Our purpose in what follows is to help answer the following question: what do Christians mean when they confess that creation is good? This question is both timely and difficult. Admittedly, creation’s goodness is not always self-evident to us. Evils in this world are often more apparent to us than its goodness, especially in times of war, famine, and plague, but also in more common experiences of pain, avarice, and isolation. These challenges offer boisterous counter-testimony to any confession of creation as a gratuitous gift.
Commonly, they lead many to despair of or deny creation’s goodness, turning instead to nihilistic philosophies that revel in purposelessness or pragmatism. Responses to these errors often enough run into opposite delusions, mistaking creation for God. Confession instructed by Holy Scripture, on the other hand, may speak plainly of the many problems besetting the world and its inhabitants while nevertheless affirming its basic goodness as God’s creation. Scripture thereby expands our imagination to see the world as Scripture depicts it: good, damaged, but under the promise of transformation. In this series, we survey some basics of this confession by looking at (i) the Goodness of the Creator; (ii) the goodness of created being; (iii) the relative goodness of materiality; and (iv) finally, the goodness of creation’s end.
The Goodness of Created Being
In our first post, we began consideration of creation’s goodness with consideration of God’s goodness, which is the desirability and communicativeness of the infinitely perfect life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because “no one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18), we might well doubt the goodness of other things. But on account of God’s transcendently unique goodness and its communicability, we can indeed confess the goodness of other things in a derivative or participated sense. John of Damascus is representative in this regard: God “by a superabundance of goodness saw fit that there should be some things to benefit by and participate in His goodness.”John of Damascus, De fide orthodoxa 2.2, in Saint John of Damascus: Writings. Fathers of the Church 37 (Washington, D.C.:Catholic University of America Press, 1958). Our remaining posts must therefore consider creation’s participation in God’s goodness. And, for reasons that will become clear below, the first such consideration must be the goodness of created being. For our narrow purposes, we focus on rational creatures.
Perceiving Creation’s Goodness
Creation’s goodness receives divine testimony throughout the opening of Genesis, and not only in its first chapter. There, of course, we are told six times after God creates individual features of the creation that “God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). God’s sight alerts to us to the fact that the goodness of God’s creation is a divine perception and pronouncement.On perception here, see Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Baker Academic, 2015), 60–94. The seventh time, God looks upon “everything” he has made and collectively pronounces it “very good” (Gen 1:31; cf. 1 Tim 6:6).
A few chapters later, this pronouncement is echoed when we hear that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive (tov)”—or “good” (Gen 6:2). This is an ominous form of “seeing,” though, as it is echoed in David’s “sight” of Bathsheba’s beauty (1 Sam 11:2, again tov). Whereas God forms all things and fills the earth, seas, and skies with life, these “sons of God” form evil and fill the earth with violence (Gen 6:5, 11, 13). The contrast with the Creator’s perception and work is apparent, and centers around a failure to see good as the Creator does. In short, there is a perception of creation’s goodness that is itself not good. And this misperception itself calls into doubt the goodness of the creatures to whom it belongs. The question about creation’s goodness first appears to us as a moral question of perception, suggesting that creation’s goodness requires a form of contemplation aligning with the Creator’s own vision. Speaking about creation’s goodness can therefore only be a contemplative undertaking, fueled by action that engages that goodness and lives it out, but a contemplation all the same that tries to see creation in the eyes of its Creator.
For our purposes, we may notice two things about creation’s goodness: how human creatures remain good despite their wickedness, and how our perception of this goodness must echo the Creator’s.
Creation’s Goodness is the Creator’s Gift
To begin with, the goodness of creatures is entirely a divine gift: the Creator gives it to the creature to be and therein to be good. This is a gift only God can give, because only God is good absolutely and transcendently—that is,This is a gift only God can give, because only God is good absolutely and transcendently. with the ability to communicate likenesses of his own goodness without loss or gain. Since it comes from God, the gift is an irrevocable, unmerited benefit.
First, this gift is not revocable by ourselves or others. Indeed, to be creatura is partly to be “irrevocably willed.” The reasons why have to do with God’s perfection. To begin with, to create is a uniquely divine privilege; with all its might and all its sin, the creature can neither do nor undo what God does in creating (Aquinas, De potentia 3.4). This is not to deny that our goodness can be diminished by sin and disorder. Evil is a possibility arising from the fact that our goodness is not grounded in ourselves but in God: creatures “are not immutable, because that whence they have been made is nothing.”Augustine, De natura boni 10, from The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, vol. I/19 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2006). Creatures are capable of misuse and abuse, but not redefinition of the gift. Even when subject to some corruption from within or without, created nature is therefore essentially good: “a corrupted nature is good insofar as it is a nature, while it is evil insofar as it has been corrupted” (Augustine, De natura boni 4).
By turning away from God and the proper ordering of goods within his creation we deprive ourselves and others of the goodness that is ours in relation to our Creator, suffering the privation of sin. But Christ’s bodily resurrection reminds us that we cannot allow these circumstances the first or final word. The other reason our goodness is irrevocable is because it would be “improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God” to let rational creatures be carried away entirely “by corruption.”Athanasius, De incarnatione verbi Dei 6, trans. John Behr (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011). The same Word through whom we are created redeems us, and that for the sake of his goodness and therein ours. In his wise and good government, God acts to judge sin in such a way that protects the good of being, restores it, and preserves it against disintegration. The gift of our nature is thus irrevocable.
