and the powers of death and destruction which are at work in our human life. We could argue and ask: Why does he not create us as human beings who can live eternally by ourselves? Why doesn’t he abolish death and destruction? Why does our life on earth contain such immense mental, spiritual and physical suffering? Why does he not equip us with the same powers that he has? But that would mean creating “other gods”, who would be in competition with him and, like humans, compete with each other for power, riches and dominion, fight each other and envy all happiness. Ultimately we are accusing God of not having created us as gods and thus abolishing himself.


We strive to take his place in the world in order to have the possibility of ruling over all that is in the world. But in this kind of paganism within and outside the church, in which we want to be like God, we erase the otherness.  We experience the otherness in the divine powers of love, truth, patience and faithfulness which emanate from God in Christ and challenge us to let them fill, rule and lead us, and free us from the snares of our thinking. Thus God’s dominion reaches its goal in us. Freed from our own human desire to dominate we can find the source of our life solely in him. We cannot imagine the human world in which we live without the eternal God as its creator. Otherwise our thinking which is divorced from life will land us hopelessly in ourselves in nothingness. It is God’s word that saves us which, in Christ, has taken on a living form and mediates in our inner life God’s creator Spirit, in which he has created the world.


In the Christ-event we are linked with the origins of the world in which we now live.[9]  In the living light of God’s spirit in us the origins of the world are present and effective in us. In all our human tribulations and doubts we are certain of our relationship with the creator. This frees us from the empty theories of origins in which we continue to get involved in our objective thinking, in which we identify the mentally constructed worlds with God’s creation and transmute them into a pseudo-reality. But then we will search in vain for an empirical link with the reality in which we live.


Nobody has been able to observe the origins of the world. Nobody needs to discover the world in which they find themselves empirically.  Nobody needs to derive their humanness from a mental biological reality which takes the place of the relationship between human and non-human life in all its otherness.  When we project the structures of metaphysical and theoretical thinking onto the human world in which we live, which did not emanate from our thinking and actions, we find no access to it.


The Biblical creation stories in the empirical context of life

The Biblical story of God’s dealings with people, which still continues in our life today, begins with the light in which God created the world. (Gen. 1:1-2; 4a) The creation story relates to the human experience of life and reality, from which it cannot be separated even in dialogue with the sciences. In it, heaven and earth, humans and nature, spirit and light belong together. Heaven doesn’t mean the dwelling-place of the eternal God as creator of this world.[10]  The creation narrative distinguishes between sky and heaven. It does not begin with the identity of the two in the origins of human life on earth but with the pneumatic event in which God, through his spirit and his word, has created the world we live in on earth. In it we humans not only find the conditions necessary for life but we also enter into a personal relationship with God when we open our spirit to the working of his spirit in our lives. The creation narrative does not deal with theoretical human speculations about the origins of the world isolated from our human life. This is not a world as such but the world created by God in which we live, here and now, as human beings.


Creation didn’t start with a big bang, by which suddenly a differentiated lump of matter appeared, but it owes its existence to God’s acting in the time in which we now live. The creation narrative in Genesis 1 distinguishes seven steps in time, each of which shows the reasons for the autonomy of, and connections between, everything that God has created.  By fitting it into the period of a week – a time-span which humans can understand – the creation narrative avoids becoming a timeless mythical idea.[11] 


The “anti-mythical tendency” also appears in the curious phenomenon that the light-giving heavenly bodies of sun, moon and stars are created after light itself, and after the separation of day and night. They really are lamps that have a certain function and not gods as they were for some of Israel’s neighbours. (Cf. v. Rad, 42f). In the argument with natural religions we find a first “enlightenment” in the Bible by the Bible.


We cannot fit God’s action into our time or into our time-lines. He is the eternal God even before the time in which we humans live, as he is in it and will be after it. His work therefore cannot be described in the temporal terms of our human life. What we divide into periods of time the psalmist sees together in God’s eternity: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night”. (Ps.90:4) Therefore it is irrelevant, ultimately, in which span of time and in which order God has created the world. In the Bible there are two different creation narratives with two different ideas of the time it took to create the world and human beings, and they simply cannot be harmonised with each other.  Whilst Gen 1:1-2, 4a uses seven steps in time to describe the creation of the cosmos, nature and humankind as man and woman, culminating in Sabbath rest, the narrative in Gen. 1:2,4b ff describes how God creates man (Adam) and makes a garden with plants and animals around him. This report culminates in the differentiation of man and woman.


The two narratives are based on different experiences of danger and of the preservation of creation. Gen.1 deals with floods and inundations, Gen. 2 with drought and aridity – both are problems today.[12]  In the first chapter God forms the cosmos from the chaos of the waters; in the second chapter he makes fertile land from the desert. In the one he saves from inundations, in the other from aridity.[13] Gen.1 is concerned with creation in its widest sense, in “heaven and earth”; Gen.2 focuses entirely on the human beings in their immediate environment. The “creatio ex nihilo” (Heb. 1:3) suggests that before the creation of the earth and the world-wide sky as the dwelling-place for human life in the world, only God the creator existed.  Israel was not confined to one socio-historical cultural context but, on the basis of its faith, reacted differently to the different contexts.


Creationism and scientific atheism – are they hostile twins?

The creation narratives in the Bible come from different contexts, and this shows that any reference back to the creation of the world and of human beings is always made in relation to human life in the present time and cannot be imagined in the abstract, lacking neither time nor place but sharing the here and now of faith. The fact that the creation stories are set side by side shows that they cannot be taken literally as radical creationists maintain.


