Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Simon OliverOur muddles about science and theology, the gulf we experience between nature and culture, and our mistreatment of the natural world – these all stem from the same cause: our failure to identify the world, first and foremost, as created. This is the conviction that lies behind Simon Oliver’s recent book, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed. Approaching ‘nature’ supposedly in its own right, we end up with a purposeless world, and with a God who stands uncomfortably alongside it (see pp. 116-131).

I first met Simon Oliver way back in 2001, when I was an organ scholar at Jesus College, Cambridge, and when he was filling in as college chaplain. Our paths have crossed again in Durham, where he is Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at the University, and a Canon of the Cathedral. I’m hoping to take his masters course this coming year on the Doctrine of Creation – hence why I’ve been reading this book.

So ‘What does it mean to say that the universe is “created”?’ (p. 1). Oliver answers this by drawing heavily on the work of Thomas Aquinas, who is ‘often recognized as the great Christian theologian of creation’ (p. xii). Approaching the book as one who knew approximately two-thirds of diddly squat about Aquinas, I found this both fascinating and accessible.

Of the five chapters, the first three are more foundational, the fourth is more historical, and the fifth is more contemporary.

Chapter 1, Genesis: In the Beginning, takes us back to the first three chapters of the Bible. Although ‘The Christian theologians of the first centuries generally regarded Genesis as historical narrative’ (p. 27), their methods of interpreting scripture placed more weight on the theological truths to be found in its deeper levels of meaning. For example,

Through allegorical interpretation, a relaxed evening’s walk becomes an allegory of God’s intimacy with creation and his enjoyment of, and delight in, all that he had made (p. 29).

Throughout the book, Oliver is at pains to emphasise that the meaning of scripture – and, strikingly, the meaning of creation itself – goes beyond the literal interpretation. (My only concern is that, in restoring the proper priority of the spiritual meaning, it is possible to deprive the literal sense of any significance at all.)

What, then, is the meaning of creation? God’s creative act is peaceful: creation is not a ‘rival’ to God. Creation is good: God provides for it and orders it towards good ends. And creation is complete: all that it needs is ‘latent within the created order’ (pp. 13-14).

The six-day period of creation establishes a connection ‘between temple worship and creation’ (p. 15). This means that, like the temple, ‘creation is an ordered system of signs that can be “read” like a book’ (p. 19). Creation has a ‘sacramental order’ (pp. 18-19).

Chapter 2, God and Creation ex nihilo, explores the idea that God created ex nihilo (out of nothing): an idea that has a ‘fundamental basis in scripture’ (p. 43), and that places the Christian doctrine of creation in sharp contrast to:

  1. Aristotelianism, in which ‘the universe is of everlasting time and sits alongside God’;
  2. Platonism, ‘in which a demiurge makes the cosmos from pre-existent material’; and
  3. Neoplatonism, ‘in which creation emerges from God by necessity’ (pp. 36-7).

Importantly, the final distinction establishes creation as ‘totally gratuitous’ (p. 37): it is ‘a pure and free gift’ (p. 50).

The doctrine of creation ex nihilo makes it clear that God and creation exist in a different way. With help from Augustine and Aquinas, Oliver explains that ‘It is of God’s essence to exist’ (p. 46). In contrast, ‘creation exists by participation’ (p. 47): ‘Everything else exists by sharing in God’s existence’ (p. 48).

Creation hovers over nothingness at every instant, held in existence only by God’s sustaining power. This moment now, as you are reading this book, is just as much ex nihilo as the very first instant of creation (p. 48).

Chapter 3, God and Creation: Participation and Providence, takes us deeper into Aquinas, and into the themes of participation and providence that flow from the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Creation’s participation in God’s existence is explained in terms of Aquinas’s notion of analogy. We might speak of God using metaphors, such as ‘God is my rock’. This is a metaphor, because ‘metaphors are literally false (God is not literally a rock)’ (p. 65). But what about when we say ‘God is good’ or ‘God is wise’? This is more than a metaphor. Aquinas describes this use of language in terms of ‘analogy’: God is ‘good’ not in exactly the same way as a person might be ‘good’ (‘univocal’), but nor is God’s ‘goodness’ something completely different (‘equivocal’). Aquinas uses the example of health. We might describe both a diet and a person’s complexion as ‘healthy’, but what does this mean? Clearly a diet and a person’s complexion are not ‘healthy’ in exactly the same sense. What makes them ‘healthy’ is their ‘common focus’: a healthy person (p. 67). Likewise, ‘goodness’ in a person (or a dog, or a tree) has a common focus: God, ‘who is supremely and transcendentally good in himself’ (p. 69).

