If the universe is a created thing, it would be nice to know what its Creator’s purpose was for making it.
But maybe there was none. After all human artists are always talking about doing art with no purpose—Art for art’s sake. Maybe God was just throwing paint on a metaphysical canvas, or maybe the universe is just something that couldn’t be helped. Maybe God didn’t intend to make a universe at all. Maybe it just happened—sort of erupted out of God, like a pimple. I’ll never look at a volcano the same way.
How does God actually feel about all this? Even if God is the cause of it all, it doesn’t mean that God likes the world all that much…or likes us. And that is a pretty disturbing thought.
Welcome again to the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
What does God think of the universe? Are we fawned over, tolerated, ignored? There is both enough order and enough chaos in the world that just about every possible answer has been offered at one time or another.
For example, if the universe has a Maker, then that Maker is kind of like the universe’s parent. The Bible even uses the image of a Father to describe God. But just calling God Father, doesn’t make God a good parent. You probably know stories of parents who aren’t involved in their children’s lives. If it’s legitimate reasons, then it’s merely unfortunate, but if it’s a bad reason, we use words like “delinquent.” Many of the American founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin envisioned God as a sort of absentee parent (Deism, it was called). Yes, God conceived of and birthed the universe, but then just left it to run on its own. So God created in the beginning, but isn’t really involved anymore—sort of like the old Bette Midler’s song, “From a distance, God is watching.”
Others thought God was so tightly bound up with the universe that in the end God and the universe are much the same thing. Buddhism and a lot of mystic religions like Druidism kind of go this way (Pantheism, it’s called), but occasionally a strain go Christianity will wander off in this direction as well and become Panentheistic. The universe is just a part of God—like an arm, or a leg or a spleen. Or as Hartshorne said, “The universe is God’s body.” The point is that everywhere you look you see God, because, you know, we’re all divine; we’re all part of God. This is the Joan Osborne approach, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one us? Just a stranger on the bus?”
But do either of these pictures give us the Christian answer to what God thinks of the universe? In the end, I’d say not. Now not because they are wholly false. The Bette Midler’s of world seem to understand the greatness and bigness and transcendence of God—and that’s a true thing. And the Joan Osborne’s of the world are reminding us that every person we meet has something about them that makes them infinitely valuable. And that’s also true. The problem is that neither of these answers are complete, and therefore are not wholly Christian. Christianity offers a more robust answer to the question of what God’s thinks about the universe. And you need look no further than the very first chapters of the Bible.
To any honest reader, it would be impossible to read the creation story in Genesis 1 and come up with anything like these answers. Now Christians themselves often disagree about how we should understand this literature—is it a literal story meant to pass muster in a science lab; a mere allegory about the universal human condition; or perhaps a guiding story to frame our view of the world without sweating the historical details—but the point I’m emphasizing here is true regardless of which of these approaches you take.
In all reads of this story, the universe exists only because of a willful action of God. In the freedom of God’s will, God chose that this universe and not some other should come into existence—whether by a few instantaneous miracles or an infinite number of really slow ones doesn’t matter at the moment. The universe is not an accident or something that just sort of happened without God’s control or consent.
The universe is not an accident or something that just sort of happened without God’s control or consent.
Furthermore, the distinction between God and the universe is absolute in Genesis 1. There is no hint that the things being made are somehow to be confused with God or are part of God. Of course they stand in relation to God as God’s creatures, and thus reflect something of their maker, just as a painting reflects something of the painter—but we’ll have to come back to that in another homily.
Nor is the story stingy in telling us what God thinks about what God has made. It is reported as having happening in distinct planned stages—day 1, day 2, day 3—that express the kind of care and creativity that any reader would associate with an artist, a composer, or a craftsman. This feeling of watching an artisan at work is deepened by how frequently the work of God is called “good”, reflecting the feelings of the artist in his work. And this spirit continues all throughout the scriptures. The biblical accounts (especially the writers of Psalms) are repeatedly overwhelmed with how rich, beautiful, and glory-filled this world is.
