Creation vs. Emanation


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.

Obviously, this a potentially problematic paradigm.  God is usually considered to be pure spirit–and thus immaterial–whereas we are obviously material, at least in our bodies, and the physical cosmos itself is completely material.  God does not “emanate” the world or us in the way that one might pull small pieces off of a larger lump of clay and use them to make things, or in the sense that a larger river might break into smaller streams.  A better analogy, I think, might be of dreaming.  When one dreams, one produces the entire dream world from within oneself.  The dreamworld is not derived from external sources, being, in effect, an emanation of one’s mind.  However, it is not “part” of one in the sense that one’s body or mind literally flow into it; the dreamworld exists in a different mode.  The people and things in the dream are separate and distinct from the dreamer, in one sense; but they are held in being instant to instant by the dreaming of the sleeper, and they are fully imbued and interpenetrated with the dreamer’s very self.  One might say that the dreamer is fully present in the dream while at the same time being “invisible” within it (since the only aspect of the dreamer with which the dreamworld and its inhabitants interact is one’s “dream self”, which isn’t always present).

This is actually not far from the traditional Thomist view of God and creation in which He holds everything in existence instant to instant.  To put it another way, creation is not a one-time event at the beginning of time, but an ongoing process.  Were God to cease it for an instant, everything would cease to exist.  To put it another way, something created by God lacks its own “inertia” of being.  If I make a chair, it continues to exist without me.  If God makes a universe containing the tree from which the chair was made, the universe, the tree, the carpenter, and the chair made from the tree, cannot persist without God’s ongoing action.  This implies, in my view, an interesting contradiction, since, as alluded to above, this implies a nuance in the distinction between God and Creation; but once more, we’ll leave details until later.

The claim I want to make is that creation and emanation, though sometimes conflated, are very much different concepts.  The former emphasizes the separateness of the world from its Creator.  Though God, by definition, would have had the world and everything in it eternally in mind, they still exist outside of God.  God may be present in His cosmos metaphysically and by what the Orthodox would call His “energies“, and yet He is still existentially separate.  With emanation, the boundaries between God and His creation are much more blurred–more, in fact, than is commonly realized.  In a sense, we are all part of God’s “dream”, which (God being eternal) has in a sense always existed.  Not just us, however, but many, many other possibilities.  We’ll take a more detailed look at these in the next installment.

Posted on 29/04/2013, in Christianity, Gnosticism, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: