by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
Everyone born into this earth seeks the path. Each embraces some narrative that claims to tell us who we are, from whence we come and where we are going. Whilst one can learn to read the earth and the seas, the sun and the moon and the stars as theophanic, singing of divine love, it is also possible to proclaim chance and chemical soup, that we are unplanned, unwelcomed, uncared for, that what beauty and love we happen upon is adventitious and meaningless but for a brief, transient consolation of purely individual scope. The latter is poor metaphysics, unable to trace out the implications of contingent being, to properly think nothingness, and hence, to properly wonder at creation. Nonetheless, it is a common prejudice.
Parmenides was a human being like you or I. He wondered and sought to comprehend and gave out some ideas for possible wisdom. Perhaps there is only what is. Change is an illusion, time a dream of guilty consciousness. Doesn’t all the mysticism of the ancient East proclaim the maya of the world we think we know? Isn’t a metaphysical monism the wise cure for the bad dream of the particular, sickening and weeping because it imagines a false solitude? And Herakleitos, that dark one, brooding in the desert and telling the people of Ephesus to go hang themselves, what he sees is kept from profanation by riddles and fragments. To begin to appreciate what is distinct about the Biblical God, one ought to at least sketch out the different conceptions of the Absolute against which revelation stands in stark contrast. It is enough, perhaps, to suggest a few significant concepts. For surely, Aristotle’s divinity of “thought thinking itself” is aloof, self-satisfied, uninterested, likely unaware of lesser beings who passionately seek to ape a perfection they can never attain. The Eliatics, I have already suggested, inhabit a static, complacent eternity, full, content, stodgy as an old fellow at the club who sees no need for change. Such an Absolute would never find the resources to even consider creation. The One of Plotinus does exhibit a metaphysical overflow, but such is a kind of dynamic necessity, hardly an act of chosen creation. The Jewish experience which increasingly understood the radical transcendence of God—an incipient apophaticism is located in the refusal to name divinity—opened up the space for understanding the cosmos to be a creation. (The cosmogonic myths of the ancient world are not creation in the radical sense.)
And yet it is significant that creatio ex nihilo is not really thought until the revelation brought by Jesus of Nazareth. As an aside, the refusal of this doctrine by deep Christian thinkers like George MacDonald and Philip Sherrard indicates ways in which creation from nothing can become complicit in nihilism and an objectifying of nature bereft of sacred participation in the divine. Still, I see this as a post-Christian deformation. Indeed, I am inclined to grant much to a kenotic understanding of creation that links the world of temporal becoming to a prior root within the sheltering nurture of Divine Being. In this sense, creation from nothing may be a misnomer. Yet for all that, the concept is more than a protection against too easily conflating the creaturely and the divine. When the plane that is 30,000 feet up begins to falter and dive towards its doom, the shrieking horror of those on board is the mass acknowledgement that we do not come from ourselves; that we come, indeed, from nothing. Go back and read the celebrated passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13. It is not best understood as a moral prescription for loving action, by which, of course, all humankind must necessarily fail. In that regards, how would it be any better than the law, which also served to manifest the inadequacy of the human heart? It is a description, rather, of what God is like. Here is Desmond, again:
Agape is not the condescending smile that doles out a little to finite things, creatures of the day. It is not this at all. Note the word descend: there is a way down. This is a reversing of the directionality of our own upwardly directed eros. The ultimate other comes to meet us in our search, meeting us somewhere in the middle, assuming even the burden of the middle, its mystery, joy and grief, life there but also death. Such a way down, such a descending would be kenotic, in the sense of an emptying out of any superimposed superiority. We might say the majesty of God does not lord over the creature, as does a tyrant. Majesty is not superimposed power, but embrace of the powerless, consent to the powerless and the broken in the middle. Superiority is patience and humility. (Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. 212)
God did not have to create, but He did.
Philip Sherrard says God did have to create; not through inner compulsion, not through ontological necessity; God, of course, is supremely free, but God had to create the way an artist must create. The possibility of the world arose in the simplicity of God and its very unique, fragile loveliness called to Him and God could not allow such a world not to be. Naturally, this is an analogy one must treat with the usual necessary care and caveats—for God is always both unutterably near and far from everything we know and understand. (There could not have been a temporal moment before a universe was created; a time when God considered whether or not to create.) So, God is free, free in a manner no creature is ever free; but bound in the way that love is bound, freely, but passionately—the unnecessary is nonetheless, absolutely, desperately necessary. God is fundamentally agapeic—He gives as gift; He doesn’t need the kind of lick spittle obeisance that Nietzsche thought he saw in Plato and the Jews and in the followers of the Gospel. God isn’t jealous of his glory in the anthropomorphic sense that Calvin idolatrously imagines. What looks like indifference in this world, the absence of God, is a gentle, mysterious patience that nurtures everything to life. Balthasar has noted that Christ’s Cross introduces a transfigured aesthetic that leaves nothing outside divine care. Likewise, Desmond draws our attention to the scandal involved—a scandal that is resolutely avoided by certain theologies that overtly speak of the scandal of the Cross!
