Creation Out of Nothing?

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

In his new book, A Universe From Nothing,[1] cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss attempts to definitively answer an ancient question: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” I’d like to play around with this question this morning—the question of creation. How did the universe, our planet, and life on our planet come to be? How did it all begin? This question lies at the heart of the religious imagination. This question lies at the heart of the scientific imagination. But perhaps it’s most accurate to say, simply, this question lies at the heart of the human imagination. I say this because most of us, at some point in our lives—or at many points in our lives—have experiences wherein we encounter some feature of our surroundings in a special or unique way—whether by seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting or touching—something takes us by surprise, something takes our breath away—as if we’re encountering it for the very first time—we become awestruck, and we wonder: how did all this all begin? These shining stars, this blazing sun, this waxing and waning moon, this solid, green earth, these rolling oceans, these towering mountains, this moist air, this newborn baby, these breathing lungs, this beating heart: how is it possible all this exists? I suspect most of you have asked this question in some way, have wondered about our origins in some way, at some point in your lives. How did it all begin? Why is there something, rather than nothing?

I also assume most people wonder for a few moments, ask the question—how did this all begin?—and then realize the answer is pretty much beyond the capacity of the human mind to fathom. The wondering ends as they go back to whatever it was they were doing. Except there have always been some people who, for whatever reason, can’t let the question go. They keep wondering. They say, “no, this is not beyond our ability; we can figure this out!” They try to make their human minds fathom creation. They are usually either scientists or theologians. And I notice that, for them, the question mutates a bit. It’s not just, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” It becomes “Did the universe arise out of nothing?” Or “Did the universe arise out of something?” Something from nothing? Or something from something else? The theologians argue amongst themselves. The scientists argue amongst themselves. And of course, as they argue amongst themselves, the theologians—at least the more conservative ones—contend that the scientists are utterly wrong. And the scientists—at least the more secular ones—contend that the theologians are utterly wrong.

For a traditional theological example of the debate over creation from nothing or something, if you were to open a Bible and turn to the very first word on the very first page of the very first book—and if you were reading in ancient Hebrew—the word you would encounter is bereshit. In English the typical translation of bereshit is “In the beginning.” The whole sentence is typically rendered as “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” But another translation is possible. The sentence can also be rendered as “When God set out to create the heavens and the earth.” For centuries, if not millennia, in a variety of languages, theologians have debated which version is more accurate, which version might be more akin to how the ancient Israelites understood it, or which version is more in keeping with the latest church doctrine. It might not sound like an important distinction to our modern ears, especially to those with modern liberal religious ears, but it turns out there’s a lot at stake in how one translates bereshit. In short, the more common translation—“In the beginning”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—creation out of nothing—the doctrine that God existed first, before anything else, and that God caused all material to come into existence in order to create the heavens and the earth. The other, less common translation—“When God set out to create”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex materia—creation out of material, out of stuff, out of things—the doctrine that something existed before God, and God used it to create the heavens and the earth.[2]

Turning to science, consider Krauss’ book, A Universe From Nothing. Full disclosure: I have not read Krauss’ book, and I probably won’t read it unless Fred Sawyer purchases a sermon (which he has) and asks me to preach on it. I have read Columbia professor of philosophy David Albert’s recent review of the book. Apparently Krauss argues that the laws of quantum mechanics provide “a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation”[3] of the origins of the universe. In short, the universe emerged from a quantum vacuum state, which Krauss defines as nothing, hence the title of the book, A Universe From Nothing. It’s a scientific version of creatio ex nihilo. Albert, who is also an expert in quantum mechanics, flatly rejects Krauss’ thesis, saying it’s “just not right”[4]—though he doesn’t offer an alternative answer to the creation question in the book review. But fear not! Another book I haven’t read—and won’t read unless Fred Sawyer asks me to—is Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang by physicists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok.[5] They propose the “Cyclic Universe” theory which suggests “the Big Bang was not the beginning of time but the bridge to a past filled with endlessly repeating cycles of evolution.”[6] A scientific version of creatio ex materia! The universe is recycled from the material of countless prior universes.

