How to Make a Universe


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.

In this regard it is also necessary to point out Lawrence Krauss’s assertion in his recent book that the universe is not eternal but did, in fact, come out of nothing.  This has occasioned much discussion.  Suffice it to say that Krauss means that some previous structure, the latent laws of physics, is what brought the cosmos into being.  Thus, the universe comes not out of “nothing” properly so-called, but out of a sort of invisible structure of some sort.  One might consider this an earlier stage of or precursor to the observed universe, but it’s not quite “nothing”.  Thus, while I’m willing to concede that the view of an atheist who asserts that the universe exists infinitely and does not need a cause (being, in effect, a necessary being) cannot be disproved (or proved, either), I do not concede that the world can come literally out of nothing properly so-called.  I go with the classical dictum, “Ex nihilo nihil fit.” (“Nothing can be made from nothing.’)

A second preliminary possibility is that matter is co-eternal with the Creator, and that the latter merely shapes it into the cosmos we now see.  Plato touches on this notion when speaking of the demiurge (literally “craftsman” in Greek), whom he sees as benevolent.  This idea is continued by the Gnostics, who take a more jaundiced view of the Demiurge, and a similar notion was entertained by John Milton.  In all these cases, though, the Demiurge (capitalized or otherwise) is a lesser being than God, however He is conceived, and works as God’s deputy or against His will.  I’m unclear as to whether any major religion or philosophical system holds that the ultimate God as co-existent with matter and shaping it directly Himself (though Milton comes close to this); indeed, such a notion seems philosophically improbable, although it’s not clear that it can be refuted outright.  It is useful to point out, by the way, that humans are never creators, properly so-called, but demiurges.  We don’t bring things into being–we merely assemble or modify or craft them from previously existing materials.  Thus, it is not really a good idea to make an analogy between a human crafting, say, a watch, and God creating or emanating a cosmos.  In any case, short of a system that posits matter co-eternal with God (a system, as I have said, that doesn’t actually seem to be accepted by any major religion), the matter itself is still accounted for by the action of the higher god or by some of his lower creatures.  Thus, the two possibilities of creation and emanation come back into play.

The first is creation, and this means God’s bringing something into being out of nothing, and separate from Himself.  As the Qur’an felicitously puts it in many places, “God has only to say of a thing, ‘Be!’ and it is.”  The second is emanation, in which God brings the cosmos “out of” Himself.  Creation is the mode taught in the orthodox forms of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).  Emanation is characteristic of some forms of Gnositicsm (especially the Sethian school), Neoplatonism, presumably Kabbalistic Judaism (there is room for a lot of nuance there, and I’m not as familiar with it as with other systems, so I’m not making a definite assertion), and some forms of New Age philosophy.  Evagrianism seems to straddle the boundary, and I have not studied it in depth, so once more I won’t make any assertions regarding Evagrius’ views of emanationism.  The important thing now is to describe in more detail the difference between creation and emanation, and what difference this makes for theology–something we’ll look at in the next post on this topic.

Posted on 07/04/2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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