Tuesday 23 April 2024

Ex Nihilo or Ex Deo?

 "I repent me of the ignorance wherein I ever said that God made men out of nothing: there is no nothing out of which to make anything: God is all in all, and he made us out of himself. He who is parted from God has no original nothingness with which to take refuge."

George MacDonald, Weighed and Wanting.

George MacDonald was one of the first important writers of fantasy and a great influence on C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, among many others. I was given some of his children's books more or less as soon as I could read properly. The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie and At the Back of the North Wind played a large part in forming my imagination as a child though I can't remember much about them now, other than that they had a magical atmosphere to them. Then as a teenager, hungry for more Lord of the Rings-type novels, I came across Phantastes and Lilith which, again, I don't recall much of other than I found them rather obscure and definitely not Tolkien. His complete works in an online version run to over 14,000 pages and include children's books, fantasy, regular novels and sermons but I haven't read anything more by him since my teenage years though, as my great grandmother was a MacDonald from George's part of Scotland and he died in Ashtead, Surrey, just a few miles from where I now live, I feel almost obligated to investigate further.

I came across this quote of his in a book by the Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott. It struck a chord with me because it took me back to a time when I was about 8 years old when I wondered to myself what would there be if there was nothing. I can actually still see myself having this thought for the first time. The human mind can't imagine nothing. All we can come up with is empty space or darkness but that is still something. I'm sure we've all had this thought. It's not uncommon as we start to think about the world, what it is, why it is or even where it is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who hasn't thought about this is a bit of a dullard! For most people it passes but for some it can provide an entry into deeper considerations on the subject of God, the only important subject one might justifiably say.

Does God create out of nothing as Christianity teaches or is it as George MacDonald says and he creates out of himself? Perhaps we can resolve this conundrum by saying it is both, but the nothingness out of which God creates is not outside him but within him. He makes a space in himself, in fact, forget the article, he just makes space, and then projects his being into that space. As George MacDonald says, there is no nothingness out of which God can make us. There is nothing apart from God. You might say there are no things in God until he creates them but there is never nothing. God is indeed all in all but he creates things that are other than himself in order to give expression to love, beauty and the good and to become more than himself. He is never other than perfect but through creation he becomes more perfect.

That is not all. The human soul is a created thing, created by and out of God, but within that soul, giving it its life and being, there is an uncreated part. This is our spirit which is God within us and explains why we can be united with God. There is a part of us that already is God but we cannot knowingly become this part until through grace but also through our own efforts, the two factors are both required, we go beyond our identification with the soul and replace self at the centre of our being with God. Then we know that we ourselves are indeed as nothing and everything we are comes from God.


Kristor said...

In pondering the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, it helps me a lot to remember that, while we creatures can create only by rearranging prior stuff, God is not limited in that way. He creates by just being, inasmuch as he just is being per se, the fundamental act of being upon which all other acts supervene. So, he doesn't need prior stuff out of which to create anything. He doesn't need prior chaotic prime matter, doesn't need the stuff of nothingness (an obviously incoherent notion), doesn't need even the stuff of himself. He doesn't need to carve out bits of himself to then turn them into creatures.

By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made. I.e., the only thing needful for creatures to transpire was God himself. This is not to say that creatures are all bits of God, or used to be bits of God. It is to say rather only that creatures exist in virtue *only* and *completely* of the Logos. So, there is nothing other than God out of which they are made; and, indeed, they are not made of anything other than themselves.

Analogously, if I think of a dinosaur, the thought exists in virtue of my thinking it. But no dinosaurs then appear in my vicinity. When God thinks of dinosaurs, the thought exists in virtue of his thinking it, *and then dinosaurs appear.*

It helps a lot to maintain the distinction between creation (which is what God does) and manufacturing (which is what creatures do).

Kristor said...

An afterthought: The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo then is intended, not to specify that God created from some prior "nothingness stuff," but rather that he created from no stuff whatever.

William Wildblood said...

I would agree with all that and your second comments sums it up nicely. But I do think that everything God creates, while obviously not being God, has God in it as it must if it is to be.

Kristor said...

To be is to participate Being. So, yeah.

Christopher Yeniver said...

Grannus Sinapsis

When all began
(beyond mind's span)
the Word aye "is"
Oh what bliss
When source at first gave birth to source!
Oh Father's heart
from which did start
that same Word:
yet 'tis averred,
the Word's still kept in womb perforce.
From both doth flow
a loving glow:
in double troth known to both
comes forth from them the Holy Ghost, of equal state
The three are one:
who grasps it? None!
Itself it knows itself the most.

The threefold clasp
we cannot grasp,
the circle's span
no mind can scan:
for here's a mystery fathomless.
Check and mate,
time, form, estate!
The wondrous ring
holds everything,
its central point stands motionless.

The peak sublime
deedless climb
if thou art wise!

Thy way then lies
through desert very strange to see,
so deep, so wide,
no bound's descried.
This desert's bare
of Then or There
in modeless singularity.

This desert place
no foot did pace,
no creature mind
ingress can find.
It "is," yet truly none knows what.
'Tis there, 'tis here,
'tis far, 'tis near,
'tis high, 'tis low,
yet all we know
is: This it's not and That it's not.

It's clear, it's bright,
it's dark as night;
no name or sign
can it define,
beginningless, of ceasing free.
Immobile, bare,
'tis flowing there.
Where it may dwell,
whoso can tell,
should teach us what its form may be.

As a child become,
both blind and dumb.
Thy own self's aught
must turn to naught.
Both aught and naught thou must reject,
without a trace
of image, time, or space.

Go quite astray
the pathless way,
the desert thou mayst then detect.

My soul within,
come out, God in!
Sink all my aught
in God's own naught,
sink down in bottomless abyss.
Should I flee thee,
thou wilt come to me;
when self is done,
then Thou art won,
thou transcendental highest bliss!

A poem perhaps by a student of Meister Eckhart. There is a book of his sermons on archive dot org. I owe much and more than I know to his credit.