I do not pretend to know what alternatives were available to God. Did the sky have to be blue or the grass green, or could they have been the other way around? Did Saturn have to have rings, or did God just think that one of the planets needed a little extra bling? But I do know this: When I commit to reflecting on the universe as a beloved object coming from the hands of one who cares about it, my soul is nourished and expands in a way that it does not when I suspect that the universe is a mere succession of random states of chaos and me with it. I have to admit in the end, I could be wrong—that I am merely and unconsciously perhaps choosing the vision of the world that best “works” for me—that belief in a designed universe is just self-serving wish-fulfillment. And I will accept that critique, so long my accuser who thinks the universe is “all that is, all that every has been or ever will be” is willing to acknowledge that she is doing the same—that she insists on a lonely chaotic universe because she too gets somethings she wants from seeing this way.
A passage in an little-read essay by C. S. Lewis once helped me think the following thought: Mountains look purple from a distance and this fact causes my heart to leap with joy. That they cease to look purple when you get closer—and turn out to be just ugly grey rocks—is merely another fact. And after all, why should the ugly fact have more control over my soul than the beautiful one? If we demand facts then let us consider all of them.
The point is that the Bible’s vision of the whole universe coming from the will of God intrinsically says something about God’s attitude toward it, and it is this: God affirms what God has made—declared it good and very good. God stands in solidarity with the world.
The 20th century theologian Karl Barth, spent a hundred pages of The Church Dogmatics working out a beautiful picture of God siding with Creation over against the chaotic nothingness that preceded it and perpetually rises against it. God not only casts the nothingness aside in order that a world may be born, but forever stands on the horizon between the two, defending and protecting the world so that it will not slip back into the nothingness from whence it came.
Barth here reflects ideas that have long been part of the church’s understanding of God the Creator. Medieval theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, used the image of God reaching down into nothing and drawing up, like a great chain, the whole universe link by link—kachink, kachink, kachink—and then forever holding it there so that its existence continues. If God wanted to destroy all things, it would not require a great flood or fire and brimstone. All God would have to do is… let go, and all would descend back into the nothingness from whence it came.
Think of it this way: think a memory of something that you saw or felt when alone—that sunset, that strain of music, that smell or taste. It is preserved in no one else’s memory but yours. So if you were to forget it, the memory would cease to exist…as if it never happened. The whole universe is just that insubstantial compared with the life and reality that God possesses. Only God’s constant care and attention toward creation holds it in place.
This is not the vision of an absentee parent. No, truly the image of a “Father”—provident, protective, nurturing—is exquisitely right. It is the image of a man who hedges his children about with love, ensures their daily bread, shelters them in their frailties, and defends them from evils.
Truly the image of a “Father”—provident, protective, nurturing—is exquisitely right.
The more I open my eyes to the world around me and contemplate the work of God in creation the more deeply I am struck by how intentional God is about, not just causing random things to exist, but in creating beautiful, integrated, whole, and flourishing things.
The Subtle Doctor of the Middle Ages Duns Scotus said, “God makes all things right according to their essence,” which is a fancy way of saying that God is a just ruler, a just king, who makes things as they ought to be made for work God wishes them to do in the world. God does not command the fish to live in water and then not give it gills. God does not command the oak tree to stand aged and tall and then not give it roots. Rather God creates each creature with what is required for it to flourish, grow, and become itself, all in harmony with God’s desire for that creature. Deep in the being of God beats a heart that delights in causing things to flourish and grow. I think the right word for this is “hospitable.” God has said to each creature, “Welcome to the world I have made for you. I desire you to fulfill your purpose. You are a creature that I love.”
When Jesus said to Nicodemus in that famous passage in John’s gospel, “For God so loved the world…” we must not reduce that statement to merely “people.” God has loved the world that God made… loves it still.
The first lesson we learn from God’s creation of the world is that creation is good because God is good. Creation is worth loving, because God has loved it. Listen to the Psalmist write in Psalm 8…
1 O YAHWEH, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, who has displayed your splendor above the heavens! 2 From the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have established praise because of your enemies to silence the enemy and the accuser.
