Previously, we looked at some possible ways that the universe could have been brought into being (if, indeed, it needed to be brought into being–but that’s for another post). Here I want to look at the two ways that are commonest in Western religious thought, that is, creation and emanation.
As I said last time, we humans never actually “create” anything–we take already existing material and shape it into other things. For example, I might use wood to build a picnic table, or silver to fashion a ring, or stone to build a building. ”Creation”, in the strict theological and philosophical sense, always means making something ex nihilo (“out of nothingness”). In short, when God is said to create the world, He literally conjures it up from nothing. As the Qur’an puts it, “When [God] decrees a thing, He need only say, “Be,” and it is.” (2:116, Dawood translation). Or, as in Genesis, He merely says, “Let there be…” and light, the sky, and so forth instantly are. The term that philosopher Mortimer Adler, in his book How to Think About God, uses for this is a word of his coinage (but a very felicitous one, at that), exnihilation. According to him, this is formed on the analogy of “annihilation”, which literally means to put into (ad-) nothingness (nihil). Of course, nothing is truly annihilated–even if I drop an atomic bomb on something, it is merely blown into its constituent atoms, not into nothingness. However, exnihilation–taking something out of (ex-) nothingness is, indeed, exactly what God does in His act of creation. As Adler also points out, this can be conceived of whether or not the universe is thought of as being temporally infinite (i.e. in terms of infinite linear time) or not.
It is important at this juncture to point out that something created–exnihilated–by God is separate from Him. That is, the thing or being created by God literally comes into being out of nothingness. It is not formed from, fashioned from, or derived from anything else. It is called into existence by God, but it is not part of Him. It is ontologically distinct. There are some nuances in this that we’ll return to later, but for now we’ll leave it at that and move on.
Emanation is the other mode which has been postulated as the means by which God brought the cosmos into being. ”Emanate” comes from Latin roots meaning “to flow out from”, and this is a good description of the theological concept of emanation. Just as water flows out of the mountains into a river, or light “flows out” of a fire, the cosmos is thought of as “flowing out” of God. That is to say, that God does not create the world (including sapient beings such as us) from pre-existing material, nor does he call it out of nothing. Rather, he “draws” them from His own substance; or to put it another way, we all “flow” out of God.
It occurs to me that during the course of the various religious and philosophical musings I’ve posted here, there are some concepts which I have used very frequently, but which I haven’t really elaborated. In short, I’ve just tossed them out with a link, if that, and plowed on. One such example in particular is the concept of emanation. Emanation is a highly important concept in both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, in which they both differ from orthodox Christianity. The mode in which the universe came into existence has implications for one’s theology, cosmology, and philosophy, so I think it’s worth revisiting these different views on the origin of the cosmos and looking at them in greater depth.
First, it’s important to look more generally at how the universe came into being. First, one might maintain that the universe did not come into being at all, since it has existed and will exist eternally. Both some atheists and some theistic systems assume this model. The universe may change or go through cycles (which may or may not repeat), but it has no discrete origin. It’s worth pointing out that even this perspective doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of creation. As Mortimer Adler pointed out in his book How to Think About God, one can still think of God “exnihilating”–holding in existence–a cosmos without linear beginning or end. As I’ve explained in more detail here, God, properly understood, is completely outside of time and space in the sense in which we use those terms. A linear infinity of time–going infinitely into the past and likewise into the future–is still far “smaller” or “less” than the true atemporal eternity of God. To re-use the image I used in the earlier post consider:
Eternity, in this depiction, really shouldn’t be a separate sphere, but the entire plane–or better, the entire space–within which the comparatively tiny line of time lies and by which it is supported. Thus, God can easily be thought of as creating spacetime in all its linear infinity as a mere drop in the higher-order infinity proper to Him.