Symposium Introduction

What does nothing mean? The ease with which the term “nothing” is used in ordinary language cloaks this question with an appearance of banality and triviality. Yet, the minute the inquirer attempts to define, explain, and bring nothingness into a direct representation, they are confronted with the term’s paradoxical semantic content—namely, a saying that is always an unsaying. They find themselves placed in the good, if still uncomfortable, company of St. Augustine as he attempted to untie the Gordian knot of temporality, stating, “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know.” 1

Brian Robinette’s The Difference Nothing Makes: Creation, Christ, Contemplation furthers our understanding of the Christian doctrine creatio ex nihilo by mining the semantic content of “nothing.” He shows that the paradox inherent to the term does not result in nonsense. Rather, the term is uniquely able to open onto and open up the mystery that transcends and relativizes the utter contingency of the created. It is able to name the noncontrastive and noncompetitive relationship between the Creator and the creature. In Robinette’s own words: 

God and world do not compete with each other within a spectrum being. Rather, God is the source and ground of creation’s contingent being, its inmost possibility and animating impulse. Creation comes ‘to be’ precisely in and through God’s gratuitous act, which means that the more creation truly is, the more it reflects its ontological dependence on the Creator (xii).

As the subtitle suggests, Robinette’s book is divided into three parts: (1) a grammar of creation, (2) Christ as concentrated creation, and (3) Christian spirituality’s purgative and unitive dimensions as a deepening of creatio ex nihilo’s meaning at the levels of understanding, affectivity, and praxis. Although each part is relatively self-standing, a rich unfolding of intelligibility occurs as the reader sequentially moves through the text. This unfolding is like journeying up a spiral staircase, for after the ascent, the reader returns to the starting position but from a higher viewpoint.

In the first section, Robinette “lays out several of the book’s main themes by taking up several objections to creatio ex nihilo and defending the doctrine as providing crucial insights into the gifted character of creation” (xvi). John Caputo is the central antagonist in this section due to critiques he offers against creatio ex nihilo in his The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. There Caputo defends the position of envisioning God as a “weak force” in juxtaposition to an omnipotent God who “is simply not credible in the face of suffering and evil” (6). Robinette takes Caputo to task by offering his own critique—namely, that Caputo frames the God-world relationship through contrastive terms and thereby misrepresents the noncontrastive relationship implied by the grammar of creatio ex nihilo. Furthermore, Robinette addresses the problem of suffering and evil that motivates Caputo’s “weak force” hypothesis by arguing for a genealogical connection between Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and creatio ex nihilo. This connection links creatio ex nihilo to the eschatological hope of the resurrection and, thereby, connects creatio ex nihilo to “the Christian hope that evil, suffering, and death do not have the final word” (8). Finally, this noncontrastive relationship offers a metaphysics that supports the epistemic practices of “unknowing” via contemplation. God is not an “object that competes with or displaces the world,” but the Being beyond being loving the world into being (xvii).   

The following section, Christ as concentrated creation, forms the book’s heart and center. “In Christ the creature and the divine are united ‘hypostatically,’ in one person,” meaning that Christ is the central, hermeneutical touchstone for understanding the God-world relationship (xiii). Robinette forms this Christological section by engaging the theory of mimetic desire to develop a “phenomenology of redemption.” He shows how “Jesus’s sayings and deeds go to the root of human desire [understood mimetically] in order to free it from its self-defensive, other-reifying tendencies” (xvii). Moreover, by understanding Jesus’s death and resurrection through this “phenomenology of redemption,” Robinette offers a critique of any redemptive framework that involves God in reciprocating violence, e.g., penal substitution.  

In the final part, Robinette returns to the theme of contemplation. Drawing upon the Christian contemplative tradition alongside genealogies of modernity, Robinette makes the case that creatio ex nihilo, properly understood, can incorporate the atheistic critique. Creatio ex nihilo can provide a metaphysical home to those who experience existential homelessness and are, therefore, in touch with their poverty. Their poverty is a poverty that is potentially open to what cannot be grasped. A poverty that cannot explain its own existence unless it is generated from a gratuitous love. The gratuitous love revealed in the incarnation to which “God’s act of creation is always already ordered toward” (xvii).

Scott Cowdell, our first panelist, commends Robinette’s phenomenological and genealogical account of creation as “offering a welcome corrective” to “thinking of creation as either challenging or affirming a scientific account of origins.” Nonetheless, Cowdell then proceeds to question Robinette’s phenomenological and genealogical account on three fronts: epistemology, God’s action in extramental reality, and ecclesiology. How does contemplation experientially authenticate the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo? Does Robinette’s account of divine action extend beyond human attitudinal transformations? Finally, what are the ecclesiological implications for ritual and worship? How might Robinette develop an account of a community cultivated through “intense fellow-feeling” that does not rely on the dark side of a scapegoat?     

In the symposium’s second essay, Mark Heim picks up on a similar theme to Scott Cowdell: “in Robinette’s telling, creation ex nihilo is not oriented towards a causal beginning but indicative of an experiential spiritual mode of relation.” However, Heim presses Robinette in a different direction, which is that of comparative theology, and in particular, Buddhist-Christian studies. Do the contemplative practices associated with affirming creatio ex nihilo “lean more toward a practical spirituality (by which [Heim] means suffering relief, relational enhancement) or a mystical one (by which [Heim] means a dwelling in the truth for its own sake)”? Moreover, does the metaphysical divergence between Buddhism and Christianity entail a divergence in the contemplative experience of mystical oneness?   

Our next panelist, Chelsea King, transitions the conversation towards soteriology and, therefore, into the Christological section of Robinette’s book. After rehashing and agreeing with the critique Robinette offers against penal substitution, King suggests that the model may, nonetheless, offer some additional insights into atonement that can be analogously predicated upon an “utterly transcendent God.” In fact, an outright rejection of God “demanding” or “willing” the death of Jesus not only rubs up against specific scriptural passages, i.e., the agony in Gethsemane but may also fall prey to the same onto-theological critiques that reduce atonement to a means of appeasing God’s wrath. This is because it entails the elimination of metaphors we find problematic rather than allowing those metaphors to lead us deeper into the apophatic nature of salvation. 

James Alison continues the Christological focus in the symposium’s next response. By far the most scriptural of the responses, Alison poetically relates the role of the Spirit in the Gospels to the theme of recreation. Pausing over Jesus’s last breath on the cross, Alison draws our attention to the “content-rich act” of Jesus’s death. Death, the ultimate existential site of nothingness, is transformed into life and gift. The act becomes a vivified image structuring our imagination to glimpse the gratuity and love pregnant within the act of creation from nothing.  

Danielle Nussberger, our fifth responder, returns us to the theme of contemplation and brings our focus to the final section of Robinette’s text. Utilizing a fondly remembered and transformative liturgical community as an example, Nussberger asks us to consider how religious rituals can become “a contemplative space of rejuvenation and healing,” especially for those “seekers of religion’s relevance” or those wounded within a religious context. Moreover, how might the liturgy and sacraments have a unique role in the spiritual and physical sense’s regeneration and purification? 

Fittingly, Matthew Vale wraps up our symposium with the most eschatologically focused response. Highlighting that creatio ex nihilo heightens rather than resolves the difficult topic of theodicy, Vale lucidly articulates how “God’s action and presence in Jesus discloses for us that evil, sin, injustice, and suffering are ontological ‘penultimates’––parasitic defects on creation.” Vale uses this eschatological insight to discuss how contemplation may lead to a self-relation and self-knowledge that mirrors God’s relation to us. A relation affirming that “‘It was all worth it’ is the same as affirming ‘I was worth it.’ The irreproducible ‘I’ who came to be through ‘all that’ was worth it in the eyes of God’s love.” 

In conclusion, I cannot think of a better summation of Robinette’s achievement than the opening sentences in James Alison’s response:

Brain has gifted us with an extraordinary feat of thinking. For those outside of the guild this might seem impossibly abstract. However, for anyone with some appreciation for what this does in terms of enabling meaning to be sensed where none is apparent, of holding seeming opposites in different forms of tension, and of enabling clarity at the furthest outreaches of intellectual possibility, this is truly a gift to be met with gratitude and even, dare I say it, awe.

  1. Conf. 11.232.

Scott Cowdell


Inhabiting Creation

Epistemology, God at Work, and Ecclesiology

In The Difference Nothing Makes, Brian Robinette offers a phenomenological and genealogical account of creation belief. He unpacks the theological intent behind creatio ex nihilo, refusing its reduction to speculation or enlistment in ideology. Instead, creation belief works back from the lived reality of life in God. In Christ, and drawing on the cumulative insight of God’s first covenant people, it became possible to intuit the world as God’s creation from nothing. Most notably, it is in cultivating the non-defensive vulnerability of contemplation that creatio ex nihilo becomes conceivable. As I reflect on Robinette’s discussion, there are three areas where I would like to hear more from him.


We have become used to thinking of creation as either challenging or affirming a scientific account of origins, so Robinette’s approach offers a welcome corrective. As to the “why?” of creation belief, it emerges in the reification of faith in God’s saving outreach to Israel, which slowly began to suggest cosmic implications (30). “Even if the second-to-third-century debates over the eternity of matter are the proximate reason for its technical foundation,” Robinette explains, “creatio ex nihilo makes explicit in that particular context what a biblical vision of divine creativity and freedom already implies” (28). Creation thus emerges without necessity or struggle solely from the gift of unconditional love—hence, one can say, from nothing (149).

Robinette’s protology follows from eschatology. “Creation is thus eschatology in retrospect, or—what amounts to the same thing—eschatology has to do with what creation was meant to be ‘from the beginning’” (111). It draws equally on Christology, as the first born from the dead becomes the one through whom all things were made. Christ is the aperture through which divine creativity reveals itself (83), with his non-rivalrous, non-competitive nature suggesting an otherwise scarcely conceivable original peace (86).

Here René Girard’s mimetic theory is invoked as a counter to founding violence. It affirms the original goodness of desire, Christ’s repudiation of its rivalrous excesses, and his alternative to sacrificial catharsis. This counters the limited imagination of humanity’s functional and violent-tending religiousness with a life-affirming substantive alternative, coming from God as a shockingly free and unencumbered gift—though, as Eliot’s “Four Quartets” might suggest to us, it represents “A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything).”

“Approached in this way,” as Robinette explains, “the insight into our creatureliness that creatio ex nihilo enshrines will be interpretable as something like a way of being in the world, with others, rather than a discrete proposition about a state of affairs determined by a fixed meaning” (44). This recalls Pierre Hadot’s reminder that philosophy in antiquity entailed lived practice and not just theoria (48). Robinette insists that there are more than instrumental and causal considerations at work in the epistemology he is commending (66). Creatio ex nihilo is presented instead as a meta discourse.

The epistemological key to the “why?” of this belief is given most explicitly on the last page, where Robinette refers to “spiritual senses.” These “flower in silence” to re-establish a connection “with the inmost source of our filiation of all creation” (265). This recalls the silence of contemplation, integral to Robinette’s phenomenology of creation belief, which is presented throughout as a self-authenticating path to the truth. I am reminded of Augustine’s illumination, which required his conversion before he could understand God rightly (Confessions, IV. 15), and also John Milbank’s concurrence—most interestingly, in his exploration of Hume’s intuition beyond the causality that he has disavowed.1 It would be good to see this epistemological position more fully elaborated.

God at Work

A recurring challenge when theology engages with science, and especially with the problem of evil, is how to understand God’s action in the world. Robinette does not address this issue in specific detail. He sees God at work releasing humanity from the burden of anxious, defensive self-creation, as contemplation opens minds and imaginations to something more gracious and all-encompassing. As for God’s action in the physical world more generally, Robinette lines up with other contemporary Catholic theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson, Ilia Delio, and Denis Edwards addressing the tenor rather than the means of God’s action.

In keeping with the sacramental way God works through, rather than coercively upon, the web of created agency, the distinguishing form divine action takes is one of sustaining, compassionate presence that accepts and waits upon creaturely limitations, undergoing them with creation but also opening them up to new possibilities and ultimately their eschatological fruition in the Spirit. In sum, the whole creation is addressed by God’s promise of resurrection (251).

But what are the connections to extramental reality? Robinette traces the phenomenological roots of creation belief, which only subsequently migrated to the cosmic stage. I would be interested to see further exploration of this transition, and how creation from nothing accords with the science of origins—whether it can, how it might, and if it should.

If the burden of divine action falls to inner human attitudinal transformation alone, it becomes possible to dismiss such action, and God with it, in a postmodern quasi-Buddhist way. What contemplative disciplines would then reveal is simply the non-self, and the non-substantiality of various worlds that humans create, fostering a mellow and un-attached persona. All the rest is left behind a veil of unknowing. A post-Christian, a-theologian like Don Cupitt is content with the belief-less use of religious language and practice as software in such a decentring project, limited to the cultivation of non-anxious non-attachment.

Robinette’s solution appears to sidestep the distinction between mental and extramental, with God in creation becoming more a matter of creation in God. “Creation is not ‘outside’ of God,” he proposes, “but a happening within the infinite ‘spaciousness’ that God’s relational life is” (74). Beyond monism and dualism, then, there is “a dynamic relation in which creation’s constitutive openness to God is grounded, empowered, and pervaded by God’s self-diffusive love (panentheism). Creation is the capacity for God …” (229). “Creation is just that which comes ‘to be’ when divine life, illimitable in itself, is rendered participable” (xiv). This is not about Neoplatonic emanation, though Robinette does explore his preferred option of panentheism with reference to Russian Sophiology. One might avoid thorny questions of God’s action in an independent realm of creation if that realm is not regarded as wholly independent of God but is a dimension of intra-divine relationality with its own freedom and agency.

The question of divine action brings with it the question of God, which cannot be considered today apart from atheistic critiques—a set of challenges that Girard-influenced theology welcomes on its own terms. Accordingly, Robinette notes with Simone Weil that there are two types of atheism, one of which serves to purify notions of God (178). Beyond systems of meaning that typically involve distinctions and dualities—including the distinction that monism represents, as against dualism—we also find ourselves beyond the accustomed distinction between atheism and theism. Robinette’s recourse to Trinitarian relationality rather than theistic individual sovereignty, and his endorsement of panentheism—the alternative to pantheism, theism, and deism whereby everything is understood to be ‘in God’—represents a transformed theological imagination. He argues that contemplation helps theology to reframe its engagement with atheistic critique in a non-defensive way, taking that inquiry to a meta level (209).

Robinette welcomes the atheistic critique of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose nineteenth century classic The Essence of Christianity took God to be a projection of human ideals. He was followed in this by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud but also by Karl Barth, for whom the truth of God challenged all idolatrous projective tendencies. Subsequent theologians have emphasised contemplative practice in theological orthodoxy’s struggle against humanity projecting its own sacred (194). Given the Girardian account that Robinette develops, centred on Christ’s identifying and overcoming of humanity’s confected false sacred, he sees the gospel’s subversive mission as indeed implying “a kind of atheism” (176). This recalls how Girard reads Nietzsche’s death of God, from aphorism #125 in The Gay Science—not as typically understood in Protestant death of God theology as the denial of theism, but instead as undoing the violent sacred to which Nietzsche remained committed. For Girard, “the ‘death of God’ is nothing . . . but a misrepresentation of the tremendous desacralizing process brought about by the Christian revelation. The gods who are dying are the sacrificial gods, really, not the Christian God, who has nothing to do with them.”2

This represents a form of demythologizing (163), insofar as the “weak presence” of the actual non-violent God—who transcends and disavows controlling systems of meaning—proves to be scandalous in a context dominated by will-to-power (72). This recalls today’s widespread theological critique of ontotheology, inspired by Heidegger, as championed for instance by Girard’s philosophical interlocutor Gianni Vattimo.3

Such demythologizing, for Robinette, follows the dynamic reinterpreting and reframing of God that Hebrew Scripture first undertook, whereby “the people of Israel are slowly being inducted into an understanding of God that is unbound by human rivalry and violence” (142). Here is the world that Jesus changes: the destructive, self-organizing system that Walter Wink so powerfully analyses (151), rooted ultimately in violent self-definition.


