Michael Lodahl: creatio ex amore
So what’s wrong with saying that God creates the world out of love? Almost nothing. Is this not the gospel? Has not this message been proclaimed to the world for two millennia? “Creation is an aspect of the goodness of God,” St Irenaeus writes (Haer 4.39.2). He even goes so far as to say that God created the world so that the divine Son might save it: “Since he had pre-existence as a saving being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the being who saves should not exist in vain” (3.22.3). It’s not that God is compelled by his nature to create; but, as M. C. Steenberg explains, “God’s good nature leads naturally to the creation of a universe in which such goodness can be fully expressed” (Irenaeus on Creation, p. 34). The language of necessity must therefore be interpreted figuratively, in accordance with the divine nature that transcends all necessities. Creation is all about love and goodness and giftedness and salvation. As St Maximus the Confessor so beautifully phrased it:
God, full beyond all fulness, brought creatures into being not because He had need of anything, but so that they might participate in Him in proportion to their capacity and that He Himself might rejoice in His works, through seeing them joyful and ever filled to overflowing with His inexhaustible gifts. (Centuries on Love 3.46)
Hence it seems appropriate to speak of God creating the world out of love: from the plenitude of his trinitarian being God speaks the cosmos into existence—not from any deficiency or need but simply from the desire to bring others into his eternal joy and goodness.
Michael Lodahl begins his essay in Theologies of Creation expressing his appreciation for the creatio ex nihilo. He sees it principally as exercising a negative function in the life of the Church, specifically, the exclusion of any suggestion that God creates the world from a preexistent something, a something whose existence, perhaps, not even God understands:
So let us assume that creatio ex nihilo represents, at base, the necessity that theologians within many religious traditions have felt to reject the idea of some mysterious element—whether we call it matter, energy, chaos, whatever—existing outside of God’s purview and independently of God’s creative, loving will. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo rejects the idea that there is this “something else” that just is, on its own, apart from God. Put another way, ex nihilo upholds the notion that whatever exists, exists precisely and entirely as a divine gift. God graciously grants existence to all that exists as other than God; thus, everything that is not God is entirely beholden to God for its very being. (p. 101)
But Lodahl is troubled by the doctrine or, perhaps more accurately, troubled by how the doctrine is sometimes preached and taught. He cites one of John Wesley’s sermons:
God acts everywhere, and, therefore, is everywhere; for it is an utter impossibility that any being, created or uncreated, should work where it is not. God acts in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, throughout the whole compass of his creation; by sustaining all things, without which everything would in an instant sink into its primitive nothing; by governing all, every moment superintending everything that he has made; strongly and sweetly influencing all, and yet without destroying the liberty of his rational creatures.
What troubles Lodahl about the passage is the implication “that God could, in principle, ‘blink’ the universe away in one millisecond and then ‘blink’ it all back in the next” or, even more alarmingly, might at any moment call in his loan of creation (p. 102). Though an extreme interpretation, Lodahl concedes, it is by no means ruled out by the doctrine.
But why, one might ask, should the failure of the dogma to do what it was not designed to do be judged a flaw inherent to the dogma? Lodahl has already acknowledged the dogma’s limited function—to exclude all expressions of ex materia. Surely it is unreasonable to expect the creatio ex nihilo to pull the full freight of the gospel.
The creatio ex nihilo directs us to the radical contingency of the universe and the unique reality of the uncreated Creator. To put it simply, God might never have created the universe, with no diminishment to his glory and infinite being. The world might not have been; it does not exist necessarily. That we can now think and feel this possibility is not something that we might have discovered on our own through metaphysical reflection. It could only have come by divine revelation. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski names it the Christian distinction:
According to the natural and spontaneous understanding, the divine and the nondivine form parts of a larger whole. The divine may be recognized as the exemplary, the controlling, the encompassing, the best, and even in some sense the origin, but it is not normally conceived as that which could be, in undiminished goodness and excellence, even if everything else were not. Natural religious thinking and experience, as well as philosophical thinking about the whole, do not attain to this extreme turn of the dial. Natural and spontaneous thinking accepts the world as simply there. … But over against this pagan and spontaneous understanding, Christian belief distinguishes the divine and the world in such a way that God could be, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if everything else were not.