Second, this gift is unmerited. Our goodness is not grounded in anything we have achieved or done – nor any loveliness of our own. Fundamentally, this has to do with the character of God’s love, about which unsentimental clarity is paramount. Our love always responds to some present or hoped-for goodness that moves it, which is one reason why our love is capable of disappointment. But love does not require disappointment, or even the possibility thereof, any more than goodness requires privation. Goodness is perfectly intelligible without pain (Augustine, De natura boni 20). So too is love. Contrary to the superficial wisdom of much theological discourse on love and God, then, pain and sorrow are not necessary conditions for love: every sorrow or pain presupposes some love and thus some good, but not vice versa. If God does not open himself up to pain and risk in his dealings with us, it’s not because God’s love is a sham but because it’s God’s. In its impassibility, God’s love characterizes the antecedent richness and aseity of the Trinity’s life. Having nothing to lose or gain, God “simply gives” (Jas 1:5). Extended ad extra, then, “God’s love infuses and creates goodness” (Aquinas, Summa theologiae Ia.20.2). Upon loving us into existence, God of course delights in the things he has made. But it is God’s sovereign, unmerited love that prompts this delight. Again, the gospel amplifies this truth: Christ lays down his life for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8; cf. John 15:13).
We can no more justify ourselves than we can create ourselves, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Like our resistance to Christ’s unmerited love, there is a resistance to the truth of our essential goodness as God’s creatures. The self-made creature is no myth; it is rather nonsense. Yet it’s a nonsense we often believe. What does God’s perception have to say about this?
Creation’s Goodness is the Creator’s Verdict
To perceive the gift of our created goodness, we must learn that this truth is the sovereign verdict of the Creator alone. It’s a matter of praise that there exists no higher court of appeal than God’s good-pleasure, no higher standard of goodness than God himself, nothing more lovelyCreatures not only have no right to decide on the goodness of things God has made, but they are radically unfit to do so. Any and all creatures are incapable of this. to us than this goodness communicated wholly to our flesh, no other name under heaven by which we may be saved than Jesus Christ, no other Word of God whom we must hear, trust, and obey in life and in death. So God’s word on the worth and value of the things he has made is the first and last word. And the judgment is plain: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
Creatures not only have no right to decide on the goodness of things God has made, but they are radically unfit to do so. Any and all creatures are incapable of this. Pronouncing the objective truth about created goodness is the sole prerogative of the Lord who possesses himself in majestic beatitude, knowing and enjoying the infinite good that is his own life. Because the Lord exhausts in his own intrinsic light and love all there is to know and enjoy in any goodness, he alone is fit to pronounce decisively on any likeness of that goodness in created things. In its outward movement, God’s love both infuses and establishes the law of created nature’s goodness. Our responsibility is therefore to understand ourselves and our fellow creatures lawfully, as good. Regardless of whether natural reason may ascertain this truth, faith must receive the testimony of the Creator and embrace it gladly. This just is to believe that we are creatures. Hence, our confession of creation’s goodness is true because it echoes and confirms the Creator’s loving affirmation of his works. If we look at what this affirmation involves, we may understand it as good news.
Because God’s love creates and infuses goodness, then love affirms goodness. Josef Pieper states the point insightfully: to love someone is to turn to them and say, “It is good that you exist!”Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997), 164. Note: love’s affirmation does not concern chiefly that we exist in this or that manner, nor that we exist for this or that purpose. It consists in a simple affirmation of the good of existence (omne ens est bonum). Just so, love lawfully echoes and confirms the Creator’s verdict. Just so, our perception begins to align with the Creator’s perception.
Much more must be said about creation’s goodness, but it’s crucial to say this first. Christian theology maintains that omnis creatura est bona sibi et alteri—every creature is good both in itself and in its inclination towards other goods, both the greater good of its full flourishing as the creature it is and the greater good of other creatures that are bettered by its presence and life. Crucially, however, before we speak about the fact of the creature’s relative or secondary goodness (bona alteri), we must sufficiently acknowledge its primary or absolute goodness (bona sibi). This helps guard us against the Nietzschean impulse to reduce the goodness of other things to a mere ‘good for . . . ’, usually filled out in terms of our own agenda—what we find useful, pleasurable, and so forth. Affirming the goodness of the creature’s being thus resists reducing it to its social, economic, or political functions, or its location in some kingdom of ends, in which constraints it amounts to “a living nihilism masquerading as ethical.”William Desmond, Being and the Between (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), 509.
The impulse to reduce our goodness to what we make of it is not liberating, but oppressive and ruinous. It’s especially conducive to the spirit of Mammon, where our accumulations and appearances vainly attempt to substitute for our goodness by burying what we are underneath lesser goods. Mammon in fact depends on us being quiet or uninterested about the creatureliness of ourselves and the world around us. Much better, we are told, to live by fickle logics of scarcity than by the logic of overflowing gifts. The gospel bids us not to outdo one another in our consumption, but in showing one another honor and love (Rom 12:10). This is the example of our Lord, whose love offers us a nobler truth: it is good to be. Antecedent to anything we do or acquire, there is goodness in what we are. More radically still: is good that we are. Astonishingly, wondrously so.