Robinette shows how rivalrous self-creation at the expense of others, and an anxious grasping for being—which Girard identifies at the heart of modernity’s “ontological sickness”—are emptied out. Contemplation helps remove such distortions in our relationships with others, which prevent us from inhabiting our created relationality without anxious hoarding (171). Such mindfulness strikes Robinette as necessary if we are to begin appreciating what God and creation actually mean, so that—in touch with our porosity and at peace with our insufficiency—we might begin to appreciate what being loved into being by God could mean (185). This involves what I call mimetic detoxification, whereby the world and the ultimate reality of God emerge from the fever dreams of scarcity, envy, rivalry and, ultimately, violence.

However, Robinette makes only an oblique reference to the ecclesial implications of his proposals regarding creation. He declares that the proper work of spiritual growth includes the fostering of community as its very heart and not merely as its backdrop (168), with contemplation enabling the necessary conversion of desire that undoes judgementalism and other practices destructive of community (169).

A related theme, developed by James Alison, is what we might call the sanctified ordinariness that characterises such redeemed spiritual and ecclesial life. An authentic spirituality need not entail heightened emotional states, as I suggested in an argument that Robinette develops, but has to face the possibility of existential homelessness (177). This is because the overheated drama of human community—pursuing peace and stability by seeking to escape the always-possible dramatic escalation of rivalry through recourse to cathartic violence—enables only a fraught form of high-tension togetherness. Whereas the eucharistic community lives a de-dramatized life by comparison, much more boring and ordinary, or at least suitably underwhelming, as James Alison explains in his essay “Worship in a Violent World.” This represents and fosters what he calls “the detox of our Nuremberg-ed imagination.”4 The Church’s rituals cannot, and should not have to, compete with the false sacred in cultivating intense fellow-feeling—a state that typically hides a dark side.

Brian Robinette masterfully reframes creatio ex nihilo phenomenologically and genealogically. I have sought more from him on the epistemology of creation belief, and on his panentheistic conception of God at work in the world, along with the ecclesial implications that accompany creation belief.

  1. “Hume Versus Kant: Faith, Reason and Feeling.” Modern Theology 27.2 (2011): 276–97.

  2. Girard (with Rebecca Adams), “Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard.” Religion and Literature 25.2 (1993): 11–33, at 33.

  3. See Vattimo and Girard, Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue. Edited by Pierpaolo Antonello, translated by William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

  4. Alison, Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006, 38

  • Brian Robinette

    Brian Robinette


    Reply to Scott Cowdell 

    I am most grateful to have Scott Cowdell begin this book symposium on Syndicate, and not just because he offers such a careful and generous synopsis of my book. His extensive work in the field of mimetic theory has emerged as a crucial contribution to Christian theology more broadly, and one immediately comes to recognize a distinctive voice when reading any of his works.

    I have chosen here to respond to the first two of the three questions Cowdell poses to me and will address the third on ecclesiology when engaging Danielle Nussberger’s response later in the symposium.


    Cowdell’s first question invites me to elaborate upon epistemological matters. What are the dynamics and conditions, epistemologically speaking, for affirming creatio ex nihilo? If I have understood Cowdell’s question correctly, I would summarize my approach by highlighting three mutually conditioning factors. 

    The first is more philosophical in orientation. Along with the likes of Karl Rahner and William Desmond, I maintain that our knowing is participatory through and through. It is not that we possess a discrete faculty of knowing that, from a distance, might grant us knowledge of God. Rather, our knowing is an activity that springs from our antecedent belonging to God. We are already in the midst of divine mystery, just by virtue of being. Because God is the animating source and ground of all reality—the unconditioned “from which” of our very lives—this implies that God is the most immanent factor in our knowledge of anything at all.

    This may seem circular at first, but it is not a vicious circularity. To borrow Rahner’s language, we are constituted in such a way as to be “hearers” of God’s self-communicating mystery. The inherently dynamic and open-ended character of human knowing is oriented towards an unlimited horizon whose pure actuality draws us into concrete acts of knowing in the first place. If, from one perspective, this unlimited horizon remains ungraspable to us, since to grasp it would be to limit it, from another perspective, we do know something of this horizon, however indirectly and partially, in each act of knowing. 

    A basic task of theology, as I see it, is to awaken us to this dynamic character of human knowing. I remain convinced that some form of transcendental theology is crucial for our times; that theology must exercise a kind of therapy of knowing (and desiring) through argumentative, rhetorical, and aesthetic exercises. Desmond’s work is inspiring to me in this regard, since much of his philosophy can be described as a series of exercises to renew our sense of wonderment and perplexity, which, when allowed to remain open, inevitably raise for us the question of God, or ultimacy—as though for the very first time. This cognitive and affective “unclogging,” as Desmond puts it, is crucial during a time when our imaginative horizons have been limited and even distorted through the instrumentalizing and reductionistic tendencies of much late-modern life. In short, we need to blow the epistemological roof wide open.

    A second factor is more theological, and it has to do with trust and testimony. Christianly speaking, the affirmation that God gives all things their being, immediately and without any extra-divine necessity, is given its positive content on account of scriptural testimony. Even if the more technical formulation of creatio ex nihilo does not appear in the Bible, it is evident from even a cursory engagement with these scriptural traditions that to be at all is to be created by God; and to be created is to be summoned from, and sustained by, a creative liberty that, however unfathomable, is wholly trustworthy and in no sense in rivalry with us. Later doctrinal formulations may articulate this understanding in more technical language; but, like the christological councils they parallel, such formulations mean to be faithful to those scriptural traditions in light of new questions and cultural contexts that require clarification, critique, and further understanding. 

    The Christian stance towards this testimony is one of fidelity. We trust that these content-rich testimonies are true, and we belong to communities that have been formed by their testimony. These testimonies are not merely consulted for information; they are depended upon, or lived into, and thus allowed to shape our imaginations and desires, such that we live and move and have our being differently—or distinctively—as a result. 

    While a major task for Christian theology is to keep alive the dynamism of human knowing (transcendental), it is no less important for it to attend discerningly to scriptural and communal testimony, to the content of faith (revelation), and thus to the way God’s self-communication is mediated through narratives, symbols, practices, and doctrines that together reflect and enact that content. 

    If the first two factors are mutually conditioning—and, so far, I have not really indicated much that is very different from theologians who integrate fundamental and systematic styles in theology—the third is given considerable play throughout the book, namely, contemplative knowing. As discussed more extensively in Chapters 2 and 5, I maintain that Christian theology is, or ought to be, “contemplative” in approach, inasmuch as it entails a recognition of a fundamental capacity for knowing that is non-grasping, receptive, lucid, pacific, and utterly simple in character. 

    In one of his theological orations, Gregory of Nazianzus asks about how to prepare for the work of theology. “What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually ‘to be still’ in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, ‘to judge uprightly’ in theology.’”1 Notice how Gregory refers to stillness as the condition for good judgment. Stillness is not just preparation for doing something; it is simply being, in deepest allowance, that is the fertile ground for theological inquiry. This, too, is epistemologically significant. Learning how to pray, and to pray in simple abidance, is not just for theologians, of course, but it is especially important for theologians who wish to speak meaningfully of matters such as God and creation. And this contemplative disposition is, I submit, in need of widespread renewal in theology today. 

    It is my further suggestion in the book that the meanings of “God” and “creation from nothing” can become newly resonant, even evidentially true—and not just arrived at as possibly true through deliberative means—when we become contemplatively disposed. The practice of stillness is essential preparation for, but also the permanent host of, genuinely theological knowing.

    God at Work

    Cowdell’s second major question asks me to say more about how creatio ex nihilo relates (if at all) to the science of origins, and with a specific focus on extramental reality. Perhaps one way to frame this question is to ask, what relation does the Christian theology of creation “from nothing” have with evolutionary cosmology?

    If this is a fair way to frame the question, then I might start by mentioning that an earlier draft of the book included considerable material on just this subject. I may return to this theme in a future effort, but I ended up shelving this material for at least two reasons: first, because there are several excellent studies of evolutionary theology that I felt I would be essentially restating or synthesizing; and second, because creatio ex nihilo does not depend upon a particular cosmological understanding but is compatible with many kinds of cosmological understanding. That is, whether our present scientific assessment of cosmic origins (which is subject to ongoing revision, and sometimes dramatic revolution) leads us to affirm Big Bang cosmology, or some alternative, those assessments cannot really illuminate the basic—and more radical—claim creatio ex nihilo is making. 

    To say a little more about this second point, before returning to the first, the affirmation that all things are radically dependent upon an unconditioned God for their being is a metaphysical affirmation that is qualitatively different from one that provides discrete information about, say, the first “instant” of the universe, if indeed there was (or is) such an instant. Creatio ex nihilo is not an explanation in that sense, for every effort to situate God within some causal continuum—including as the “first cause”—is merely to reduce God to the status of a contingent being, however impressive or preeminent that being may be. God concerns the logical possibility of the universe, and so cannot be construed in terms of probability or any kind of explanation at all. Because God is not a being among others but the ground of being, God’s creative act does not occupy a distinct place within a nexus of causes. God is the very source of the matrix of relations from which all creaturely phenomena emerge, whether physical, biological, or personal. 

    That said, it does not follow that we have no way of speaking meaningfully—even if we must speak analogically—of God’s creative activity in relation to creaturely agency, including extramental phenomena. Put in evolutionary terms, I am convinced that it makes the most sense to describe our universe as “co-creative.” As many working at the intersection of theology and science have observed, it is the interplay between lawful regularity and chance occurrence that gives rise to complex systems, as well as a history of emergent probabilities. If lawfulness may generally refer to the observable regularities within the natural world, chance refers to the randomness that interrupts and exceeds such regularities, enabling new kinds of relationship and order to emerge. Lawlike regularities such as gravity or natural selection establish the boundaries and constraints that give relative stability and determination to phenomena over time. Without their dictates, physical, biological, and cultural phenomena would never achieve coherence or statistical probability but merely thin out into sheer haphazardness. 

    On the other hand, the natural world would be a closed system, redundant and deterministic, were it not for the element of chance. Locked within mechanical necessity, nothing novel or surprising could ever happen. Organized complexity and evolutionary emergence would be impossible. Randomness therefore liberates finite reality from monotony and gives it the quality of possibility. Whether the indeterminacy of quantum fluctuations, the random mutations in the DNA molecule, or the unpredictable events in natural history that have helped shape the history of evolution on our planet, chance throws open new horizons for physical, biological, and cultural phenomena to arise. 

    Elizabeth Johnson, who extends the classical theological understanding of primary and secondary causality into an evolutionary view of the world, puts it well by accounting for divine creativity as that which “enables” creation to participate in its own becoming, and thus to reflect something of divine freedom at various levels of evolutionary emergence. She writes: 

    God lets the world be what it will be, he goes on, not intervening arbitrarily in its evolution but participating, lovingly, in its becoming. Creative divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom, of which chance is one instance, do not compete. To the contrary: the genuine interplay of chance and law in the unscripted evolution of life is due to the generous way the Giver of life creates the world. Thanks to this gracious Love, the natural world freely participates in its own creation.2


    While much more could be said about this particular account, including the relation between evolutionary emergence and eschatological fulfillment, it perhaps suffices here to say that a fuller response to Cowdell’s question would run roughly along the above lines for the way it preserves the (non-competitive) distinction between divine and creaturely agency while affirming the ongoing involvement of divine in creaturely agency through a generative “letting be” that enables creaturely becoming at every level of complexity, with the result that an extraordinary richness and diversity of creaturely forms springs forth. 

    I am not sure that this response adequately addresses Cowdell’s question about extramental reality. But insofar as the interplay between lawfulness and open-endedness seem to be significantly involved in the emergence of complex forms, including those with the kind of sentience and intelligence we recognize in ourselves, then perhaps the distinction between mental and extramental is not so clear cut. Indeed, perhaps what we call “life” and “mind” are deeply interwoven and implicit even in the most primitive of phenomena. (Panpsychism has made something of a comeback in certain scientific and philosophical quarters, as it happens, which is at least one indication of the current dissatisfaction with any clear-cut distinction between mental and extramental reality.) In any case, and as Cowdell rightly suspects, my commitment to some of panentheism (i.e., creation abides “within” God, yet God qualitatively transcends creation) makes marking the distinction between mental and extramental creatureliness less consequential. All created reality lives, moves, and has its being in the unconditioned wisdom of divine life. 

    1. Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 27,” On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letter to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 27.

    2. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 174.

    • Scott Cowdell

      Scott Cowdell


      Questions about Origins

      Brian has acknowledged my concern about how to relate the phenomenology of creation belief with actual claims about origins, which was raised in my response to his book which is the subject of this week’s postings. The more usual approach to creation belief is of course to focus on origins, which Brian has helped us to see beyond. However, I believe that we can still return to the question of origins with our eyes newly opened to what is and is not entailed by creation belief. I agree with Brian that creation belief is primarily attitudinal, representing imaginations liberated from the ontological violence of ancient-near-eastern cosmology [see my forthcoming book Mimetic Theory and its Shadow: Girard, Milbank, and Ontological Violence (Michigan State University Press, August 2023)]. So, we no longer account for origins in terms of violent Chaoskampf, as in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish. Genesis gives us creation that is peaceful, as part of a larger narrative that exalts peace over rivalry and violence (e.g., in the way the Joseph story pans out at the other end of Genesis). What about connections to today’s favoured account of cosmic, terrestrial, biological and human origins? Certainly, creation accounts are not meant to inform our scientific conclusions. But the very fact that what Girard would call false sacred accounts are being dismissed means that a plainer, worldlier account of origins can take their place. Our world is no longer the plaything of sacred forces, which are really reified human culture-making forces, and so scientific explanation can come into its own. As Girard explains, we can only find our way to scientific explanations for natural phenomena when we are no longer looking to blame witches (or other designated scapegoats) for causing them. So, while creation belief may not inform our understanding of how the world and human life actually began, it can clear the way for us to seek such explanations. It is interesting that today’s mimetically driven culture of conspiracy theories and programmatic unreason needs the help of good religion to come to the aid of science. Science is being widely rejected, including in the name of creation theology. But creation theology as Brian sets it out, serves as a friend to science. That is one key way in which the phenomenology of creation belief and the science of origins connect. Because we no longer make the world according to the fever dreams of mythology, we can ask better questions and find better answers about how it all began.

S. Mark Heim


Comparing Nothing

A Comparative Theological Response to Brian Robinette

Brian Robinette’s new book is a rich reflection on the theological topic of creation ex nihilo. Mere appreciation does not make for good conversation, so I will briefly state my admiration for this work, and then move to some questions about its relevance for an area of great interest to me: Buddhist-Christian discussion. 

I can quickly list three important contributions made by Robinette’s treatment of ex nihilo.  First, he offers a rich exposition of the contemplative dimension of this topic, something of significance for Christian practice as well as theology. Second, he draws out its profound  interconnection with the incarnation. And third, in his integration of René Girard’s work into this discussion—the ex nihilo as foundational to the non-rivalrous relation between God and creatures—he braces Girard’s thought against charges that it grants violence an ontological priority. 

