Ex nihilo

Creation ex nihilo compares God to an artist, saying that he produces the universe without presupposing some stock of stuff that he makes it out of. We could say it was equivalent to “creation without matter”, and this would get us close enough, but it raises too many questions about what a “created spirit” would be.

But saying that God creates without matter is just the first move in an account of creation. The matter which someone uses is the least significant part of the artwork, and it is defined purely functionally. Marble or granite might be sculpted, but so could anything that could play a marble or granite like role. If I were writing with a quill I’d need ink, but anything that could play an ink-like role would do no matter what it was. If you told me that the stuff in my inkwell was really a dessert topping I might well just shrug and keep on using it if I couldn’t tell the difference.

Matter, in other words, is whatever some agent can use to make a form. Both human and non-human agents use whatever is around to make whatever gets made. Birds will make nests out of twigs, or shards of paper, or swizzle sticks, or whatever can play the nest-matter role. There’s nothing that is just nest matter to the exclusion of anything else. It’s this purely functional character of matter which explains why it can never be primary in existence.

So in a certain sense all creation is ex nihilo – some agents need matter, but they only in the sense of needing some “whatever will work” to do what they want to do. Matter is not a substance but a function. If you’re writing with a quill you need something that sticks and stains in the right way, but it doesn’t matter whether it’s a floor wax or a dessert topping. Matter is literally insubstantial – we need the substance so far as we need the characteristics that flow from it that allow it to play a certain role, but if we could have these without the substance, or in any other substance it wouldn’t bother us.

This insubstantiality of matter opens up a way to understand creation ex nihilo – sc. that it is a way of intending the existence of all substances. When we desire to make something we’re indifferent to the substantiality of matter. We do not and cannot care about what it is in itself. To create from nothing opens the possibility of universal concern for all things, that is, it allows for an agent that is entirely concerned for each of the substances that make an absolute totality. God alone could create a universe, not in the straightforward sense that he alone is outside of it, but in the sense that he is the only one that could desire it as a totality of substances in themselves. To create from matter requires indifference to the substantiality of things, and God alone can escape this in his act of production.

Indifference to substantiality reverberates outward – if I don’t care about the substance I can’t care for what it does of itself. I only want its activity and characteristics so far as they fit into my plan, not so far as they have a plan and a desire for themselves. God alone escapes this limitation as well. It is only in God that there can be simultaneously the love of all substances in the universe and the production of substance. In us, these two cannot be held at once. We could never create a universe because we could never desire to do so. We would need some stock of stuff that could not be regarded in its substance, and so could never be loved.

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