God and Creation

[This is a section – which I take to be within the limits of fair use – from a book by the late Oxford theologian Herbert McCabe, OP – “God Matters” (London, 1987 – the title is at least a triple pun).  It’s part of a larger argument in which McCabe, a Wittgensteinian Marxist, was an active participant.]

In my view to assert that God exists is to claim the right and need to
carry on an activity, to be engaged in research, and I think this throws
light on what we are doing if we try to prove the existence of God. To
prove the existence of God is to prove that some questions still need
asking, that the world poses these questions for us.

To prove the existence of God, then, would be rather like proving the
validity of science — I don’t mean science as a body of established facts
set out in textbooks or journals, but science as an intellectual activity,
the activity of research currently going on; and not just routine research
which consists in looking for the answers to clearly formulated questions
by means of clearly established techniques, but the research which is the
growing point of science, the venture into the unknown.

It is perfectly possible to deny the validity of this. It Is perfectly
possible to say we now have science (we didn’t have It In the eighth
century, let us say, but we have it now). It is just there; from now on it
is all really just a matter of tidying up a few details. Now of course all
the really great advances in science have come by questioning just that,
by questioning, let us say, whether the Newtonian world is really the last
word, by digging down and asking questions of what everybody has come to
take for granted. But you could imagine quite easily a society which
discouraged such radical questioning. In this century we have seen
totalitarian societies which have been extremely keen on improving their
technology and answering detailed questions within the accepted framework
of science, but extremely hostile to the kind of radical thinking I am
envisaging; the kind of society where Wernher von Braun Is honoured and
Einstein is exiled. I also think that the same effect can be produced in
more subtle ways in societies that don’t look totalitarian. And of course
it was notoriously produced In the Church confronted by Galileo. The
asking of radical questions is discouraged by any society that believes in
itself, believes it has found the answers, believes that only its
authorised questions are legitimate.

Faced with such hostility or such incomprehension, you can, of course,
say: well, wait and see: you will find that in spite of everything,
science will make startling and quite unexpected changes, that our whole
world view will shift in ways we cannot now predict or imagine. But that
is just to assert your belief. And this I think is parallel to asserting
your belief in God. I think a belief in God — in the sense of a belief in
the validity of the kind of radical question to which God would be the
answer — is a part of human flourishing and that one who closes himself
off from it is to that extent deficient. For this reason I welcome, such
belief in God, but what I am asking myself now is not whether I believe,
but what grounds I have for such belief. And here again I think the
analogy with proving the validity of fundamental thinking in science is
helpful. How, after all, do we show that there is still a long and
probably unexpected road to travel in science? By pointing to anomalies in
the present scientific world picture. If your world picture includes, for
example, the idea of ether as the medium in which light waves occur, then
there is an anomaly if it turns out to be impossible to determine the
velocity of a light source with respect to the ether; and so on. Now in a
parallel way, it seems to me, proofs for the existence of God point to
anomalies in a world picture which excludes the God question. It is, it
seems to me, quite anomalous to hold that while it is legitimate and valid
to ask ‘How come?’ about any particular thing or event in the world, it is
illegitimate and invalid to ask it about the whole world. To say that we
aren’t allowed to ask it merely because we can’t answer it seems to me to
be begging the question. The question is: Is there an unanswered question
about the existence of the world? Can we be puzzled by the existence of
the world instead of nothing? I can be and am; and this is to be puzzled
about God.

The question ‘How come?’ can have a whole lot of different meanings and be
asked at several levels, and the deeper the question you ask about an
individual thing the more it is a question about a world to which that
thing belongs; there is finally a deepest question about a thing which is
also a question about everything. Let me explain that enigmatic remark.