In Robinette’s telling, creation ex nihilo is not oriented toward a causal beginning but indicative of an experiential spiritual mode of relation, a relation concentrated and summed up in Christ, whose incarnation most fully illuminates the connection of creature and creator. We may be accustomed to thinking of God becoming human as an improbable outlier event of history whose very definition involves the sharpest possible contradiction between the terms it unites. But Robinette makes clear any serious belief that this event has taken place involves a re-thinking of those terms themselves, a transformed understanding of creation. The New Testament (nowhere more dramatically than the prologue to the Gospel of John) sees Christ as a profound commentary on Genesis, revealing divine-human unity  is “baked in” from the beginning. Robinette explains how ex nihilo, an original not-twoness, expresses that truth. The world and humanity are from the start pregnant with God. The reality of ex nihilo obtains at every point, and can be touched by a receptive spirit at any moment in living contemplative experience.

All this holds tremendous relevance for comparative theology, specifically Buddhist-Christian studies. In this field, non-dualism is a constant theme of discussion, particularly the question of what, if anything, in Christian theology and faith might be thought similar to the famously non-dual nature of Buddhist enlightenment and of reality itself by Buddhist accounts.1 “Emptiness” is, in Buddhist telling, both a deconstructive insight, dispelling our reified projections (the emptiness of “realities”) and a luminous, unconditioned ground realized in liberation from ignorance (the reality of emptiness). There is a critical side to Buddhist non-dualism and a positive side.  Robinette has given us an account of Christian non-dualism sophisticated enough to fruitfully engage this complexity. 

Ex nihilo is a dialectical truth, Robinette says. “We are free for our creatureliness….. This is the difference nothing makes.” And on the other hand, there is zero blocking our connection with God, whose transcendence is not distanced from creatureliness: “This is the difference nothing makes” (62).  I want to explore both sides of his picture, the nature of creatures and the nature of unity with God, and check with Robinette how these might relate to Buddhist-Christian discussion. 


On the first side, regarding the emptiness of creatures, the two traditions find ready convergence in the overlap of the critical meaning of nothingness in Christianity with the critical meaning of emptiness (as unsatisfactoriness) in Buddhism. Both expose pretensions to self-sufficient reality, pretensions Buddhists call illusion and Christians call false selves or idolatry.  The kind of self that Buddhists find to be lacking in humans under introspective examination and philosophical argument—a self that is self-caused and permanent—is also lacking by Christian account. No less a voice than Karl Barth agrees: humanity “without God is not; [it] has neither being or existence”2 “Nothingness,” in Christian telling, can be readily understood as a privation, the negative vacuity out of which we sinfully cobble our alternatives and oppositions to God’s path. Evil is a neighbor to nothingness, in the sense that since the gnostic controversies Christians have held that evil is literally groundless, having no ontological purchase either in God’s own being or in something outside or apart from God (e.g. matter itself). Evil’s quality is derivative, a denial or a deformation of what is good in itself. 

So far, so much agreement, long noted in dialogue. However, Christians are used to quickly moving past this agreement. On their own, creatures are empty in a critical, analytic sense, but they are not truly on their own. Christians attribute enduring significance to the person-making process and to persons themselves, not because they have the self-subsistent being Buddhists deny, but because their contingent nature provides for that value through relation. Christians hasten by this “nothing on their own,” as both the avenue of opposition to God and a useful call to humility, hasten on from false and empty selves toward true ones, made in the image of God, preserved by divine power and participation.  It is the deliverance from nothingness we stress. We are less well supplied with positive accounts of this nothingness in its own right.

Robinette has done us the great service of lingering longer here with the ex nihilo, to allow its inner blessing space to breathe. In my recent study of Christ and the bodhisattva, I argue that an understanding of “creaturely no-self” would greatly enhance Christian theology.3 I believe Robinette has made a major step in this direction. We could sum up this side of the dialectic by saying for creatures there is joy in being nothing. Creaturely emptiness is at base neither sin or estrangement, but gift, the nothingness that makes space for freedom and creativity. To turn toward it is not necessarily an act of pride or even self-critique, but can reflect gratitude and grace. Our creaturely no-self, our nothingness-on-our-own, is in this respect a “very present help in times of trouble” as well as a source of mortification and humility. 

What I have I mind here is the positive dimension Buddhist views identify in selflessness, particularly its applied benefit. Surprisingly, Thomas Merton found his own voyage into Buddhism strangely empowered by Karl Barth’s theology precisely in this respect. Rowan Williams summed it up this way: “The great joke is this: having a self that is to be taken seriously, that is to be proved, free, right, logical, consistent, beautiful, successful and in a word ‘not absurd’.”4 Merton is deeply moved by Barth’s recognition that “the self before God is not serious, it is groundless. It is not something that exists in its own density and solidity: the self before God is poised on the divine word, the divine communication over an unfathomable abyss.”5   

 As many who have explored Buddhist meditation practices affirm, much pain can be diminished or even extinguished through the kind of disaggregating observation that reveals the extent of its constitution by our own projections (such as catastrophic thinking) or through “time out” in mindful attention to nothing but momentary experience. A vacation from being or having a self can produce a sense of relief and peace, simple acceptance of our emptiness, where the struggle of maintaining value or being by dint of our own power is simply abandoned. We are nothing in a way God is not: this is the difference nothing makes, according to Robinette, and it is good.        

Since Robinette stresses strongly that ex nihilo is a reality to be experienced contemplatively as well as appreciated cognitively, my questions here are concrete ones. Are we talking of Christian practice that includes the cultivation of this kind of emptiness, of states without any consciousness of God at all, because without consciousness as a self? In Buddhism, though practical benefits of such practice are by no means disparaged (most notably, they are thought to enhance the development of compassion and virtue), they are also valorized as realization of the truth, of the definitive way things are in themselves. Can Robinette say more about what specific kinds of practice he sees associated with his insight here, and whether these lean more toward a practical spirituality (by which I mean suffering relief, relational enhancement) or a mystical one (by which I mean a dwelling in the truth for its own sake). 


On the other side of the dialectic, we turn to “the difference nothing makes,” which bears on the nature of the unity between humans and God. In Buddhist-Christian discussion, Buddhist non-dualism often has a subtractive character, remaining when all distinctions are revealed as unreal, while Christian non-dualism has an excessive character, realized when boundaries between selves or between God and creatures are overflowed. Unlike many theologians, and particularly theologians seeking connection with Buddhism, Robinette does not see ex nihilo teaching as part of the problem on the Christian side.6 To make creation ex nihilo the origin of a dualism between God and world, Robinette argues, runs contrary to its internal theological logic. There is nowhere else for creation to be from than God. Ex nihilo in this sense already expresses a kind of non-dualism, one Rowan Williams calls “non-dual non-identity.”7  Otherness is a divine creation, a divine accomplishment, with no foundation other than gift. The primordial form of non-dual non-identity is the Trinity, which while it does not obviously violate the Buddhist strictures on “being” yet does not fully meet Buddhist standards for unconditioned emptiness. The “separation” that is from the beginning of the world (creator/creature) reflects that source, in whom there is no ontological basis for division. 

That creation comes out of nothing means that it has no foundational difference over against the divine. Robinette presses the meaning of ex nihilo on this point, emphasizing that the doctrine insists on a non-dualism before the beginning, that creation instigates non-dual non-identical realities reflective of that prior reality. Things can be made other from God enough to be real and free, but their otherness cannot be enough to separate them from God on the scale of being. The world and God cannot be thought apart from each other even provisionally: God cannot be just another thing in or over against the universe. God’s transcendence is such that God and world cannot be competitive, one excluding the other as an explanation for events or one flourishing only at the expense of the other. In terms of connection with God this means that, having no being of our own to compete for the same space or location, our unity and communion with God are immediate. Despite any brokenness in our relations with God, God is the “not other” to us, since it is entirely to God that we owe something rather than nothing. 

This is no abstract, philosophical argument. It is also a contemplative experience. Prayer and contemplation can find a “letting go” into emptiness, the nothingness of our creaturely existence, where there is nothing to defend, nothing to build up… a state of the sort we discussed on the first side of the dialectic. And prayer and contemplation can relax into a sort of bare divine immanence, where we are upheld through participation in unconditioned, free love. The unity of Buddhist nonduality is of a “never was otherwise” character.8 This unity, emptiness in the ultimate sense, is unconditioned and undifferentiated. Such nothingness has had less positive valence in Christian. Christians in dialogue with Buddhism look to forms of Christian unitive mysticism that suggest the same unconditioned lack of differentiation: a minority report  from apophatic divine darkness to Ekhart’s divine nothingness to Tillich’s God beyond God. But such comparisons always raise the issues raised by those reports within Christian tradition itself. Are these permanent states of undiluted oneness, or moments within a relation, dimensions of a communion that does not go back on created differentiation?   

Christian communion (with God and other creatures) also has a “never been otherwise” character to it, but one that points to the Trinity as its ground, and so to an ultimate with differentiation as integral to its oneness. Some Christian writers have suggested that the persons of the Trinity correspond to different modes of this spiritual unity. One of these writers, Robert Jonas, has said “To understand the true meaning of the Trinity, we must be the Trinity and practice the Persons.”9 This indicates states in which there is no consciousness of contrary otherness from God but still of the differentiation of self in God and of self from self as a mode of oneness. So, on the level of contemplative practice, does Robinette’s analysis require some kind of divergence in Christian experiences from Buddhist ones? These are deep questions, but one way of framing them is to note that in Buddhism both deconstructive nondualism (no self) and liberative nondualism (unconditioned mind) are non-personal. How would Robinette characterize the kinds of Christian spiritual experience on both sides of his dialectic, in regard to this question of their personal qualities? 

I look forward to his reflection on these questions precisely because his exposition of the ex nihilo holds such promise for this Buddhist-Christian dialogue, suggestive and fertile just where our standard theological views are often silent or vague. 


  1. See for instance John B. Cobb, Christopher Ives, and Masao Abe, The Emptying God : A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990); Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, Nanzan Studies in Religion and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Raimundo Panikkar, The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

  2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics  Iii, 2, vol. III, 2 (London: T&T Clark 2004). 345.

  3. See S. Mark Heim, Crucified Wisdom : Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattva, ed. John Thatamanil and Loye Ashton, Comparative Theology: Thinking across Traditions (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 129–44.

  4. Quoted in Rowan Williams, “Not Being Serious: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth,”  20 June, 1966,

  5. These are the words of Rowan Williams, in a lecture on Merton and Barth. Ibid.

  6. This objection to the ex nihilo characterizes the process theologians, like John Cobb, who were so central to modern Buddhist-Christian studies. See John Cobb, “Creation Ex Nihilo and a Theology of Religions,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 16.2 (1995). Catherine Keller, to whom Robinette refers, continues this view. Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (London; New York: Routledge, 2003).

  7. This is Williams’ take on Nicholas of Cusa’s non aliud (“not another thing”). See Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), xiv.

  8. These are of course not simple questions within Buddhist thought, but the characterization is sufficient for this purpose, I think.

  9. Robert A. Jonas, My Dear Far-Nearness: The Holy Trinity as Spiritual Practice (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2022), 204.

  • Brian Robinette

    Brian Robinette


    Reply to S. Mark Heim 

    I receive S. Mark Heim’s response to my book as a major gift for at least two reasons: first, because it so thoroughly understands the thrust of my book, and second, because it gives me so much more to want to understand that it feels like a major push for future work. This is no doubt why my reply runs a little longer than it probably should! 

    I will proceed by addressing three major questions: the first, whether Christian contemplative practice can be without consciousness “of” God or self; the second, how Christian spiritual practice might learn from Buddhism to address concrete forms of suffering; and third, whether my approach to “nothingness” implies the nonpersonal or can be said to retain personal qualities. 

    Prayer Without “Of”

    As for the first question, yes, I do affirm that there is Christian contemplative practice without consciousness “of” God or self. To be sure, most Christian prayer and meditation practices are oriented in the sense that they operate with the felt sense of a pray-er who intends God. We recollect our dispersed attention and give it intentional shape, in loving and beseeching self-transcendence. We “raise our hearts” and “lift our intentions” in praise and supplication, in lamentation and contrition, etc. 

    This I-Thou relation is just that, a relation; and so, the Thou of prayer is not only the infinitely receding horizon of the pray-er’s intentionality but, more importantly, a Thou whose intention we also (and more fundamentally) receive. This dialogical flow to prayer is Trinitarian for Christians. We pray “to” the Father, “through” the Son, and “in” the Holy Spirit. This implies that any intentionality on our part is made possible by a prior intention toward us. Indeed, we may even come to sense that our intentionality isn’t ours alone, or primarily, but is the intentionality of God happening through us, as the Spirit intercedes for us from wordless depths (Rom 8:26). 

    This “incorporative” sense of prayer, which I discuss in Chapter 2, allows us to speak of prayer as a climate, or a field of resonance, such that what once seemed like an activity issuing from a praying self becomes the total environment in which the pray-er is immersed. Those who inhabit more and more this dynamic environment will likely have a different sense of self, other, world, and God as a result. It is not so much that the world is the default environment in which we find ourselves, with God “beyond” the world or sometimes “in” it. Rather, it is God who becomes familiarized as the reality in which we live and move and have our being, as Saint Paul puts it. This relativizes the world from its seeming default status, i.e., as that which is the most “real” or basic. God is no longer a modifier of the world but the divine milieu of creation’s happening. 

    This phase shift can graciously deepen and become felt as immediately and invincibly true when, having become ever-more accustomed to the all-pervasiveness presence of God in prayer, we simply drop any conceptually mediated sense of God, as though God could be an object of orientation whatsoever, whether “out there” or “in here.” We remain utterly open and aware, needing no reference point, no mediating concept or image to support such awareness. What formerly we referred to as God “out there,” held in intention—and, along with it, some sense of self “in here,” as distinguished from God—simply yields to sheer immediacy, with no “inside” or “outside” at all. Though not rendering personhood a vaporous illusion, and without eliding the ontological distinction of creaturehood (see below), the felt sense of separation, and all the reification that comes with it, gives way to what Martin Laird calls a “sunlit absence,” meaning, the immediate recognition of the luminous depths within which our lives are unfolding, and which is unfailingly present but so often obscured due to our identification with the content of experience, i.e., perceptions, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and activities.1

    This language has affinities with Buddhist understandings, but Laird’s work draws almost entirely from Christian contemplative traditions, including Evagrius of Pontus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, and John Ruusbroec, to name just a few. Here is a Christian lineage that, however pluriform in key respects, transmits a set of dispositions, practices, skills, and interpretive frameworks that help draw the pray-er into the actual discovery, rather than only a belief, of one’s very being as immediately grounded in God.

