The Provident Creator – Fr. Robert BarronJuly 24, 2012
One of the most basic of biblical ideas is that God is the maker of all things. The opening lines of the book of Genesis speak, not so much of God’s nature, but of God’s creative action: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth …” (Genesis 1:1). Now there is a puzzle in regard to this primordial action of God; namely, why did he do it? If God is God, which is to say, the perfect act of being itself, utterly happy in his own nature, why would he bother to make things at all?
To answer this question is to move very close, spiritually speaking, to the heart of the matter. Precisely because God doesn’t need the world, the very existence of the world is a sign that it has been loved into being. We recall that to love is to will the good of the other as other. Since he has no needs in himself, all of God’s intention and activity in regard to what is other is therefore utterly for the sake of the other. The perfect God cannot be self-interested, and hence in regard to the universe he has made he can only be loving.
Drawing on Plato, the ancient Christian theologian Dionysius the Areopagite said that since the good is diffusive of itself, the infinitely good God naturally and exuberantly expresses his goodness to the world. The fathers of the First Vatican Council echoed Dionysius in saying that God made the world not out of need but in order to “manifest his glory” and to share his life and perfection. What we see in the lives of the saints is an iconic representation of this completely generous divine manner of relating to the other.
If God is the sheer act of to be itself, then God’s creation must be ex nihilo, from nothing. To understand this idea, it might be helpful to propose a contrast. When an artist produces a sculpture, he begins with marble or clay and then shapes that substance into something aesthetically pleasing. When a chef makes a meal, she blends water, meats, vegetables, spices, and sauces into a palatable conglomeration. Both agents are making something from something; they are reordering in a creative manner a re-existing substrate. But God, the very fullness of being itself, does not operate this way; he doesn’t shape some alien substance or matter into arm; rather he brings whatever exists outside of himself into being in its entirety from nothing.
Several important insights cluster around this truth. First, creatures do not so much have a relationship to God; they are relationship to God. Nothing in a creature exists independently of, or prior to, God’s creative act, and hence no creature stands, as it were, over and against God, simply in a relationship to God. Instead every aspect of a creature’s being is already constituted by God’s creative will. This is why Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, could say that the best metaphor for the spiritual life is not so much the climbing of a holy mountain in order to get to a distant God, but rather the “sinking into” God.
Second, all creatures are connected to one another by the deepest bonds precisely because every creature is coming forth, here and now, from God’s creative act. When I find my deepest center in God, I necessarily find your deepest center and that of every other creature, even of “brother sun and sister moon,” to use the language of Saint Francis.
Third, creation from nothing is a nonviolent act. In so much of the mythological tradition, the creation of the world takes place through a primal act of violence, one god defeating another, or a set of gods doing battle with their rivals. Often the physical universe is pictured as the remains of the conquered enemy. Even in the more refined philosophical accounts of Plato and Aristotle, the universe is formed through the imposition of form on recalcitrant matter.
But there is none of this in the Christian conception. God does not wrestle a rival into submission, for He has no rival; nor does he intervene to shape matter according to his aggressive will, for there is no matter that confronts him. Rather, through a sheerly nonviolent, nonintrusive, non-interruptive act of speech, God gives rise to the whole of finite reality: “Let there be light, and there was light … Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear … Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree … And so it happened” (Genesis 1:3, 9, 11). We can see now the deepest roots of Jesus’ ethic of nonviolent love articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. Though it seems ludicrous to our sinful minds, the recommendation to love one’s enemies and to resist evil through nonviolence is actually to dance in step with the most fundamental metaphysical rhythm of the world.
This God who continually creates the universe from nothing must also be described as provident. The Deist view — on display in both classical and modern times and especially prevalent today — is that God is the orderer of the universe, but only in a distant way, as the source of the laws and basic structures of the universe. But Christian theology has no truck with Deism. It stands, instead, with the book of Wisdom, which speaks of God’s power “stretching from end to end mightily and ordering all things sweetly” (Wisdom 8:1).
God is not a celestial CEO, managing earthly affairs from an antiseptic distance; he holds the world in the palm of his hand, involving himself in things both great and small. Thomas Aquinas summed up this biblical perspective when he said that God’s providence “extends to particulars.”
Now to give the Deists their due, all of this stress on the particularity of God’s providence does seem to pose a threat to the independence and integrity of the created order. If God is hovering fussily over the whole of reality in every detail, how could we speak, for instance, of freedom or chance? A full treatment of the thorniest of theological issues would require an entire book, but for our purposes I would draw the reader’s attention, once again, to the noncompetitive relationship that God has to the world. God’s creativity and providence are necessarily expressions of the divine love and hence of the “letting be” of the other.
The providential God is not one great cause among many, interfering with the nexus of conditioned causes. We recall the language of the book of Wisdom, how “sweetly” God exercises his power, operating precisely through the realm of secondary causes. Perhaps I could illustrate this with a simple example. If asked, “How do you make a cherry pie,” one would say, presumably, “You bring together cherries, sugar, flour, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” Even the religious believer would not say, “You bring together ferries, sugar, flour, God, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” God is not one cause among many, but rather the reason there are cherries, flour, water, fat, the baker, and so on, at all. Hence, it is precisely through those causes and not in competition with them that the providential God works out his purposes.