The Universe We Know In

Socrates was fond of repeating the advice of the Oracle: “Know thyself.” He probably said, “Know thyself,” rather than, “Know the world,” because it is more difficult to know oneself than to know the world. Self-introspection yields not ourselves, but something approaching infinity beyond ourselves. The first thing we know about ourselves is that we have a faculty whereby we know. Yet, we did not give this strange knowing power to ourselves. We wonder perhaps why we have it.

Plato, in fact, thought that the universe was not complete unless within it something existed that could understand it. To him, it was almost as if the universe, being spoken, needed to be spoken back, rearticulated for what it was. Such a view presupposes that within the universe itself is found an intelligibility that makes this specific universe to be what it is rather than some other one that may be possible. This intelligibility is not put there by the human mind but is found there already and is coherent, however long and laborious the process of discovery may be.

In our intellectual comprehension of things, we stand outside the ongoing complexity of what the universe is. Yet, as existing beings within it, we clearly also belong to the universe. Human beings may be an anomaly, but we are here with as much title as any other being in the universe including the universe itself. We do not much worry that this cosmos might in fact not be as it appears or that it might be configured differently. We find intelligibility in the universe; we do not put it there. The fact that we can speak of a “drama” of the universe implies that it reveals a plot of some kind. We wonder what sort of evidence there might be for its meaning.

As Christians, we have an explanation of the universe and our place within it. It comes to us, as it were, on good authority. We can look on and understand this explanation as it is revealed to us. When we have spelled this overall plan out, we can ask also, using our minds, whether it fits in with what we can know and figure out by ourselves through our science and intuition. The first thing to recognize is that the universe, the cosmos, what is called in Genesis “the heavens and the earth,” need not exist. God is not part of creation. He stands outside of it. He does not need it unless He so wills. The universe depends on Him; He does not depend on it. Aristotle once hinted that the world existed because God was lonely, that He lacked what is best in us, namely, the relation to and friendship with others. Thus, in this view, the world exists because God lacked something. If this position were true, God would be less than God.

But creation does not teach this dependency of God. It teaches the opposite. God is not lonely. Still, Aristotle had reason for thinking as he did. What he lacked was an understanding of the inner life of God, something not known except to the Godhead itself. Many things in Aristotle are right about God. His God even seems to have some care for the world. He does move also by love and desire as a final cause. But it was only the doctrine of the Trinity that fully explained the sense of Aristotle’s concern. If there is love and inner friendship within God, then He would have no need to create to make up a deficiency. It does not follow from this position, however, that God lacked a reason to create, or that He did not create out of love. It only means that He did not create out of inner necessity of His own.

When it comes to the making of things, the first philosophical principle is that the first thing in intention is the last thing in execution. Moreover, the last thing in execution is what is the reason for creation in the first place. What I am concerned about here is the overall structure of the universe, but this “structure,” as it were, is itself dependent on why it exists in the first place. When Cicero said our distinguishing characteristic is reason, whatever its source, he meant that it was the activity of this faculty of our soul that was meant to be fully activated for the universe to be completed.

Christianity would not disagree with this view. It would add that reason is open also to what is revealed to it from the source of reason itself if that origin should choose to act. Evidently, all beings with reason in their nature can communicate with each other at some level. Revelation is mind speaking to mind. Revelation is not primarily intended to confuse man, but to enlighten him about what is. It does this in a peculiar way, for revelation comes to us more fully through redemption than creation. Yet, creation already sets forth the grounds whereby redemption might be necessary that the initial purpose of God in creation is to be attained.

Creatio Ex Nihilo
The cosmos itself, it appears, came into being, with time and space, between 13 and 14 billion years ago. In one sense, this seems like a long time ago, but in another sense it is a finite period, not an infinite one. Some earlier theories of cosmic origin wanted to maintain that the origin was in an infinite time past, which theoretically would allow for many kinds of experiments to take place for configuring the world as it is. The evidence seems now clear that the cosmos began with what is called a “big bang” in which everything in its physical structure is present in principle. This fact requires the existence of a super-intelligence outside the universe.

What is remarkable about this beginning is that it could not have originated from “nothing.” This fact indicates that its origin must have been with an all knowing being that understood the structure of the world and placed its order within it to be worked out in space and time. The world contains beings that can act in various ways, including rational ways. While God may be necessary to explain why being remains present at all times, this does not prevent there also existing within the cosmos beings who exercise their own relative autonomy and power. There are secondary causes in the world as it exists. Time and place are real, not just figments of our imagination. God is powerful enough that He creates beings that can also be free and act in their own right. Indeed, this fact gets us to the very purpose of creation in the first place and hence the reason why the cosmos exists in both its simplicity and complexity, in its size and grandeur.

Aquinas tells us that the eternal law is the order of things outside of God as they exist initially or eternally in the mind of God. God can create “images” of Himself outside of  Himself. These images, these persons, are created for their own sakes, but likewise as beings that are offered something beyond the powers of their own nature. This is why C. S. Lewis once said that we have never met a mere mortal. And indeed, we have never met a mere immortal. What we have met are individual human persons, each unique, each created freely in order that each might freely accept the participation offered to him to live, after his fashion, the inner life of the Godhead, eternal life.

The cosmos exists that an arena to carry out this purpose might be spread out in space and in time. Looked at from this angle, the cosmos, while majestic in itself, bears nowhere near the fascination as is carried out in the four score years and ten that is figuratively given to each person. And yet, what we now call the salvation of each person takes place within a world that we seek to understand and order, that we seek to know. In studying the cosmos, what seems now clear is that it did not cause itself, nor did it come about by accident from nothing.

In addition, the cosmos seems to bear clear signs that its very structure was so ordered that rational life would be possible at some place or some places in the universe. The various constants that go to make up the anthropic principles that make life possible and keep it in being seem much too finely honed to be mere accidents. They reveal rather purpose already within the structure of the cosmos from its beginning. The cosmos exists so that free and rational beings might live to carry out their own purpose.

From this background, it follows that what is important about the cosmos is not so much its existence as its grounding of human life for sufficient time that it might decide what it is about. It is not designed to go on forever in its present form.

Moreover, if we look at the central doctrine of Christianity, that of the resurrection of the body, we are led to suspect from what we can ascertain from Christ’s resurrection and from what Paul says about the earth itself awaiting its redemption that the cosmos is kept in existence even when its purpose is achieved in the redemption of our souls.

So I have called these remarks, “the universe we know in.” It is in this universe that we are given the powers to know what we are and why we exist. It is also the arena of our working out how we will stand to the universe, its purpose and its origin. We are given from within the universe even the Incarnation of the Son of God not merely for the redemption of our sins but for the completion of the work of the Father in the beginning. It is sometimes astonishing to realize how little evidence for atheism there really is. But it is equally astonishing to realize how much evidence for pride exists among us, for the effort to create our own world apart from the world that really exists is ever present. We can be sure that if, as the Psalm says, “the Lord does whatever He wills,” He never wills to complete His initial purpose in offering us eternal life apart from our willingness to receive it. Perhaps this purpose has something to do with the length of time and the largeness of space what we now look out on and back on. The Lord not only “summons the clouds from the ends of the earth,” He calls upon us to wonder about the fiery ends of this earth and of our place within it.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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