    This doesn’t mean unitive experiences or absorptive unitive states, though these have their place. I mean the more fundamental and enduring shift that characterizes contemplative awakening as such. This is a subtle point, and it is true that Christian prayer traditions do not always make this clear. Those that do tend to be more “apophatic” in key respects, though the contrast with “cataphatic” approaches can fall into the trap of dichotomizing what really can’t be opposed. The traditions I am thinking of include the Hesychast tradition, more commonly associated with the Jesus Prayer, or the “prayer of the heart.” I am also thinking of the “affective Dionysian” tradition running through Thomas Gallus, Hugh of Balma, and the The Cloud of Unknowing, which has inspired the Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation movements in the twentieth century. The anonymous Cloud author’s shorter and later work, The Book of Privy Counseling, offers one of the finest practical instructions in contemplative prayer I know, and the basic path it charts is from praying from the felt sense of one’s whole self (“the naked perception of your own being”) to totally releasing any felt sense of self whilst abiding in God, “just as he is in himself—nothing more than that.”2 A simple instruction, but endlessly discoverable. One is reminded of the rhetorically daring (but practically apposite) instruction from Meister Eckhart:

    You should wholly sink away from your youness and dissolve into His Hisness, and your “yours” and His “His” should become so completely one “mine” that with Him you understand His uncreated self-identity and His nameless Nothingness. footnote[Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, trans. Maurice O’C. Walshe (New York: Crossroad, 2009), Sermon 96, p. 463.[/footnote]

    It must be said that this practice of “sinking” or “letting be” can come within the context of other forms of prayer by way of their deepening, including praying with scripture (such as the lectio divina practice already referred to3 as well as liturgical practice. In fact, the movement back and forth from more intentionally oriented prayer (God as Thou) to the dropping all intentionality into fundamental awareness (God as Ground) would seem to be the rhythm of prayer as it is integrated with everyday life. After all, intentionality is a fundamental structure of human consciousness, as the phenomenological tradition makes admirably clear, even if intentionality arises within, and by no means exhausts, primordial awareness. Christian contemplative traditions have a role in making this latter, deeper dimension more thematic and practically recognizable, even if further work can be done to provide clearer practical guidance and a more adequate interpretive framework for such integration.4

    Practical Mysticism: Dialogue with Buddhism

    This is just one place where dialogue with Buddhism can be so fruitful for Christians. Though not trained as a comparative theologian, I am familiar enough with Buddhist traditions and have a special affinity for Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen, for reasons that will be obvious to those familiar with them. Indeed, I have benefitted enormously from friendship with John Makransky, an ordained lama and Buddhist comparative theologian, whose scholarly work and meditation teachings for contemporary persons from various religious (or non-religious) backgrounds are especially worthy of commendation.5

    Regarding this practical point, and in response to Heim’s question concerning relief from suffering, Christian-Buddhist dialogue can help Christians better understand how spiritual practice, while ultimately having to do with “dwelling in truth for its own sake,” as Heim describes its mystical orientation, is crucial for the ways it can help us perceive and be released from the million and one attachments that produce suffering. Contemplation is not about finding temporary respite from activity or stress but is more significantly a discovery of the inmost mechanisms that generate human dysfunction on many scales. One thinks, for example, of the way our identification with the content of experience leads to fragmentation and self-grasping, with all the anxiety, fear, envy, and anger this entails. So much of our lives are caught up in cycles of samsaric reactivity, with the result that we fall into patterns of self-other (or us-them) dichotomizing. This not only keeps us in war with others; it means we’re at war with ourselves. How to end this war? We need to look deeply into the very nature of our experience, awaken to the inherently open depths of all experience, relax into those depths as the inmost source of safety, goodness, and loving care, and live from those depths. This is perhaps another way of elaborating the Christian itinerary of illumination, purgation, and union.

    The connections with mimetic theory are critically important to develop here, and Heim’s work is path-breaking for the way it integrates, in comparative theological mode, the Christian tradition, René Girard’s seminal insights, and Buddhist contemplative traditions.6 In my view, this nexus is among the most exciting and timely areas of theology we can be developing at present. We might frame this potential development with the following question: How can we gain further traction for developing a theoretical and practical understanding of the dynamics of human suffering and conflict, and what are the insights, practices, and communal forms of belonging that are essential for releasing us from these dynamics so that we might be free for the human flourishing God wills for us? This is a soteriological question at heart, one that draws the closest possible connection between revelation, reason, and contemplative inquiry. Without attempting to explain evil or sin in a metaphysical sense, as certain theodicies are wont to do, we need a fundamental account, or at least a better account, for understanding the dynamics of human suffering and conflict—one with economy and explanatory range, and which is discoverable within one’s immediate experience. I find this work hugely important and wish, in my own limited way, to continue contributing to it. 

    Bare Immanence and Communion: A Trinitarian Coda

    Perhaps this is sufficient for an initial response to Heim’s question about practical spirituality, so now let me conclude with a brief response to his third main question, namely, the relationship between relaxing into “bare divine immanence” and the affirmation of differentiation and communion in the Christian understanding of God, which bespeaks of the personal. 

    This is such a profound question that I can do little more than gesture at a response. But I would begin by alluding to my comment above, namely, that human beings are constituted both by the dynamism of intentionality and non-intentionality. That is, personhood entails the dynamic relation of self-transcending intentionality and the sheer immanence of non-intentional, enstatic depths. 

    Heim suggests a trinitarian approach to address the issues in play here. This seems right to me, and my own way of thinking about this has been indelibly shaped by the thirteenth century Flemish mystic and theologian John Ruusbroec. In his Spiritual Espousals, which may be the most theologically comprehensive account of the mystical life available in the Christian tradition, we see Ruusbroec integrating the rhetorical and speculative boldness of his predecessor, Meister Eckhart, but in a manner that is more explicitly trinitarian and developmental in approach. Spiritual maturation is thus a dynamic spiral of rest and work, of introversion and extroversion, of sheer immanence and ecstatic outpouring in fruitful multiplicity. 

    To elaborate, interior awakening entails “rest” in the “essential bareness” of God, and thus abidance in a modeless, enstatic manner. “Through an eternal act of gazing accomplished by means of the inborn light, [contemplatives] are transformed and become one with that same light with which they see and which they see. It is in this way that contemplatives pursue the eternal image to which they have been created; they contemplate God and all things without distinction in a simple act of seeing in the divine resplendence.”7 The tradition of the divine ideas is crucial to this account, and it serves to affirm the eternal image of who we are in God—indivisibly and without mediation.8

    But the highest form of the interior life is both “resting” and “activity,” and thus the ceaseless pouring forth in modes, relations, and self-other communion. It is in this relation that “righteousness” consists. The contemplative “goes toward God with fervent interior love through his eternal activity, enters into God with his blissful inclination toward eternal rest, remains in God, and nevertheless goes out to creatures in virtue and righteousness through a love which is common to all. This is the highest point of the interior life. Anyone who does not possess both rest and activity in one and the same exercise has not attained this righteousness, while a person who has attained it cannot be hindered when he turns inward, for he does so both actively and in blissful enjoyment.”9 

    This, in my view, sums up a distinctively Christian nondualism, and it is here where, I suspect, a more discerning comparative study of Christian and Buddhism nondualism can develop.10 This comparative study interests me a great deal, even if I am only at the beginning of making some headway with it. 

    But for our present purposes, we can say that it is not possible, in Christian theological understanding, to favor one of the antinomies over the other. Interiority and exteriority, essential unity and generative differentiation, non-intentional depths and intentionally structured relations: Christian nonduality is one of communion. The striking thing here is that both poles are present in human persons because both poles are present in God’s triune life. Just as God is at once “superessential Unity” and the loving communion of the “divine Persons,” so are human persons an enstatic “flowing in” and ecstatic “flowing out” of God. This is what Ruusbroec wonderfully calls “the common life.” To put it another way—and here I conclude this response, and this symposium, by giving Ruusbroec the last word—the Christian understanding of the God-creature relation is one that sees this relation as both unitive and differentiating because God’s own life is sheer abidance and a ceaseless flowing forth:


    Thus we will eternally abide in God and constantly flow forth and ceaselessly turn back within. With this we will possess a truly interior life in all its perfection. May God help us that this might come about. Amen.11  

    1. Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

    2. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A.C. Spearing (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 121.

    3. See my response to James Alison.

    4. I attempt to make some progress along these lines in my forthcoming essay, “Towards a Contemplative Theology: In Dialogue with Bernard Lonergan,” in A New Exodus? Method in Theology Today.

    5. John Makransky, Awakening Through Love: Unveiling Your Deepest Goodness (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2007).

    6. S. Mark Heim, Crucified Wisdom: Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattva (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

    7. John Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works, trans. James A. Wiseman, O.S.B. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), p. 147.

    8. For an important essay the divine ideas tradition in Christian theology, see Mark A. McIntosh, The Divine Ideas Tradition in Christian Mystical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

    9. Ibid., p. 135.

    10. For an excellent comparative study with Ruusbroec in focus, see Paul Mommaers and Jan van Bragt, Mysticism Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec (New York: Crossroad, 1995).

    11. Ibid., p. 144.

Chelsea King


Challenging Assumptions about Atonement

Brian Robinette has written a remarkable book that enriches the Christian understanding of the classic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. This doctrine, if understood as having an apophatic function, challenges certain assumptions that have plagued theological discourse for years. As Robinette writes, “the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo functions as a piece of negative theology, not because it means to be obscure, but because it means to remove any concept, intuition, or principle that might mediate between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ (xii).”

In my response, I focus primarily on how this apophatic understanding of creatio ex nihilo enriches and challenges the meaning of the atoning work of Christ, and I further develop Robinette’s insights for the field of soteriology.  

First, we begin with some idolatry. The first chapter offers a critique of John Caputo’s onto-theological understanding of God. Caputo has argued against the idea that God is strong, powerful, and mighty, and has instead argued for God as a “weak force.” While this may seem like a radical position, Robinette argues that this view does not take the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo nearly as far as it can be taken. In one sense, Caputo is correct to say that God is not “strong” and full of power and might, however, he is wrong to then claim the other side of the oh-so-human binary: weakness. God is neither weak nor strong like humans are, and any conception we have of transcendence that places God over and against humanity is false: “If God is transcendent, then nothing is opposed to him, nothing can limit him nor be compared with him: [God] is ‘wholly other,’ and therefore penetrates the world absolutely” (15). Caputo’s theology turns out not to be so radical at all. Not only does creatio ex nihilo reveal a God that is not against humanity, but it also reveals a God that willingly “enters” into the brokenness of this world, which is marred by false notions of power and hierarchy. 

It is in chapter four where we are offered a compelling account for how the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo impacts our understanding of the atoning work of Christ, or more broadly conceived, soteriology. Using the work of René Girard, Robinette places the revelation of these false forms of power in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. He writes, “The resurrection of the crucified Jesus reveals by unveiling or unmasking those false forms of order and transcendence that trade upon illusion and fear, and that keep us beholden to destructive patterns of relating to one another” (127).

How does Jesus reveal this to us? Not by the kind of force that operates over and against humanity, but by allowing himself to be overtaken by the false powers that exist and transforming them from within through the Resurrection. The risen Christ does what none would have expected and offers forgiveness to those who crucified him: “No retribution, no retaliatory response, no tit for tat, the crucified-and-risen One is given back to those who expelled him with an utterly gratuitous offer of forgiveness” (148). This offer of forgiveness (the Joy of Being Wrong as James Alison would put it) allows guilt to be made visible for the first time, and thus transformed. 

Given Robinette’s understanding of soteriology as outlined above, it is clear that any atonement theory which states that God’s wrath is placated by the innocent death of Jesus is patently false. This kind of atonement theory takes the form of what we’ve come to call “penal-substitution,” but it can be any theory that argues that God needed or even desired the death of Jesus prior to offering salvation. This highly transactional account of salvation does not reflect the sheer gratuity of the forgiveness of Jesus, and it paints God (almost comically) as a vengeful Father figure that demands innocent blood. Rather than seeing the crucifixion as a result of unjust power structures, the cross is seen as somehow divinely sanctioned and willed by God in order to bring about salvation. 

I believe that Robinette has offered an important framework for dismissing these theories of atonement as steeped in onto-theology. Penal-substitution, and any theory similar to it, clearly paints a picture of a God that is operating within human categories of justice and forgiveness. A penal-substitionary theory of the atonement is a very logical understanding of salvation, but that is precisely its problem. Human beings deserve to be punished for their sin, but God cannot simply forgive them (we need a sense of justice after all). The “solution” is for God to punish Jesus in our place. When salvation is understood through the lens of human categories of justice and fairness, penal-substitution “works.” 

While it may be easy to dismiss this theory, it is important to point out that it is not entirely divorced from Scripture. Robinette is aware of this. While some theologians have opted to simply reject this language altogether, Robinette thinks differently. Highlighting Girard’s own reclaiming of sacrifice later in life, Robinette argues “we can even begin reclaiming the language of sacrifice in accounting for Christ’s death, that is, as ‘the one true sacrifice,’ or ‘the sacrifice to end all sacrifice’” (161). Of course, this reclaiming needs to be done in such a way as to separate it from any atonement theory that “implicates” God in the very process that God liberates us from. Such an atonement theory “leaves us with an ambiguous image of God at best” (158). 

I have always agreed with this sentiment—penal-substitution, or anything that seems like penal-substitution is false and steeped in human categories. This understanding of atonement presents a God that is, as Robinette argues, ambiguous at best. But Robinette has inspired a new (and perhaps much more challenging) question for me. When did ambiguity become a problem for the utterly transcendent God? 

Earlier, Robinette had argued quite persuasively that Caputo’s “weak” God was not radical enough. God’s strength and power are not to be understood as on the same level as human power. This allows us to say, quite emphatically, that God is powerful and strong, but in a particularly transcendent way. Might we say the same thing about God “demanding” or “willing” the death of Jesus? In other words, might there be a way to reclaim the notion of “obedience,” of “demand” of “desire,” much like we would retain and reclaim divine notions of “power” and “strength?” 

Any theologian willing to reclaim the language of sacrifice is opening up the possibility of reclaiming the idea that God wills a violent death (for the sake of liberation) and Jesus willingly accepts this mission. Of course, it is absolutely crucial to have a framework in place before we attempt such a dangerous feat. We must work out our categories, our understandings of the divine “will,” and why we react so negatively when we hear “God willed the death of Jesus,” or “God willed the Cross.” If we dismiss these ideas outright, we are falling into the onto-theological trap that Robinette so deftly freed us from in chapter one. 

Sacrifice is ambiguous because it can imply both passivity (they were sacrificed) and active acceptance (I am sacrificing). Re-claiming the language of sacrifice remains a dangerous task for the reasons that Robinette lays out. God can become yet another, more powerful King who demands vengeance as soon as divine honor is infringed upon. But it does not have to result in that image. Sacrifice pervades every aspect of Christian liturgical life, and precisely because of its ambiguity, it may allow us to examine our own assumptions about who we think God should be. 

I believe that if we are going to reclaim the language of sacrifice for our understanding of atonement, then we must sit with the uncomfortable idea that God “wills” the death of Jesus and Jesus “obeys.” In Luke’s Gospel, it is clear that Jesus did not want to go through with his fate, and yet ends in the prayer: “Not my will, but your will be done.” If we read this passage through the lens of creatio ex nihilo, this prayer does not imply an antagonistic relationship between Jesus and God, but nor does it imply that God did not will Jesus’ death. This may “implicate” God in violence, but we referring to the same transcendent God outlined above. Perhaps a more important question in light of Robinette’s book is: what does it mean for this transcendent God to will the death of his innocent son? 

The issue, in my view, is not that God willed the death of Jesus, but for what purpose. Why would God ever “want” something like this to happen, and why would Jesus ever imagine that his “abba” was asking him to go through with it? If it is to reveal the scapegoat mechanism, and in so doing, transform the fallen world from within by becoming the ultimate scapegoat that removes the brokenness that we cannot heal alone, then why wouldn’t God will that? This does not have to mean that God willed it to placate his own wrath or because he was feeling particularly stingy with grace that day. But it also doesn’t mean that God didn’t will or desire Jesus’ death. In rejecting atonement theories that seem to argue for God’s violence, are we not bringing God down into the depths of onto-theology and simply raising up the other side of the binary (e.g. forgiveness and mercy?).