Supposing you ask ‘How come Fido?’ You may be asking whether his father is
Rover or whether it was that promiscuous mongrel down the lane. In such a
case the answer is satisfactorily given by naming Fido’s parents. At this
level no more need be said; the question is fully answered at this level.
But now suppose you ask: ‘But how come Fido’s a dog?’ The answer could be:
‘His parents were dogs, and dogs just are born of other dogs’. Here you
have moved to what I call a deeper level of questioning and begun to talk
about what dogs are. You are saying: for Fido to be is for him to be a
dog, and Fido’s parents are the sort of things whose activities result in
things being dogs. Now your original question ‘How come Fido?’ has
deepened into a question about the dog species. It remains a question
about this individual dog Fido, but it is also a question about dogs —
not about dogs in the abstract, but about the actual dog species in the
world. Your question ‘How come Fido?’ at this new level is a question ‘How
come dogs anyway?’

And of course there is an answer to that too in terms of things like
genetics and natural selection and what not. Here we have a new and deeper
level of the question ‘How come Fido?’ — still a question about this
particular puppy, but one that is answered in terms of its membership of a
still wider community; no longer now simply the community of dogs, but the
whole biological community within which dogs come to be and have their
place. Then of course we can ask a question about Fido at a deeper level
still. When we ask how come the biological community, we no doubt answer
in terms of biochemistry. (I am not of course pretending that we actually
have the answers to all these questions, as though we fully understood how
it came about, and had to come about, that there are now dogs around the
place, but we expect eventually to answer these questions.)

And now we can go on from the level of biochemistry to that of physics and
all the time we are asking more penetrating questions concerning Fido and
each time we go further in our questioning we are seeing Fido in a wider
and wider context.

We can put this another way by saying that each time we ask the question
we are asking about Fido over against some other possibility. Our first
question simply meant: How come Fido is this dog rather than another; he’s
Rover’s son rather than the mongrel’s son. At the next level we were
asking: How come he’s a dog rather than, say, a giraffe. At the next
level: How come he’s a living being rather than an inanimate, and so on.

Now I want to stress that all the time we are asking about this individual
Fido. It is just that we are seeing further problematics within him.
Fido’s parents brought it about that he is this dog not another, but in
that act they also brought it about that he is this dog (not a giraffe),
that he is this living dog, that he is this biochemically complex, living
; that he is this molecularly structured, biochemically complex, living
, and so on. We are probing further into what it is for Fido to come to
be and always by noting what he is not, but might have been. Every ‘How
come’ question is how come this instead of what is not. And every time, of
course, we answer by reference to some thing or state of affairs, some
existing reality, in virtue of which Fido is this rather than what he is

Now our ultimate radical question is not how come Fido exists as this dog
instead of that, or how come Fido exists as a dog instead of a giraffe,
or exists as living instead of inanimate, but how come Fido exists
instead of nothing, and just as to ask how come he exists as dog is to put
him in the context of dogs, so to ask how come he exists instead of
nothing is to put him in the context of everything, the universe or world.
And this is the question I call the God-question, because whatever the
answer is, whatever the thing or state of affairs, whatever the existing
reality that answers it we call ‘God’.

Now of course it is always possible to stop the questioning at any point;
a man may refuse to ask why there are dogs. He may say there just are dogs
and perhaps it is impious to enquire how come — there were people who
actually said that to Darwin. Similarly it is possible to refuse to ask
this ultimate question, to say as Russell once did: the universe is just
there. This seems to me just as arbitrary as to say: dogs are just there.
The difference is that we now know by hindsight that Darwin’s critics were
irrational because we have familiarised ourselves with an answer to the
question, how come there are dogs? We have not familiarised ourselves with
the answer to the question, how come the world instead of nothing? but
that does not make it any less arbitrary to refuse to ask it. To ask it is
to enter on an exploration which Russell was simply refusing to do, as it
seems to me. It is of course perfectly right to point out the
mysteriousness of a question about everything, to point to the fact that
we have no way of answering it, but that is by no means the same as saying
it is an unaskable question. As Wittgenstein said ‘Not how the world is,
but that it is, is the mystery’.

