Monthly Archives: April 2013
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.
Starring the late, great Jeremy Brett, the definitive Holmes for those who watched the Grenada-produced BBC series.
A classic horror film, which, along with Lon Chaney, Jr.’s The Wolf Man, was the seminal werewolf movie.
This post is a sort of prelude to several I’m planning to put up over the next few days. I want to look at certain aspects of “families” of religions, and types of religions in general, and to preface all that, I want to explore a few concepts here. More specifically, I’m going to look at classifications of religions and I’m going to discuss perspectives on how certain tendencies or views of religions tend to play out, affect their believers, and so on. In this regard, people often take one of two different and opposite perspectives, each of which, in my mind, is problematic.
First, the believer in a given faith may have objections to the attempts to study that faith in a sociological manner. He may think that this denigrates the faith, reduces it to mere human affairs, and fails to see the action of the Divine within this faith. For example, a historian might make the argument that the alienation and social changes felt by the populace during the early days of the Roman Empire were a large factor in the rise and rapid spread of Christianity. A Christian might object to such a characterization on the grounds that it does not make allowance for God’s providence and action in revealing Himself and in ensuring the spread of His word according to His will.
On the other hand, a skeptic might balk at religious motivations in explaining the actions of people and the shape of cultures across the ages. He might insist that religion is just a mask of the things that really motivate people; that is to say, greed, power, economics, politics, and so on. Thus, such a skeptic might insist that the “real” reason for the missionary impulse in the Age of Exploration wasn’t to save souls but to gain control over the inhabitants of newly discovered areas that harbored vast riches which the European powers wished to exploit.
Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm. The Orphic elements in Plato are watered down in Aristotle, and mixed with a strong dose of common sense; where he is Platonic, one feels that his natural temperament has been overpowered by the teaching to which he has been subjected. He is not passionate, or in any profound sense religious. The errors of his predecessors were the glorious errors of youth attempting the impossible; his errors are those of age which cannot free itself of habitual prejudices. He is best in detail and in criticism; he fails in large construction, for lack of fundamental clarity and Titanic fire.
I actually like Aristotle all right, and I think his virtue ethics are still relevant. However, I think many of his ideas, especially as filtered through Scholasticism had a bad effect on Western Christianity and society at large. There are still some that want to defend his philosophy, or the Thomism that comes from it, even in places where modern science has shown it to be manifestly wrong, and I’ve been in on a couple such discussions of late. Thus, while I’m not intending to dismiss his importance or influence, or trying to argue that he was always wrong, I think it’s good to post some critical quotes.