I see two possible paths from here—the first is to reject altogether what I call the “atonement model paradigm.” Gustaf Aulén, as Robinette points out, was influential in shaping the contemporary discourse on salvation by proposing atonement theories. We now have a way of neatly categorizing and organizing the mystery of salvation based upon the scriptural metaphor used. While helpful in debating the meaning of Jesus’ death, the atonement model paradigm can actually deceive us into thinking that we do understand the entirety of salvation—so much so that we are willing to reject entire theories that don’t fit within our conception of who God is. Perhaps this is where creatio ex nihilo can come into play. What if it can help to dispel this atonement model paradigm entirely? Would that be useful to us? Would it be helpful in trying to sift through metaphors we find so problematic both in scripture and in the tradition, allowing us to sit with them rather than dismiss them? 

The second path has been articulated above. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive because they both rely upon a sort of apophatic soteriology, but this path is far more radical. Just as Robinette claimed that God’s transcendence and strength is much more radical than Caputo’s “weak” force, perhaps atonement theories that retain the language of penalty, substitution, and sacrifice are much more radical when they are understood from a different vantage point. 

Apophatic theology attempts to destroy our very human-like concepts of who God is, what God should be. Why is it when we enter into these discussions on the “atonement,” that we are so ready to dismiss notions of penalty, punishment, hell, wrath, and sometimes sacrifice? I confess that I don’t know where all of this actually gets us. These atonement theories are problematic because they forget the apophatic nature of salvation, but at the same time, outright rejecting the theories we find problematic runs the risk of eliminating those metaphors that invite us to enter more deeply into the mystery of salvation. It runs the risk of reducing salvation to our human preferences and conceptual frameworks—and that is not the difference that nothing makes. 

  • Brian Robinette

    Brian Robinette


    Reply to Chelsea King 

    Demythologizing Sacrifice

    In her probing response, Chelsea King rightly points out that if we wish to reclaim the language of sacrifice, including the affirmation that God “wills” Jesus’ death on the cross—a “dangerous feat,” she admits—then we must develop a proper framework for doing so. We need to thread the needle, so to speak. 

    To put the difficulty in the form of a dilemma: If our understanding is that God is not the author of suffering and death, but the God of Life—a God of “pure positivity,” as Edward Schillebeeckx puts it—then how do we reckon with various affirmations in the Gospels that God “wills” or “preordains” Jesus’ death on the cross? If the Gospels reveal to us that God is not party to our sin and violence, but it is human beings who produce victims, including the violent death of Jesus, then how do we make sense of those images and narrative patterns in the Gospels that suggest some manner of divine agency in the midst of that victimization and death? Do the Gospels leave us with an ambiguous understanding of God after all, one not fully purged of the sacral violence that is characteristic of scapegoating and its effects? In short, is the God of Jesus Christ really nonviolent? 

    It was precisely this problem that first drew me to Girard’s work over twenty years ago, and it is to Girard I consistently return for threading this needle. More than any other thinker I know, Girard focalizes the “hard passages” to discern the distinctive manner by which the Gospels unmask, through narrative subversion, our habitual tendency to project upon others our violence, including upon God. As King notes in her excellent published work on Girard, it was precisely this concern that led the early Girard to reject the category of sacrifice as appropriate to the Gospels, since at that time his understanding of sacrifice’s meaning was exclusively determined by scapegoating and its effects. This “anti-sacrificial” reading really did, at the time, clarify the “anti-scapegoating” thrust of the Gospels, and to this extent such a reading provides an uncompromising articulation of what we are being liberated from, namely, the habitual and typically hidden tendency to achieve order and identity through violent “othering.” 

    To recount how Girard came to a more nuanced account of sacrifice is hugely instructive, for it helps us to see how its symbolism is contextually specific and subject to mutations in meaning. And here it is important to see a dialectical process at work. If the New Testament at times adopts the language of sacrifice to account for the redemptive impact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, then we need to attend to how the overall narrative framework transmutes the meaning of sacrifice. Sacrifice is “demythologized” by the Gospels, in the specific sense Girard uses this term. Demythologization here has little to do with Bultmannian exegesis. It has to do with a process of revelation by which God is known with clarity and confidence as having nothing to do with our violence. 

    This demythologization process is core to the Easter message. The resurrection of Jesus is simultaneously divine vindication of Jesus’ entire life-ministry in the face of its human rejection (justice) and the gratuitous offer of divine peace and pardon to those implicated in Jesus’ unjust death (mercy). Easter is God’s judgment of the forces that put Jesus on the cross, and yet this apocalyptic “No” arises from an originary, ever-more expansive “Yes” that bestows itself as forgiveness and loving communion. And as I am keen to point out throughout the book, it is this primordial “Yes” that brings all things into being—from nothing. 

    Returning to King’s central question, then, it strikes me as critical to reach this understanding of the Christ-event to properly interpret all talk of God willing Jesus’ death. King herself points out the way when she writes that the issue is not that God willed the death of Jesus but for what purpose

    In chapter 4, I articulate this purpose by referring to God’s “use” of sin. In a great act of transmutation, God is revealed as the risen victim, not to valorize death and victimization, but to expose and free us from those deeply nested mechanisms in human life that entrap us in endless cycles of rivalry and victim-making. Divine creativity is not coercive but persuasive. Rather than overpowering the dynamics of sin and death through acts of bombastic display, which would only make God reciprocal to violence, the God of Jesus Christ graciously unravels these dynamics from within. God, in Christ, undergoes these dynamics so that they may be exposed and metabolized. If the cross represents the fear-based rejection of Jesus’ kingdom of God ministry, it also, and amazingly, represents God’s creative liberty to inhabit that placeless place for our sake. In short, God “wills” Jesus’ death, not because something in God needed to be assuaged or fixed, and not because death was itself the purpose, but in order that the violence, shame, fear, dissimulation, and destructiveness of our rivalry and scapegoating may be totally undone. “A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). 

    The Question of Obedience

    As for Jesus’ obedience, none of the above makes much sense if we presume some manner of competition between the human and divine. Jesus’ death on the cross will appear as a dehumanizing submission to a capricious and blood-thirsty divinity if we imagine God and creature in contrastive terms. But if, instead, our understanding is christologically oriented, then will see that Jesus’ obedience is his freedom. 

    In several places throughout the book, I develop Karl Rahner’s maxim that creaturely dependence upon God and creaturely autonomy grow in direct rather than inverse proportion. Put in other terms, creaturely freedom is not in any way diminished because of its dependence upon God but is brought into its fullest fruition precisely because of this dependence. The more open the creature is to God, the more the creature is itself, and vice versa. To be open to the source and ground of life, to the unconditioned freedom and beneficence of God, is what obedience essentially means, theologically speaking. Obedience to God, unlike obedience to some “Big Other,” is not over against anything at all because God is unequivocally for us: for Jesus, for humanity, for the whole of creation. Pure positivity. 

    Rahner’s maxim is by no means unique to him and is in fact one way of expressing a basically christological truth. Jesus is the most fully human because he is the most united with God. Jesus is the freest, the most creative and loving, because his creatureliness is the most transparent to the source and ground of all creaturely being. In Jesus there is no rivalry with God at all. Indeed, the whole of his life is an uninterrupted “Yes” to the inflow of divine life, and thus is Jesus’ life the utmost expression of our human capacity. It is what our human capacity looks like when most alive, when most actualized, when most itself. And, of course, it is just this actualized humanity that is the self-communication of God in our history. Both movements—the creaturely unto God, and God for the creature—are consummated in the person of Christ. 

    So long as we keep this christo-logic in mind, then questions concerning Jesus’ obedience unto death will take on a distinctive shape as a result. We would readily answer in the affirmative: Jesus is obedient to God unto death, even death on a cross, and this because God is unequivocally for us. 

    When we reflect upon the reasons why, historically speaking, Jesus ends up crucified as an outcast, as a blasphemer and enemy of the state, we can see how the violence of the cross represents the culminating rejection of Jesus’ life and ministry. The fullness of life to which Jesus called others, and which he preached and lived out uninterruptedly, turned out to threaten patterns of interpersonal and social life that refused this fullness of life in significant and recurrent ways. Jesus’ death was thus the culminating consequence of the kind of life he lived, insofar as his kingdom of God ministry sought to transform the ways we typically form identities through rivalry and exclusionary violence. The cross of Christ, from this perspective, represents the most extreme resistance to the fullness of life that God never ceases to will for us. And yet God “uses” even this, the cross, our sin, as the means to reach us. 

    This is the narrative subversion in its most dramatic form. Christ freely (i.e., obediently) undergoes our “No” with a “Yes” so steadfast and so complete that it discloses to us who God really is. Such is the effect of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which reveals God’s eschatological act of justice and mercy. As I have argued at length elsewhere,1 any atonement theory that isolates the cross from Jesus’ kingdom of God ministry and resurrection is prone to distortion, and usually by implicating God in violence. Only the broader narrative flow of the whole Christ-event will help us keep the nonviolent agency of God in the cross squarely in view. 

    King is on to something important when she calls for a more apophatic approach to soteriology and the models we develop as aids in understanding. She rightly warns against dismissing aspects of scripture and tradition we might find uncomfortable. We need to remain open to the surprising ways God’s self-communication. I strongly agree with this. At the same time—and I am sure she would agree—such apophasis does not mean that anything goes, or that we are left without key narrative patterns, frameworks, and doctrines that can help us envision God’s self-revealing love in Christ with inner consistency and imaginative boldness, even as the mystery of salvation remains just that: a living mystery. And, as King has insisted in her own work, this requires the work of critique, not least where certain understandings of sacrifice, obedience, and suffering in Christian tradition perpetuate distortions rather than contributing to human flourishing. Apophasis needs grammar, therefore, just as much as grammar needs apophasis. 

    1. See Brian D. Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence (New York: Crossroad, 2009), pp. 250-318.

James Alison


The Nothingness of Death

Brian has gifted us with an extraordinary feat of thinking. For those outside the guild this might seem impossibly abstract. However, for anyone with some appreciation for what this does in terms of enabling meaning to be sensed where none is apparent, of holding seeming opposites in different forms of tension, and of enabling clarity at the furthest outreaches of intellectual possibility, this is truly a gift to be met with gratitude and even, dare I say it, awe. I am very proud, and not a little scared (especially when it comes to the discussion concerning Bulgakov and Rahner, which is way beyond my pay grade), to have been invited to share in a Syndicate response to this book. That I am somewhat on the same page as Brian should come as no surprise, given our shared debt to Girard’s thought, and Brian’s generous mentions of my own writings in part II. However, I hope that I am doing more than beating a shared drum, or tooting a shared trumpet, when I say that I find it particularly hopeful for the future of theology that Brian gives texts that are classical without being defensive, and modern without being dismissive. There is something here that is central to a non-polemical, and thus graced, living of Christianity as Vatican II “settles in.”

What I would like to do in this forum is explore Brian’s central point with a musing which I hope comes close to, or rubs up, against it. This concerns an analogy for creation which is very precisely an analogy for a creation out of nothing.

The death of Christ as analogy of the “nothing” that makes a difference

One of the problems of our word “creation” is that, in ordinary speech the word comes with a whole set of resonances which are to do with “making something.” Whether in the far distant past, contemporaneously, or both. With the result that our discussions are typically about the chunkiness of what is around us, how things came to be. Manifestly discussions privilege our natural assumption that we make things out of pre-existant things—pots out of clay and so on. When it comes to God’s creation we quickly say that in this lies God’s difference to us: that God makes things without there being any pre-existent things or un-things which might be transformed into what we see, know, and inhabit. The word “nothing” doesn’t refer, as Brian points out, to some sort of negative thing about which we can talk, but is more like a negative gesture, a refusal of a word. One made even while we are aware that our very negatives (given that we are “things that are”) are by opposition to something, while there is simply “nothing” contrastive or oppositional in the “nothing” we use in order to hint at the unrivalled and unbounded freedom and power of the Most High.

Scripture uses the potter/clay analogy in a couple of places, but the key analogy in Genesis and second Isaiah is speech: God “says let there be…” the word leads to things. It is the power of a word to lead to something that is the analogy. It would seem to depend on a relationship of power between the one speaking and that which is spoken into being—a king commanding a city to be built, or some such.

Please remember that the point of an analogy in this sphere is that it is held to be pointing to something true, but where the dissimilarity between the image used and what is really true is far greater than any similarity.

However, if we give weight to the key passages in John’s Gospel, the Epistle to the Hebrews and various of Paul’s epistles where creation is in some way attributed to Christ, and those in the synoptics which tell the same thing in narrative fashion, then we find ourselves being given a new and rather fuller analogy for the act of creation than we might expect. And this is because it develops both the positive relationship between nothing and what is and the power dynamic involved in a way that is strikingly dissimilar to any notion of power that we may have. It fills out the power and the deliberation of the “Word” that “speaks” into being.

I will illustrate this narratively. From Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan until his death on the cross it becomes clear in the references to the Spirit that creation is being talked about. At the baptism the Spirit that had been “hovering over the waters” comes down upon Jesus as he “comes up” from the waters. It does so in the shape of a dove. In Genesis a raven had swept away, or dried up, the waters of the flood by beating its wings, and a dove had been used by Noah to test whether there was dry land, before finally setting off and not coming back. In the baptism the wandering dove finally settles on Jesus.

The “coming up” from the waters is that of the ordination of the Great High Priest (the Son, the Melchizedek figure pointed to in the Psalms which are referenced in the Gospels), and the “opening of the heavens” to him is what would have been expected for the High Priest in the Holy Place in the Temple which symbolized precisely the open heavens prior to creation. But here the opening is happening outside the institutional framework, by the river Jordan. While John the Baptist by his lifestyle, preaching, and choice of place had summarized the prophets and the law, the baptism of Jesus takes us further back, to the beginnings.

Jesus’ life then is the living out of the Son who shows who he is by signs and by teaching and eventually turns to fulfil the rite of atonement, voluntarily and deliberately, in the midst of a concatenation of human violence. Again, this is conducted outside the relevant institutional framework, though entirely framed by language derived from that framework.

Shortly before dying, in the garden, Jesus enacts the new Adam getting right what the old Adam got wrong, and is taken to his trial and execution. On the way to the cross he is stripped of the seamless tunic, referencing the tunic with which the High Priest would have been vested at the feast of the atonement to indicate the Son’s entry into created reality. As Jesus is on the cross, the sun’s light fails and darkness covers the land, so we are back before the first day of Genesis. Then the veil of the temple rips open. Thus is marked the removal of the separation between heavenly reality and the current material reality to which we normally refer as “creation.” Simultaneously Jesus breathes out his Spirit, which takes us back to before the foundation of the world, the hovering Spirit of Genesis 1.

Now however the contentless hovering Spirit has acquired the full content of the reality of Jesus’ human life, lived up to, and including into, his death. And it is this that is so important in the breathing out of the Spirit. Whereas up until now the Holy Place in the Temple was kept absolutely separate from death, now death has been assumed, occupied by Jesus so that what he breathes out is now the Holy Spirit, the Creator Spirit, which has emptied death of its power and will now be given to empower others to live as if death were not, and so become insider participants in finally accomplished creation, sons and daughters in the Son.

Please note that what is offered here is a counter-chronological account of creation, using the texts and reference points of the Hebrew Scripture and Temple tradition, one that seemed comprehensible at the time to authors sufficiently different from each other as the four evangelists, Paul and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. 