Again, I think it’s kinda funny and even provocative that the theologians and the scientists are having the same debate within their respective fields. What they talk about and how they get there are radically different, but it comes down to the same two conclusions: creation from nothing or something.

Our ministry theme for April is creation. I admit we did not choose this theme so that we could spin our heads around theological and scientific arguments about the origins of the universe. We chose this theme primarily to match the season, the beginning of spring in New England, the time in the cycle of the year when Earth’s creative energy is immediate and sensual to us; the time in the cycle of the year when the smells, sights, tastes, sounds and the feel of new life are immediate and sensual to us: the fresh air, the first flowers pushing through the barren ground; the first buds on trees and bushes and shrubs; blooming forsythias, azaleas, daffodils, tulips and dogwoods dotting the land; soil turned over and ready for planting; bird-song chiming in the pre-dawn hours; earth worms digging; moles tunneling through our lawns; mice and voles rummaging through our basements, or garages or sheds; grease ants traipsing through our cupboards or across our kitchen floors; mud after the first spring rains; warmth after the long, grey winter. In the words we heard earlier from e.e. cummings, it is the time in the cycle of the year “for the leaping greenly spirits / of trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and / for everything / which is natural which is infinite / which is yes.”[7] It’s a heady season: impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy and creative. Yes, spring is Earth’s season for creation.

When I started putting my thoughts together for this sermon, I imagined I was going to say something different about creation. Well, not just different—something really cool, hip, clever, maybe a little quirky, but definitely unexpected and outside the box of the usual ways of answering the question of creation. In our weekly UUS:E eblast I even suggested I would offer a new question entirely. My intuition told me there’d be a new question come Sunday morning. But it never came. I don’t have a new question. It turns out I have deeply partisan convictions when it comes to the debate over creation out of nothing or something. But late Friday afternoon I was still trying to figure it out. Do you remember Friday afternoon? It was beautiful. Having already kicked the boys outside to play in the yard before dinner, I decided to join them. Intuition told me that getting away from the sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from mode and spending some time outside in the dirt with children might help.

The Outdoor Car Tournament Track!

When I arrived outside, Mason ask if we could hold a “car tournament.” To hold a car tournament we first have to build a track for our Matchbox and Hotwheels cars. Once the track is built, we race the cars down it one after the other. If they fall off the track, they’re out. If they make it all the way down, they move onto the next round. There are fewer and fewer cars each round. When there’s one car left we have a winner. Then we start over. When we do this outside, we build the track out of pieces of wood from an old swing-set/play-scape that I store under the shed. We prop it up with bricks, buckets and other junk we have lying around. It takes a while to build because the long, flat pieces of wood need to line up just right so that the cars can drive over them seamlessly. We really get into it. We lose ourselves in it.


And there we were, lost in it, building our track with the bright sun beginning to set in the western sky; dust rising around us from our busy work on the track; the azalea and forsythia bushes in full bloom all around us;  spring’s fragrant, fresh air smell in our nostrils; bees buzzing; and the sounds of other kids playing in other yards echoing around the neighborhood—an utterly different experience from sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from. It’s hard to find words, but I’m trying to describe a full-bodied, sensual experience—as in all five senses engaged. This is the poet cummings asking “how should tasting touching / hearing seeing / breathing—lifted from the no / of all nothing—human merely / being / doubt unimaginable You?”[8] This is a physical experience, a bodily experience, a yoga experience, an embedded experience, a grounded experience where instinct matters more than thought, where the present moment outweighs the past and the future, where the need for play subdues the need for work, and where creativity abounds—not only in our play, but in the color, the fragrance, the energy, the returning life flowing through everything around us. Spring is Earth’s season for creation. And this is what I observe: we create out of the materials at hand—pieces of wood, bricks, buckets, junk. We do not create out of nothing. And the Earth around us creates out of the materials at hand—water, soil, sunlight, air; not out of nothing. In this little dell at the bottom of our hill, where the ground is soft, where the water runs to after the rains, where moss will blanket the ground by the middle of May—in this little Eden—everything is created from something.

