So Why Did God Make the World, Anyway?
To which I can answer only, “Beats me.” I do think that looking at the question in the title of this post is of relevance in our discussion of the Fall of Man, for reasons that we’ll soon see. I want to do a bit more detailed followup to this, and to take an interlude before we go on to look at the fall and salvation of bodiless intelligences.
I’ll start by explicitly saying that when I say “the world” I mean the material cosmos. I’ll also specify that the question of God’s motives is posed in the context of “little-o” orthodox Christianity. In Gnosticism, after all, the question, “Why did God make the world” is meaningless, since in the Gnostic view He didn’t. Rather, the material cosmos is a chop-job made by the ignorant and/or maleficent Demiurge. In the system of Evagrius Ponticus, which we’ve also looked at, the question is meaningful, but it has a clear answer: God made the world as a sort of rehabilitation clinic for the fallen spirits (angels, humans, and demons) through which they would eventually be re-integrated to the realm of God.
In the orthodox framework, however, things are much more mysterious. Orthodox Christianity asserts without question that it was God Himself, not a demiurge, who created the material universe. It never explicitly says why He chose to do so, though. One might say, “Ours not to question why,” and that’s a valid viewpoint. However, in discussing the Fall, we must deal with the fact that we are embodied beings, living in the material world. Not to put too fine a point on it, why are we placed by God in a universe that, despite being purportedly created by Him, and being claimed, in fact, to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31), nevertheless seems like such a nasty place?
This is made even more mysterious by the existence of non-embodied intelligences. Orthodox, Gnostic, and Evagrian Christianity all agree–and I follow them on this–that in addition to humans, God created intelligent spirit beings. Whereas humans are embodied–a mixture of spirit and matter, body and soul–these other beings are pure mind, having no bodies at all. Being bodiless, they are also immortal, not subject to illness, decay, or any of the other bodily limitations of humans. Traditionally we call these beings “angels”, though that is actually unsatisfactory. “Angel”–the Greek for “messenger”, translating the Hebrew mal’akh–refers to the function of those bodiless beings which are sent to bring messages to humans. Most angels do not perform this function most of the time–presumably the cherbuim and seraphim never do (see the beginning of the Book of Ezekiel). Also, of course, some of these angels are said to have fallen, and are thenceforward called “devils” or “demons”. In referring to these beings in their unfallen state, at least, I’ve referred to them in the past as members of the Pleroma. That’s a collective term, though. Despite its problematic nature, the term “angel” will have to do, for the most part.
In any case, the various orthodox and heterodox schools of Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam, for that matter) not only agree that God made the Pleroma, but in general agree that He made it before He made the material cosmos. I will reiterate the point, made more than once in this series, that “before” in this context is a metaphor. Without time and space–which exist only in the context of a material cosmos–temporal terms such as “before” and “after” in the normal sense are meaningless. “Before” God made the cosmos, there was no time as we perceive it. Thus, when I say that God made the angels “before” He made the cosmos, I don’t mean this in the sense that Monday is before Tuesday or 1066 AD is before 2014 AD. Rather, I mean the angels were ontologically prior to the material world. Thus, please keep in mind that from this point on, all words referring to time in reference to the angels are to be understood in this metaphorical or ontological sense.
In and of itself, this is no big deal. God makes different things at different things at different times, just as a carpenter makes different parts of the house at different times. Angels and humans are certainly different; but so are fish and birds. Angels preceded humans; but then again, fish preceded birds by tens of millions of years. So what? The problem is in the traditional view of the relationship of angels and humans. Consider the typical folk belief among Christians of all stripes that the virtuous, when the die, will become angels. That is, beings that were formerly souls enmeshed in material bodies will become bodiless intelligences. This is not, of course, the actual teaching of orthodox Christianity, which teaches “the resurrection of the body” in the Nicene Creed. However, the folk belief does show the rather dualistic mindset of Christians. It’s worth noting that even the orthodox teaching fudges this, though. The traditional teaching is that the saved are raised in a spiritual body (see 1 Corinthians 15, for example). We’ll still have bodies, but they’ll be incorruptible, immortal, and made of spirit, not matter (what Paul calls a “psychic” body–in this context, it means “natural” in the sense of something alive in the normal sense, which he contrasts with the “pneumatic” or “spiritual” body). Whether “spiritual body” is even intelligible or instead an oxymoron is beside the point here. The idea is that the saved, at least, will end up more like angels than like humans. Even Jesus said they will be “like angels” (Matthew 22:30).
