Ex – Ex Nihilo: God in Our Messiness
The term ex nihilo is a Latin term for “out of nothing”. Its most notably used in conversations about creation as the claim that God created out of nothing, one that is core to Christian theology. God pre-exists creation and everything that is… is from God. The claim was something that for years I would have taken as a given of my own theological framework. It was. And it is no longer.
Pastoral life has cracked and fractured many of the givens of my theological framework. I have a mind that loves systematic thought. I love Philosophy. I love the task of Systematic Theology, and of articulating clear doctrinal understandings of the world, of God, and of the relationship between God and all things. But as my love of narrative grew, a Scriptural theology that embraces the messiness of life began to not only appeal more to me… but fracture previous foundations – I know longer saw “realness” to the clean clear lines of doctrine. My vocational life places me (gifts me) in people’s confidence where I hear and see their constant struggles and the angst-ridden existential task of meaning-making in their stories and this, again, makes me continually question, restrain, and flat out toss out many of the “right answers” I thought I knew.
The Bible has a fair amount of creation theology. It goes far beyond Genesis 1 and 2 – the twin creation stories we all typically conflate into one and call it the THE creation story. John begins his Gospel with a creation story. Hebrews and Revelation both give strong creation claims of creation ex-nihilo. Psalms and Proverbs both speak to creation and its unfolding. There is creation theology throughout our scriptures – we can hardly point to one story and there is no single authoritative voice to a single absolute theological understanding of how it all came to be. John’s Gospel is, in my opinion, is the strongest “ex nihilo” argument. Its hard to argue with “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3)
It’s a captivating claim. And I’m not saying there isn’t truth in it. In my world of mystery and limited knowledge and resistance to claiming to understand ultimate things, I have plenty of space to hold two truths together. And I certainly have no need to disabuse anyone else of their foundations. But I think the cracks are helpful… because life filters through them. Because that is how life works – it comes out of other things far more than it does out of nothing.
Years ago, I was at a Discipleship conference that was being run simultaneously to a conference on New Church Development. I remember at a break I was talking to one of the new church development pastors and I made some very ignorant comment like “it must be nice to start a new church and get to work with a blank slate. No old culture you need to change but getting to begin things fresh and new.”
He quickly smashed that fiction. My thoughts that new church development was creation ex nihilo couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, he said, what you have is no agreement at all on what the slate should be. Everyone comes with their baggage from other churches, everyone comes with their own vision for what this new thing should be… there is no “out of nothing” but rather “out of many somethings”. And a culture still needs to grow and be nourished and directed and pruned… and it still has a mind (and minds) of its own.
I hold on to that comment. I have fallen back on that wisdom time and again because it reveals deep truth to me. Our lives don’t need someone that can create out of nothing. I think that way lies the foundations of an oppressive imperial theology that wants to cut it all down and sculpt the world in its own image. That creation story endorses Missional imperialism. We bring the blueprint for how it is supposed to be, and you have nothing to offer us. Let’s make, or imagine, a nothing from which we can create that which is good. The story of creation ex nihilo horrifies more than claims me.
My life is messy. My tomorrow seems less than palatable on many fronts than my today. A thousand tiny neglected threads making the canvas of my life seemingly unravel before me. In the midst of that story, how powerful for me to hear and remember and take comfort in these words:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
How many times does this feel like our reality? Our lives have become formless void… we are living in a darkness from which its hard to imagine hope. Chaos seems to reign, and the wildness of that life puts our own lives at threat. Hurricane. Forest fire. A cresting river. These are all signs of abundant life – too abundant for you and for me. Literally and figuratively we know what it is live in the darkness of the deep where the forces at play in the world are about to blow apart our lives. Chaff in the wind.
But God’s spirit is blowing over us too: we are not alone.
“Then God said, “Let there be light’”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness.”
In this creation story, we are not only ‘not alone’ but God is in our corner. God is coaxing up from the abundant powers of this world a sustainable abode for life. God has “heard us in our distress” and rises to answer with creative activity. Light, air, boundaried shores of much more static dry land… each in their turn is coaxed out of what already-is to create something good… something more livable, more productive, more unanticipated expectation filled with hope. And no.. it is not ex nihilo nor even a solo project. God continually invites creation, the beasts, and then us to help in the task of creating. This is a group project – from the beginning, a group project about letting life emerge and discerning (separating out / naming and claiming) what is good.
And for this reason and many more, I find a theology of creation ex nihilo no longer helpful for me. I’m not saying God cannot and did not do such a thing – who am I to claim such knowledge as all of that – but what I’m saying is that it is far more powerful in my life to attend to the witnessed claim that God continues to create from our messiness. A story of God’s desire, participation, and power to work with creation, with the somethings that we already have that feel.. tattered, torn, and absent of hope. God did this, and God does this still.
God able to work with my baggage… and call it good? That’s a powerful story I need to hear. Every. Day.
You are God’s creation friend… you are your creation. You are the creation of a thousand lives that have formed you in ways good and bad and everything in between. But never forget… through all that tosses you about – you are not alone. God is in your corner. And God is coaxing up from the world of possibilities a place for you to feel… home. Safe. Loved. Partnered. Important… Good.
Thanks be to God.