A medieval Byzantine icon of the Resurrection of Christ, circa 1350–1375 (Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902/The Walters Art Museum)

Let me cut to the chase: this book is a stunning achievement. Brian D. Robinette, associate professor of theology at Boston College, has gifted us with a deeply pondered work about God’s utterly gratuitous gift of creation, redemption, and fulfillment in Christ. The Difference Nothing Makes meditates on the loving God for whom “nothing” is fertile with possibilities. Drawing on thinkers such as William Desmond and René Girard, Karl Rahner and Sergius Bulgakov, Elizabeth Johnson and Thomas Merton, Robinette has produced a magisterial volume in which theology and spirituality are interwoven into a seamless whole.

Robinette writes with clarity and passion, prompting the reader to linger over sentences that both nourish and challenge. Indeed, a reviewer is tempted merely to provide a catena of quotes to let their richness speak for itself. Here is one example.

The event of Easter, itself an eschatological transfiguration of memory, opened up for Christians a perspective upon God’s creation in a significantly new light. The theology of creation from nothing is logically coherent with, and in Christian theology historically dependent upon, a view of God who raises to life what has succumbed to the nihil of death…. By raising Jesus from the dead…what is revealed is a God of forgiving hospitality, a God whose boundless generativity is not agonistic or contrastive with creation but pacific, pardoning, and self-diffusive.

The book’s subtitle presents the triptych that Robinette will carefully paint: creation, Christ, contemplation. Its central panel is the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ: his crucifixion at the hands of us sinners, his resurrection and ascension, into which all created reality is being drawn. But the three panels mystically interpenetrate, so that creation discloses itself in Christ and calls forth a “Christic” contemplation—the profound realization that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters in Christ.

What, then, is the “the difference nothing makes”? First, it is the consciousness of the utter contingency of creation’s being, its complete dependence upon God’s gratuitous action. At the same time, the phrase underscores the transcendent otherness of God who is neither beholden to creation nor a rival to its flourishing. As the old Thomistic axiom pronounces, “Deus non est in genere”: God is not just one being among many. This adds a dark apophatic coloring to Robinette’s palette, an awe-filled reverence for the mystery that exceeds all our verbal forays.

But this is no empty apophaticism. For as the central panel of the triptych proclaims, Christ is creation’s anchor and sustainer. His paschal mystery grounds the very rhythms of the cosmos, providing not only its cantus firmus, but also its basso continuo. For creation is ever proceeding from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit and returning in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The risen, ascended Jesus leads believers into this Trinitarian dynamism, which is nothing other than their active and conscious participation in God’s own life.

A salient mark of Robinette’s achievement is to hold seeming contraries in dynamic tension. Transcendence, for example, does not compete with immanence, much less cancel it out. Instead, both gesture toward the magis: the realization that only radical transcendence enables radical immanence. Only a God who is totally other can become totally incarnate.

Central to Robinette’s purpose is

to explore how the deepest insight into our creaturely contingency—our coming “from nothing,” or the utter gratuity of God—is in fact a contemplative insight of supreme significance, and that only by releasing ourselves through loving dispossession into this gracious “nothing” can we begin to discover, at the felt depths of our being, what it is to be created.

However, this very awareness of contingency, which ought to spur gratitude, often incites instead a pernicious rivalry with God and others. Thus, the second panel of Robinette’s triptych draws upon René Girard’s “phenomenology of redemption” to bring into stark relief the predicament from which Christ as “concentrated creation” frees humanity. Girard skillfully uncovers the strategies by which humans camouflage their invidious rage as “righteous” anger or contempt toward the other.

At the same time, Girard brings into new relief the innocent victim who takes upon himself all hostility and transforms it. Robinette presses the case: “[T]he entanglements and conflicts of human desire are loosened up and freed by Christ so as to enable genuine human flourishing.” Girard’s work helps Robinette sketch out a robust soteriology in which Jesus does not passively undergo death, but actively liberates humanity from the fear of death that holds us in thrall. For by Jesus’ self-emptying death and life-bestowing resurrection, “[t]he power of empire, the power of acquisition, the power of prestige, even the power of death: all are shown to have no real power in the end.”

Robinette shows that the cross and the Resurrection are inseparable dimensions of the one Paschal Mystery. On the cross, Christ takes on humanity’s burden of sin, whose perverse “logic” seeks even to eliminate God. And by the unimaginable novum of Christ’s resurrection, God creates new life out of, and beyond, the seeming nihil of death. There then appears in our midst “the luring presence of the crucified-and-risen One who continues to summon others to a ‘Christomorphic’ way of life.”

