Creation ex nihilo
March 22, 2021

Recent theologians have argued that creation ex nihilo is suffocating and oppressive. It portrays a distant God who imposes His will on the world, and justifies the hierarchies expressed in patriarchy, empire, and environmental exploitation. 

At the heart of the critique is a protest of the creation’s absolute dependence on the Creator. If dependence is suffocating, absolute dependence is absolutely suffocating. 

In a 1989 lecture “On Being Creatures,” Rowan Williams argues the opposite. Creation ex nihilo, with its corollary of the creation’s absolute dependence on God, liberates us from oppressive dependencies on fellow creatures. This is one of Williams’s characteristic themes. It’s powerful, but finally flawed.

Williams begins by clarifying the force of creation ex nihilo. It is the claim that “the entire situation of the universe, at any given moment, exists as a real situation because of God’s reality being, as it were, turned away from God to generate what is not God.” It means “everything depends on the action of God.”

Yet, creation and God’s sustaining of creation isn’t an act of power, at least not in the usual sense. Typically, “power is exercised by x over y,” but creation isn’t “exercised on anything.” Creation ex nihilo “presupposes a divine potentiality, or resourcefulness, or abundance of active life,” but it cannot be “any kind of imposition or manipulation" because there is nothing to impose upon or manipulate.

To be a part of the order of things, to be something that can be named, is to be “of God.” Whatever is, “is because God wants it so.” Thus, “to be a creature cannot be to be a victim of an alien force.” The Promethean struggle of humanity against the gods makes no sense in this context. We are simply because God wills us to be; we are simply what He wants us to be. 

This is crucial for sorting through the paradoxes of dependency. If we are going to be agents, we must be capable of achieving some sort of independence. Yet “to achieve the sense of this possibility, we require support from outside ourselves, from resources of symbolic power.” The paradox is that we can only overcome dependence by dependence. 

Or, to put it otherwise: We imagine ourselves and become self-regulating agents and individuals only through fulfilling a fundamental need for “relation, conversation, mutual recognition.” We come to think of ourselves as agents when we “think of ourselves as addressed or contemplated.” 

Health requires honesty in two directions: “the recognition of the inevitability of dependence (since we are not self-regulating systems) and the recognition of the fundamental need to imagine oneself, nonetheless, as a true agent, not confined by dependence.” We must be “educated to fear what we cannot but need.”

We do not emerge as individuals by struggling for a modus Vivendi, but within “the tissue of the language-shaped world into which we are born.” This implies that no creature is “a pure source of meaning” for others. We are all entangled in networks of giving and receiving: “Nothing in the world is absolutely and unilaterally gift.” In the social commerce by which we negotiate and establish our independence, we are faced always with “the possibility of becoming instrumental to the self-formation of another person or group.” The very thing that offers meaning and identity is the thing that “threatens to lay unacceptable claim upon me.” 

Creation ex nihilo breaks through this torturous paradox. To confess creation ex nihilo is to confess our absolute dependence on God. That means that “my existence in the world, including my need to imagine this as personal, active, and giving, is ‘of God’; my search for an identity is something rooted in God’s freedom, which grounds the sheer thereness of the shared world I stand in.” Thus, before we are “looked at, spoke to, acted upon, we are, because of the look, the word, the act of God.” 

And this relation to God lies “beyond the precarious exchanges of creatures who need affirmation.” God alone has no need for recognition and affirmation, because He has no needs at all. God alone is free to be Himself, outside the combat for recognition: “what I am cannot be made functional for God’s being.” God is free to love absolutely, to devote Himself absolutely to another. He alone is capable of absolute giving; He alone is capable of joy that is fully the joy in another; “all other powers need to be unmasked or demythologized.”

Creation ex nihilo thus presents a God free to be devoted to another. And this, somewhat paradoxically, ends up calling attention to the “continuity between the being of God and the act of creation.” Creation ex nihilo gestures toward the Trinity: “Belief in creation from nothing is one reflective path towards understanding God as Trinity; and belief in God as trinity, intrinsic self-love and self-gift, establishes that creation, while not ‘needed’ by God, is wholly in accord with the divine being as being-for-another. . . . God creates ‘in God’s interest’ (there could be no other motive for divine action); but that ‘interest’ is not the building-up of divine life, which simply is what it is, but its giving away. For God to act for God’s sake is for God to act for our sake.”

This is powerful, as I say. It turns the critique of creation ex nihilo upside down: Instead of being the basis for oppressive hierarchies and co-dependencies, it liberates from finite dependencies.

The flaw is in Williams’s denial of reciprocity. That is, Williams implies that God’s gifts are what Derrida describes as “pure gifts,” gifts without any expectation of return or even response. Williams is right that God doesn’t need our return gifts; yet He expects and requires them. He enters the world not only as Giver but as Receiver. He freely allows Himself to be defined by the world; for "God of Abraham" is His Name.

Absent that, Williams ends up with an elaborate rationale for a kind of antinomianism. Absent reciprocity, it’s hard to see how Williams can affirm that God is Judge. Williams gives us only half of the Name of Yahweh disclosed to Moses on Sinai. He gives us a God who is compassionate, gracious, faithful, and long-suffering. He suppresses the equally crucial declaration: “He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).

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