How are we to understand what Creation ex nihilo is? The ‘ex nihilo’ part undoubtedly signals that whatever God was doing when he created the universe extends beyond human comprehension and experience. We do not know how to make something from nothing, and though we can find interesting analogies they fall short very quickly. Any yet the ‘creation’ part suggests that God was doing something not totally foreign to the world that he made. As Dorothy Sayers points out, “We use the word ‘create’ to convey an extension and amplification of something that we do know, and we limit the application of the metaphor precisely as we limit the application of the metaphor of fatherhood.” (21) If we are talking about two different activities we might use different words to describe them (such as sweeping the floor and mowing the lawn), but at the same time recognize that there is a same word (chore) which points to their similarities. Thus, it seems that Sayers is arguing that both human beings and God ‘create,’ but that ‘creation ex nihilo’ points out that they create in different ways.
It is of great importance, however, that we construct an analogy between creation ex nihilo and human creativity very carefully. If the gardener and the maid were to have lunch and discuss the similarties between their respective ‘chores,’ much common ground may be found, but at the same time their intimate knowledge of their respective occupations may lead them to discuss ‘the finer points’ of mowing the lawn or sweeping the floor. They each may find that the peculiarities of their task are essential to understanding what their task is, and so, for both of them, ‘chore’ cannot possibly come close to saying all that needs to be said. Analogies, then, are helpful because they can point out similarities between different things (‘sweeping the floor is like mowing the lawn), but at the same time analogies may conceal significant differences. In the case of human creativity and divine creation ex nihilo, ‘analogy’ may be too strong a word because the mystery of the creative act that brought into existence all time, space, and matter far outweighs anything that can be said positively about it. Therefore, one might say that human experience can provide some insights into creation ex nihilo, but little more than that. Let us consider two (potential) insights, one from Dorothy Sayers and the other from M. B. Foster, that attempt to shed some light on creation ex nihilo.
Dorothy Sayers, in her book the Mind of the Maker argues that humans have experience of something approximating creation ex nihilo. She writes that “It is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something from nothing. A whole artistic work is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.” (22) Most people would agree that this is a peculiar feature of a work of art as opposed to, say, a grocery cart. The grocery cart has little significance or meaning apart from its intended use, and so, unless it was imbued with some greater significance or value, we would hesitate to call it art. Sayers goes on to argue that we have “experience that the work of art has real existence apart from its translation into material form.” (22) Here it seems to me, she makes a mistake. Although it would seem that, if art is something greater than a physical object, one could have access to or experience of a work of art apart from the physical object, she has made a tacit assumption about the nature of the work of art: that the material and imaginary components of a work of art can somehow be separated. She argues that we experience creation ex nihilo in the world of the imagination, but not the material world. Her distinction between the imaginary work of art and the physical work of art is fully articulated in her description of the creative process where the Idea in the mind of the artist is the complete work of art prior to its translation into material form.
I would like to suggest that Sayers is both right (the work of art is more than the sum of its parts) and wrong (we do not have experience of the work of art apart from its translation into material form). M. B. Foster, in his article “The Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science,” will help me to articulate how this is so. To show what creation ex nihilo means, Foster begins by showing what it is not. Creation ex nihilo is not, as numerous theologians have argued, the Platonic Demiurge who creates like a Cosmic Craftsman. Plato argues that the Demiurge created the world by taking eternal matter and forming it according to an eternal pattern. Theologians have rightly seen that creation ex nihilo means there can be no eternal matter or pattern. And yet, as Foster shows, it means quite more than this.
The Demiurge, Foster argues, creates according to his intellect. Foster writes, “The the form of an object is intelligible, means that it is distinguishable in conception from the sensible material of its embodiment.” (462) For example, if God creates various things in the world according to a pattern or Idea in His mind, they may be said to have form distinguishable from their materiality. To the extent that God has an ‘end’ in mind prior to creating the world, we may say that his creativity is purposive and that the conception of the material object exists apart from the actual material object. The grocery cart was made according to a plan (the end, which is the ideal grocery cart), and so the conception of what a grocery cart is can exist entirely apart from the grocery cart.
Foster argues that the Christian God, who creates ex nihilo, creates according to his will. This implies that “there is no end distinctly conceived by the creator in advance of his execution, so there is no form distinguishable by us from the accidents of its embodiment.” (462) Only if there is a clear plan prior to the act of creation can the conception of the created thing be distinguishable from the material created thing. To show how this is so he employs an analogy between divine and human creativity:
It is notorious that the creative artist, e.g. the painter, has no clear knowledge of what he is going to achieve before he has achieved it; and the critic on his side, when confronted with a work of creative art, is indeed aware that there is ‘something more’ in it than the sensible material—a great painting is more than a certain complexity of coloured surfaces – but this ‘something more’ (we may loosely call it the ‘meaning’) is not capable of being conceived in distinction from the sensible material in which it is expressed. (462)
We may say then that the meaning of the painting is not intelligible in the same way that the meaning of the grocery cart is. Every feature of the grocery cart contributes to the ‘end,’ the plan, according to which it was designed. But in God’s creation there is an element of contingency, which “is sensible only, without being intelligible.”(463) There are things in creation which simply are, and there is no ‘reason’ for their being the way they are.
Sayers’ reliance on the Platonic Demiurge as a background for her thoughts about creativity is made even clearer in her understanding of what an artistic idea is. She argues that a book, for example, can be completed in the artist’s mind prior to being put down on paper. The imaginary book and the written book are only different to the extent that the written book gives the author a greater awareness and understanding of the imaginary book. Thus, the meaning in the written book can be reduced to the idea in the mind of the author. Once a person (author or reader) has understood the idea that formed the book, there appears to be little reason for reading the book because the idea and written book are essentially the same.
If creation ex nihilo means that there is no eternal material and that there is no eternal pattern, then it is quite easy to see how the meaning of creation “is not capable of being conceived in distinction from the sensible material in which it is expressed.” Foster argues that this forms the basis for modern empirical science because it requires people to go out and take a good hard look at creation to know what it is. But the same must be, at least to some extant, true of God as well. If God cannot simply deduce from the Ideas in his mind the 'meaning' of creation, but must actually look at it, then his point of view is not entirely different from ours. Thus, because of creation ex nihilo, I would like to suggest that God’s relationship to creation as Creator is best described as Kenotic.
But how does God relate to His creation as Creator now that the creation ex nihilo is finished. Is God creating anything else? We may point to God’s creative efforts to sustain creation and bring it to completion in the New Creation. These activities are indeed aimed at ‘making all things new,’ but are not the same as creation ex nihilo. Calling these activities Kenotic implies that analogies between human and divine creativity may, in fact, be more helpful than they originally appeared (for now that God has made something from nothing He must surely work with that ‘something’ to continue to be creative). Therefore, I would like to offer the following as starting points for an analogy between divine and human creativity: (1) God’s creativity works in and through the material universe, (2) God’s creative activities make space for the creative response of the ‘other,’ and (3) God’s creative activities collaborate with his creatures.