In this counter-chronological account of creation the whole of Jesus’ life leads up to him performing a content-rich act in dying. In that act of dying he breathes out the Spirit which now has real anthropological content—content at a humanly available level—making what the fullness of creation looks like begin to become intelligible and habitable by us.


Because we are so used to this narrative, I want to ask us to go slow and think a little of the central place of “nothing” in it. For ever since we became human, and able to think about death, there is nothing more nothing-y than death. It is for all of us, very obviously, the ultimate despoliation of everything that is. After it, someone who was there is not there. There is suddenly a jarring hole within a set of relationships that were previously more or less supportive of the deceased, and more or less supported by the deceased. Far from “nothing” being an intellectual abstraction, it is an entirely existential and fully corporal and physical awareness that, absent an entirely invisible “Other” who might maintain us as a living embodied being yet to be imagined, all our power, creativity, imagination, plans and so on come to an abrupt end and the physical elements which sustained them are very quickly transformed into something quite else.

It is in Jesus’ occupying the space of death (“tasting” it as Hebrews says) before us, in our face, that we have the sense God gives to the nothing out of which God creates. And what does this something out of nothing look like? It looks like someone doing something almost incomprehensibly rich for us, ending in that person’s death. Which means that they are before us as absolutely powerless. Someone who has died has no power over you. Even their will can be contested whether by heirs or lawyers. But the dead person has no say. Whatever it was that they wanted to communicate with you before their death is no longer their property, to alter, to interpret, to correct. The “for” you, me, us, is suspended in nothing.

The sort of power by which the Creator brings into being is the same sort of power that a dead person has. The closest human analogy to nothing. Yet the expiring breath manifests the whole divine interpretation of that particular death and the life that led up to it, such that it might indeed move you in a way that is entirely different from any sort of “being moved by a power” of which we are aware. But you have no obligation to be moved by that power. Indeed it is only able to be perceived as a power at all when you remember and understand that someone did that for you. In other words, that there was a love for you in the dead person having occupied that space. And that your access to recognizing and receiving that love passes through that dead person’s imagination possessing you such that you begin to be stretched towards arduous goods that were previously unimaginable to you; and you relax into that dead person’s conviction that you too are able to walk across “nothing” to be able to become like him.

When Paul says “Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God”, he is, I think putting forward the analogy of creation. Jesus displayed as dead before us, with the background story that led to that moment, including the instruction that we remember it as something given, acted out, beforehand, actually is the nearest analogy we have for the power of creation out of nothing. And the wisdom of God is the creative intelligence which led Jesus to occupy that space, knowing that once detoxified for us, and so occupied without fear, it would render intelligible everything that is, by rendering us sharers in the growing intelligibility of what is.

So the final breath of a violently tortured dead man reaches us, if we receive it, the nothing-y-est of nothings. And yet Holy Breath enters into us in the middle of time to become intelligent participants in the bringing into being of the unimaginably ancient network of relationships which long more fully to disclose the power which looks more like “giving yourself away into nothing so that others may live” than anything else.



  • Brian Robinette

    Brian Robinette


    Reply to James Alison 

    “The Space of Death”

    It seems fitting to reflect upon James Alison’s response after having first engaged Chelsea King’s. One reason for this fittingness is because, with King’s response, I was invited to reflect further upon aspects of atonement theology in systematic terms, whereas Alison’s response invites something like a process of scriptural meditation that can help flesh out those terms and give them a beating heart. Indeed, it will be obvious to anyone who reads my book—and my work more generally—that Alison is quite inspirational for me, and so it is no small honor to have him participate in this symposium.

    Not long after I first read Girard in the late 1990s, it was Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong (1998) that most helped me envision the broader theological possibilities of mimetic theory. To watch Alison carefully work through such doctrines as original sin, the Trinity, ecclesiology, and eschatology, all threaded with a penetrating insight into the dynamics of mimetic desire, has proven influential on my own development as a theologian and a pedagogue. Perhaps more than anything else, though, it is Alison’s approach to scripture that has most impacted me.

    I can vividly recall the excitement I felt when first reading Alison’s approach to the resurrection narratives, along with his insistence that “the resurrection of Jesus was not a miraculous event within a preexisting framework of understanding of God, but the event by which God recast the possibility of human understanding of God” (115). Although it may seem obvious that Christians come to know the God of Jesus Christ because of the Easter event, the fuller significance of this post-paschal perspective for Christian knowing can hardly be plumbed. We naively think of the Easter stories as proposing strange and improbable contents to apprehend, and possibly believe, but in fact Easter is that “event” by which anything like Christian perception and imagination becomes possible. It is from the resurrection, much more than towards it, that characterizes the Christian experience of God, and it is this seeing through “Easter eyes” that essentially defines the peculiar genre of a gospel.

    The inner correspondence between creation and resurrection in the Gospels is a significant theme in The Difference Nothing Makes, and on it hinges one kind of response to the critique sometimes made that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is a metaphysical abstraction that reflects a static and domineering picture of divine power. Such a critique can be rebutted on several fronts, but the most generative and comprehensive, in my view, starts by showing how the Easter event recasts the whole of Jesus’ life and death in a new light while throwing open radically new perspectives upon what we take “creation” and “power” and even “God” to mean. Which is not to say, in Marcionite-like fashion, that we are talking about a different God. Rather, and as Irenaeus of Lyons puts it, the post-paschal imagination entails a process of being taught to worship the same God, but in a new way.1

    As Alison points out in his response, a key narrative moment in the Gospels for disclosing what we are to understand about divine power has to do with Jesus’ deliberate inhabitation of “the space of death.” This inhabitation is for us, even as the circumstances of Jesus’ death on the cross testify to extreme passivity. That there could be a loving creativity disposed towards us in the midst of such passivity, revealed as unfailingly on our behalf, is beyond all expectation from a perspective that views power in terms of force, coercion, status, or bombast. There is “nothing more nothing-y than death,” writes Alison. And yet even here do we find a presence peacefully and utterly inclined towards us, inviting us to “stretch towards” and “relax into” it, with the growing recognition, accompanied by an actual felt sense, that what once seemed like the ultimate barrier to relation and communication—death itself—turns out to have no real power at all. “O death, where is your sting?” What else is Easter than this awakening? 

    This existential (and eschatological) dimension is crucial to keep in mind when we consider the more technical formulation that God creates “from nothing.” For while Christian theologians in the second and third centuries formulated it in response to certain philosophical views that assumed the co-eternity of matter with the divine creative principle, the Easter-inspired conviction that nothing, not even sin and death, can be a barrier to God’s self-bestowing creativity was the formulation’s beating heart. Certain intellectual and cultural circumstances may have occasioned the specific language, prompting a newfound clarity about matters not previously made thematic, but such language would not have been adopted by Christian theologians, and with such rapidity and conviction, were it not for the impact of the resurrection. Protological and eschatological understanding grow together. 

    Lectio Divina

    If Alison’s response has offered a narrative approach to ground and make existentially vital the meaning of creatio ex nihilo, I might take this as the occasion to extend his scriptural rumination in a more contemplative direction. By this I mean something like what happens in lectio divina

    Readers may be aware of this ancient, monastic approach to prayer. Most associated with the twelfth-century Carthusian monk Guigo II, whose Ladder of Monks takes as its central conceit Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to God (Gen 28:12), lectio divina is a form of prayer that proceeds through four basic steps. These are not mechanical steps, and often they naturally blend into one another, but the steps can be summarized as follows: 

    • lectio, or reading a scriptural passage to gain basic familiarity and initial meaning.
    • meditatio, or patiently ruminating over elements of the passage (words, images, phrases, etc.) to allow its deeper significance to surface.
    • oratio, or praying to God in response to what the passage is opening up.
    • contemplatio, or silent abiding in the simple presence of God in whom all images, words, and ideas are simply let go.

    By referring to lectio divina in this context, I am suggesting that Alison’s approach to scripture has something of its qualities. That is, when I read Alison reading scripture, I can’t help but feel drawn into a process that comes close to “divine reading.” It invites lingering, rumination, and at times—for me, at least—simply setting the text aside and letting its contents speak and fall silent. Reading theologically has something of this interfacing quality, and it does so, not by making itself the object of reading, but by referring the reader to That which surpasses the text. 

    I am reminded of the opening of Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being, where he writes:

    One must admit that theology, of all writing, certainly causes the greatest pleasure. Precisely not the pleasure of the text, but the pleasure—unless it have to do with a joy—of transgressing it: from words to the Word, from the Word to words, incessantly and in theology alone, since there alone the Word finds in the words nothing less than a body. The body of the text does not belong to the text, but to the One who is embodied in it. Thus, theological writing always transgresses itself, just as theological speech feeds on the silence in which, at last, it speaks correctly. In other words, to try one’s hand at theology requires no other justification than the extreme pleasure of writing.2 

    And so it is with reading theology. 

    Not all theology does this in the same way, of course, and there are plenty of functions of theology that need not lend themselves so obviously to lectio. But the Scripture-rich reflection Alison offers here, which is consistent in approach with his many other writings, is a way of doing theology that, like patristic and medieval theologies in the monastic style, invites a process of engaging scripture by way of meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio

    As for the latter, I would like to suggest that one way to enter more deeply into the felt sense of the Creator being for us in the midst of nothing—that is, in the midst of our creaturely fragility and dependence—is to grow more familiar with, and trusting of, the Silence and from which all images, words, and ideas spring. The process of lectio divina is intuitively laid out to provide just this “stretching out” and “relaxing into,” to borrow Alison’s phrasing. There is no magical formula here, no mechanical technique, only the natural settling of the heart and mind into the inherently peaceful and spacious presence of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. 

    To totally “let go” in this presence, to simply abide in its gracious simplicity, is not easy at first, admittedly, since it seems so at odds with our need for control and self-representation. We are far less trusting than we suppose, and we scarcely recognize our own abyssal depths. But with time, and with the support of lectio, meditatio, and oratio, the process of prayer quite naturally becomes simpler and simpler, ever more attuned to sheer presence, and finally trusting enough so that we allow ourselves to be lovingly held in being—from nothing. It is then, perhaps, that we will perceive creation happening, as though for the first time. 


    1. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, III.10.2.

    2. Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 1.



Contemplating the Difference Nothing Makes in the Liturgy

  Brian Robinette’s The Difference Nothing Makes continues the rich hermeneutical tradition of the fundamental distinction between Creator and creature as noncontrastive and noncompetitive, exemplified by Robert Sokolowski, David Burrell, and Kathryn Tanner. In keeping with his forebears’ parsing of “the distinction,” he maintains that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is central to a thoroughgoing appreciation of the integrally related doctrines of creation, incarnation, redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection, and sanctification or deification in the Spirit. Robinette makes several significant contributions to how we are to understand “the distinction” and its implications, including but not limited to: (1) his engagement with René Girard and James Alison toward a rearticulation of how the creator God saves with the same creative power of gratuitous love, freeing us from the idolatrous powers of competition, violence, and exclusion that continue to plague us in a world fraught with individualism, conflict, inequality, exploitation, and war; (2) his cogent demonstration of how the incarnate and risen Christ reveals that our creator God’s transcendence is one of utter freedom in love, establishing created beings in a noncontrastive relation to the Divine with their full freedom in a union of complete and grateful dependence with the triune life that is their sustenance and destiny; and (3) his prophetic stance toward contemplation (infused with insights from Thomas Merton, William Desmond, Sebastian Moore, Karl Rahner, Sergei Bulgakov, and others) as a universal call to a conversion of mind and heart that emboldens our actions, leading us to fuller communion with all of creation and to consummate union with the triune God. Robinette throws open the door to a spacious, contemplative dwelling place wherein his readers can “rest in” the all-encompassing Love embracing them into being, into truly living, and into wholly accepting their vulnerability and contingency that grounds their communion with other created beings in noncompetitive equality and in the cooperative power of shared love and respect.

   Having walked through the door that Robinette has graciously opened, I remain in the regenerative room of contemplation, that “inner room” into which Jesus summons us where we pray to our God in secret and where our God who sees in secret will “repay us” (Matt 6:6). We are “repaid” in the silent darkness with the resurrection light of new life, the freshness of awe and wonder that does not hem us in with limiting expectations or false presumptions about God, ourselves, others, and the natural world that is our “common home.” The inner room opens out to the whole miraculous universe and ever outward to the very heart of God who dwells within us. As Robinette explains in Chapter 5, turning within and opening outward, we are freed from “the projective tendency of human religiosity,” because we have “returned to zero,” as Desmond would have it (178). Accepting “our being as nothing,” “prompts a receptivity that opens us up to what is beyond our grasp,” granting us a “new porosity to God” (182). Here in this room, the contemplative and the atheist find common ground: liberation from false gods. Though they ultimately traverse this common ground differently, their unity in the purgation of illusions is instructive. The darknesses of uncertainty, of questions without definitive answers, of confusion in the face of suffering and tragedy—these teach us about our vulnerability and our contingency, and they break us open to divine, human, and cosmic mystery. When we are in the “in-between,” we learn to let go of the control we never had in the first place, and we are purified as we transition from desiring control to desiring freedom from grasping and freedom for unbounded love.

   While inhabiting the contemplative space of the “in-between,” I would like to sit awhile upon the common ground I share with all those who—also akin to the atheist—find themselves in-between the “children of faith” they once were and the “seekers of religion’s relevance” they are now. This felt sense of the “in-between” can be quite prevalent among those entering adulthood and also among those who have experienced trauma and pain within a religious context that was not purified of “projective tendencies.” They may have separated themselves from religious community and ritual, finding them to be sources of additional confusion, aridity, exclusion, self-doubt, or suffering. Stepping into their sense of the “in-between,” I am compelled to ask, “How can we understand and share the space of religious ritual such that it becomes a contemplative—apophatic while cataphatic—space of rejuvenation and healing? Imagining my way into this question through the Roman Catholic liturgical and sacramental tradition in which I stand, I foresee ecumenical and interfaith parallels that I will not be able to explore here. I also hope that the preceding question and the following foray into it, might be a fruitful means of continuing to open the gifts bestowed on us by Robinette’s The Difference Nothing Makes.

  Contemplation in the “in-between” sparks imagination of welcome possibilities nurtured by memories of past openings into newness. In this case, the silence leads my receptive mind to remember liturgies forever rooted in the paschal mystery’s revelation of Christ’s powerless power for unconditional love and forgiveness. When I was just entering young adulthood, I had the privilege of worshipping with a community led by a Franciscan pastor who partnered with his pastoral associates to create Sunday liturgies that anticipated the supreme celebration of the Easter Vigil. The church architecture was being renovated to reflect the second Vatican Council’s liturgical renewal, and our pastor conversed with us about the significance of our facing each other around the altar that we might look at each other and thereby meet the gaze of Christ looking back at us. This unassuming Franciscan priest embodied the essence of servant-leadership, imitating Christ’s poverty of spirit as he interpreted the scriptures with attentiveness to our pain and our “dark nights,” revealing that he too struggled, stumbling in the dark, insisting that this is precisely where Christ meets us, bringing us out of darkness and into the light by entering the darkness with us and transforming it from the inside out. I can hear the resonances with Robinette’s insights into “deep incarnation”: “It [the incarnation] reaches into the heart of human darkness [and all creaturely travail]…It ‘descends’ into the hell of creaturely despair and those loveless recesses of human experience (e.g., shame, fear, resentment, abandonment) in order that they [and the depths of cosmic pain] may be brought out into the light of loving acceptance” (237). At the time, though my study of academic theology was just beginning, I intuitively understood I was witnessing something theologically profound in this ecclesia whose members grew closer to each other and to Christ by lovingly accepting their vulnerability in unison with their pastor who met them exactly where they were and beckoned them to traverse the paschal journey together. Every time a Sunday liturgy ended a few minutes early, he would conclude with, “We can add these five minutes to the Easter Vigil.”

