The idea of God as the Creator is perhaps the most radical theory of time ever conceived, one that imposes a definite beginning to time, along with an explanation of why this should have happened. Before God there was no time, according to this theory, because God created time when he created all things. Theories of God as Creator often, though not invariably, are accompanied by a complementary theory of God overseeing the end of time as well.
Theories of God as Creator are not the common property of humanity, but are the product of specific trends of thought involving monotheism, or the idea of a single god. In cultures that do not subscribe to monotheist notions of God, there is much less evidence of theories of God as Creator or, if such theories can be found, they are much
less significant than in monotheist cultures. Creation accounts are also a relatively late development in the evolution of religious thought.
When looking at India, for example, amid all the conflicting interpretations one could read into the Vedas, there is little to support the idea of God as a creator from nothing. Among the many speculations is the admission that maybe even the gods do not know, because they emerged after the universe derived its form. The closest parallel to the word creation is the Sanskrit word Srishti, or “projection.” So when it is said that God created things out of nothing, it is meant that the universe is a projection of God, with the extra understanding that the universe creates itself and falls back into itself, in endless cycles, for all time. Other understandings have this projection as a never-ending process of God realizing himself in the universe.
It is also true that no god in the Hindu pantheon was credited with Creation. Brahma is given such an age that even talk of creating the universe seems a paltry exercise. Hinduism divides time into cycles, called kalpas. One kalpa consists of 1,000 cycles of 4,320,000 years, which are made up of 12,000 divine years, each of which lasts 360 solar years. And for Brahma one kalpa equals one day.
Another trend in Indian philosophy known as the Kalavada derives its name from kala, which originally meant “right moment” but came to mean “time” itself. Kala was used in that sense in the Sanskrit writings, where it took on the mantle of being a fundamental principle of the universe and that existed before all other things. It may be that Kali, one of the avatars of Shiva, is also derived from kala. Kali (“the Black One”) is, like time, merciless.
In China there is the tale of Pangu (P’an-Ku in the old spelling) who is the child of yin and yang and who fashioned the cosmos out of the primeval chaos. But he is not a deity to be worshiped, and neither is he credited with actually creating the universe. Then there is the celestial spirit Tai Sui, who presides over the structure of the year. He is, in fact, president of the Celestial Ministry of Time, a prestigious and highly feared office. Tai Sui was venerated as the deity able to influence human destiny. Astrologers were kept busy analyzing dates for auspicious signs that a new project would meet with Tai Sui’s approval. The Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) began the practice of sacrificing to Tai Sui before any momentous project was undertaken.
Among the Greeks, as well as in the great Eastern civilizations, the universe had always existed and creation stories, where they existed at all, told more of fashioning order out of primeval chaos than of creation ordered from nothing. In the Timaeus, Plato portrays God as that which imposes order on a preexistent matter. Finding the universe in a state of “inharmonious and disorderly motion,” God “reduced it to order from disorder, as he judged that order was in every way better.” The same account is given in Book One of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and it has been argued that a similar approach can be found in the Hebrew Bible, in, for instance, Psalm 74:12-17 or 89:9-13.
Aristotle was more specific in denying any primal creation role to the gods. Rather, God was the “prime mover” who “moves” the world. As time is eternal, so change is also eternal, which, in turn requires an eternal overseer of that change. This is the prime mover. It is important not to confuse the prime mover with any notion of a personal God as understood in the Christian tradition. The prime mover is nonmaterial and as such occupies no space. It is not distinct from nature, but is the animating principle within nature. Aristotle’s God, being eternal, is the sum total of thoughts and animating principles that transcend temporality.
Even more naturalistic was the account of the universe in Lucretius’s masterpiece De rerum natura (On the Nature of the Universe), which was completed in about 60 BCE. Nothing, Lucretius insisted, not even divine power, can create something out of nothing. It was not the principle of divinity that was being challenged but that of supernaturalism. Elsewhere, Lucretius spoke of a limitless universe with no center and composed of indestructible matter.
Nowhere is the difference between monotheist and other cosmologies more apparent than in the idea that the cosmos is the product of a God that operates in history. It is the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that have the most elaborate accounts of God as Creator. While various interpretations of biblical creation narratives exist, the most influential has been that of Creatio ex nihilo, or “creation out of nothing.” The Hebrew Bible begins with the assertion: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” There are, however, two accounts of creation in the first books of Genesis. The earlier account can be found in Genesis 2:4-25 and is attributed to an unnamed source called the Yahwist, or simply J, who wrote in the interests of Judah, probably in the eighth or seventh centuries BCE. The J account differs significantly from the later account, in Genesis 1:1-2:4, which is attributed to P, or the Priest, and probably does not predate the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th century BCE.
The J account gives lip service to the creation of the earth and the heavens and gives greater emphasis to the use made of existing materials, such as bringing rain to fructify the earth and creating man out of the dust of the earth. J begins with dry earth from which water later emerges. The later account reverses this and begins with water as the default condition, out of which land emerges. Among other items, this is evidence of P’s closer debt to Mesopotamian mythology, which derived from living in a river lowland, unlike the arid land of Palestine, where J wrote. It is also significant that the earlier J Creation account seems contradictory with man being created first, out of the dust (adam from adamah) whereas the earlier P account has man being created last, as the pinnacle of creation.
These differences in detail and order are symptomatic of a larger difference in underlying attitude. J’s account is more organic and closer to the mythological accounts then prevalent. P’s account, for instance, makes sure to credit God with the creation of light, departing from many mythological accounts where light is, along with its sister condition darkness, a primordial element of chaos. P’s later account is more abstract and rarefied, and serves to strengthen the case of ecclesiastical authority, whose charge it is to interpret these great themes to the unlettered and stand in as their mediators before God.
