When Does The Person Begin?

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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

Scripture says: 'In the beginning' (Gn 1: 1)

I wish to preface my discussion of the Scriptural evidence of the beginning of the human person, with a general discussion, philosophical and theological, of the question of a beginning to the universe400.  For it could be said that the question of the beginning of the human person is asked in the context of the question of the beginning of creation.

The question of a beginning to the universe could be said to involve three categories of question: the scientific, the philosophical and the theological.  But because philosophy follows on its own first principles and the verifiable truths of the empirical sciences, it could be said that there are in fact only two categories of questions: the philosophical and the theological: what we can naturally know and what is supernaturally Revealed.  I wish, then, to comment on the beginning of the universe from both of these points of view.

A philosophical look at the question of a beginning

What kind of proof is required to prove that the universe had a beginning?

If the different kinds of physical evidence converge on the possibility of a beginning, rather like the fracture lines in ice would point to the centre of an impact, would this prove a beginning?  In other words, what kind of 'thing' is the beginning?  In the case of my example of the fracture lines which radiate out from a point at which there was an impact, the 'place' of that point of impact could be a hole.  Thus the kind of thing that a beginning of the universe is, is not necessarily the same kind of thing as the evidence which convergently points to its existence.

Why is the beginning of the universe different from the activities to which its existence gives rise?  A beginning of the universe would be different for the reason that a beginning is the point at which a cause of the universe would be shown to exist.

Why is this?  For nothing begins without a cause.  For something to have no cause it must also have no beginning.  This is because of the impossibility of a thing being its own beginning.  For if a thing was its own beginning, then it would have to be there before it began; but if the thing was there before it began, then it was not the cause of its own beginning.  In other words, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas: if there was a point when there was truly nothing whatsoever in existence, then it would be impossible for anything to come into existence401.  Therefore the existence of anything is by definition the evidence of there being something which always was in existence.

Secondly, the beginning of the universe would be a different kind of event from the beginning of a thing which can occur within the existence of that universe, such as a fire.  This is because the resemblance between causes does not preclude a difference between causes.  Thus a fire may be caused by a lighted match, lightning, the sun on a hot day, an animal pushing over a barbecue or a person starting it either deliberately or accidentally.  In other words, in each case the effect of the cause is the same, namely the fire; but it is also true that these causes can be classified by their differences: the physical cause of the sun; the movement of an animal; the deliberate or accidental act of a person.

In conclusion, then, the actual beginning of the universe, while a question that natural science and philosophy can converge upon, is in fact a question that requires the divergent methods of each discipline.  This is for the reasons stated earlier: if the cause of the true beginning of the universe requires the existence of something which was always in existence, then that thing is by definition different to all other known causes of things.  Secondly, when that thing which has always existed causes the beginning of the universe, this event of the beginning of the universe is by definition an event which both brings the universe into existence and reveals a mystery.  The mystery that is revealed is precisely the following question: what kind of event is the event of the universe coming into existence?  For this event is the coming into existence of what did not exist before.  Therefore it cannot be the making of one thing from another402.  Thus the event of the beginning of the universe differs in two fundamental ways from other, similar events: the agent cause of the event is different; and, because of this first reason, the event itself is different.

A theological look at the question of our beginning

The point of departure of theological science is different from both that of the physical sciences and philosophy.  But this different point of departure is not a rejection of the true conclusions of these other disciplines, nor of the facts from which these disciplines proceed by way of their response to them.  The reason for this was well expressed in 1870, in one of the two documents of the First Vatican Council of the Catholic Church.  The document on the Catholic Faith said: truth does not contradict truth.  Nor, I might add, does theological science reject any method which can assist its own investigations.

But what is theology?  In 1965 the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote the Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation, otherwise known as Dei Verbum.  I want to call attention to the following three ideas: the Scripture can be compared to the Incarnation of Christ because the words of God are expressed in the words of men (cf. art. 13)403; secondly, the truth they contain is the truth necessary for our salvation (cf. art.11)404; and, finally, that the sacred page is the soul of sacred theology (cf. art 24)405.  Therefore, just as Revelation is to God what doctrine is to Revelation, so faith is to the Word of God406 what theology is to thinking it through407.

What has this to do with the beginning of the universe?  The fact is that Scripture gives two different, indeed complementary accounts of creation.  Scholars have given these two accounts names: the first is the Priestly account and the second is the Yahwist account.  What I wish to concentrate on here is the very first act of creation in each account.  But first a brief reference to the principles of interpretation with which I intend to work.

A further note on the interpretation of Scripture

The intention of the human author is both discernible in its own right and at the same time it exists in the context of the intention of the Divine author of Scripture408.  The intention of the human author is expressed in every characteristic of writing which is truly human409; and the intention of the Divine author is revealed in the work as a whole410: Scripture interprets Scripture411 within the Tradition of the Church412 which proceeds through Christ413.

However, I am neither a linguist, nor trained in the historical and other disciplines which pertain to the interpretation of these texts and therefore I have to depend on the diverse translations of the Scripture and those commentaries to which I have access; and, finally, I am not only a beginner with respect to theology but also late is my love of her.

400 Cf an excellent article by Professor Neil Turok, The beginning of everything, on the possible beginning of the universe from a single particle, (The Daily Telegraph Weekend, March 14, 1998, pages 1-2).    Back
401 Cf. SuTh Pt I, Qu 2, art 3, page 13.    Back
402 Cf. CCC, art 296, page 78.    Back
403 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 13, page 758 of VCII.    Back
404 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 11, page 757 of VCII.    Back
405 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 24, page 764 of VCII.    Back
406 Cf. IBC, art 3, page 97.    Back
407 Cf Pope John Paul II: 'A faith that does not become culture is a faith which has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not faithfully lived out.'  This quotation was quoted on the Advent 1995 newletter of the Centre for Faith & Culture.  Cf also EV, art 95, page 169.    Back
408 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 12, pages 757-758.    Back
409 Ibid.    Back
410 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 12, page 758.    Back
411 IBC, art 2, page 115.    Back
412 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 8, page 754.    Back
413 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 2, page 751 and art 25, page 764.    Back

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