What does it mean to declare that God created the world? There are two religious answers, the esoteric and the exoteric. Insiders who best understand theistic ideas take the notion of divine creation to be almost entirely empty. The suspicion is that the world consists of everything we can understand, but that since our powers of understanding are limited, the world likely emerged from something we can’t understand, something unnatural. Religious people call that unnatural something and that emergence, respectively, God and the highest creative act. But because the secret roots of these religious ideas are mysterianism, cosmicism, and mysticism, the religious ideas have negative rather than positive content. We can know indirectly that whatever god is, god is alien and thus terrifying to vain and social creatures such as us, who instinctively personalize everything we encounter to feel at home in the wilderness of nature. (I’ll speak of God with a capital “G” only when speaking of the exoteric projection of our personal qualities onto the unknowable.)
For reasons given by Leo Strauss, Plato, and others, philosophical truth tends to be socially subversive and thus needs to be hidden from society at large. Plato spoke of the need for noble lies told by the elite to the masses, to maintain social order. Thus, the nontheistic basis of major religions, which is to say the fear of an inexplicable X as the source of everything that’s rationally explainable, takes on a theistic, exoteric form for popular consumption. While the mystic says silence is best when thinking of whether to speak of what god’s like, the theist indulges in anthropomorphic metaphors. As Dennett argues in Breaking the Spell, theism is to this extent biologically determined. The theist overuses the mental faculty, or neural module, that facilitates cooperation between members of our species, by enabling us to predict our behaviour by way of positing and interpreting people’s mental states. In short, the theist speaks as though god were a member of our species, with capacities for reason, emotion, choice, and so forth. These anthropocentric metaphors are all obviously absurd when applied to the unnatural and taken literally, and when acknowledged as merely metaphorical they become irrelevant, as the mystic appreciates.
With this distinction in mind, between the esoteric and the exoteric, let’s return to the meaning of the statement that God created the world. Esoterically, the answer is the negative, indirect one that something unnatural and thus beyond our comprehension is somehow both “prior” to everything in nature, including everything physicists and cosmologists theorize about, and also the “cause” of nature. Again, as soon as you try to speak positively of the relationship between god and the world, you resort to metaphors that make no sense under analysis. And exoterically, the most prevalent monotheistic answer, for example, is that a white male designer engineered the universe, by brooding over the face of the waters, speaking forms into existence, and so forth, for the main purpose of producing life with which he could interact. The implications of monotheistic creation myths, though, are that God wanted to create a place where his children, who are necessarily more limited beings, could exist, and that he did this not out of grace but out of loneliness.