None of these distinctions played a major role in Christian creation theology before the 19th century. Creatio ex nihilo was decreed orthodox theology at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and Saint Augustine developed P’s account, accentuating the utter majesty and sufficiency of God in overseeing this creation. Augustine also attacked Greek ideas of time having no beginning and there having been no creation. Those who claimed the world was without beginning and consequently not created by God, he wrote, “are strangely deceived, and rave in the incurable madness of impiety.” This remained the standard interpretation for more than one and a half thousand years.
The Qur’an is, if anything, even more insistent on the Creatio ex nihilo thesis than the Bible. There is little description or explication beyond a bald assertion of Allah’s total, entirely sufficient, and generous-hearted creation. Allah is praised as he who “created the heavens and the earth, and made darkness and light.” Moreover, he created it with truth, to serve as a sign for the believers and was not fatigued in any way by this creation. These claims are often made in the context of rebuking those who would doubt or warning those who would disbelieve. The Qur’an is no less anthropocentric than the Bible, with several passages allowing for humanity as the highest point of creation by virtue of most resembling Allah the Merciful. As the actual and inviolate words from Allah, this Qur’anic account is, formally at least, the only acceptable Muslim account of the creation of the world.
Despite all the differences among the Greeks, they agreed that Creatio ex nihilo made no sense and that creation meant ordering what was already there, rather than starting from scratch. But the triumph of the Creatio ex nihilo doctrine changed all that. It also has several important theological ramifications. First, it serves to heighten the focus on God’s awesome power to perform such a feat, and our debt to him. Second, it reinforces the distance between the Creator and his creatures, and that God/Allah did not need to create the universe so as to fulfill Himself, or somehow to bring things to a final resolution, because God/Allah was himself already finally resolved.
Third, it extends his power to being above and beyond time.
Perhaps the most specific rendering of God as Creator is the notorious date given by Archbishop James Ussher in 1617. Working from the genealogies of the Hebrew Bible, Ussher dated the creation of the world to October 23, 4004 BCE, with Adam being created 5 days later. This contradicted the Jewish scholars, who decided that October 7, 3761 BCE, was the more likely date. These attempts to discern a specific date for God’s act of creation are the ultimate consequence of assuming the biblical narratives to be literally true accounts of what has happened.
Problems with the science and theology of God as Creator idea reappeared with the great advances in science being made in the 17th century. At the very time Archbishop Ussher was devising his chronology based on the biblical genealogies, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and Isaac Newton were constructing an altogether new account of the universe. This drastic expansion of the universe, and its orientation away from being Earth-centered to sun-centered, had important consequences for ideas about God.
The most imaginative response at the time was deism, which retained for God the role as Creator but attributed everything that has happened since then to the working of nature. Few of the ideas popularized by the deists were original to them. Instead, they reworked ideas articulated by Lucretius, Cicero, and others, in the light of the new understanding of the universe as envisaged by Newton. Problems with deism soon became apparent, in particular, why its vision of God as Creator was any more acceptable than the conventional accounts it sought to replace. There was also the problem that the god of deism was useless for any normal religious function. Another response was pantheism, which subsumed God in Nature, divinizing the latter and secularizing the former. Pantheism was more corrosive to ideas of God as Creator than deism, although it suffered some of the same intellectual objections.
Some scientists in the 19th century, particularly those of a religious persuasion, argued that, as well as the mystery of creation, there was still so much that was unknown and could be attributed only to God’s will. But as successive unknown areas have been opened up and provided with naturalistic explanations, the field of God’s sphere of influence has been reduced. This was recognized as a problem and by the end of the 19th century was called the “God of the Gaps.”
Among nonscientists another response was to relinquish all thoughts of demonstrating the rational and logical veracity of any God-talk, whether in his capacity as Creator or in any other role. Belief in God, in whatever capacity, was a matter of faith alone, in which reason played no part. Variations on this theme were articulated, at the radical end, by the Danish philosopher S0ren Kierkegaard, and in more conservative language, by the Oxford movement and Ultramontane Catholicism. A secular variant was arrived at toward the end of the 19th century in early pragmatism, which argued that disputes over the existence of God and his role as Creator were largely irrelevant and incapable of final resolution. What mattered was the benefit such beliefs conferred on the believer.
The most recent response within the religious world to the advances in scientific understanding of the universe and its origins has also been the most conservative. Fundamentalism is the insistence that what is decreed in the scripture of one’s religion is literally true in all respects. Thus, God really is the creator of the universe as outlined in the Bible (or the Qur’an), and whatever inconsistencies in the scriptural accounts are either illusory or the result of an unwillingness to believe the truth with the required degree of faith.
Most people, however, have reconciled themselves to the collapse of traditional accounts of God as Creator. By the beginning of the 21st century the general scientific consensus was that the universe is between 13 and 16 billion years old, and came into existence as a result of the big bang. And that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and is one of countless planets in an expanding universe of unimaginable proportions. Those who have remained religious believers have been content to see the creation accounts as allegories with poetic rather than normative power. There have also been attempts to equate the big bang with accounts of God the Creator, but without success. As several scientific observers have commented, such a move tends to work only if God is reduced to a series of mathematical equations. Those who do not subscribe to any formal religious system simply take the scientific account as the best available account of how things began.
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aristotle; Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Bible and Time; Big Bang Theory; Christianity; Creationism; Genesis, Book of; God and Time; Gosse, Philip Henry; Lucretius; Plato; Qur’an; Time, Sacred
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