All this leads one to wonder: If God wanted us ultimately to be angelic beings, then what was wrong with the angels He’d created in the first place? And why did He make us to live in material bodies if the end result was to be spiritual bodies? Why not make us that way to begin with, as He did with the Bodiless Powers, as the Eastern Orthodox call the angels? That is a poser.
I referred here to the Great Chain of Being–the notion that there is a hierarchy of existence from the lowest, least formed material things, through living things, through humans (the midpoint), then angels, all the way up to God Himself. The idea put forth by many theologians is that God would wish to maximize His creative potential and would thus want to create things at all levels–all links–of the Great Chain of Being. If He had left something out–silicon or salmon or seraphim–the cosmos would be “incomplete”, as there would be unfulfilled levels in the Great Chain of Being. This would be aesthetically unpleasing, lacking in art; therefore, God would create a cosmos with all levels of being represented.
Whether this is a compelling argument or not probably depends on one’s taste. Thomas Aquinas, if I recall correctly, argued that God did not have to make the best of all possible worlds (as later philosophers such as Leibnitz argued) because He is sovereignly free to make whatever He wants. It seems this could apply here, as well. If God didn’t want to make rocks or animals or angels, He would have been perfectly free not to do so; and it’s hard for us to say that such a cosmos would have been “lacking” or somehow worse than the one we have. At best, the Great Chain of Being argument is an argument from aesthetics; but whether it is persuasive or not is at best debatable.
It seems to me broadly that there are two possible reasons God would have for making the material cosmos, then. One would be because of some intrinsic value of the material in and of itself. In other words, there’s something good about the material world that makes it worth creating for its own sake. The Great Chain of Being argument is a subset of such views, but I’m casting a broader net. Whether or not completeness is a value that compels the creation of matter, it may be that there’s something good about matter itself.
This is possible, but it flies in the face of the things about matter that we know are bad: limitation, decay, transience, entropy. One can argue that these things give life meaning; but they also make life a “vale of tears”. I’ve argued before that the fallen bodiless intelligences–i.e. the demons–have messed up much of the material cosmos and that therefore what we see is very much different from what God had in mind in the first place. Even then, though, it seems that limitation, decay, and death would be part of any material world, even an unmarred one. To put it another way, despite all the good things in the material world, we have no way of making an unbiased cost-benefit analysis of the pros and cons of material existence. Why God apparently liked the idea of creating matter in itself is an inscrutable mystery. As above, we can only answer the question, “Why did God create the world?” by saying, “Beats me.” This is unsatisfactory, but it is a possible response.
Possibility two is that God created the material comos instrumentally. That is, He did not created it because He wanted it in and of itself, or because it was self-justifying. Rather, He made it to achieve some other purpose. This is Evagrius’s view, as we’ve discussed several times. According to Evagrius, God made the world as a sort of Plan B after the pure minds of the Pleroma (at least some of them ) fell away from pure contemplation of Him. They were then embodied in bodies of various types as means for them to “work out their salvation” in the long, slow return to God. In short, the material world wasn’t created for its own sake, and had there been no fall, it would not have been created at all.
The little-o orthodox view in Christianity, though I don’t think there has ever been a precise doctrinal formation of it, tends more towards the first view above, namely that God created the material world because it’s intrinsically good, in its original form, at least. In short, God would presumably have made the world whether or not there had been a fall, and making embodied intelligences was always part of His plan, for whatever reason. Evagrius’s view has tended to viewed as borderline or completely heretical.
As to us–well, option one, that the material world is valuable in and of itself, is a leap of faith. I don’t say that critically, but descriptively. Whether the good in the material world exceeds the evil, and whether it was worth creating, are judgments impossible for one without a God’s-eye view of the cosmos to make. One goes by one’s gut and either says “yes” or “no”, but there’s no way of demonstrating one’s answer. Those who are more dualistic will tend towards answering “no”; the more optimist and monist will go towards a “yes” answer. I have to honestly say that I’m divided on the matter myself, though I tend in the dualist direction.
I’m inclined towards what one might call a semi-Evagrian view in that I’m inclined to think that whatever the relative merits of the material cosmos and matter itself, there is at least in part an instrumental motive in God’s creation of it. He has, in short, made it for some reason beyond itself. That notion is one upon which I wish to muse in coming posts.
Part of the series “Legends of the Fall“
Posted on 26/01/2017, in Uncategorized and tagged Christianity, demiurge, Evagrius Ponticus, Gnosticism, Legends of the Fall, material world, matter, philosophy, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.