   I turn now to my recollections of certain aspects of those beloved Easter Vigils in which the year’s other liturgies were concentrated. The scriptures during the Liturgy of the Word were more enacted than read. From the creation story to the Exodus, to the prophets and beyond, God’s goodness and faithfulness was poured out upon us as multiple parishioners voiced God’s words of love, justice, and forgiveness in multiple and varied ways including: “God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:10). “I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;

Horse and chariot he has cast into the sea” (Exod 15:1). “The sound of my lover! Here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills” (Song 2:8). “Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come” (Song 2:10). “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back.” (Isa 54:7). These last two biblical verses were spoken in turn by a wife and her husband in our congregation, symbolizing the love between God and God’s beloved. As the story of salvation history unfolded before us, it became clear that though our God did not need us in order to be God, our God made us “to be” out of a limitless love that could not do otherwise than love us into being and redeem us into resurrected life through the Spirit in the Word made Flesh: “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

   This baptism of dying and rising with Christ was profoundly undergone and witnessed to, as each adult catechumen was fully submerged in the waters of an enormous, outdoor pool and lifted out into the welcoming arms of their families. Our pastor then anointed them by letting a stream of oil flow down over their heads in superabundance, representing God’s prodigal love that blesses us without reserve. As the rest of us watched in amazement and delight, we remembered the countless occasions we ritually marked the graces we received at all times—in times of darkness and times of light. We could not have felt more connected to our new siblings in Christ than we did at that moment. Now all aglow in their white garments, they joined us around the outer edges of the church and we danced with them while we sang “The Lord of the Dance”: “I danced in the morning when the world was begun, and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun. I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth. In Bethlehem I had my birth. Dance then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the dance, said He.” This Lord of the cosmic dance led us to the eucharistic table to receive him as the Lord of self-sacrificial love who undid the cycle of violence in which we participated and through which we were victimized. We mindfully shared this meal that had come from the earth and that was now transformed into the body of the Divine Lover, so that we might be transfigured into his image to bring his peace to our community and to the world.

   The preceding act of anamnetic storytelling witnesses to the possibility of contemplative liturgy that encourages its participants to come exactly as they are—with all their doubts, their fears, their questions, and their inability to pray as they might want or as they used to pray—to be surprised by unconditional, triune love. In a liturgical setting such as this, we tangibly sense the Spirit teaching us to pray in original ways that address the needs we bring for our communal healing; we see ourselves dying and rising within God’s enveloping love as we rest in the arms of the members of Christ’s body who surround us with the compassion they also received from the wounded and Risen One in the Eucharist. Feeling the liturgy’s transformational effects so intensely, can be a rare or intermittent experience for many reasons; it requires a complex dynamic of interrelated elements such as pastoral inspiration, individual investment, and cooperative, communal participation, all following the Spirit’s lead. We know that God’s grace recreates us even when we do not acutely sense the metamorphosis occurring during or after our liturgical celebrations. However, as Robinette’s appeal for us to return to our spiritual senses in order to meet and respond to the world anew suggests, how we sense our reality—both physically and spiritually—matters immensely. How might these senses be regenerated both liturgically and sacramentally? I offer this question together with the previous one—how can we understand and share the space of religious ritual such that it becomes a contemplative space of rejuvenation and healing?—to further our discernment of “the difference nothing makes.”

  • Brian Robinette

    Brian Robinette


    Reply to Danielle Nussberger 


    One underdeveloped area of theology in The Difference Nothing Makes concerns the ecclesial implications of the theology of creation it proposes. Scott Cowdell notes this in his response, while Danielle Nussberger, in her beautiful and searching response, gestures at this as well. I suppose one reason for the lack of ecclesial focus has to do with my overriding concern to develop the inner relationship between creation and Christology. How does the dramatic unfolding of the Christ-event reflect and enact the divine generosity that gives all things to be from nothing? And yet one can reasonably ask how this divine generosity is reflected and enacted in church communities inspired by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, given the book’s emphasis on contemplation as a vital way to discover and live more deeply into that generosity, what more can be said about liturgical practices that help cultivate such a life?  

    A good way to begin reflecting upon these questions is to point to the kind of inspiring community Nussberger sketches in her response. Here I am thinking of the centrality of the Easter Vigil in the parish of her formative years, where the “unassuming” Franciscan priest “embodied the essence of servant-leadership, imitating Christ’s poverty of spirit as he interpreted the scriptures with attentiveness to our pain and our ‘dark nights,’ revealing that he too struggled, stumbling in the dark, insisting that this is precisely where Christ meets us, bringing us out of darkness and into the light by entering the darkness with us and transforming it from the inside out.” I’m not sure I’ve read a better description of ecclesial ministry than this, and anything I say in response could only be a commentary upon it. 

    The first feature of this description that strikes me is the centrality of the Easter Vigil in it. The ecclesia is not, first and foremost, an institution or a collection of beliefs to which members adhere but a gathering of disciples who are in the process of learning how to desire according to an all-encompassing narrative it ritually enacts: creation, salvation, and the eschatological fulfillment of all things. The Christian community is really a school of desire, and the story it receives and proclaims, along with the sacramental and ethical practices that flesh that story out, amount to a process of rehearsal and improvisation in light ever-shifting cultural, social, and personal circumstances. 

    The second striking feature of this description is the kind of leadership it highlights and the role mimesis plays in it. The priest is a servant, one whose entire justification for ministry derives from the imitation of Christ, who himself perfectly imitated the Father. Such “poverty of spirit” is nothing less than creative mimesis, which is worlds apart from any false humility or lack of responsible agency. The priest embodies, or models, Christ’s poverty of spirit, and so the priest serves as a catalyst and support for the members of the community to do the same. The ecclesial community at any one moment is thus the latest iteration of a living chain of mimesis extending from the earliest Jesus movement, however imperfectly and in continual need of reform. Such is the flow of its apostolicity. 

    The third striking feature has to do with accompaniment. The priest accompanies the community by freely attending to the confusion, pain, and “dark nights” of others, and with honesty about his own struggles. This is no less true of the community members for one another. Of course, this centripetal movement of the community members towards one another should not lead to an exclusive club, as this would only perpetuate the us/them dynamic that Jesus sought to transform. And yet there really is a time and place for concentrative gathering, for the challenge of living into the “we-centricity” of Christian life in humility, love, joy, and mutual forgiveness. 

    On this last point, and to connect with an observation Nussberger makes later in her response, anyone who has spent time in ecclesial settings will know that idealized portraits of the church are often shattered by lived realities. The notion that Christian community will magically be free from divisions, hypocrisies, and the outright damage we do to one another in “the world” turns out to be a dangerous fantasy, for it will either lead us to romanticize the church and overlook our complicity in sin or it will lead us to despair over the church entirely when we recognize just how messy life in community really is. Grace and realism must go hand in hand.

    It is with this messiness in mind that I quote Nussberger again: “This Lord of the cosmic dance led us to the eucharistic table to receive him as the Lord of self-sacrificial love who undid the cycle of violence in which we participated and through which we were victimized.” Notice here that the eucharist table focalizes the community, and it does so as the occasion to sacramentally participate in a movement of love reaching out to us in our shared brokenness. It is significant that Nussberger uses sacrificial language here in a way that appropriately reflects the “demythologization” of sacral violence.1 It is also significant that Nussberger stresses “we” throughout. It is not just us or them, nor is it just me or you, but we who are being freed from cycles of conflict and victimization. To stress we-centricity in this way is not to deny that there really are occasions when victims and victimizers need to be clearly distinguished. And yet it insists on our radical interdependence, and thus the way our brokenness, just as much as our healing, is shared

    Contemplative and Liturgical Renewal

    One needs to develop a taste for good liturgy, and Nussberger’s recollection shows that such a taste was nourished in her from a young age—one that has never left her. It is also true, as Nussberger notes, that the transformational effects of liturgy can seem all too rare and intermittent, which leads her to ask about the possibility of liturgical and sacramental rejuvenation, and how the space of worshiping assemblies can become more contemplatively inviting and healing. 

    These are challenging questions, and I am sure that I do not have a very satisfying response to offer here. What I can say, briefly, is that whatever Christian communities do to make liturgical gatherings more transformative, it is vitally important that they cultivate and make more available the contemplative riches of the Christian tradition, especially to young people. This may seem like an unusual suggestion to make, since “contemplation” is sometimes contrasted with “action”—or, just as often, associated with inner, and thus essentially private, prayer. But this is mistaken on both accounts.

    I resonate with Nussberger’s desire to find common ground between “children of faith” and “seekers of religion’s relevance,” as she puts it. My experience of teaching theology to young adults in a university setting for over two decades has confirmed for me how powerful the engagement with the Christian contemplative tradition can be for finding this common ground. Once young people, whether cradle Catholics or those without a religious upbringing, begin to see the mystagogical dimensions of Christian faith, and thus the way various dispositions, skills, and habits can be cultivated so as to participate in deified life, the broader significance of the Christian tradition, including the roles liturgical and ethical formation play in it, begins to make more intuitive and alluring sense. 

    It has long struck me as a tragedy that the mystical dimensions of Christian faith are so underrepresented in our preaching and teaching, in our religious education and adult faith formation, in our public facing theology and engagement. Speaking for myself, as one who did not grow up in a liturgical environment, a real taste for the church’s broader life, its intellectual traditions and social teaching, its communal forms and inspiring personalities, its liturgical rhythms and sacramental visioning: all of this was first communicated to me and presented as a live possibility through engagement with the church’s mystical tradition, which, for the first time in my life, awakened in me a real sense of a path, of a life-long itinerary replete with everyday practices that naturally incline towards the integration with the whole of life. 

    When I, like Nussberger, experience something of the intermittence and aridity or liturgical gathering—and, admittedly, there are times of real discouragement and bewilderment—it is always the contemplative dimension, and the practice of wakeful abidance in God’s ineffable yet welcomingly capacious presence, that sustains me and allows me to keep showing up. And it seems to me that if this practice of wakeful abidance were more readily taught and integrated in Christian life, then the inner grounds for the church’s “public work,” or leitourgia, would allow that work to be more sustainable, inclusive, and fruitful. 


    1. See my response to Chelsea King.

Matthew Vale


God’s Primal, ex nihilo “Yes”

When we talk of God’s creating, we do not mean an “intervention into a previous state of affairs,” a messing-with or a striving against “rival forces” which displaces one state by another (68). We mean a wholly pacific act for which there is no over-against, no exteriority, whatever. God’s creating is not “an agent exercising power over others, bending them to the divine will,” but instead the act which enables the entire situation of finite becoming in all its aspects (18, quoting Rowan Williams). But this means, as William Placher puts it, that “there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action” (38–9). God’s creating is not one element or force within a created situation, jostling against others either to come to expression or be frustrated. God’s creating does not strive against any element of any situation of finite becoming, because it is the unrestricted act activating or enabling that finite situation in toto. And because it is the Unrestricted—wholly necessary, wholly free actus purus, with no over-against at all, totally without extrinsic determination, with nothing at all to strive against—nothing in any finite situation represents any recalcitrant exteriority “with which God must cope” (38). There are no extra-divine conditions determining God’s creating; instead, all the conditions of finite becoming are there at all by being immediately grounded in God’s wholly unconditioned act. There are no resistant “raw materials” which God can “only do so much with” (38). Creating ex nihilo means creating out of, or presupposing, or extrinsically determined by, absolutely no conditions at all—none, that is, besides God’s own radiant, unrestricted Life. So God is not responsive to anything in creating, but wholly spontaneous. Whatever conditions determine the finite order of becoming and created freedom, they are not primitive vis-à-vis God; they are at all because God in wholly uncoerced fashion, with no conditions conditioning God’s act other than God’s own being, originates them from nothing.

Nothing can be excepted here, neither the painfulness or vulnerabilities of embodied becoming, nor created freedom. As Augustine absolutely correctly saw (though he drew some monstrous conclusions about the massa damnata), created freedom is not something God contends with, or must win over from some resistance. God moves us not by appealing to or opposing our freedom as a rival force God must strive against, but precisely by moving our freedom: by changing the “weight” of our loves, changing our affect, causing us to grow up. God is not responsive to or in competition with (=extrinsically determined by) created freedom, any more than God is responsive to the laws of physics. God spontaneously and non-competitively originates created freedom, in addition to spontaneously originating all the components of the entire context of created freedom’s unfolding. To say that God must “cope with” or may possibly be “frustrated by” created freedom is to lapse into a mythological view of God as the demiurge—a Very Big, Very Strong “chap,” who must jostle against others to bring its will to expression—rather than the absolutely unrestricted source of all reality out of nothing, the non-rivalrous One who “moves us without displacing us.”1 Nothing in God’s moving our freedom attenuates that freedom, because God’s moving us is not another finite will or cause in competition with or limiting ours. God’s action on us is a “wholly other kind of reality.”2 As Karl Rahner saw, God’s non-competitive transcendence means that the relation between the integrity and actuality of the creature’s free action is in a “direct”—not an “inverse”—proportion to the intensity of God’s action.3 We are more ourselves the more God acts, because it is God who is causing us to be at all, rather than be nothing at all. “‘If God is transcendent, then nothing is opposed to him, nothing can limit him nor be compared with him: [God] is “wholly other,” and therefore penetrates the world absolutely. Deus interior intimo meo et superior summo meo.’…[T]he world cannot oppose God because God is not an oppositional reality, that is, not a being among beings, not a power among powers” (15, quoting Henri de Lubac). Our freely acting is enabled in all its aspects by God’s originating both it and all its conditions out of nothing at every moment. God is creating us as free, not competing with us. Our freedom is still just one secondary cause among many, the conditioned self-determining of a conditioned reality under myriad conditions. Yes, we are responsible secondary causes; in the order of secondary causality, our willing participation in the good of our being and the good of the world is constitutive of those goods. But prime causality is the non-oppositional God atemporally originating that whole world order of secondary causes and goods out of nothing. Our freedom and that prime causality just aren’t on the same level of reality.

What all this means is that God’s creating a world order out of nothing is God’s originating absolutely all aspects of that world order—all its conditions, all its events. In originating a world order out of nothing, God is not responsive to any created events in that world order, including creatures’ free acts, whatever we end up meaning by “free” and “act.” God disposes the world order absolutely, at the non-competitive, highest-order level of prime causality. This should not reawaken the image of God as patriarchal tyrant. The very reason God disposes all reality absolutely is that God is the non-oppositional source of all out of nothing, not a Big Force bending little wills to its Will. But precisely because God is the non-oppositional source of all out of nothing, nothing about this world order surprises or resists God in any ultimate fashion. If any finite conditions or events are at all, they are because God originates them in wholly spontaneous fashion, pacifically and non-competitively enabling them from moment to moment. This finite order of becoming, with all its agonies and ecstasies, is what God wholly spontaneously brings forth as a finite expression of God’s Love and Life. Its being the way it is—in absolutely all details—is not God’s compromise with forces or conditions God cannot control, God “doing the best God can” with some recalcitrant exteriority. How this world order will unfold is not a “roll of the dice” or an open adventure for God. God knows and non-competitively causes exactly what will happen, with all created events and conditions. Denying this is just denying creatio ex nihilo—which is just to be speaking of popular atheism’s Big Chap demiurge, rather than the real God.

