Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How could God have chosen not to create anything?

Traditional Christian thought holds that God could have refrained from creating. But this is puzzling. Whatever God does he does for a good reason. But what good reason could there be for not creating something? Granted, God might well have good reason not to create beings capable of sin. But not all beings are like that—flowers aren't like that, and maybe there could even be finite persons that aren't capable of sin.

Here is a suggestion inspired by a remark of Mark Murphy's about how all creatures imperfectly reflect God. Think of how an artist might refrain from making a work of art on a particular subject because she thinks herself unequal to the subject. You might think that it would be good to produce a work of art that does not do full justice to the subject, since perhaps all works of art fall short, and there is something to that. But there are two kinds of reasons—to promote the good and avoid the bad—as we learn from Aquinas. And by refraining from produce the work of art that does not do full justice to the subject, the artist is acting on a good reason, though she could also be acting on a good reason if she chose to produce the work of art.

Now God's reason for creation is himself: he creates to produce something that is in his image, which thereby glorifies him. But every possible creature, and indeed every collection of possible creatures, falls infinitely far short of God. Thus whatever God creates, it will be a work of art that, necessarily, falls short of its subject. This gives God a good reason not to create anything, to refrain from producing imperfect images of himself.

Of course, there will be cases where we would think an artist excessively timorous if she refrained from producing a work of art because it falls short. But there will also be times when we would think that the artist shows a proper understanding of the importance of the subject and what she can produce when she refrains from producing. A best-selling novelist who lacks much talent in characterization, but can nonetheless produce exciting plots, should perhaps not attempt a novel on the deep moral transformation of the wife of an SS officer who watches her husband's slow decay as he is assigned to Auschwitz.

Now, paradoxically, the artistic products of the infinite God will fall infinitely short of the subject matter when he creates and he so realizes. It is not that God is capable of less than the human artist. It is, rather, that the subject of his art is infinite, and he fully realizes this infinity. A human artist—say, a poet—who writes about God faces the same problem, but lacks God's understanding of just how infinitely short the work falls of its subject. There is a hint of this in the Old Testament prohibition on images of God (a prohibition no longer literally applicable once God has become incarnate and transformed the Law).

Whenever a sensitive artist creates, there is a kind of sacrifice of the artistic sensibility—the artist makes something that she knows falls short. And so we owe special gratitude to God for creating us. He had good reason not to create, though he also had good reason to create. Where there are conflicting reasons, that is where choice is needed.

6 comments:

Anne said...

What do you think might have "tipped the balance" of reasons?

Icaras Triakis Harimau said...

Clarity needed:

When you say anything God creates will fall infinitely short of Him, would you say that is also true of angels?

Also are you speaking from the standpoint of God looking at his creation? Because it seems to me that as a human being, even fallen images of Gods creation have an overwhelming amount of beauty.

I think it the universe, the world and particularly human beings as creations of God who has in himself infinite beauty. . . Even a deeply flawed product of his handiwork spills over with beauty. I think that says alot about God. Maybe since God knows beauty better, this would be different for him?

And to the artist who creates, take someone like caravaggio. I would say that even though truly, any depiction of the human body falls terribly short, when you become that elite of an artist (in any medium). . there are different standards that apply that may not necessairily hang on how well the human form is portrayed.

Ide have to think on that more. Not sure this post makes sense. Thiers a question in thier somewhere. Rushed for time! I apologize

Icaras Triakis Harimau said...

Hm.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Anne:

I don't think there is any such thing as tipping in the case of God. When God acts, he acts on all the applicable reasons. The value of creatures praising him, the value of freedom, the value of there being contingent beings, etc.--all these played a role.

It's an interesting thing about God and man that sometimes we can be more definite about some of God's reasons than we can about human reasons. For whenever R is an applicable good reason to do A, and God does A, then God does A at least in part because of R. So to know that R was among the reasons for which God acted one just needs to know that R was an applicable good reason for what God did. Not so for humans who can ignore good reasons.

Icaras:

Yes, angels fall infinitely short of God. On balance, I think humans and angels are more like worms than like God. They are only finitely different from worms and infinitely different from God.

"Because it seems to me that as a human being, even fallen images of Gods creation have an overwhelming amount of beauty."

Well said. And yet creation at its best falls infinitely short of God. So how beautiful God must be!

"And to the artist who creates, take someone like caravaggio. I would say that even though truly, any depiction of the human body falls terribly short, when you become that elite of an artist (in any medium). . there are different standards that apply that may not necessairily hang on how well the human form is portrayed."

Yes, how well the art work does depends on what the artistic vision is. I was assuming, with much of the Christian tradition, that God's artistic vision is himself--that he makes beings to be images of him. Aquinas puts it well: "Hence we must say that the distinction and multitude of things come from the intention of the first agent, who is God. For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever."

Icaras Triakis Harimau said...

Intersting . . I had never considered the portion about worms, us, and angels! Immediately it sounds objectionable, but I think thats a fair statement.

That actually puts a lot of things into perspective, when you say that Gods artistic vision is himself. I may even suggest that an objectively bad artistic creation would come from an objectively "bad" artistic vision, or subject (including concepts). In light of you saying God's artistic vision would be himself, and there is nothing bad in him.

Very preliminary. . But that's really helpful. :D

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the story in this post will be enriched if we add that in the Trinitarian relations, God already expresses that artistic vision that he himself is, and does so perfectly.