When Nothing Becomes God (or is it vice-versa?)

I just returned from a week of traveling–first for a funeral in Maryland and then down to visit my mother in Virginia Beach. I checked out my blog aggregator and this curious posting on the creatio ex nihilo drew my attention.

We can put to the side the author’s statement that the creatio ex nihilo is an innovation of Thomas Aquinas. Surely he must know that it’s not. The doctrine is easily traced back to the second and third centuries.

The author believes that the theistic assertion of the creatio ex nihilo in fact reduces to atheism: both theist and atheist affirm that the the world has popped out of nothing; the theist has simply eliminated the “completely superfluous God” from the process. But in fact this is not what the atheist believes. The atheist is too rational to believe that the cosmos magically emerged from non-being. The cosmos is simply all that there is and ever was. Even when scientists like Lawrence Krauss speak of nothingness, they do not mean what philosophers mean by the word.

The nothingness of physics is not pure nothingness. A quantum void is not metaphysical emptiness.

When theists assert the creatio ex nihilo, they are asserting the unfathomable mystery of divine creation: (a) the cosmos is not God, (b) the cosmos need not have been, and (c) the cosmos depends completely on God for its existence. We do not pretend to know what it means to speak of nothingness. We are identifying, rather, an inconceivable boundary. The principal purpose of the creatio ex nihilo is not to explain anything but to dogmatically exclude theological understandings deemed incompatible with classical theistic belief—e.g., pantheism, deism, polytheism, emanationism, and creation from pre-existent matter. See my article “When Making Makes No Nuttin’ Difference.”

But the author does have a point: when the God of classical theism is properly distinguished both from the world he has made and from all “deities” belonging to the world, then the line between theism and atheism becomes harder to draw. That’s because the transcendent Creator utterly transcends the things he has freely made and therefore cannot be conceived as a some thing. God donates being to the universe; but the being of the universe is not divine. It’s not as if God takes a part of himself and remakes it into a created something. That’s mythology.

If you think you understand the mystery of the creatio ex nihilo, then ruminate on these words of John Scotus Eriugena:

We believe that he made all things out of nothing, unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said of understood—is not unreasonably said to be “nothing” through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity. (Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Harmony—4.73-82)

Is nothing clear now?

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13 Responses to When Nothing Becomes God (or is it vice-versa?)

  1. This reminds me of my continued struggles with St Maximos’ logoi/Logos theology. All the world is logi, which resolve in the Logos, but they are not the Logos, but yet they are. I both get it and am confounded by it. How do you try and understand that which is utterly beyond any concept that exists?

    The same goes, since I hail from the reformed tradition, with predestination. If you meet someone who has any clue about what it entails, they are already wrong, as the decree lies outside of time and outside of any concepts we would have to express it.

    RVW

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Is Plato the first enunciator or whatever of something like this, when Socrates talks about ‘the Good Beyond Being’ in The Republic? And how does the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:14 come into this?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting question, David. I don’t think that the Platonic usage is quite the same. The creatio ex nihilo makes all the difference to our comprehension (or noncomprehension) of divine transcendence.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you! And, what a wonderful lot of responses, further! I will to continue the discussion, variously.

        My immediate inclination is to agree with your lovely last sentence!

        A big question is what or how much does Plato say, decisively, as various non-Christian Platonists (like Plotinus!) have (I understand) been emanationists, and I think I’ve seen it contended that it is not clear if Plato thought ‘Being’ always existed, dependent but everlasting or even ‘co-eternal’. As I recall, St. Thomas Aquinas thought that was a possibility that could not be resolved on the level of philosophy, though revelation of creatio ex nihilo gave the decisive answer.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Your question, David, reminded me of a passage in David Hart’s The Experience of God:

      One of the more provocatively counterintuitive ways of expressing the difference between God and every contingent reality is to say that God, as the source of all being, is, properly speaking, not himself a being—or, if one prefer, not a being among other beings. …The precise sense in which God is not a being, or indeed the sense in which he could even be said not to ‘exist’, is as as some discrete object, essentially distinct from all others, ‘standing forth’ (which is what ‘exist’ means, etymologically speaking) from being as such. A being of that kind—one to which the indefinite article attaches—possesses a certain determinate number of attributes, a certain quantity of potentialities, a certain degree of actuality, and is at once both intrinsically composite and extrinsically enumerable: that is, every particular being is made up of a collection of parts and is also itself a discrete item within the sum total of existing things. All of this is precisely what classical metaphysical theism says God is not. He is instead the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract, and he himself is not some object in addition to other objects. He is the source and fullness of all being, the actuality in which all finite things live, move, and have their being, or in which all things hold together; and so he is also the reality that is present in all things as the very act of their existence. God, in short, is not a being but is at once “beyond being’ (in the sense that he transcends the totality of existing things) and also absolute “Being itself” (in the sense that he is the source and ground of all things). (The Experience of God, pp. 107-109)

      It’s unclear to me why the Byzantine tradition prefers to speak of God as “beyond Being,” where as the early Patristic and Latin traditions prefer to speak of God as “Being.” Both are attempting to speak of the unspeakable Reality that radically transcends the created universe.

      Any thoughts, anyone?