 As Robinette points out, then, creatio ex nihilo heightens theodicy questions, rather than resolving them (38–40). The only way to get God off the hook for suffering and evil in creation is to make God the demiurge rather than the unconditioned source of absolutely all reality out of nothing. (One says instead that God is “doing God’s best” against resistant free wills, or against prior conditions God cannot master and does not originate, etc.) None of this, though, means that suffering and evil are ontological ultimates in Christian faith. The shape of God’s action and presence in Jesus discloses for us that evil, sin, injustice, and suffering are ontological “penultimates”—parasitic defects on creation. They are not the face of the universe God is ultimately bringing forth from nothing. They have an excruciating force in the present age, but only as the death we are to leave behind on the seashore (Exod 14:30–31), as the evil which God’s creating action (proleptically in Jesus and in other glimpses of the humanum) swallows up in life eschatologically. The Christian theologian’s response to theodicy questions, then, cannot be to downplay God’s ultimate responsibility for the evils of the present age, because that only makes God the befuddled demiurge, doing his best with recalcitrant materials. It can only be to affirm that we will only know the meaning of that ultimate responsibility when we have been completely created, in the eschaton. It’s in Jesus’ resurrection that we glimpse, proleptically, what God is “up to” in originating ex nihilo (=uncoerced) an order of finite becoming pervaded by suffering and sin; it’s there that we grasp in anticipation where this is all going, what the end of creation’s story is, the glorified cosmos deified in the Son, anointed by the Spirit’s delight, the radiance of the Father’s unquenchable joy.

Because God is not a temporal reality, and because God originates the total order of created events and principles (not just some), the object of God’s atemporal act of creating is the total world order in its eschatological consummation. That eschatological creation is God’s “delight,” the creation God unqualifiedly wills from all eternity. We don’t know definitively what God is creating until that creation arrives. And that means that under our highly ambiguous present circumstances, our affirmation that “everything God created was very good” (Gen 1:31) is an expression of eschatological hope, made in faith in the eschatological action of God that will show it to have been good, somehow, that absolutely everything in this world order should be. If God creates ex nihilo, God’s unconditioned and uncoerced willing, God’s primal Love, is saying “Yes” to every created situation being in every moment, situations of suffering, of vanity, greed, abuse, joy, loss, laughter, horror—everything. And God’s “Yes” is, again, not responsive, but is the “Yes” which is originating these created situations ex nihilo. What Jesus’s life unambiguously reveals is that God is saying “Yes” to the negativities of the present age not absolutely or for their own sake, but only as that which God’s creating overcomes eschatologically, “making them as though they had not happened” (39; quoting Schillebeeckx), “heal[ing] and transform[ing] our weaknesses by giving them an eschatological future” (249). The final act of God’s love is the one which so radically and definitively heals and transforms that every creature can affirm with the God who originates them, Yes—it is good that I am; it is good that I be—just as I am, with my concrete history. Whatever happened, it was worth it because of the goodness of my being, because it brought me about; and I am “very good” (Gen 1:31). A concrete human person is an embodied, relational history; if my history were different, God would be bringing another human person to be. Who I will be is the terminus of a narrative, an unfolding development of personality and relationships. In that light, being able to affirm “It was all worth it” is the same as affirming “I was worth it.” The irreproducible “I” who came to be through “all that” was worth it in the eyes of God’s love.4 Christian eschatological faith is the conviction, in hope, that every human person—and somehow, every creature in cosmic evolution’s trackless paths—will have been worth it, that “everything God made was very good.” 

None of this may devolve into the breezy attitude that suffering and injustice are somehow “not our problem,” permissible, and so on. That is an extreme distortion of what we see in Jesus, and in the witness of those who take responsibility for God’s reign in the world. To the contrary, it is only in those who, with Jesus, “indwell the suffering of others as agents of transformative justice and reconciliation,” that the eschatological shape of God’s creating action begins to shine through the veil (40). Even though God’s creating agency is causing all created situations to be real without interruption, that agency also has a distinct trajectory in the present age, and a human life in the shape of Jesus’ participates in revealing that trajectory, making it more conspicuous.

But this trajectory manifests in a “strange” agency. God’s power is power in weakness (2 Cor 12:19), the “non-discriminating cause of all out of nothing” which does not need to push away or master in order to invincibly draw creation to its radiant end (163–64; quoting Sebastian Moore). Jesus’s dying and rising transforms mimetic patterns (and so the human persons constituted by those patterns) yet without reciprocally opposing them. It is a creative agency that unbinds and recreates utterly freely and gratuitously, yet without being one force jostling among others—a human agency which, like God’s, manages to have no over-against. We begin to glimpse in Jesus an agency creating the entire universe in all its aspects, the non-discriminating cause of all out of nothing, one not aligned merely with these elements of creation over-against those, but instead embracing all events and created aspects without interruption and without displacing them in any way. We cannot identify this strange agency with any thing or aspect in particular. Instead, it begins to dawn on us in places of weakness and lowness, “in the vulnerability of a silenced, dead victim” (123)—or, in an evolutionary Christology, in the anonymous death and “uselessness” of innumerable organisms (238–53). The Love creating from nothing is the Love embracing-without-displacing even all that, the Love which draws creation to its glorious end without needing to oppose anything, not even death and wastage. The “distinct trajectory” of God’s creating action is, in fact, mysteriously indistinct: the agency which transforms and disposes by somehow bearing up and allowing everything—non-competitively disposing all reality precisely by being this kenotic, all-embracing agency, causing to be by letting be. It is distinguished by its strange indistinction from all things and events.5 There is an apparent paradox here, but the itinerary Brian traces shows how it may all come together in a single life. The creature who patiently lets be in the all-embracing and non-reciprocal way of Jesus is the one who manifests the distinct shape of God’s creating agency working in all things.

Likewise in a contemplative register—to give short shrift to what is among this book’s most luminous contributions. What Robinette limns is the contemplative habit of “relaxing into” the vast, silent awareness which peaceably allows all my experience to arise, good, bad, and ugly. To “relax ever more deeply into this silent awareness” is, in fact, to begin to relate to myself the way the non-discriminating cause of all out of nothing relates to me, peaceably giving all of me to be without discrimination or competitive reciprocity—saying “Yes” to all of me (203). I can “relax into” this Cause, and “experience being created” out of nothing (42). I can begin to let be God’s letting-me-be. I can begin to say “yes” with God’s atemporal and unrestricted “Yes,” that this very created situation, in this moment,6 should be—that its to be is primally good. We are “yes and no” towards ourselves and our lives, “but in Him it is always ‘Yes’” (2 Cor 2:19). All there is at the root of me—all there is to me as a created self, once I let drop all the anxious strategies for securing my identity—is this primal “Yes.” And if I can rest in the primal “Yes” that bears me without interruption or discrimination, then “all the birds of the air” have a place in the branches of my open resting (Matt 13:32), and I become, by fits and starts, more and more a created image of the creating Love which “bears all things” (1 Cor 13:7).

  1. James Alison, “Love Your Neighbor – Within a Divided Self,” in Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal (London: Continuum, 2010), 160–175; here, 166.

  2. James Wetzel, “Snares of Truth: Augustine on Free Will and Predestination,” in Augustine and His Critics, eds. Dodaro and Lawless (New York: Routledge, 2000), 134. I’m grateful to Roberto de la Noval both for this reference, and for illuminating conversations on Augustine on this point.

  3. Karl Rahner, “Thoughts on the Possibility of Belief Today,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 5, trans. Karl-H. Kruger (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966), 12.

  4. For this insight, I’m grateful to Taylor Nutter.

  5. As Eckhart said in a metaphysical register; see Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, ed. Bernard McGinn, with Frank Tobin and Elvira Borgstadt (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986), 169 (= In sap, nn. 154–55).

  6. See Sergius Bulgakov, Spiritual Diary, eds. and trans. Mark Roosien and Roberto J. de la Noval (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2022), 83.

  • Brian Robinette

    Brian Robinette


    Reply to Matthew Vale

    Matthew Vale’s response offers a sparkling distillation of key theological insights that inspire The Difference Nothing Makes. In reading it, I find myself fully resonating with what drew me to the effort in the first place. 

    Vale offers this striking formulation: “Creating ex nihilo means creating out of, or presupposing, or extrinsically determined by, absolutely no conditions at all—none, that is, besides God’s own radiant, unrestricted Life.”

    No conditions at all.

    There is an unmistakable clarity, amounting to a cognitive flash, an affective jolt, when we really open our minds to the unconditioned. The discursive mind, so accustomed to feeding on all manner of content, is arrested. Surprise! . . . or Ah! . . . or Whoa! are among the responses. Fear and angst are also possible. But forgetfulness is our typical state.

    Suspended between something and nothing, the mind’s tendency to grasp may relax just enough to catch a glimpse. Everything inside out. Everything afresh. It may begin to perceive, with quiet exhilaration, the fact that there is anything at all. The sheer fact of it all. Its astonishing thereness. Perhaps here, with this cold-water-in-the-face recognition, the explosive potential of that little word we bandy about and bowdlerize – —“God” – —might finally hit.

    But Vale’s response is not only a distillation. It is a creative development, and there are two places where I wish to engage him further. The first concerns theodicy. 


    As Vale rightly notes, because Christian theology affirms that creation comes from nothing but “God’s own radiant, unrestricted Life,” then the problem of evil is put into greater relief when compared to approaches that limit God’s creative agency in some way. Process theologies, or other approaches to theism that refer to the “weakness” God, may do so to preserve the goodness of God in the face of evil’s shocking incidence in our history, and to this extent they offer a kind of explanation. But weak theologies struggle mightily, if I may put it that way, with scriptural and later theological traditions that insist, precisely as an act of protest, conviction, and hope, upon God’s unconditioned creativity and eschatological resolve in the midst of all that is destructive of creation. 

    If the “classical” approach to divine agency is the right path to maintain for Christian theology – —and I see no alternative that avoids reducing God to a demiurge, or to a regional influence within the immemorial flow of creation, which is no “God” at all – —then we will have to ensure that our God-talk does not imply divine caprice. It’s not as though anything goes. God acts according to God’s own nature, and for Christians the “who-ness” of God is revealed and enacted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the presupposition without which no Christian understanding of divine agency is possible. It forms the hermeneutical lens through which Christians may discern divine creativity in our history. In this very precise sense, divine power is indeed “limited,” i.e., God does not act contrary to God’s nature as revealed in Christ. 

    If God does not puppeteer creation but sustains creatures in being so that they may participate in God, as “co-creators” with God, then this implies that God’s will for creaturely flourishing comes to pass in and through the relational web of secondary causes, through the entire warp and woof of creation, and thus in a mediated (or quasi-sacramental) way. God’s unconditioned creativity is one that accepts and positively wills the limits of finite processes. God loves finitude. God loves the fragility of becoming. This is not an externally imposed limitation upon God, nor is it the “withdrawal” of God by way of tzimtzum, but the positive will of a free creator God who wishes to bring about the fulfillment of creation precisely through finite creative processes. 

    While none of this amounts to an explanation for evil – —and here I am on the side of those who regard evil as not finally intelligible, but a “surd” – —we can nevertheless suggest that the distortions, shadows, and appalling dysfunctions of creation are emergent from this dynamic becoming and are parasitical upon it, but not metaphysically ultimate. And it is here, with Christology and eschatology, that Christians have the only response to the problem of evil possible for us.

    In Christ, we learn “how” the parasitical powers of evil are in the process of being overcome. As I take care to show in Part 2, this overcoming is never a matter of compulsion or violence, which would only make God reciprocal to evil, but one of loving, non-coercive, self-bestowing transmutation. The shape of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is nothing but this “subversion from within,” to quote James Alison. It is also eschatological; for while instantiated in Christ as God’s irrevocable promise for our history, it is still unfolding in a way that enlists our conscious and active participation. 

    Creatio ex nihilo has a strong moral and eschatological meaning, as patristic theologians knew, since the God who summons all things into being from nothing will not let creation ultimately fail, or dissolve into non-being, but shall bring all things into their maximal beatitude. This is what theosis means. This by no means downplays God’s responsibility for dealing with evil, as Vale rightly points out, but it highlights that God freely and lovingly undergoes the process of rectification, redemption, and deification with us as the self-bestowing promise that all shall be well. This is the only possible “answer” to the theodicy question, Christianly speaking: not that God is limited in capacity to bring about creation’s ultimate good, but that God, who is radiant, unrestricted Life, positively wills the drama of creaturely becoming, even becoming creaturely with us and for us, and promises to shepherd creation into the fullness of eschatological life, when God shall be “all in all” and make our groaning in travail infinitely worth the venture.

    Saying Yes to All of Me

    Yes, worth the venture. 

    And to continue this theme of the intrinsic goodness of creation, I wish to further engage Vale’s statement that “the irreproducible ‘I’ who came to be through ‘all that’ was worth it in the eyes of God’s love.” 

    One thinks of Sergius Bulgakov, whom Vale cites in his response, and the way the great Russian Orthodox theologian so daringly articulated the theology of creatio ex nihilo as bearing upon the incomprehensible mystery of being an “I.” The unfolding of my personal history, and so my sense of a categorical “”me,”” is not only that which emerges as a consequence of finite conditions and relations; it is also the elaboration, in space and time, of the spiritual “I” whose inmost depth and ground is God. The “I” that I am is directly willed by God, posited out of God’s own radiant, unrestricted Life. And the “I” that I am is good, very good (Gen. 1:31). 

    Perhaps a personal comment is relevant here. 

    I recall a period in my life, in my late teens and early 20s, when I simply could not shake the unutterable strangeness of self-consciousness. Due, in part, to life circumstances that led to the shattering of previous certainties, I felt totally suspended and without any perceivable net. By all outward appearances everything was “fine.” I could function. But an existential crisis had gripped me, and with it the excruciatingly punctuated awareness that I exist; that the “I” appears to have no ground, no determination, and no inherent meaning. The absurdity of it all! And yet most everyone else seemed not to notice or be able to help me. 

    This was no momentary experience. It pervaded the whole of my experience, for years. Existentialist philosophers and novelists have an extensive vocabulary to name this “ontological sickness” (“angst,” “dread,” “nausea,” etc.), and I would eventually find refuge in them, if only through commiseration. But it turns out that I was on the cusp of a spiritual breakthrough that would determine the rest of my life. I just had to let it happen, somehow. 

    I am sure that my interest in creatio ex nihilo stems from this angsty period of life, and Chapter 5 (“The Contemplative Consummation of Atheism”) comes as close to anything I’ve published to being a reflection upon it. But the essence of the spiritual breakthrough I allude to amounted to this: what had previously felt like a nihilating, dread-inducing “nothingness” suddenly modulated, quite inexplicably, through the inward enunciation of an eternal “Yes.” Whether this affirmation was mine or God’s, it was impossible to say, but from then on “nothing” become “everything,” and so could be utterly trusted, relaxed into, and lived from. 

    Which is not to say that I always live so trustingly and relaxedly. Too often I clinch and seize up, curve in upon myself (incurvatus in se), only to need all over again the healing touch of grace to render open and porous the artificial boundaries that set “me” off from “everything else.” But once I could recognize God’s eternal “Yes” happening in me, and once this recognition seeped into the felt sense of my being, then the seeming specter of “nothing” became pure intimacy and pure grace. 

    This, to me, is the difference nothing makes.