Essay / Theology

"I Believe in the Maker of Moderate-Sized Dry Goods"

Katherine Sonderegger has a fine chapter on the doctrine of creation in the book Mapping Modern Theology. I especially appreciate the fact that, charged with explaining in about 23 pages how the doctrine of creation has been treated during the entire modern period, she manages to cover the main topics, mention the standard names, sketch the obvious controversies, and yet somehow go the extra mile and say some new and interesting things she has noticed in the modern discussion.

One example is what Sonderegger calls “an original and rather unexpected question” in the modern world: “When God created all that is, just what is it that he made?” You can’t just stamp your foot and say “everything,” because that was already assumed in the first part of the question (“God created all that is…”). In fact, the whole question is, what’s a thing? Because whatever it is, God made all of them. The tediously pedantic way to say it would be: the question behind the question is, what’s the thing behind the thing. But that would be annoying behind annoying, which Sonderegger’s chapter isn’t.

You could point up and down and say, biblically, “the heavens and the earth,” and go on to name everything in them. But that’s where it gets tricky. Please provide a catalog of everything in heaven and earth. Should your list include, in addition to objects and elements, also the laws obeyed by the objects and elements? Are those laws then objects, subject to God’s making? Well, yes, but it’s kind of weird to put them on my list. What other ghostly un-objecty objects might need to go on the list?

One traditional answer is “all the whole substances,” and Sonderegger traces that back into Thomas Aquinas’ answer:

Thomas knew perfectly well that the cosmos was filled with more than objects, living or inert; he knew that the world of things was qualified by innumerable properties or characteristics, and he recognized that certain immaterial realities –ideas, values, numbers, and time itself– governed much of what we call our world. These were also created by God, Thomas firmly concludes….

But here’s the Thomist twist: they’re not so much created as they are “con-created,” or created along with, the objects. They are “properties, or qualia, accompanying all that is.” When God made all the things, he didn’t have to move on to the next item on his agenda, manufacturing the properties and laws and whatnot inhering in or connecting the things. Those he con-created.

Here’s a related issue: God made everything, and he made the stuff everything is made of. But it’s one thing to affirm that, and another thing to specify what the stuff is. Atoms? Great, God made those little critters, and also created (or did he con-create?) all the ways those indivisibles are arranged and built up: the compounds, the molecules, the tissues, etc.  But if you go smaller than atoms, things get weirder and all quantumy, and while the quantum world is a nice place to visit, nobody wants to live there. Heck, depending on who you believe about quantum phenomena, there’s no there there anyway: locality does not apply. I’m staying right here in Newtonian land, thank you very much. Up here we have to do, not with spooky oddities that cannot be located, measured, or enumerated, but with what Sonderegger (riffing on J.L. Austin) calls “moderate-sized dry goods.” No wavicles or bare particulars, just real, honest-to-the-creator stuff.

Sonderegger calls this a common-sense view because it keeps its focus on the objects of our possible experience, and treats all the properties and elements as things that God made (more or less) on his way to the visible, tangible, objects. She notes that this view is antireductionist in the sense that those who hold it think

the scopus, or goal, of God’s creative will… is directed toward objects; the debate, for these theologians, assumes this goal and from this presumption turns to the questions that remain on the composition of objects and their creaturely origin and destiny.

On this view, you might say that God created a rock, and all the whatevers that go into the existence of the rock are more or less con-created toward the goal of producing the rock. No need to sweat about the fundamental particles or forces that underlie the rock, because the rock was the point. It’s a moderate- sized dry good, after all, and that’s what the doctrine of creation is about.

Other thinkers, however, take up the issue from exactly the other side, and argue that “the scopus of God’s creative will is the fundamental particle or law that will then result in visible and finite objects.” On this view, when God made everything, he made a lot more things, all of them tinier and weirder than the objects of our senses. All those visible, tangible things are sort of orchestrations and conglomerations of the little things God actually made. Because the unobservable fundamental units are what the doctrine of creation is all about.

In her “Creation” chapter, Sonderegger explores the various problems attached to each view, and identifies both ancient and modern advocates of the two ways of answering the question, “What did God make when he made all things?”

I am tempted to say that this thought experiment underlines the impossibility of drawing a sharp line between creation and providence. God had to orchestrate a set of causes, bring certain things into existence, and also configure them particular ways, if we are to say he is the maker of heaven and earth. Often when we name him as the creator of something, we are sliding seamlessly into recognition of God’s providence. For example, I once thanked God for being the creator of a particularly beautiful sunset. On reflection, I had to wonder if a sunset is a thing, and if so what kind of thing. It’s certainly no moderate-sized dry good! It’s really a state of affairs viewed from a particular location. So I suppose I should have praised God as the arranger of the sunset, to be more precise in my doxology, and perhaps reserve the word creation for a special set of acts. Or if that’s too picky, perhaps I should develop the content of the notion of creatio continua, the recognition of ongoing divine creativity not limited to the distant past. Or is creatio continua just another name for providence?

But in Mapping Modern Theology, the doctrine of providence is handled a hundred pages later (for perfectly good reasons) by another author (John Webster) who has his hands full enough with the modern discussion of that doctrine. Sonderegger’s essay really does cover the ground well, and opens a can of (created) worms.

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