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 Relative Goodness of Materiality
Thus far we have explored the Creator’s goodness and, against that background, the goodness of those things God creates in terms of their sheer existence. By communicating goodness to the creature in his creative love, God gives creatures an irrevocable and unmerited gift. Moreover, since it belongs to God’s love alone not to discover but to create goodness, then in lovingly creating us God thereby affirms the goodness of our existence as the first and final word about created being. Insofar as anything exists, it is good (omne ens est bonum).
Moving now to consider the goodness of created life, we enter into even broader territory, considering how creatures—rational creatures in particular—are good in the more extended sense of their agency, relations, and interactions with one another. Here, the notion of ‘goodness’ admits of increasingly different meanings: corporeal and spiritual goods, moral good, ‘useful’ and ‘delectable’ goods, and so forth. Offering a fulsome theological account of these goods as created is far beyond the scope of our inquiry. Instead, we may consider how some of these categories intersect in consideration of the goodness of our material existence.
The Goodness of Materiality
Much has been made in recent decades about the goodness of embodied existence, and for good reason. The creature’s substantiality and its materiality contribute to its goodness, leaving no room for a denigration of matter, bodies, and the concrete determinations of our existence. When the earth obediently bears fruit, God pronounces it “good” (Gen 1:12, 25).What might we say about the goodness of this, our dusty existence? From the earth’s dirt, the Lord fashions humanity in his image (Gen 2:7)—something we’ve established is also “good.” What might we say about the goodness of this, our dusty existence?
Though often suspected of harboring some (perhaps philosophical) grudge against everything material, the fathers were strikingly clear-headed on embodiment. Gregory of Nazianzus is a case in point. Both on account of creation ex nihilo and the Word’s union with our flesh, it is plain that matter and the “thick mass” of our body is not something intrinsically evil. Of the incarnation he writes: “the flesh . . . is both God’s housemate and his icon: God’s nature mingles with what is akin to it, and from there has communion also with the thick mass.”Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina 1.1.10, lines 58-60 (PG 37:469); On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus, trans. Peter Gilbert (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 83 (translation slightly revised). And since God creates ex nihilo, then matter is not a correlated principle in creation that is the source of evils—the anti-Manichaeism is clear (Nazianzen, Carmina 1.1.4; cf. Augustine, De natura boni 18). The constitution of soul, mind, and body belongs to the prelapsarian goodness in which God fashioned us in his image, so that Gregory can describe the body as his “fellow-servant,” “fellow heir,” “helper,” and “co-worker” (Nazianzen, Oration 14.6–7; Carmina 1.1.10, lines 3–4 [PG 37:465]).
However, this acknowledgment of our full embodied goodness does not prevent the fathers from being realists, both with respect to what are greater spiritual goods and the difficulties attending our material existence. God’s wisdom and goodness establishes a hierarchy of goods, with spiritual goods (like the soul and its virtues) outranking material goods (like health and prosperity) (Augustine, De natura boni 8, 13–14). Indeed, this follows from the concrete communication of God’s goodness with which we have to do: God, who is spirit (John 4:24), is the infinite and highest good, so those goods that partake of greater intensities of that goodness—like spiritual goods—are “more” good than other goods. This is why temporal and earthly goods are transitory and unreliable, whereas only the soul’s possessions in God “are permanent and abiding.”Nazianzen, Oration 14.20. Quotations are from St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Select Orations, trans. Martha Vinson. Fathers of the Church 107 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003).
Ranking material goods this way doesn’t denigrate them but clarifies what they in fact are: sub-ordinate goods. God’s wise providence orchestrates this for our benefit, “that when we contemplate the changeableness and caprice of this world we may seek out the secure haven of the one to come” (Nazianzen, Oration 14.20). Eventually, after all, the body goes the way of the soul The integral good in which we are created is the same in which we are redeemed: as unions of body and soul. (cf. Gen 3; 1 Cor 15). The soul, then, is a super-ordinate good over the body. Something like this is implicit in Jesus’ teaching to store up treasures in heaven (Matt 6:19–20). Still, both body and soul are ordered to one another and are parts of an integral whole that is itself good, even if those parts contribute differing intensities to that goodness (Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 7.40). The integral good in which we are created is the same in which we are redeemed: as unions of body and soul.
