God’s Knowledge and Love in Creation
Necessity is the mother of invention, or so the saying goes. Human ingenuity is at its best when it sees a dire need, draws on all its available resources, mental and physical, and finds a way to fill that need. While this is surely the case in many successful inventions, it is amazing how many things there are in our daily life that we simply take for granted that were not sought out but were stumbled upon either by accident or even by error. Superglue and Teflon, plastic and vulcanized rubber, corn flakes and chocolate chip cookies, stainless steel and the microwave were all inventions that were stumbled upon rather than sought out. Both necessity and chance lead to invention.
Looking back over the history of ideas, numerous religions and many thinkers have tried to attribute the origins of everything either to necessity or to chance. There is a whole range of creation myths in ancient cultures that see creation either as a necessary byproduct that results from the interactions among various deities – for example as something that is born biologically from the gods – or as an accidental result of some activity associated with the gods – for example as the reside of a battle or a sacrificial offering. The Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma elish (7th century B.C.), for example, declares that the earth and the skies were fashioned by the Babylonian god, Marduk, from the corpse of another god named Tiamat. In contrast, many philosophers of the ancient world rejected such a contingent beginning for the world and sought to ground creation in necessity. In their view, the origins of the universe can be linked to a necessary emergence from a chaotic beginning or to a necessary procession from a primordial divine being.
A Judeo-Christian understanding of creation has always rejected both of these extremes, emphasizing the intentional and free nature of God’s creativity. In creating out of nothing, God knew what He did, did it freely, and did it well. Importantly, this divine doing is not restricted to that moment “in the beginning.” Rather, the whole of God’s creative activity as He sustains and orders all of creation throughout time is rooted in His intelligence and in His love. St. Thomas Aquinas explains:
God has brought things into existence not through any necessity of His nature but by His will. […] God is infinite in power. Consequently He is not determined to this or that effect, but is undetermined with regard to all effects. […] Hence effects proceed from God according to the determination of His will. And so He acts, not by a necessity of His nature, but by His will. This is why the Catholic faith calls the omnipotent God not only “Creator,” but also “Maker.”1
For St. Thomas, God was radically free to create or not to create, and he created everything as ordered to himself.
While it surely takes a good dose of intelligence to recognize when a mistaken byproduct has some hidden potential, properly speaking the fortuitous accident is not an intelligent act. To act through intelligence means to foresee the action and the result in our mind and then to bring it about in reality. This is best seen by analogy to the artist who envisions an image in his mind and who then applies all his talent and skill to bring about that image in a painting or in a sculpture. This is the sort of activity we attribute to God in creation. He foresaw an image, an exemplar, of each and every created thing in his divine intellect and set about to bring each thing into reality. St. Thomas compares the ideas that God uses to create the world to the forms in the mind of a builder:
In other agents (the form of the thing to be made pre-exists) according to intelligible being, as in those that act by the intellect; and thus the likeness of a house pre-exists in the mind of the builder. And this may be called the idea of the house, since the builder intends to build his house like to the form conceived in his mind. As then the world was not made by chance, but by God acting by His intellect, there must exist in the divine mind a form to the likeness of which the world was made.2
Of course, as with any analogy of God with his creatures, this comparison is an imperfect comparison. However, it is worth seeing exactly how it is imperfect.
For every undeniable artistic masterpiece, there are plenty of nice tries and flat out mistakes that are produced. It is almost impossible for the finished product to live up to the image the artist intends, and this can be for either of two reasons. First, there is the limitation of the artist. Try as we might, however beautiful a scene we might imagine, most of us if armed with canvas and paintbrush would end up with something more fitting for the refrigerator or dumpster than a museum. We simply do not have the technical skill and aptitude to bring about what we see in our mind, and though we can certainly get better with practice and training there will always be some gap, perhaps slight, between our ideal and the reality.
On the other hand, there can be a limitation in the materials. Even an artistic genius, if handed a crumpled up piece of brown construction paper and a half empty box of crayons can only do so much. Sure, the result would most likely be amazing beyond anything the rest of us could hope to achieve, but the imperfection of the materials would prevent the perfect realization of the mental image of the artist, or at least limit the possible images he could try to realize.
St. Thomas makes clear that in God neither of these limitations applies. While the human artist has finite power to bring about the desired image in reality, God is omnipotent and so there is no lack on His part that could limit His creative activity.3 Further, no limitation in the material of creation can limit His creative activity because no material is outside His creative power.4 Thus, whatever image God sees in His divine mind He can make a reality. The question then remains, if God has the power to create whatever He can think of, why did He make the particular things that exist, including you and me?
When we look at the world around us and at ourselves and see imperfection and even evil, it can be hard to make sense of the idea that God is both completely good and all-powerful. One way that well-meaning thinkers have tried to reconcile these ideas is to posit that, in some way, God had no choice in the matter. This general idea often comes with the idea that this world, despite all its lumps and bumps, is the best possible world that God could have created. The claim is that, while there are individual problems and evils, if any of them were removed the overall effect would actually make things less perfect. Since God is good, the argument goes, He would have made a perfect world, and this world is that world. While this idea exonerates God of all the individual blemishes we cannot help but see, it also guts His omnipotence and freedom in creating and distances Him from any particular piece of His creation, including each one of us.
If this is the best possible world, God did not create you simply because He wanted you to exist. Rather He created you, even if he wanted you, because you were necessary to make things work out better for the whole. While there is an honor in being a small cog in a beautiful machine, God’s will to create each of us is more than that. Rather than claim this is the best possible world, St. Thomas affirms that, although this world is good because God made it, it is not some absolute of goodness.5 God alone is truly, fully good, and he had no need to create anything at all. His goodness, in and of itself, would be no less if He never created anything, and is not increased because He did create. God was absolutely free to create whatever He wanted to create, and He created us. It is true that there is a greater goodness in the whole than in any particular part and that there are individual perfections that are ordered to the greater good of creation as a whole, but these facts do not constrain God’s freedom. In His intellect He sees every possible created thing and every possible creation, and He chose to make this one real and, in so doing, chose to make each and every part of it exactly as it is.
This freedom derives from God’s will and his ability to choose to create whatever he wants, but the first mover of the will, the root of every choice, is love.6 When we look at the imperfection in the world, sometimes we can see how it is ordered to some greater good and we can perhaps even understand why God might have chosen to make things in this particular way, but often it is hard to see how goodness might overcome some specific evil. We will touch on the idea of God’s providence, his overarching plan for creation, in a later discussion but there are two truths we can be certain of. God understood exactly what he was doing when he created each and every aspect of reality, and everything that exists does so because he loves it, including each and every one of us.
— Bro. Thomas Davenport, O.P.