The High Stakes of Creation

The Divine Project, just published by Ignatius, collects five lectures Joseph Ratzinger delivered in Austria in 1985 on the Creation and the Church.  The title derives from his understanding of what God was about in making the world: creation is God’s Project in which everything, especially man, leads to His loving designs in Christ.

It’s vintage Ratzinger, he’s never content with a superficial, first-take answer, like distinguishing the teaching of Genesis from the form in which it is conveyed.  He insists instead on plumbing deeply into questions of which one may not have even thought.

Ratzinger argues that many really do not appreciate the importance and significance of the theology of creation in salvation history.  Part of the problem, he thinks, is that many Catholics don’t see that the foundational texts of Genesis also implicate the Catholic understanding of the mutual coherence of faith and reason.  Generally speaks, lots of Catholics seem a bit schizophrenic, reserving Genesis 1-2 for Sundays and the Easter Vigil and the Big Bang for school. And never the twain shall meet.

A close reading of Divine Project reveals not only how profound but also how German a thinker Ratzinger was.  While I find his analysis of the relevance of creation theology spot-on, the intellectual impediments for Americans to a full appreciation of creation seem, in several respects, different from Zentraleuropa.

The ghost of John Scopes still haunts some Americans.  While Catholics do not subscribe to a literalist reading of Genesis 1, one senses that the idea that God creates (regardless of how He did it) still labors beneath caricatures of William Jennings Bryan with other science-denying rubes (now often lumped in with “deplorables” bitterly and frustratedly “clinging to guns and religion”).

Like it or not, the American mind is still affected by deism.  Its residue, in the form of “following the science” conceived as an autonomous and sealed-off system, affects that mind in two ways.

For some, it renders the idea of Divine creation “in the beginning” absurd at the outset; but for many others, it obscures the notion of God’s ongoing action in sustaining creation and thereby minimizes a real sense of divine Providence.

“Moralist therapeutic deism” – as a common view of religion these days has been called – is its mongrel offspring: a hands-off God becomes something of a fire alarm box – “break in case of emergency” – to be invoked only when in need of a miracle, like in a foxhole with bullets flying overhead. How could that “loving” deity refuse?


How much do most people believe in an active God who intervenes in history (especially history A.D. “in the year of our Lord”– and even that has been recast now as the neutral C.E. for “Common Era”) versus one largely detached, on an extended vacation since the “seventh day” or at least Ascension Thursday?

But God as actively involved in creation is not an optional idea.  It is Catholic teaching that God not only created but sustains creation in existence. Absent His Absolute Being, contingent beings (i.e., human beings and the entire universe) would collapse into nothingness.  God’s presence in history – and in every circumstance and moment of life – is necessarily ongoing.

Some might theoretically assent to this proposition since, in the end, agreeing God is necessarily involved in an ongoing way in creation (a) doesn’t really cost anything and (b) is eminently useful in life’s foxholes.

But the theology of creation does cost something, which is where I suggest that, for many Catholics, the rubber hits the road (and they often skid off): it entails co-creatorship.

Pope St. John Paul II spoke of our human participation in creation as co-creatorship, though subordinate to God, in two ways: through dominion over the material world and through procreation.

Dominion over matter generally doesn’t cause people problems: they can accept the idea of God bequeathing humans an IKEA-like world (assembly required), even if they don’t necessarily see in the progressive exercise of our spiritual powers, by which we’ve been made in the image and likeness of God, a part of Divine Providence.

Procreation, on the other hand, is another story.

Understanding procreation as participation (albeit in a subordinate way) in God’s work of creation challenges even Catholics to understand their place in the “divine project” of salvation history: is the God who yesterday sent a Child to Bethlehem the same One who may today be sending a child to Perth Amboy?

It also raises the question of Providence: will the God to whom we pay lip service as “Love” (1Jojn 4:8) really make “all things [including this pregnancy] work for the good of those who love him” (Rm 8:28), our contrarian calculus notwithstanding?

And, in this moment, am I not being asked, as He once did in Nazareth, to give the same fiat that Mary gave, acknowledging God and not myself as “the Lord and Giver of Life”? For God gives life in directly creating the immortal soul, which humans cannot: do I believe in that soul?

Ratzinger’s lecture did not directly get into the subject of procreation, but he did raise a correlated question.  We must simultaneously hold together the theological truths that God created the world and scientific hypotheses about how he did so. Empirical data may strongly suggest, but no amount of facts or data can prove that God – and not a random cosmic event somehow – made all that is.  So we have no choice but to commit ourselves to one of two possibilities: that life in Perth Amboy and all life, in general, is a freak of nature, so to speak, though sometimes pleasant enough, or something far more meaningful and momentous –  a Divine Project.

Such are the high stakes of the theology of creation. . .and of belief in Christ. (Col 1:16)


*Image: The Trinity by Hendrick van Balen, c. 1620 [Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland OH]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s The Father’s Gifts without the Father

Robert Royal’s Our Darkling Plain

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.