This leads us to the basic hermeneutical problem of the relationship between the Bible and the word of God, between the letter and the spirit. Radical creationists cling to the teaching of verbal inspiration, which means that every word of the Bible has to be taken as literally true. But the word of God is not identical with the written word; it is God’s living word in the pneumatic Christ who comes to us through the Biblical authors’ witness of faith. Being tied to “scripture” therefore does not mean being tied to letters, texts or printed paper but refers to God’s spirit in Jesus Christ who speaks to us personally and concretely: “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” writes Paul to the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 3:6b).


Other creationist tendencies link the message of the Bible to scientific theories as alleged proof for the Biblical stories. Dogmatic thinking is thus projected onto the origins of the world and of life. The followers of “Intelligent Design” hold that the world and life developed on the basis of fundamental planning elements are the result of the workings of a supernatural intelligence or a great world designer. The problem here is that faith in God the creator is turned into a pseudo-scientific theory of explanation in competition with other scientific theories. The intention is, in our minds to devalue the other theories with doctrinal reasons and arguments in order to prove the truth of the Biblical version. But this risks rendering theological theories absolute, something which faith worked by God’s Spirit does not require.  Alleged doctrinal certainties as a basis for our faith are nothing but mental crutches which the faithful must jettison in order to seek certainty in the pneumatic acts of God.


Editor’s Note: This paper will continue and conclude in the upcoming July-August 2012 issue of this Journal.

[1] Cf. Arnd Hollweg: Erfahren und Erkennen in Teilhabe an der Lebenswelt, in: Gruppe, Gesellschaft, Diakonie, Stuttgart 1976, 21ff.

[2][2] In this context, the meaning of the term “pneumatic Christ-event” is the theme of the whole book. Briefly, it means a dynamic and personal understanding of the “Christ in us” which Paul, among others, explains in Romans 8.

[3] One of the schools of thought that has critically studied the term “Lebenswelt” and still has great influence on our thinking is the so-called Marburg Circle which gathered round the philosopher Edmund Husserl. He replaced Kant’s concrete perception of the world of matter by the “world of human life” and interpreted “things” as “phenomena” in it, which he understood to be “entities” of human life. Ultimately his relation with Kant’s philosophy came down to a re-naming of concepts, which turned concrete thinking into the perception of phenomena. His philosophy tells us nothing about the relation between thinking and seeing. His pupil Martin Heidegger extended this issue in relation to the temporary nature of human life, and thus raised the linguistic question of human understanding.

[4] By operational processes I mean rational, technological and instrumental ways of acting when dealing with reality: on the micro-level of scientific knowledge for instance procedures to analyse the particles and elements of phenomena, like bacteria in a drop of water or chemical substances in human blood.  The macro-level adds technological tools and apparatus when dealing with processes in the cosmic sphere. Meanwhile the term has also entered into other fields, for instance economy and administration. But  scientific epistemology remains dominant.

[5] Empirical topology is concerned with this distinction. It is not identical with the theoretical location definition in operational processes. On the subject of psychological topology cf. Kurt Lewin: Feldtheorie in den Sozialwissenschaften, Bern/Stuttgart 1963

[6] Cf. Arnd Hollweg: Theologie und Empirie. Ein Beitrag zum Gespräch zwischen Theologie und Sozialwissenschaften in den USA und Deutschland, Stuttgart 31974. This book deals with the basic difference between the social interaction between people and the functional operational processes prevalent in modern society, in order to avoid social life becoming subsumed into these processes.

[7] This example uses points from a discussion in a different context, and is neither an analogy nor an identification.

[8] Creation cannot be recognised without reference to Jesus Christ. In Christian faith, God the creator is not the immovable mover of Aristotle nor only the ultimate ground of the cosmic process, as Alfred N. Whitehead puts it. Process theology which is popular in the United States has adopted Whitehead’s theological and philosophical  ideas.  John B. Cobb, one of its foremost representatives, starts with Whitehead’s understanding of God as the ultimate ground of all happenings in the cosmos but emphasises that his own faith is inseparable from Jesus Christ. (J.B.Cobb Jr.: Theologie: Von einer Aufklärungswissenschaft zu einem globalen christlichen Denken, in: J.B. Bauer (Hg): Entwürfe der Theologie, Graz/Wien/Köln 1985, 16)  But, for him, Christ-centrism and universalism are not irreconcilable. (21)

[9] This is how we understand the statements in the New Testament about Christ as the mediator of creation, e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15ff, and about the logos in John 1:1ff.

[10] The English language is much more precise than German, by using two different terms for the German “Himmel”.  The word “sky” means the cosmic space around us, the word “heaven” the invisible world of God.

[11] The priestly version of the creation narrative (Gen. 1:1-2; 4a) evolved in a long process of tradition. The seven day scheme belongs to a later phase of the evolution. “By placing the creation events into the course of a number of days all possibilities of mythical thinking are excluded. It is an event that is reported, unique in its results and of irrevocable finality.” (G.v Rad, Das erste Buch Mose, ATD, Göttingen 41956,51).

[12] In Gen. 1:6ff God pushes back the waters sufficiently to make room for creation.  The experience of receding floods came for instance from the flood plains of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. (cf. H.Fischer: Schöpfung und Urknall, Zürich 2009, 40f)

[13]  It is clear that the narratives date from different periods of time and different cultural contexts.  Gen. 1:1-2; 4a is part of the priestly text from after the Babylonian exile and uses Babylonian knowledge. It is not by accident that it culminates in the Sabbath rest, because since the Exile the Sabbath, beside circumcision, has been the main sign of witness for the Israelites. (v.Rad, 49) Gen. 2:4bff records the non-priestly original narrative which deals with the preservation of the ancient and original orders of life and comes in the form of a book of wisdom. The timing and literary classification of Gen. 2:4b-8.22 is controversial, cf. E.Otto, art. Pentateuch  in RGG4 Vol.6, 1089ff.  

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