Following the recent claim by U.K. physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking that the universe “created itself from nothing,” the Holy Father spoke about “the most important question” of existence on Friday. Addressing interfaith leaders, the Pontiff explained that religion operates on “another level” than science in the question of explaining human existence.
The Holy Father spoke to leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh traditions present for an inter-religious meeting on Friday morning. There was a visible mutual respect and warmth between the leaders, especially the Pope and the two other speakers, Dr. Khaled Azzam, a school director and Muslim, and Chief Rabbi Baron Sacks of Aldgate.
In his address, the Pope told all present that he appreciated their commitment to religion at a time "when religious convictions are not always understood or appreciated.
"The presence of committed believers in various fields of social and economic life speaks eloquently of the fact that the spiritual dimension of our lives is fundamental to our identity as human beings, that man, in other words, does not live by bread alone," he said.
Noting the importance of cooperation and dialogue to all the religions, he said that all are in search of an answer to the "most important question of all - the question concerning the ultimate meaning of our human existence."
The initiative for this "adventure," he said, "lies not with us, but with the Lord: it is not so much we who are seeking him, but rather he who is seeking us, indeed it was he who placed that longing for him deep within our hearts."
Observing that human and natural sciences provide humanity with "invaluable understanding of aspects of our existence and they deepen our grasp of the workings of the physical universe," he emphasized that "these disciplines do not and cannot answer the fundamental question, because they operate on another level altogether."
"They cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart, they cannot fully explain to us our origin and our destiny, why and for what purpose we exist, nor indeed can they provide us with an exhaustive answer to the question, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'"
This takes nothing away from the scope of human investigation, noted the Pope. "On the contrary, it places them in a context which magnifies their importance, as ways of responsibly exercising our stewardship over creation."
In Genesis, he pointed out, one can read of God entrusting mankind with "the task of exploring and harnessing the mysteries of nature in order to serve a higher good," when he says, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it."
This higher good, he explained, is the love for God and neighbor in the Christian faith, from which inspiration is drawn to "engage with the world wholeheartedly and enthusiastically."
But, he added, this is always done "with a view to serving that higher good, lest we disfigure the beauty of creation by exploiting it for selfish purposes."
"So," said the Pope, "that genuine religious belief points us beyond present utility towards the transcendent. It reminds us of the possibility and the imperative of moral conversion, of the duty to live peaceably with our neighbor, of the importance of living a life of integrity."
"Properly understood, it brings enlightenment, it purifies our hearts and it inspires noble and generous action, to the benefit of the entire human family. It motivates us to cultivate the practice of virtue and to reach out towards one another in love, with the greatest respect for religious traditions different from our own."