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      • Dante Aligheri says:

        I’ve always heard that Byzantine phrase “beyond Being” had something to do with misunderstanding the Western idea of “Being Itself” as erroneously referring to God being identical to creation or particular beings. But, I don’t know whether anyone before Aquinas actually called God “Being Itself” in those exact terms. Yet I seem to remember (to be honest, the only Fathers’ works I’ve actually read straight through are Athanasius and Theophilus of Antioch – sadly enough; so you probably know more on this front) Pseudo-Dionysius using “beyond being” long before that. Maybe “beyond being” was originally meant to preserve God’s otherness and unknowability despite being the ground of being but without a polemic towards “Being Itself” – the latter being a peculiarly Scholastic wording?

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I have read more about Pseudo-Dionysius (or Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, as I’ve also seen him called) than I have read of translations of him, but I am persuaded that he used terms like ‘hyperousios’ long before Scholasticism.

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    • Dante Aligheri says:

      David,

      Even though it’s an old work, I would suggest reading Etienne Gilson’s “The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy” since the entire book basically unpacks the question you just asked but, honestly, Gilson really ends up saying the same as Fr. Kimel did, just over and over in different ways and applying it to different things like the doctrine of providence, etc.

      There’s also an excellent chapter in “Origen Against Plato” by Mark Edwards (free on Scribd, I think) which places this in a Jewish apologetic context. Basically, Plato was not a monotheist. Platonists had always maintained differences between the Form of the Good, Being, the Demiurge (Creator), and the One. While Plotinus combines the first and last, Christians and Jews were the only ones to combine all of these traits into the One God, and they did so precisely because of the One God’s transcendence towards creatures, even matter and form, per revelation. I think then that one could say that Plato was not the enunciator of this. There’s an interesting passage in Edwards’ book where Philo actually, reminiscent of Augustine, rejects philosophers as errant “sons of heaven” fallen to earth because they have tried by reason for things too high which can only be obtained via God’s condescension in revelation because of his utter unknowability.

      As for the Septuagint (leaving aside the other question of whether that’s what the original Hebrew meant), that’s a bit tricky. Philo et al. do in some places take it to mean “The Being” as in Being Itself par excellence – i.e, in the uniquely Jewish-Christian sense. However, it’s weird because in other places Philo and Maimonides (and Pope Benedict XVI) take it to refer to God’s unknowability (“I am that I am”). I’ve also read in one other place that the Septuagint itself was possibly not trying to say “Being Itself” but rather the other Jewish take on “He Who Is,” as an indicator of God being “The Eternal” per the Book of Revelation’s “He Who Is, Was, and Will Be.”

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you for such a fine comment full of interesting recommended reading! I have not read much Gilson, but have always heard good of him and am always meaning to really read him! The Mark Edwards sounds great!

        I’ve read Fr. Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (though not the 2007 second edition, yet), and his Denys the Areopagite, but need to keep rereading them, piecemeal, at least, to remember what he has said about one thing or another – or if he treats a certain matter at all, there. I have not done so, now, and do not recall what, if anything, he recounts about “the Form of the Good, Being, the Demiurge (Creator), and the One”. I suspect it may be the case that Plato does not so clearer enunciate things as to compel agreement between various antique Platonists, pagan, Jewish, and Christian. Similarly, I seem to remember an account of Festugiere suggesting that the way Plato did (and did not) put things even allowed subsequent antique Gnostic as well as non- and anti-Gnostic developments!

        I know I was astonished to read what Julian the Apostate made of Plato, apparently willing to help/facilitate the rebuilding of the Temple, while placing YHWH among the little Olympian sort of gods who look out from the edge of the cosmos to the God.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Here is a passage from St Gregory of Nazianzus’s Oration 38 that may prove illuminating for our discussion:

      God always was and is and will be, or rather always “is,” for “was” and “will be” belong to our divided time and transitory nature; but he is always “he who is,” and he gave himself this name when he consulted with Moses on the mountain. For holding everything together in himself, he possesses being, neither beginning nor ending. He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature. He is only sketched by the mind, and this in a very indistinct and mediocre way, not from things pertaining to himself but from things around him. Impressions are gathered from here and there into one particular representation of the truth, which flees before it is grasped and escapes before it is understood. It illumines the directive faculty in us, when indeed we have been purified, and its appearance is like a swift bolt of lightning that does not remain. It seems to me that insofar as it is graspable, the divine draws [us] toward itself, for what is completely ungraspable is unhoped for and unsought. Yet one wonders at the ungraspable, and one desires more intensely the object of wonder, and being desired it purifies, and purifying it makes deiform, and with those who have become such he converses as with those close to him,—I speak with vehement boldness—God is united with gods, and he is thus known, perhaps as much as he already knows those who are known to him. (38.7)

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        What a wonderful passage!

        A couple nearly random thoughts…

        “It illumines the directive faculty in us” – this reminds me of a discussion somewhere by Eric Voegelin on ‘nous’ in Aristotle and ‘ratio’ as some sort of directive faculty toward the Divine.

        Saying “he is thus known, perhaps as much as he already knows those who are known to him” does indeed sound like “vehement boldness”! This does not seem incompatible with what Danielou says about St. Gregory of Nyssa on epektasis, though that “as much as” is astonishing, even with the “perhaps”!

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  3. Thanks for posting this. By coincidence, I got a note from my publisher that the book I edited, Theologies of Creation: Creatio ex Nihilo and its New Rivals, is now in print. If you would read it and write a blog review, I’ll send you a complimentary copy. Let me know…

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