The Christian understanding introduces a new horizon or context for the modes of possibility, actuality, and necessity. Each of these modes is understood in a new way. The being of things is now questioned in a new setting. Questions are raised that are different from those that, say, Aristotle would raise. If we were to think as Aristotle thought, we might ask how it is that the elements and powers of the world—of the world that is always there—become congealed into being this animal or that building, and how they acquire the centeredness and intelligibility of being one substance or one artifact. This is how Aristotle would inquire into the being and substance of things. But in a Christian understanding one can ask why the animal or the building exists at all. Things are profiled not against the world and its elementary forces, but against not being at all. Their possibility is rooted not only in the potentialities of what already is and always has been, but in the power of God to make them. The necessity against which their contingency is contrasted is not the iron bonds of fate that border the world, but the still more extreme necessity of the self-subsistent God whose choice is the source of everything else that is, everything that is now understood as not having to have been. The introduction of this sense of Creation introduces a new slant on being, on what it is to exist, and on all the modalities of being. (“Creation and Christian Understanding,” Christian Faith and Human Understanding, pp. 41-42)
Asking the question “Why something rather than nothing?” was not inevitable in human history. Most cultures, past and present, do not ask it of the whole of reality. It arises only as the biblical revelation of divine creation challenges the default monistic worldview and introduces a new and unexpected way of distinguishing deity and the universe—introducing us, directly, to the Maker of heaven and earth and, indirectly, to the nothingness into which everything would in an instant sink apart from his preserving work.
When Lodahl hears the declaration of the Christian distinction, he apparently hears it as threat, and no doubt preachers have construed it as such. Doctrinal clarification might help to a modest degree, but ultimately what is required is more effective preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. If I am fearful that God might blink me out of existence, then that is either because the gospel of God’s unconditional love has never been spoken to me or because I have refused to believe it. And if the latter is the case, no amount of doctrinal tinkering can save me.
But I need not hear the Christian distinction in distrust, suspicion, and fear. I might, instead, receive it as an invitation to radical gratitude and joyous praise. Sokolowski observes that the attitude of the pagan toward his gods is necessarily different than the attitude of the Christian to his Creator. This is so not because the Christian is morally or spiritually superior to the pagan but because he knows that absolutely everything he possesses, including existence itself, is a gift from the Creator, whereas the pagan knows that “there is something in him that is not due to the god, something that precedes both him and the god, something for which the god is not responsible” (p. 42). The pagan does not know the nothing and therefore cannot receive the entirety of creation as gift.
At this point Lodahl makes an unfortunate turn. Instead of welcoming the gratuitousness of creation, he introduces necessity into the God/world relationship: because God is infinite and eternal Love, he must always have been Creator. This was Origen’s great error:
We can therefore imagine no moment whatever when that power was not engaged in acts of well-doing. From this it follows that there always existed objects for this well-doing, namely, God’s works or creatures, and that God, in the power of his providence, has been always dispensing his blessings among them by doing them good. … It follows plainly from this, that at no time whatever was God not Creator, nor Benefactor, nor Providence.” (quoted by Lodahl, p. 100)
Lodahl thinks Origen is speaking good news, but in fact the opposite is the case. A love that is necessary is no longer free, and a love that is no longer free is no longer love. All lovers know this. Even in those moments, especially in those moments, when I know I am truly loved by my beloved, her love still surprises me. It comes to me as sheer and utter grace.
God everlastingly exists in his divine nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but he became Creator by an act of will. St Athanasius fought Emperor and Arian for this fundamental truth (see Georges Florovsky, “St Athanasius’ Concept of Creation“). Christians need never fear that God will one day blink humanity out of existence, for we know that in his inner trinitarian being God is a holy communion of love and faithfulness. Yes, God might never have created the universe, just as he might never have become our Savior in Jesus of Nazareth; but these counterfactuals only inspire wonder, awe, and thanksgiving.
“Creation is a song,” declares St Bonaventure, “that God freely desires to sing into the vast spaces of the universe.”