Aquinas extends this notion of analogy ‘into the realm of existence itself’ (p. 71). Creaturely ‘existence’ is analogous to God’s existence. ‘Creation has a participation in God’s being’: it ‘exists by analogy to God who exists eternally in himself’ (p. 72).

This brings us back to the idea of creation as gift, which is a prominent theme in the book:

Rather than picturing creation as standing alongside God and then receiving his gracious gifts, we are better to think even of the capacity to be a recipient of God’s gifts, including the gift of existence, as itself a gift of God (p. 74).

The discussion of providence centres on Aquinas’s important distinction between primary and secondary causation. ‘God’s causal action and my causal action as not of the same kind’ (p. 75). God is the primary cause of every action, in that he gives each creature an existence that is ordered towards some particular goal or end, he sustains that creature in existence, and he gives that creature the power to act according to its intended purpose. But the creature itself is a genuine (secondary) cause in its own right. ‘Created secondary causes are real and potent because of their analogical relation to a common focus, namely God’s primary causation’ (pp. 78-9).

What then of suffering and evil? Oliver is dismissive of attempts to rationalise evil. Creation’s goodness is closely linked with its rationality, so evil is fundamentally irrational. Instead, drawing on Augustine, evil is best understood as ‘the absence of the good’ (p. 84). Furthermore, its presence is made less problematic by drawing on the distinction between primary and secondary causation, or ‘between what God wills and what God permits’ (p. 87).

This approach raises various questions, which are not addressed in the book. For example, what are we to make of creatures which seem specifically ordered to cause harm? Would Aquinas see these as good creatures (primary causation) that have turned away from God’s purposes (secondary causation)? If so, this would seem to be problematic, especially from an evolutionary perspective, and even from a young-age creationist perspective.

Chapter 4 deals with Creation, the Rise of Science and the Design of the Universe. Drawing on the work of Peter Harrison, Oliver argues that the Reformation ‘was a change in the way in which scripture was read that unwittingly prompted a change in the way that nature was read’ (p. 97). Scripture was to be read only in a literal sense, and so was the rest of creation. No longer were creatures to be ‘understood as signs of spiritual truths’; they were reduced to being little more than ‘objects that meet humanity’s material needs’ or ‘demonstrations of divine power’ (p. 98).

No longer did birds, beasts and the celestial bodies mean anything. They were simply objects whose structure and design revealed the creator’s ingenuity and power (p. 108).

It is not difficult to see that this attitude could (plausibly, at least) have contributed towards many of the problems we face in the world today.

Chapter 5, The Environment and the Gift of Creation: Beyond Nature and Culture, attempts to put things back together again, and to give us a more fundamentally Christian view of creation. Drawing on Marcel Mauss and on John Milbank, Oliver unpacks the idea of creation as gift. If the giving of a gift always involves some degree of reciprocity (as seems to be the case), then what does that mean in terms of God and creation? What can creation give in response to God, when even creation’s very existence is itself a gift from God? The answer is clear when we think of the relationship between a young child and her parents.

At Christmas, the child’s parents buy her a splendid present – a new bike. The child, however, has no means of buying her parents a gift; she has nothing that she has not already received. Yet as she tears the paper from her new bike on Christmas morning, she turns to her parents, smiles and says, with joy and delight, ‘thank you’. The smile and the ‘thank you’ are the reciprocal gift (p. 147).

Similarly, our highest calling as creatures is to receive God’s gifts with thanksgiving.

This book by no means resolves all of the issues raised when thinking about the doctrine of creation. But it does introduce us to some rich and under-utilised theological resources with which we might approach the challenges facing us today.