The distinction and goodness of created things

Last Sunday, continuing the theme of faith and science, I began writing about the meaning of the 1st chapter of Genesis. This brief passage is one of the most important and profound writings in the whole of human history. I am beginning with the most basic and obvious messages, which are also the most important, and will later continue with some of the fine points.

The most basic messages are two.

First, God is revealed as both the one who creates everything and gives form, structure, and distinction to all created things.

Second, in all the visible creation, man (male and female) has a special status and dignity because he is created according to the image and likeness of God.

Last Sunday, I began writing about the first message and explained the meaning of ‘creation out of nothing’ – ex nihilo. God exists and must exist; all other things, in their totality, in every aspect, exist only because God made them.

Now the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’ means also that time itself is a created reality and that God stands completely outside of time – that is the real meaning of God’s eternity.

‘Creation out of nothing’ does not mean that there had to be a beginning of time, but this truth is revealed in the first words of Genesis, in the beginning. God not only created time, he created a beginning of time. This is supported, but not proven, by the scientific theory of the ‘Big Bang’.

The beginning of time certainly highlights the reality of creation and the radical dependence of the creature upon God.

Nevertheless, it is important to grasp that just as things did not have to exist in the first place, they did not have to exist in this way.

The fact of things now existing and the fact that they exist as they do is so immediately evident to us it is hard to conceive of them existing in any other way.

Scientific theories, at least until the development of quantum mechanics and the principle of uncertainty, reinforced this way of thinking because of the underlying attitude of philosophical determinism. Philosophical determinism is the philosophical doctrine that everything in the world developed according to the strict necessity of determined laws.

Genesis reveals that God chose to create the universe (he didn’t have to do it) and chose to create it the way it is (he didn’t have to do it this way).

Genesis also reveals that the created universe is good in the judgment of God. God saw that it was good.

There is an error called ‘voluntarism’ that holds that goodness is so completely dependent on God’s will that if God had willed the things we understand to be evil to be good, then they would be good. If God had willed murder to be good, then it would have been good. The words of Genesis, God saw that it was good, correct this error by relating the goodness in creation to God’s knowledge and wisdom, not directly to his will.

Created reality is good, but the word of God does not teach that the universe is perfect in every way (actually absolute perfection can only be found in God himself) nor is it ‘the best of possible worlds’. Actually, if we consider well the word of God, we will realize that the universe in its present form is – as should be obvious – imperfect and, less obviously, provisional. The present imperfect universe is, we could say, a path to a universe that will be perfect in its kind, when God himself brings all things to completion.

The goodness of the universe is revealed precisely in what are called the “works of distinction”. Genesis first tells us that God created the universe, but presents the world to us as a formless wasteland (Gen 1:1). There then follows the sequence of six days in which the heaven, the sea, the earth, and all their array are fashioned. (cf. Gen 2:1) Each day God pronounces his work ‘good’ and declares the whole very good. (Gen 1:31)

Existence itself is a good, but mere existence, we could say is the least of created goods. Created things achieve their goodness through being distinguished from one another, each according to its kind, each ‘obeying’ as it were the laws of its kind.

The formless, limitless wasteland of mere existence is not called good. The things that are defined and limited, we could say, each according to its kind, are good. This is the general judgment of antiquity: goodness for created things does not come through being infinite, shapeless, formless, without limits, but precisely through proper definition, shape, and form. Created goodness arises from proper measure, definite form, and right order. Created beauty is constituted by integrity (or having all the requisite parts), proportion among the parts, and clarity.

Through their proper limits and forms created things are good and beautiful according to their kinds, but their goodness and beauty is thereby limited and imperfect. They are creatures, not God.

Modern society, however, has been characterized by rejection of limits, hatred of form, and disorder. It is as though modern man, in his rebellion against God, in wanting to be like God without God, wants to return to the primeval chaos of a formless wasteland. This becomes love of weirdness. So modern art moves towards formlessness or clashing of forms or forms that clash with reality: nothing fits.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.