There is indeed a difficulty about having a concept of ‘everything’, for
we ordinarily conceive of something with, so to say, a boundary around it:
this is a sheep and not a giraffe. But everything is bounded by nothing,
which is just to say that it is not bounded by anything. To put what is
the same point another way: we can have no concept of nothing, absolutely
speaking. We can use the word relatively; we can say, ‘There Is nothing in
the cupboard’ meaning there are no largish objects — we are understood
not to be saying there is no dust or no air. ‘There is nothing between
Kerry and New York’ means there is no land. It does not mean there is
absolutely nothing, no sea or fishes. The notions of everything and of
absolutely nothing, are not available to us in the sense that the notions
of sheep or scarlet or savagery are available to us. And this means that
we are asking our ultimate radical question with tools that will not do
the job properly, with words whose meaning has to be stretched beyond what
we can comprehend. It would be very strange if it were not so. As
Wittgenstein says, what we have here is the mystery. If the question of
God were a neat and simple question to be answered in terms of familiar
concepts, then whatever we are talking about, it is not God. A God who is
in this sense comprehensible would not be worth worshipping, or even of
talking about (except for the purpose of destroying him).

It is clear that we reach out to, but do not reach, an answer to our
ultimate question, how come anything instead of nothing? But we are able
to exclude some answers. If God is whatever answers our question, how come
everything then evidently he is not to be included amongst everything. God
cannot be a thing, an existent among others. It is not possible that God
and the universe should add up to make two.

Again, if we are to speak of God as causing the existence of everything,
it is clear that we must not mean that he makes the universe out of
anything. Whatever creation means it is not a process of making.

Again it is clear that God cannot interfere in the universe, not because he has not
the power but because, so to speak, he has too much; to interfere you have
to be an alternative to, or alongside, what you are interfering with. If
God is the cause of everything, there is nothing that he is alongside.
Obviously God makes no difference to the universe; I mean by this that we
do not appeal specifically to God to explain why the universe is this way
rather than that, for this we need only appeal to explanations within the
universe. For this reason there can, it seems to me, be no feature of the
universe which indicates it is God-made. What God accounts for is that the
universe is there instead of nothing. I have said that whatever God is, he
is not a member of everything, not an inhabitant of the universe, not a
thing or a kind of thing. And I should add, I suppose, that it cannot be
possible to ask of him, how come God instead of nothing? It must not be
possible for him to be nothing. Not just in the sense that God must be
imperishable, but that it must make no sense to consider that God might
not be. Of course it is still possible to say, without manifest
contradiction, ‘God might not be’, but that is because when we speak of
God by using the word ‘God’, we do not understand what we mean, we have no
concept of God; what governs our use of the word ‘God’ is not an
understanding of what God is but the validity of a question about the
world. That is why we are not protected by any logical laws from saying
‘God might not exist’ even though it makes no sense. What goes for our
rules for the use of ‘God’ does not go for the God we try to name with the
word. (And a corollary of this, incidentally, is why a famous argument for
the existence of God called the ontological argument does not work.)

What I have been saying may seem to make God both remote and irrelevant.
He is not part of the universe and he makes no difference to it. It is
therefore necessary to stress that God must be in everything that happens
and everything that exists in the universe. If Fido’s parents make Fido to
exist instead of nothing it is because in their action God is acting, just
as if a pen writes it is because in its action a writer is acting. It is
because it is God that wields every agent in the universe that agents
bring things into existence, make things new. Every action in the world is
an action of God; not because it is not an action of a creature but
because it is by God’s action that the creature is itself and has its own
activity. But more of that in the next chapter.

For the moment may I just say that it seems to me that what we often call
atheism is not a denial of the God of which I speak. Very frequently the
man who sees himself as an atheist is not denying the existence of some
answer to the mystery of how come there Is anything instead of nothing, he
is denying what he thinks or has been told is a religious answer to this
question. He thinks or has been told that religious people, and especially
Christians, claim to have discovered what the answer is, that there is
some grand architect of the universe who designed it, just like Basil
Spence only bigger and less visible, that there is a Top Person in the
universe who issues arbitrary decrees for the rest of the persons and
enforces them because he is the most powerful being around. Now if denying
this claim makes you an atheist, then I and Thomas Aquinas and a whole
Christian tradition are atheistic too.

