The course materials say that the idea that God created everything ex nihilo, out of nothing, is a response to dualistic thought systems, but it is not the only way to read the text of Genesis 1:1-1:2. Ex nihilo is certainly what I learned in the Catholic Church: it seemed very important for Catholics to believe that God had created out of nothing. The course materials tell us, though, that it is possible to understand that a chaos existed before God shaped it into an orderly world.
The reason for ex nihilo, say the course materials, is that the church was concerned about dualism. Dualistic systems, like Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, posit two gods--a good god of light and an evil god of darkness. The church felt it important to state that God created everything there is from nothing and pronounced it good to make clear that there was no evil god in existence countering the good creator god. The One God made everything, and all of creation is good.
Besides Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, the course materials discuss Platonism and Neo-Platonism. The course materials also include this question for us to work with: Where do we see Platonism in the world today? I find this a fascinating question.
First, let's look at Platonism. As I understand it, Plato believed in an Ideal that exists only in the realm of ideas. Anything in the physical world is an individual representation--a necessarily imperfect representation--of the Ideal. Neo-Platonism took this further. Neo-Platonism distinguishes between the One and all that emanates from the One. The One is beyond our ability to know, and we can only speak of what the One is not, not of what the One is. All else emanates from the unknowable One, and as these emanations flow farther from the One, the more unlike the One they become, until they reach the stage of physical matter. Humans are seen as spirit beings trapped in material bodies. Neo-Platonists offer spiritual exercises that allow humans to transcend their material bodies and unite with the One.
Now, let's go back to Plato's thought of the Ideal that exists in the realm of ideas and the individual representations that exist in the world of matter, and let's answer the question of where we see Platonism in the world today. I would say that we see Platonism today in areas where we strive to attain an unattainable Ideal. Plato had the sense to say that the Ideal does not and cannot exist in the material world. We don't seem to have this sense today. I will look at two areas where people seem to strive for an unattainable Ideal.
IDEAL BODY. I see people today striving to embody an Ideal of human beauty in their own individual bodies. Our society holds up an Ideal of female beauty, for example, which includes a yourthful appearance and an unrealistically thin body. Many women strive to attain that Ideal through a multitude of cosmetics, plastic surgery, and extreme diets that can lead to eating disorders. Even women with beautiful bodies will often express dissatisfaction with their features because their features don't perfectly fit the Ideal. In fact, the Ideal, by definition, is unattainable, and striving for it creates frustration and even physical harm from trying to force the body to be something it cannot be. An individual representation can never be the Ideal. Men have their own version of this.
IDEAL WOMANHOOD. This is something I saw in the Catholic Church as I was growing up. The Catholic Church teaches an unattainable Ideal of womanhood. I have never been the least bit interested in this Ideal, but many women have been drawn in by it, including my mother. An Ideal woman, according to the Catholic Church, is one who finds her true fulfillment in giving herself for her husband and family. In my family, I saw my mother giving and giving and giving and giving and giving for a critical husband and six demanding children--and wondering what was wrong with her that she didn't feel fulfilled. Just who benefits from having women strive toward this self-sacrificing Ideal? I'll guarantee you that it isn't the women. As Mary Catherine Bateson (Margaret Mead's daughter) has said, "Women are taught to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the marriage; men are taught that the marriage exists to support them." An Ideal of constant giving and self-sacrifice simply isn't realistic or attainable. Men have their own version of this, too, involving the need to be strong, to thrive under intense competition, and to hide emotions.