From Big Bang to Big Mystery (A Review: Part 2)

Yesterday, I published the first part of Dr. Joe McCarroll’s review of Brendan Purcell’s important new book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery. Today I publish the second part of his review. I believe this portion of the review explains clearly why this is an important book for thinking, serious Christian readers who want to engage the question of origins in a biblically honest and insightful way while properly giving due to what we’ve learned from science over the last several centuries.

From Big Bang to Big Mystery

A Review, Part Two

Joe McCarroll

Apart from those engaged by the issues around evolution I’d say that From Big Bang to Big Mystery – Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution has most to offer those working on the theme of creation.

The book is studded with stunning exclamatory and discursive statements on the contingency and sheer existence of aspects of the finite universe and ourselves, moving back and forth between the pneumatic and noetic dimensions of our experience of groundedness in a transfinite Origin so profoundly explored in Chapter 1, with remarkable quotations from Parmenides (41f.), Aristotle (47), Les Murray (48f.), Chiara Lubich (79), David Walsh (89), Eric Voegelin (103), Czeslaw Milosz (293), and Edith Stein (315).

Purcell himself adverts to this dimension of his investigation repeatedly:

As we’ll suggest later, everything that exists has a question about its existence attached to it. But what makes human beings different is that we ourselves are aware of this questionability existence. Asking and to some extent receiving an answer to that question enters into the very definition of what it is to be human. If we’re to be faithful to the evidence of our own consciousness then we’ll have to explore another kind of origin along with our evolutionary one. (26, but see also 88f.)

And as already noted, at key points the book addresses the mode of analysis appropriate to the study of the kind of causation involved in creation, offering elements of a critical rethinking drawing on Thomas Aquinas and Lonergan (139-143).

Brendan Purcell’s unforgettable name for human beings is one of the more remarkable contributions of  his important work– “each one a you-for-You.” In Chapter 11 Brendan Purcell makes his final meditative attempts to put into words what we are as human beings:

We can say, then, that a human person is a unique embodied identity intrinsically oriented to communion with others, where the authentic unfolding of that capacity for unlimited, self-sacrificing love requires a readiness to lose ourselves for the sake of the other. (305)

He coins two words to catch this constitutive innermost orientation and meaning of our being as human persons, “youwardness” and “wewardness” (295 note 7, 7, 12, 32, 294, 295, 296, 310, 312, 315, 316×2, 331, 332)>

But under the influence of the existential electricity of Etty Hillesum’s raw representative consciousness of her own openness to the divine whom she addresses spontaneously as You, he adopts You as his name for the transfinite origin of the universe and of each of us for the rest of the book (297, 316×3, 324, 325×2, 329, 331).

Our understanding of God and of our own deepest humanity differentiate correlatively, so the moment of his arrival at his highest name for God is also the moment at which he forges his unforgettable name for who we are as human beings, “each one a you-for-You” (296, 316, 319) 319), and in the concluding sentence of the book the youwards movement he has found to be the innermost orientation and thrust our humanity is finally described as Youwards (332). Thus “the conception of each new unique human being” is the “Big Mystery” for Purcell.

Brendan Purcell’s From Big Bang to Big Mystery – Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution is a must-read for those interested in bioethics, especially the question of the equal humanity of the human zygote and early human embryo. Despite the fact that I’ve been following earlier drafts of this book from its childhood as a set of course notes some years ago, the importance his treatment of this question has assumed in the arc of the book’s whole argument took me by surprise. He devotes a whole section to it in the final chapter of the book so it’s by no means a sidebar to the main argument.

Instead, I’d say it’s a sort of test case for the whole argument, much as he says our willingness to die for what we believe to be true or for another person is a crucial experiment that at once discloses and proves the radical difference of the human spirit to that of an animal. (285)

As he did with astrophysics, evolution, and paleontology, he starts by examining what science tells us, citing neurobiologist and anatomist Maureen Condic, “Thus the scientific evidence supports the conclusion that a human zygote is a human organism and that the life of a new human being commences at a scientifically well-defined ‘moment of conception” (306 and 306, note 6).

He then asks what it means to say that a human zygote is a human being (309) since at that stage of our lives none of us are able to speak, create meaningful symbols, understand, love or engage in free moral choices or actions.

His answer is that the human zygote is:

The personal concrete unity-identity-whole which includes the bodily life wondrously unfolding in the womb and the as yet dormant capacities for beauty, truth, meaning, goodness, youwardness and wewardness. The bodily part we see now; the other part we won’t see until its bodily development reaches a stage that allows the self-transcending capacities to begin to operate. . . . So its materiality is intrinsically meaning-, love- and you-oriented (312).

Purcell says the unique existence of the unborn child “is perhaps the biggest mystery available to us on earth” (313), hinting at where he’s bringing the arc of the argument finally to rest, in the Big Mystery of the book’s title.

He then turns to Aristotle’s question, “At what moment, and in what manner, do those creatures which have this principle of Reason acquire their share in it, and where does it come from” (314)?

He notes wryly that Aristotle never managed to answer the question.

His own answer shows that his treatment of this question is at the very heart of the whole inquiry he has been engaged in. “If the Big Bang poses a boundary or threshold question about the coming into existence of the universe, then the conception of each new unique human being is the Big Mystery that gave our book the second part of its title.”

After this he offers a profound reflection on Edith Stein’s meditative analysis of our experience as contingent beings which I would like to quote at some length as it moves the argument towards its conclusion:

As a matter of fact I do exist as a person. As another matter of fact, which Aristotle recognised, my parents’ biological act of procreation couldn’t adequately explain my existence as a person. But I’m aware both of the fact that I didn’t have to exist … and at the same time that I do exist as a you whose orientation is intrinsically transfinite.

The existence of such a contingent yet determinate transfinitely oriented reality can only be explained by a cause or ground that’s capable of bringing it into being.

That is to say: I can only exist as a person because You, the absolutely personal Other exist. Only if there exists an absolutely unconditional transfinite personal reality can a being with transcendent capacities for unconditioned truth and freedom come into existence (315f).

This clears the way for his conclusion:

The answer to the question of human origins, then, is that each human being is constituted into existence as a you-for-You in one cooperative act: creation by an unlimited transcendent and personal source and of co-creation by the child’s parents (319).

The whole argument of this painstakingly organised and argued book shows how the humanity of the human being from the moment of conception needs to bring into the picture a robust understanding of what we are as human beings that not only draws on the best available understanding from science of the development of the human body from the beginning, but also the best available understanding of what we are as human beings.

I’m conscious I’ve only touched on some threads. There are several others.

Thus far, though, this is Brendan Purcell’s magnum opus, bringing together in one long-considered densely-argued text decades of his work as a philosophical anthropologist.

If you want to see both what the sciences have learned about us, especially our bodily dimension, and what is to be learned by self-exploration of human consciousness and its symbolic expressions, integrated into a glorious understanding of who we are as human beings, then you will need Brendan Purcell’s From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution on your bookshelf.

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