I don’t offer this observation in order to win an argument over the correct way to imagine the origins of the universe. I don’t need to win that argument and besides, the words imagination and correct don’t really belong in the same sentence anyways. I suspect some physicists and theologians alike may object to this, but to some degree all our efforts to answer the questions of creation are acts of imagination. So it strikes me that in addition to physicists and theologians, we also need to consult storytellers and poets for their insights. When we do that a picture of our origins begins to emerge—not a proof, not the findings of literary and linguistic Biblical analysis, not the results of rigorous tests of scientific models, not even something we can say is true in any objective sense—but a picture of what resides in the collective human imagination: creation arises out of something.

My search this week has not been exhaustive, but I cannot find a creation story from any culture—ancient or modern—where creation arises out of nothing. So often creation arises out of some massive explosion, some obliterating flood, some destructive catastrophe that ended an earlier age. I read to you earlier a brief version of “Icanchu’s Drum” from the Wichí people of northern Argentina and Southern Bolivia. The new world arises out of the ashes of the previous world, specifically out of a charcoal stump Icanchu is using as a drum. “Playing without stopping, he chanted with the dark drum’s sounds and danced to its rhythms. At dawn on the New Day, a green shoot sprang from the coal drum and soon flowered as Firstborn tree, the Tree of Trials at the Center of the World. From its branches bloomed the forms of life that flourish in the New World.”[9] In other stories, creation arises out of a kind of disordered, ominous, dark chaos. The Boshongo people of the Congo speak of a primordial, watery darkness in which the God Bumba sleeps.[10] Some of the Chinese origin myths involving the God Pan Gu speak of a big, gooey mess surrounding a large, black egg.[11] Even the Biblical book of Genesis speaks of a wind moving across the face of the waters prior to God’s first act of creation. From our story-telling selves, our poetic selves, our intuitive selves, the picture of creation that emerges is ex materia. Creativity, to become real, to have some physical result in the world, must act upon some thing. Judging by the stories we human beings have told ourselves over the millennia, we have a collective hunch that the universe arose out of something, not nothing.

Friday night one of my best friends in the world called from Boston. His wife had just gone into labor—their first child. I took the call as an affirmation, a sign, a reminder of yet another way to look at origins.  None of us came into the world out of nothing. We came as muscles began to contact; we came as a jolt, a bump, a wind, a cut awakened us from our primordial slumber. We came out of the dark, still waters of our mother’s womb. We came into the world in a gooey mess of blood and amniotic fluid.

In the end, the stories we tell of creation (as distinct from our scientific and theological analyses) are not meant to be factual.  That’s why we call them myths and poems. They are meant to tell us something about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.  But even if we’ve never heard them, our bodies seem to know: however it all began, a creative drive lives at the heart of the universe and lives in each of us; and it is, like spring, heady, impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy. When we set out to create, our bodies know even if our minds don’t, if we want our creations to be real—if we want them to manifest in ways we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch—then we must create out of the materials at hand. I’m not sure there’s any other way. We must create out of  some thing. In this light, creation out of nothing is just hard to imagine.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Krauss, Lawrence M., A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[2] I found two blogs that explain the difference between creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex materia. Check out:

[3] Albert, David, “On the Origins of Everything,” New York Times Book Review, March 25, 2012, p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. The full quote is: “But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states—no less than giraffes or refirgerators or solar systems—are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff.”

[5] Steinhardt, Paul J. & Turok, Neil, Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

[7] cummings, e.e. “I thank you god for most this amazing day” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #504.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sullivan, Lawrence E., Icanchu’s Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988) frontispiece and p. 92.

[10] Dawkins, Richard The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 161.

[11] Ibid., p. 161.