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Something from Nothing

Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind. Something will come to you.
-- Richard Wilbur

There is an old joke about scientists who go to God and tell him they’ve figured out how he made a man from the dust of the ground. “Oh?” God responds skeptically. “Show me.” The scientists start to scoop up a pile of dirt from the ground, but God stops them. “Not so fast,” says the Lord. “Get your own dirt.” Preachers often tell this joke in a not-so-subtle effort to undercut the arrogance of modern science. In fact, scientists are nowhere near making a man from the dust of the ground. As yet, no one has even succeeded in producing organic compounds from inorganic elements. For that matter, no one has succeeded in producing something from nothing, which is what you would have to do, either to replicate the biblical account of creation or the Big Bang Theory. According to the Book Genesis, the world was “without form and void” before the Lord set to work on the first day of creation. Cosmologists believe the whole shebang began as a singularity – an unimaginably hot, infinitely dense point as small as a subatomic particle that somehow contained all the matter and energy in what is now the universe.

Before that there was nothing, not even time and space. There is a theological term that covers both the biblical and scientific accounts of how everything came to be: creatio ex nihilo, Latin for “creation from nothing.” Although the concept has been around since at least the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 C.E., it has not gone down without controversy. To some theologians and cosmologists, the notion seemed a bit too much like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. To say that the world was “without form and form” sounds more like chaos than nothing at all. And a singularity, no matter how small, is still something, not nothing. The astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang” in order to debunk the idea, grumbled that the whole notion “was about as elegant as a party girl jumping out of a cake” – or a rabbit pulled out of a hat, as the case may be.

Creative types are all too familiar with the concept of creation from nothing, since that is what they seemingly face every time they sit down to a blank page or a blank canvas. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, "You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter, ‛You can’t do a thing’.” Yet somehow, in spite of his paralysis, Van Gogh was able to radically reshape the art world in a creative explosion that lasted all of a decade. He was able to gaze up at the stars through the bars of Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy and transform his madness into genius. He may have started with a blank canvas and even a blank mind, but that was still not nothing. He still had his madness.

Did God really start with a blank canvas? Early church fathers like Theophilus, Justin Martyr and Origen thought not, believing there had to be some primordial stuff in the beginning that God used to give shape the world. In effect, they were saying there had to be a pile of dirt if the Lord was going to make a man. But even if there was no dirt, no primordial stuff at all, there was still God to pull a rabbit out a hat (assuming he wore a hat). God was not nothing. And in the mind of God was the germ of an idea. All God had to do was think it up, and behold, a singularity, unimaginably hot and infinitely dense, containing all the matter and energy that we now think of as the universe.

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