The psalmist wants us to understand that the very beauty, diversity, and fecundity of this world is an argument for the goodness of God—it “silences the enemy and the accuser.” The very cry of the infant for its mother’s milk is a testimony to the goodness of God, who also created milk to satisfy that need. No accusation against the goodness of God can stand in the face of how greatly God has labored to ensure this world’s ongoing life and prosperity.
Now of course this does not mean we won’t experience pain and sorrow that causes us to question this truth. The same Psalmist who writes these words elsewhere weeps with a sense of abandonment, crying out “Where are you, God?” And as we walk through this world, we too will have cause to ask the same question. Here is a place where our experience conflicts with what God has said and done. How are we to answer this conundrum—God loves the world and yet the world suffers.
The answer is complicated and will take several homilies to work out, but for now, understand that the answer does not consist of denying that we feel doubt, abandonment, or despair. “Oh it can’t really be as bad as that.” Yes, it can. Feelings of agony or loss are facts like any other—like purple mountains, like ugly rocks—they too must be embraced. But what do they mean? Do the feelings of doubt, abandonment, or despair really mean that God hates us and the world, or that we really are alone?
I think the point of the creation story is to say: yes, all of your experience right now is telling you that God cares nothing for the world or you, but you have been given the story of creation to show you that this is not really the case. There are more facts than just the one you are feeling.
Now we come to the point where faith must decide. Will I, in the face of the doubts and agonies, choose to believe what the whole universe exists to teach me—that God still loves the world and that my sorrows have another explanation? Or will I nurture my doubt until it becomes so overwhelmingly real to me that even blue sky, windy days, and morning frost cannot call me back?
Lest you think I’m tricking you into saying that you have faith in something you don’t believe in, consider for a moment. Before the struggles du jour came upon you, did you believe God cared about you and the universe? If you’re a Christian, you probably did. Your current troubles are not a proof that you were wrong. These are merely a new set of facts that need explaining. How sure are you really that your current struggles cannot be harmonized with a God who cares?
See, I believe Christianity can explain the horrible experiences as well as the nice ones, and we will have to consider those additional truths in due course. But for now, one answer that cannot in any sense be Christian is that God has ceased to care—ceased to be present—ceased to be hospitable—ceased to be God. As real as our sorrows are, the very existence of the world in all its breadth, beauty, and detail argues that the sorrow is not the final fact. The cause of our suffering is not Divine abandonment or apathy.
Don’t misunderstand me. I do not say that believing God cares for the universe—that all this really matters to God—will necessarily lessen your agonies. It probably won’t. A good long cry, a good hot shower, and good night’s sleep are often more therapeutic than all the theology in the world. I do not say these things because they are useful, but because they are true. And we must never knowingly embrace a lie.
Then again, reaffirming my belief in a provident God in the very teeth of my doubts and sorrows may also have the power to–-as the Psalmist said—silence my internal accuser and calm my heart. That choice to retain belief (and it is often a choice) recalls me back to times and places where these things did make sense—when I could believe them without the added weight of my current struggles. It reminds me that I once did easily believe that God cares. And if I’m not sure of that now, it means either God’s changed…or I did. That gives me pause. That makes me search.
If your faith can precede your understanding, then it will eventually produce understanding.
Remember, doubt is not an enemy. It’s an opportunity. It’s a sign that I am ready for a deeper journey than I was before. If I can embrace my doubt as a friend, who is inspiring me to search for answers, I may yet see that this belief is not only still true, but is of greater power than I ever could have guessed when I held it so easily. We seldom see the value of things that cost us nothing. So do not rush, my friend, through your doubts. Remember, in the end it is doubt that causes us to turn on our headlights at dusk. But the choice made because of that doubt illuminates the whole road. If your faith can precede your understanding, then it will eventually produce understanding. And from that new-found confidence, you will not be easily shaken.
See you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
 C. S. Lewis, “Talking about Bicycles” in Present Concerns, Harcourt: San Diego, 1986, 71.
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