We have to be careful. It’s easy to misconstrue the Christian claim that God has created the universe out of nothing. In his popular book Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed writes:
God made it. And He made it of nothing. What else was there for Him to make it of? … If God, having made the universe, left it, the universe would have to rely for its continuance in existence upon the material it was made of: namely nothing. (chap. 10)
It’s hard to resist the temptation of reifying nothing, to think of it as something; yet when we do so, we end up speaking nonsense. As Denys Turner states, “The making that is ‘out of nothing’ is not to be thought of as if there were some soupy kind of undifferentiated lawless stuff called ‘nothing’ out of which what there is was made by some explanatory causal process” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 142). The creatio ex nihilo simply denies that God made the world out of anything. Hence God’s creation of the universe cannot be identified with the big-bang beginning of which cosmologists speak:
There is a making here, but it is a making with no “out of” at all, no process, no antecedent conditions, no “random fluctuations in a vacuum,” no explanatory law of emergence, and, there being nothing for the “something” to be “out of,” there can be no physics, not yet, for there is nothing yet for physics to get an explanatory grip on. (p. 142)
A making that is not a making, a creating that is not creation. We cannot grasp the divine act of bringing into being that which was not.
Just as we cannot conceive of God, so we cannot conceive of nothing. We can comprehend emptiness; we cannot grasp or conceptualize non-existence. We cannot think the nihil. Physicists may complain that it’s a waste of time speculating about metaphysical nothingness; but mystics and philosophers know that precisely at this point we confront the wonder of being. As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.”
We know what it means to make something.
- We put a glass of water into the freezer, and ice is made.
- We take a block of marble and chisel it, and a statue is made.
- We dip our brush into a can of paint and brush it onto the canvas, and a painting is made.
- We take planks of wood and hammer them together with nails, and a house is made.
- We type a bunch of symbols into a computer, and a software program is made.
The list of making goes on and on. But the one thing we cannot do is make something out of nothing. We need something to make something. By our making we change things. A philosopher might describe a making as the actualization of the potentialities in matter. Aristotle wrote of two kinds of changes: accidental change (Socrates becomes pale) and substantial change (tomatoes, mushrooms, and beef become a stew). But when we speak of God making the world, we immediately see that it makes no sense to think of the divine act of creation as effecting either an accidental change (God modifying a substance) or a substantial change (God converting a substance into a different substance). Herbert McCabe elaborates:
There is nothing for the universe to be made of or made out of. In other words creation could not have made any difference to anything—there was nothing for it to make a difference to. If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it. To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia.45.2.ad 2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything? (God Matters, p. 147)
Consider once more the case of creation: we know what it is to make, say, a statue by carving and altering a piece of wood; we are also familiar with a more fundamental change in which stuff is changed into a different kind of stuff, as in cooking or digestion—here not just a new shape but a new thing has come into existence. Now we extrapolate from here to speak of a coming into existence which is not out of anything at all, a making which is not an operation upon anything—evidently we cannot conceive this, we do not understand what we are saying. (p. 149)
It seems counter-intuitive to think of the creatio ex nihilo as not making a difference to the world. But to make a difference to something presupposes the present existence of that something. McCabe continues:
This clearly depends on driving some kind of wedge beteen being and being-this-sort-of-thing, a difficult wedge to drive since the Aristotelian is surely quite right to deny that any sense can be made of ‘existence’ as a detachable or abstractable quality or element common to things that exist. Creation does not make any difference to anything, it is not a matter of transition from one kind of thing to another kind of thing, it does not, so to say, take place at the level of substance, it is not a substantial change, it is the ‘change’ from non-existence to existence. In thinking of something as creature we are not thinking of it in contrast and distinction from other creatures, we are thinking of it, or trying to think of it, as existing instead of not existing. We merely fool ourselves if we think that we are here deploying concepts of sheer ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’—they are simply words we use in our attempt to point to some more fundamental account of things than having-come-into-existence-out-of-something-else, to some coming to be more fundamental than substantial change. (p. 150)
When God makes the world, he does not make it different; he makes it to be. We cannot comprehend this radical kind of making—it makes no sense in an Aristotelian worldview or perhaps any worldview—yet we are compelled by the radical transcendence of God to speak of it nonetheless. Hence we use words like “make” and “create,” understanding all the while that our language is necessarily metaphorical and apophatic.
(16 December 2013; rev.)