Is the Universe God’s Selfie? (rev.)

pantheist

The short answer is: no. A somewhat longer response, however, will give a measure of legitimacy to those at first beguiled by the notion. Genesis and the Abrahamic faiths insist that the world and everything in it is most emphatically not divine, and for a creature to think itself divine is in effect the source of all evil. But it is not quite as simple as that. The same Old Testament book will teach with equal authority that we were created “after the image and likeness of God.” So we are already like God in some way, although sternly forbidden to seek divine likeness in another way. Theological consensus suggests the image of God in us is found in our spiritual faculties (intellect and will), and the forbidden fruit symbolizes an expropriation of “divine rights” in the determination of what is right and wrong. But let us consider only the more abstract, metaphysical question, namely: How is it possible for the Absolute (God) to coexist with the Relative (creation) to begin with?

A couple of popular solutions to the problem of the One and the Many – of the divine and the created – are pantheism and monism. The first teaches that the universe is divine to begin with; the other simply proclaims that all is one. Although both get rid of the duality and might seem to be saying much the same thing, there is a subtle but all-important difference. In pantheism, the universe gets an upgrade, either by being declared identical to God (in some forms), or a dimension of God (as in Spinoza, for example); here are no Platonic shades or shifty maya, but rather simple identification. In monism, however, the emphasis is on oneness, and thus the multiplicity in which the universe glories is downgraded to a mere gossamer appearance – at best a phantasmagoric carousel of index fingers all pointing to the One and then disappearing; at worse (but more logically coherent), an illusion.

The doctrine of creation will have neither of these simplistic evasions. If God is simply the universe, he isn’t much of a god anyway, and we would do better to jettison our prayer-books and agree with the materialists that matter is all there is. If we insist on getting to some great “beyond,” we should study astrophysics instead of theology. And although apparent water on the asphalt may be an illusion indeed, Iguaçu Falls is not (or, for my American readers, Niagara Falls). Once more, our materialists are right again: this world is too real and insistent to be deemed a delusion.

As so often, the stars help us best to understand high matters. Stars that have no planets still shine, but those with planets not only shine, but also have their light reflected. Now, the amount of light does not change in this case, but the illumination – and this is the key – does. This has always seemed to me the best analogy for bringing home how the creation can have what Aquinas calls novitas essendi (newness of being), without thereby diminishing the infinity of God’s being. As with our sun – where there are more illuminated things, but no more light than in the case of a lonely star of the same size but with no planets – so with creation: there are more beings, but no more being. God is, as Aquinas says, not just one more being among others (not even the “Biggest”), but rather Subsistent Being Itself. He is utterly transcendent to the creation only by being radically immanent to it as its cause. He is in the cosmos as Charles Dickens is in his novels, not as a protagonist or a plot line in the story, but as the very cause of the protagonist, the plot and the story itself – in it by being causally and sovereignly beyond it. What Christ would later enjoin morally upon his followers, to “be in the world but not of it,” God himself realizes metaphysically in his mode of presence in the cosmos.

Sharing being is something like sharing knowledge, or love. Augustine teaches us that to share material things means to get less than you would have if you did not share; but by sharing spiritual things, you get more by sharing. Share a cake or a bag of nuts, and you end up with less cake and fewer nuts; but share your knowledge, or your love, and you end up with more knowledge and more love. If this is true of these spiritual realities, how much more of the root of all knowledge and love, which is Being itself.

Still, we have to turn Augustine somewhat on his head. You may not lose anything when you share spiritual goods, but there is one good, and a good that is beyond the distinction between spiritual and material, the sharing of which – even if it does not subtract from you – also does not bring you any “gain.” That good is being itself. When God gives being, he not only does not lose anything, but in contrast to our experiences of gaining by giving knowledge and love, neither does he add anything to himself. A huge increase in illumination results, but the amount of Light remains the same. And we creatures are the real winners. More beings, but no more Being.