Equipped with some such understanding, Gregory voices the real difficulties we embodied creatures face in the time before the body’s resurrection. We are constantly “betrayed by this wretched, vile, and faithless body” (Nazianzen, Oration 14.6). It’s “an affable enemy and a scheming friend,” which elicits both fear and love (Nazianzen, Oration 14.7). In God’s mysterious wisdom and goodness, we bear in our bodies a constant reminder of this world’s transient and unstable goodness before the glorious reality of the goodness that is to come. But this reminder is also partly a chastisement. The difficulties of our embodied existence owe to our own contribution to history in Adam, not to embodiment or materiality per se. Augustine explains: “To attain happiness, therefore, there is no need to flee from all bodies but only from bodies that are corruptible, burdensome, oppressive, and death-bound—not, that is, from bodies such as God’s goodness created for the first human beings but rather from bodies such as sin’s punishment compelled them to be.”Augustine, De civitate Dei 13.17, from The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, vol. I/7 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2013). A clear perception of the goodness of our bodies should enable us to perceive privation and to long for the liberation that will be ours at Christ’s return. Even now we taste this liberation through our soul’s resurrection in Christ.
The Importance of Perceiving our Concrete Goodness
A clear assessment of our created goodness prompts us to recognize higher goods than material goods, even within ourselves, and to be honest about our fragility and troubles. Yet, “even if I have denounced it as my enemy for the distress it causes, still, I also embrace it as a friend because of him who joined us together”Gregory’s sensitivity to the vicissitudes of mortal existence and the transience of created things are part of a deeper ethic of love. (Nazianzen, Oration 14.8). Gregory recognizes that an attitude which couldn’t or refused to acknowledge the goodness of our own bodies would even more easily dismiss caring for those who share our common humanity, like the poor and sick. That is, recognition of spiritual and material goods should prompt us towards the moral good.
Gregory’s sensitivity to the vicissitudes of mortal existence and the transience of created things are part of a deeper ethic of love. Sin always tempts us to some disorder. And disordered love shows itself both in devaluing and overvaluing bodies. Properly acknowledging the goodness of human nature should prompt us to love our needy neighbors, “whose share in nature is the same as ours; who are formed of the same clay from the time of our first creation, knit together with bones and sinews just as we are, clothed with skin and flesh like everyone else. . . . or rather, more importantly, who have the same portion as the image of God just as we do and who keep it perhaps better, wasted though their bodies may be” (Nazianzen, Oration 14.14). Because the sick and the poor have our common nature, which is good, then we can understand their circumstances as indignities.
We share a common nature with the sick and the poor, and so a susceptibility to the same the misfortunes. Such is the quality of transient, mortal existence. Only by repressing this truth, forgetting that all the abundance we enjoy is but a gift of God meant to bless others, can we concoct some myth that exculpates us from this responsibility. Many do just this: attributing the misfortune of the poor to sin, or to God’s providence. Gregory will have none of it: “no one is completely free from corruption,” nor are the “depths of God’s wisdom” so transparent—especially before the eschaton (Nazianzen, Oration 14.30). Remembering the soul’s priority over the body, we must follow the path of Christ: “the welfare of our own bodies and souls lies in this one thing, loving regard for our fellow man” (Nazianzen, Oration 14.8). We must discriminate between material and spiritual goods, not so that we may justify neglecting our neighbor’s body for his soul, but so that disordered love of material goods doesn’t take us away from caring for the whole neighbor: body and soul. Belief in the goodness of creation and providence thus leads us to revere our fellow image-bearers, “lest perchance there lie buried among the sick a second Job,” or even Christ himself (Nazianzen, Oration 14.34, 40; cf. Matt 25:31-46).
How we respond to the concrete materiality of ourselves and others is part of our secondary goodness, the expansion of our creatureliness to its fulfillment. But it is not easy. Learning the ways in which these contingent material features of our being are good gifts from God, deserving recognition and honor from ourselves and others, is part of our imagination’s conversion away from reductively praxis-oriented construals of our temporality and spatiality to an awareness of the variety with which God instructs us in his goodness. Though demanding, doing justice to these features—about which much more could and should be said—is one of the more pertinent tasks of critical dogmatics in the present.