Creatio ex profundis
Creatio ex nihilo, the account of creation that says creation came from nothing, has reigned in Christian orthodoxy ever since the third century ACE, but it remains a flimsy doctrine and the book of Genesis does not support it according to Catherine Keller in her Face of the Deep . The alternative account of creation that she describes, equally based—if not more so—on exegetical scholarship, is creatio ex profundis. As the name implies, creation arises from out of the boundless and expanding depths of the chaosmos rather than being zapped into being from nothing. “The Beginning” does not mark a single absolute origin but a “beginning-in-process” that is both “unoriginated and endless.” Beginnings are always taking place and do not mark a definitive newness. Infinite creations open out from the formlessness, undifferentiated and bottomless abyss of primordial chaos. There is great depth and darkness to life, in other words, but we intentionally try to avoid recognizing this nonlinear, endless opening because we are trained to fear lack of closure. This fear has its beginnings in the doctrine of creation which western theology has taught us to “shun the depths of the creation” in favor of understanding it ex nihilo. The darksome deep is an ambivalent origin in contrast to a creation under the mechanism of control and mastery that ex nihilo offers. In the beginning, according to this alternative account of creatio ex profundis, is not no-thing or even no-thing-as-something but difference and multidimensionality. In the beginning is formless, primal chaos.
This account of creation, despite how it may at first appear to be iconoclastic, is fully supported by Christian scripture. The oceanic chaos of the Bible located in Genesis 1.2 is depicted in monstrous sea terms—Leviathan. These immense waters are generally considered evil, particularly in the lineage of Babylonian, Ugaritic and Caananite sources, but we find throughout the Bible that the watery depths are affirmed as part of creation, not in spite of it. Furthermore, in contrast to the background of Babylonian matricide of the oceanic female Genesis depicts creation by procreation. If anything, God merely shapes the preexistent dark, unformed murky depths into the order we know today.
This much can be asserted: Genesis 1 betrays no fear of the dark, no demonization of the deep, of the sea, its she and its dragons. No trace of divine warrior or cultural misogyny appears on the face of the text of the first chapter. Does the contrast to the Babylonian epic, which we read as mythological intertext of Genesis 1.2, not begin to appear dramatic, deliberate, almost parodic? (pp. 30-1)
In fact, the marine chaos of the second verse of Genesis echoes throughout the whole Biblical narrative, especially in certain psalms that praise Leviathan (see here for how it appears again in Job).This particularly stands in contrast to the myths of the ancient world that intoned ceremonious triumph in mastering chaos rather than bearing with it. “Scripture…knows only a formation of something new from something—else, something yet unthinged, unformed, some sort of marine chaos not identical with the literal sea but not separable from it” (p. 25). Even Augustine in his Confessions admits that the flux and flood in the opening of Genesis does not grant a singular interpretation. What Keller discovers is that “Augustine exegetes tehom as God’s first creation, the creation of that matter from which both the heaven and earth would be then secondarily created” (p. 36). However, Augustine oscillates on what this might fully mean. From early on the church had a difficult time tolerating the sort of constraint that an unformed primal chaos would have on the imagery of a masterful and dominating lordship. The result is that Augustine began to understand chaos and complexity as an outcome of sin and a lack of order. So while Augustine may have been a potential advocate of tehomic theology at one point he ends up retreating “into a tidy neo-classicism.” Instead of affirming a theologically indeterminate origin that would understand order as coming from something unformed Augustine comes to think of an “unchanging order” as the only way to “save us from a chaotic nihil of meaning” (p. 38). In his early years he considered the multidimensional deep as a gift but later focused on single meanings to combat heresy. His influence on Radical Orthodoxy is undeniable.
To offer clarity between the distinctive theologies of creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex profundis allow me to post a couple quotes that summarize this dramatic shift from the first to the latter.