But a genuine atheist is one who simply does not see that there is any
problem or mystery here, one who is content to ask questions within the
world, but cannot see that the world itself raises a question. This is the
man I compare to those who are content to ask questions within the
established framework of science, but cannot see that there are genuine
though ill-formulated questions on the frontiers. I have made a comparison
with scientific research, but just the same parallel could be made with
any kind of creative activity. The poet is trying to write a poem but he
does not know what he is trying to say until he has said it and recognised
it. Until he has done this it is extremely difficult to show that he is
writing a poem or that he could write a poem. I can show, by pointing to
the existence of bricks and cement and so on and the availability of a
workforce, that there could be more houses made. I cannot show that there
will ever be another poem.

I called this paper ‘God and Creation’ In order to indicate what I and the
mainstream Christian tradition understand by creation as a path towards
God. We come across God, So to speak, or rather we search and do not come
across him, when the universe raises for us a radical question concerning
its existence at all. And creation is the name we give to God’s answering
this question.

I hope it will be evident that creation is here being used in a quite
different sense from the way it is used by people who seek to discover the
origin of the universe (was it a big bang or a lot of little pops or
whatever). Whatever processes took place in remote periods of time is of
course in itself a fascinating topic but it is irrelevant to the question
of creation in the sense that makes us speak of God. When we have
concluded that God created the world, there still remains the scientific
question to ask about what kind of world it is and was and how, if ever,
it began. It is probably unnecessary to say that the proposition that the
universe is made by God and that everything that is, is begun and
sustained in existence by God, does not entail that the universe has only
existed for a finite time. There may be reasons for thinking that the
universe is finite in time and space but the fact that its existence
depends on God is not one of them.

Coming to know that the universe is dependent on God does not in fact tell
us anything about the character of the universe. How could it? Since
everything we know about God (that he exists and what he is not) is
derived from what we know of the universe, how could we come back from God
with some additional information about the world? If we think we can it Is
only because we have smuggled something extra into our concept of God —
for example, when we make God in our own image and ask ourselves quite
illegitimate questions like ‘What would I have done If I were God?’ It
should be evident that this is a temptation to be avoided.

There is one last thing I should like to touch on. What are we to make of
the notion of a ‘personal’ God?

I think the idea of a personal God has arisen in two quite different ways.
In the first place people have thought of God as a person because they
have thought of him as a maker — I mean they have had an image of God as
an artist or technician working away at something — and thereby
accounting for its existence. In this sense the person (in the sense of
human person) is an image of God, a picture which may be useful but could
evidently be misleading. In the second place I think people call God
personal because it seems absurd to say he is impersonal. However romantic
we may get about the great impersonal forces of nature that seem to tower
over us, we know perfectly well that they don’t. What is impersonal and
non-intelligent will, in principle, always obey us if only we know the
trick. There are people who speak of God as a great life-force, and that
is all right if they merely want to deny that he is some particular
concrete individual — evidently he is not, but we have to remember that
great forces don’t really get anything done unless they are wielded in a
context. The wind and the waves don’t achieve any aim, there is nothing
that counts as success in their thrashing around. It is only by talking
about them as though they were persons or at least as alive that we can
speak of them getting anything done, and since whatever else we mean by
God we mean what gets something done or made or existing, it seems that we
cannot think of him as merely impersonal.

Once we have denied that God Is merely impersonal we are under a
temptation to imagine him as forming Intentions or thinking out or making
up his mind, but none of this is a legitimate For us the business of being
persons is extremely closely tied but there is no reason at all to
transfer all this to God; indeed not doing so since this version of
personality associated with the fact that we are physical beings, parts of
a material whole.

We can then, I think, say that whatever accounts for the existence of the
universe cannot be limited in the way that impersonal unintelligent things
and forces are, but this does not justify us in attributing to God our own
particular mode of intelligence. If we do speak of God as making up his
mind or changing his mind or deciding or cogitating or reasoning, it can
only be by metaphor as when we speak of his strong right arm or his
all-seeing eye.


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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.” –Noam Chomsky