Creation, Paradise Lost, and Modernity
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Creation, Paradise Lost, and Modernity


The notion of an order of things from which we are never free, to which we owe obedience and respect—the idea of a created order—divides people more and more into different communities, depending on whether or not they can make sense of the idea. For believers, the idea of creation probably seems obvious; there is a sense of fundamental dependence, that we are brought into existence and held in existence by something beyond ourselves. This doctrine delivers hope and confidence in the worst of times, assuring us that there is an original identity of goodness in things that persists to the end because it expresses the way things finally are. Believers can miss, however, the strangeness of the doctrine, a strangeness that reveals itself in different ways. It is more or less impossible to imagine the event of creation. We think we can do it, of course, picturing a great darkness with God hovering over the abyss and then the action by which God brings creation out of nothing. But this act of envisioning hides the problem that before creation there was no space and therefore no vantage point from which to observe an event in any way. This imaginative attempt shows the difficulty of trying to [End Page 39] describe something that upholds everything, including our attempts to express what it is.

The epistemological problems of the notion become acute with the advent of modernity and the adoption of new approaches to ontology and evidence. Locke proposes the principle that the strength of beliefs should never be stronger than the strength of the evidence that supports them.1 Religious belief fails the test, in that it invariably has the strength of one hundred percent, exceeding any "evidence" it can provide. Therefore, according to Locke, we cannot consider it intellectually respectable. A British judge said in a famous 2010 case, "In the eye of everyone save the believer, religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence."2 Believers might feel that the discussion has missed the point and insist that religious belief is not like belief in an additional planet or cosmological process, as if God and the act of creation were simply placed alongside other entities or happenings. Aquinas quotes Dionysius to the effect that God is not "this and not that;" he is not an item that fits into a longer list.3 The unbeliever will make no sense of this, however, and might well retort that the difference must come down to one side's believing in "one more thing" than the other. How else could it be?

These difficulties can lead to a redefinition of what religious belief ultimately means, perhaps in a pragmatist direction, as with the proposal of William James that religion comes down to "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."4 Charles Taylor defines a secular society along these lines, as one where religious belief has become one choice among many: "The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others."5 Such a development meets a cautious welcome among believers who likely feel that it is good to move from operating out of an unreflective background to [End Page 40] a conscious choice. It does not occur to them that this move, which largely sums up the thrust of the Western Enlightenment, might in fact be the source of the problem.

For the enlightened Westerner, the doctrine of creation also presents a striking moral problem. Something seems to have been imposed on us, for without our consent someone decreed that we are to be in a certain way and that we are not to stray from the identity with which we were first provided. We are tied forever to the intentions of the one who brought us into existence, appearing as...