Theologies have tried to draw the line at “God,” to say that, whenever the creation starts, it is preceded by absolutely nothing—nothing but the pure and simple presence of God the Creator. Certainly this “nothing but” of a nonnegotiable starting-line lends a useful sense of foundation… Admittedly that tehomic alterity which has been relegated to the outer darkness threatens to flow back monstrously: the flux, repressed, returns as the flood. I am arguing that the genuine threat that chaos poses is no better reason to patch up the failing foundations, than to tear them down with nihilistic abandon. (p. 10)
Until the late second century, Jewish and Christian interpreters seem to have assumed that the Creator formed the creation from some depersonalized version of this primordial stuff… What Christianity first presumed was the idea not of the ex nihilo but of a Creator effecting “in the beginning” irreducibly new and contingent reality. The idea of a creation from nothing rather than a formation from formlessness [preexistent material] only gradually ensconced itself in Christian common sense. Along with it settled the dogmas of omnipotence: not just of the biblical lord of great if somewhat unpredictable power, but an immutable, unilateral All-Power clothed in the attributes of a single male Person (or two; or…) (pp. 15-6)
Chaos erodes meaning; therefore, it is ubiquitously sublimated and suppressed in Christian theology. Radical Orthodoxy for one has gone to great lengths in distinguishing the nihil from the ex nihilo. The fear is that without this stable foundation chaos, flux, “nothing” and atheism will erode the solidity of order and meaning. Rabbinic midrash has always affirmed the “multiplicity of meanings” but theologies in the tradition of the ex nihilo doctrine rarely learn to bear with chaos.
These doctrines of creation also have some practical implications. The order of creation that is upheld in Eurocentric theologies is not similarly received in a positive tone in Latin America because it tends to mask hierarchy, domination and oppression. From the colonizing perspective, evil is synonymous with disorder rather than injustice. Chaos is treated as darkness and the voices of hermeneutical complexity are muted by the dominant discourse of order. After all, the colonizer relies on powerful interventions and what better model to follow than God’s singular act of an instantaneous and permanent creation. In addition to a tehomic theology benefiting the struggle of postcolonial resistance to the colonizing episteme a doctrine of creatio ex profundis also aids in the deconstructionist’s task of destabilizing and protesting “founding certainties” by way of illuminating the deep flux beneath all of reality. In other words, complexity and chaos always arise from within rather than from without. Therefore, the transcendent-in-the-immanent will always shatter our finite and fixed meanings. Perhaps in this case we would be wise to borrow the tehomic ethic: “to love is to bear with chaos.”
From here I think I can address Matt Martin’s comments more thoroughly. Doubtless, turning a “no-thing” into a “something as nothing” is a shifty move. Perhaps Badiou, Deleuze and Žižek pull this stunt–I cannot say–but in my estimation they come closer to this creatio ex profundis ideal type than they do to a bogus nihilism. A chief motive of Keller’s, after all, is to provide ample evidence in support of a third position beyond the dualism between nihilism and ex nihilo–she specifically references Radical Orthodoxy. In an email correspondence with Peter Hallward back in November I posed this question to him in relation to this topic. His response follows.
…instead of creatio ex nihilo would it be possible to substitute instead creatio ex profundis if we are to remain faithful to Badiou? It appears as though inconsistent multiplicity parallels a plural foundation of becoming–as you identify in the closing chapters–rather than an empty void qua nihil.
Up to a point I’d go along with this, with a caveat. True, ‘void’ isn’t just ‘nothing’, no more than zero is. (There’s a difference between e.g. ‘scoring’ zero goals in a soccer match, and there not being a match at all; void is always what counts for nothing according to a situation, e.g. here a situation that counts goals). But Badiou’s whole effort is to avoid any neo-Romantic reference to depth, and to insist instead on the fully rational analysis of presentation, which in its most generic sense, equates ‘that which is presented’ with presenting in the zero degree, so to speak. This is an important question, I hope you pursue it more. I tried to deal with it a little more here, but there’s still a lot more to done with it.
To add a little more to this discussion let me put another quote from Keller past the reader to illuminate a position that is concurrent with at least Deleuze in my opinion.
All theological interpretation (at least that which recognizes itself as interpretation rather than revelation) today exposes itself to an incalculable multiplicity of influences–movements, powers, protests, doubts, cultures, desperations, expectations. One pursues hermeneutical complexity. But one always risks chaos (p. 5)
The reason I added this to the mix is to find an affinity with actor-network theory. (I haven’t read any texts on it myself so a wik article must suffice). The point is to show that truth–call it a new objectivism–is an “incalculable multiplicity.” I hardly take this as a no-thing-as-some-thing.