The origin of the created world is one of the great universal puzzles or mysteries. Every society or religion has tried to penetrate the mystery of where everything came from.
So-called primitive peoples told stories to explain the mystery. One such myth — attributed to West Coast aboriginal people — tells of how the first woman created the first boy out of her own mucous. Scientists, meanwhile, develop theories which attempt to explain the empirical data about the earth's beginnings. Today we talk of the Big Bang and biological evolution.
Neither myth nor science, however, answers the more fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Moreover, the world has an apparent moral dimension which raises another question: Why does this world in which we live contain both good and evil?
One of the more enduring attempts to answer these questions was that of the third century Persian philosopher, Mani. For Mani and his followers, the Manicheans, there is a principle of goodness and light, and a principle of evil and darkness. These two forces are autonomous of each other and are continually at war.
For Mani, our world, especially the human person, contains a mixture of good and evil. But matter itself and human desires are essentially evil. The role of the Manichean is to separate the light from the darkness by living an ascetic life, especially by avoiding procreation.
Some of this sounds vaguely Christian. Perhaps that's due to our exposure to too many bad movies which picture Catholicism as a world-hating religion interested almost exclusively in driving the devil out of lustful young hearts. Moreover, Manicheanism has been a tendency within the church itself which ebbs and flows, but never totally disappears. The real question is the extent to which the identification of the flesh with evil represents the church's teaching.
In fact, every time a world-hating sect like Manicheanism, Albigensianism or Jansenism has arisen, the church has fought it tooth and nail. For there are few things more at odds with Christian revelation than the view that the material world is evil.
The first two chapters of Genesis say over and over that God created everything in the universe and that it is all good. At the end of his creating, "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).
The church's great hymn Te Deum — part of the daily Liturgy of the Hours — proclaims, "You are the eternal Father: all creation worships you." How could an evil creation worship a good God?
The Manicheans despised marriage and procreation. The church calls marriage a sacrament and rejoices in the beginning of another human life.
At the very heart of Christian revelation is the Word-made-Flesh. God did not simply send messengers to humanity, he became human. Nothing could be a stronger affirmation of the sacredness of the material world. The Catholic faith is not a soul-destroying faith, but rather praises life and calls on us to live life to the fullest.
It is here that we find the rub, however. For living life to the fullest does not mean indulging all our appetites indiscriminately. For if that were the case then addictions would be the highest form of praising God, not simply a tawdry type of idolatry.
And so, in one form or another, we ought to deny ourselves as a way of adoring God. We fast in order to discipline our appetites. We also fast so as to share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Such asceticism is a reminder of our own utter poverty — that we depend on God for everything. If we find salvation it is not through our own efforts, but as a free gift of God.
Unlike the fasting of the Manicheans, Christian self-denial is not about destroying what God has created. It is not self-sterilization, but part of the growth towards fruitfulness. It is a way of allowing the life of the vine to flow into us, its branches.
Because everything in creation is God's choice, not the happenstance result of a furious Star Wars-type battle, God cares for everything in the world. God does not despise what he has made. We too should love creation and should use it to give glory to God.
However, the world, as we well know, is not perfect. Our machines break down, our plans are interrupted by a family crisis, and we get sick, suffer and die. The world is, as the catechism states, "'in a state of journeying' toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it" (no. 302).
This "state of journeying" can be a source of frustration and grief. But knowing that we are on journey is quite different from believing that our lives are being cast about on an ocean of turmoil caused by an unpredictable battle between the forces of good and evil. The Christian view allows us to live in trust and in hope and calls us to respect the dignity of each person.
For built into our outlook is a confidence in ultimate victory over the forces of evil who, while always banging at the door, are no match for the power of God.
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