Posted by: dacalu | 30 August 2010

What Creation Means

I had a fascinating, if somewhat frustrating conversation the other day about the meaning of creation and creationism. While I recognize that the fundamentalists have captured the word “creationism,” there remains a very important Christian doctrine “creationism” that means something quite different. Since the third century at least, we have had a sophisticated and nuanced idea of what it means to say that God created the world and it is that idea I would like to talk about.

From the time of the Enlightenment, our notion of the universe has been very mechanistic. The writings of Newton and Descartes, in particular have led us to think of the world around us like clockwork cogs and sprockets, each piece fitting together, each motion driven by another motion. Another popular metaphor invokes a game of billiards, with each ball moving in a deterministic way as a function of force imparted by another ball. All the atoms in the universe, it was said, could be treated like billiard balls, and – if we only knew the position, mass, and speed of every ball at a given time – it would be possible to predict the future. Everything comes from something else.

Sadly, the fundamentalists have drawn on this metaphor in a rather inappropriate way. They compare God to a person with a pool cue, reaching in and pushing the balls about. Thus the creation of species must mean that God shaped them literally out of the clay, breathed life into them with his mouth, and made them as they remain to this day (special creationism). If we were to place a sophisticated philosophical terminology to an unsophisticated popular notion, we could say that God was here a first cause. God set the balls in motion. Likewise, we might compare miracles to God reaching a giant hand out of the sky to pick up and remove a ball, perhaps placing it somewhere else.

There is a time and place for this metaphor – God as player – but there are also times and places where it is grossly inappropriate. Skeptics, quite reasonably, ask what caused God and how does God fit in. They can imagine a super-universal agency (will), but not a super-universal entity (thing), so they tend to demote God to the role of a really big and really powerful version of the billiard ball. Maybe it’s a ball that can move on it’s own, which is freaky and implausible, so it makes for a good put down. Why creationists have bought into it, I can’t say, but for some reason they have. They want God’s creation of species to be the same kind of action as a child making mud pies. They want God to be an actor, like all the other actors. I agree with the atheists – that’s really a silly picture.

Luckily, Christian theologians do not (nor ever really have) subscribed to this notion. It would be far better to the think of the felt on the surface of the billiard table and the whole area between the bumpers as the universe. God is the slate that keeps the table flat as well as the legs that hold it up. No action would be predictable (no shot true) unless God’s will kept the rules in place (kept the surface flat). God is no less cause of the movement than the other balls, because Gods constancy makes the whole system possible. So, when Christians say Creator, they traditionally mean that which (underlying the universe) allows the universe to be. This creation was not once, for all, but continuous, eternal, and necessary. God is not a really big billiard ball, or even a man with a cue stick. God made and sustains the table (and the bar…).

I see no reason that God could not have created the species we see by instituting and maintaining a system of evolution. When the slate, felt, balls, and bumpers come out of nothingness, by God’s will, God can order them however God sees fit, without interrupting. God remains necessary to uphold the universe, even when not visible messing directly with the balls. The problem comes only when we forget that God is a fuller and more fundamental kind of cause than a pool shark with a length of wood.

So let us remember that Creator means more than immediate cause, and creationism is more than the naive idea that God messes about with individual species formation. God caused (and causes) all things to be.

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