Condescension is a descent into solidarity with the finite other, the community of the agapeic origin with the sorrowing, wasted, evil others, in the midst of things. They, too, are creatures of the agapeic origin, and though blasted or deformed, their very being as a gift constitutes a certain ontological perfection. That they are at all is a certain value, a certain good. They are because they are loved. Even the vile are loved, and are because they are loved (Perplexity and Ultimacy, pp. 212 -213)
(This is true if the gospel is true. All those other possibilities are only true if something else is true.)
And yet, if each unique, unrepeatable part of creation, down to every speck of dust, as Nicholae Berdyaev has it, is infinitely precious to God; one gets this sense in Thomas Traherne as well, and many others, then there is also eros in God, but not the kind of erotic need that a Hegel will posit, where God needs the world in order to realize his own perfection. Florensky has written a masterful letter on Jealousy in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. He castigates the modern moralizing that equates jealousy with envy and petty possessiveness. Rather, divine jealousy is demonstrated in the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. Notice the difference: when a modern (believer or unbeliever) reads about the jealousy of Yahweh, he imagines an insecure tyrant or a lover who desperately demands complete devotion and attention. The religious person will endow this magnified projection of the needy ego with sacred authority. The truth is other. Divine jealousy is the agapeic form of eros.
Here is the problem, as I see it, with agape that lacks eros. There can be such an emphasis on the selflessness of agape, in its loving dispossession of self for the sake of the other that radical generosity can turn into absolute indifference. There is so much concern to avoid the taint of selfishness or need in agape that the requirement of a return of love is treated as a lesser love that could only come from creaturely lack. (Jean Luc Marion, for all his brilliance, misreads love in this way.) But even on the creaturely plane, this is largely incorrect. David Hart has a devastating critique of Levinas in The Beauty of the Infinite that illustrates the monstrosity and ethical shallowness of a love that seeks no return.
[Such a stance demonstrates] a somewhat self-aggrandizing moral heroism, a selflessness so hyperbole that it must ultimately erase everything distinct, desirable, and genuinely other in the other in order to preserve itself from the contamination of need, dependency, or hope . . . By expecting nothing of the other, wanting nothing, I leave the other behind; and stripped of the dignity of the desirable (or even the visible), the other becomes merely my “occasion.” (p. 82)
A purely serene charity is parsimonious. An absence of urgency for a return of love is a gesture of cold magnanimity. Such a giver is weak, too weak to allow the other to be irreplaceable. In contrast, genuine love is not immune to the irreplaceable you. An agape without eros is not harmed by unrequited love. It is content to forever give, regardless of whether or not there is a response. The jealousy of God is not so content, for one honors the beloved by desiring her. Mysteriously, breaking all our rules, God’s impassibility is strangely vulnerable. From out of his fullness, God grants necessity to what comes from nothing (Cf. Antonio Lopez, Gift and the Unity of Being, p. 69.) He is not reconciled to give without return, not because of divine lack, but because love’s glory is heightened by mutual desire. Indeed, the joy of Triune life is fully reciprocated love. This, really, ought not to be a secret. Thus, Bulgakov will call the Song of Songs the most amazing anticipation of New Testament apocalyptic in the Old Testament.
What I want to suggest is the paradoxical quality of God’s relation to his creation—and also the irreplaceable, precious quality of everything called into being from nothingness. If such is the case, and God did not/did have to create, how could this God reconcile Godself to the loss of anyone or anything? If we, finite creatures, though mysterious, with a center, a soul, that embraces the entire universe and comes from God, can have compassion on an animal, a flower, can come to have affection for an artifact, a chair, for instance, is God less tender? Would such a God consent to make a universe where the cost would be the loss of any such good? A beautiful, eternal creation, ultimately, but some hell where some creatures are abjured as “necessary, unending loss.”
I cannot imagine absolute, unconditional love who is supremely free to create or not to create, creating with foreknowledge or even hypothetical, so-called middle knowledge (Molinism) of any creature coming to a permanent end in misery or, as some would have it, annihilation. God risks, but he does so knowing that in Christ he will see it through. The Holy Spirit, as Bulgakov suggests, is kenotically present everywhere, awaiting the age where all things shall be made new.