Robinette insists on the transformative cost of this graced newness, probing God’s invitation through Christ “to discover ourselves as part of a dramatic unfolding wherein we might learn, however slowly and painfully, to live into a ‘we’ without boundaries”:

The God who creates from nothing and who gives all things their existence out of sheer gratuity…is the God who communicates by way of total self-emptying in order to draw us into living out of this gratuity, out of this “nothing,” with no hoarding of being, without clinging to our individual selves or group identities, but with the freedom of radical, inclusive love.

One of the constants in the work of Thomas Merton is his insistence that we are called beyond the constrictions of the “ego” to the limitless horizons of the “true self.” Robinette concurs: “This relinquishing is not an act of nihilistic despair.… It is a primal naked trust of allowing ourselves to be slowly reconfigured, even ‘reborn’, according to the loving freedom of divine life itself.”

A salient mark of Robinette’s achievement is to hold seeming contraries in dynamic tension.


In his final chapter, “Return to Love,” Robinette further explores God’s passionate yearning for his creation, which bears this “logic of love, of divine kenosis.” With Bulgakov and Rahner, he celebrates creation as “ordered toward Incarnation.” He makes his own a term increasingly current in contemporary theology: “deep incarnation.” Without denying the uniqueness of the Word’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ, he suggests that, through humanity’s shared “intercorporeity,” this original Incarnation radiates outward to embrace all of Christ’s brothers and sisters and lead them to glory. For the ultimate goal of the redemptive Incarnation is theosis, divinization.

Although the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor makes only two brief appearances in the book, it is hard not to read Robinette as responding to the challenge that Taylor poses to his fellow Christians. Confronted with modernity’s “buffered” individuals and impoverished social imaginary, Taylor invited readers to a renewed exploration of “what the Incarnation can mean.” In a remarkable move for a philosopher, Taylor even invokes theosis as “that further greater transformation” to which humanity aspires, however unknowingly.

Following the lead of Elizabeth Johnson, Robinette boldly extends a vision of “deep incarnation” to include a “deep resurrection” that incorporates non-human creation. He thereby emphasizes the cosmic scope of Christ’s resurrection, highlighting the hope it promises for all God’s creatures. What Robinette calls “Easter’s cosmicity” is rooted in “a Christ-mysticism without reserve.” “Just how this could be may be well beyond our capacity to express,” he acknowledges, “but it is not beyond our capacity to hope.” Indeed, was it not Paul’s Christ-mysticism that first gave rise to the faith-filled hope that “creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and come to enjoy the glorious liberty of God’s children” (Romans 8:21)?

One of this book’s most commendable features is Robinette’s deep commitment to contemplative experience and practice as a privileged way of making real the doctrines of Catholic faith. But it is crucial to recognize that such “experience” is neither individualistic nor self-referential, but open to the Other and the others. For Robinette, contemplation undergirds a commitment to the Church’s social-justice tradition, which today must include concern for the environment. The Catholic social-justice tradition, like Catholic doctrine more generally, finds its distinctive ground and motivation in Christology, and Robinette succeeds in showing why, and how, this is so.

Though Robinette does not use the term himself, the whole thrust of his reflections points toward the Ignatian in actione contemplativus: to be a contemplative in action. This is what the last section of the book, pointedly titled “Returning to Our Spiritual Senses,” is all about. We live in a culture where the constant bombardment of our physical senses leads, paradoxically, to an atrophied power of perception. We require a new ascesis to promote “a rehabilitation of vision, a renewal of perception, a shift in affect.” The Catholic spiritual tradition calls us to cultivate a contemplative seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching that does not seek to possess or consume, but to appreciate and respect, thus unveiling our “deeper capacities for living freely and compassionately with our fellow creatures.” A true Christian ascesis enables a contemplative attention and awareness that allows us both to see and to act with integrity. The spring of this integrity is our pervasive sense of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ.

Despite the book’s vividly Christocentric vision, I note a surprising absence. Robinette makes no reference at all to the Eucharist—a regrettable lacuna. For, the whole spiritual dynamic of the book, with its insistence on generativity and gratitude, relationality and intercorporeity, points toward Eucharist. Where else do we find substantially realized “an ontology of communion where invitation to others is infinitely expansive”? In the Eucharist the risen Lord invites all: “Take, eat, this is my body,” thereby celebrating and transfiguring the intercorporeity that this book so rightly underscores.

Robinette appreciatively quotes Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’. Toward the close of that encyclical, Francis writes:

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God…. Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation. (236)

Perhaps Pope Francis’s Eucharistic confession could serve as preface of the sequel to this splendid book.

The Difference Nothing Makes
Creation, Christ, Contemplation
Brian D. Robinette
University of Notre Dame Press
$38 | 338 pp.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, has been a Commonweal contributor for more than fifty years. Christ Brings All Newness, a collection of his essays and reviews, including several from Commonweal, has recently been published by Word on Fire Academic.

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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