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.