Is God Wholly Separate from the Material Universe?

Is God Wholly Separate from the Material Universe?iStock

The relationship between God and the material universe—the world in which we are born, live, and die, as embodied, material beings; and the universe beyond this world with our increasing awareness of its immensity and, correspondingly, our smallness—is truly a perennial “Big Question.” What is the “reality,” if there is such, of this material world that forms the horizon of our vision and our thinking? What meaning does the fact that we are material beings embody? If there is a “God” (and we should also be clear about which “God” we are speaking), “where” is he, how does he relate to that which he has created, and how can we even speak of this?

After Yuri Gagarin became the first human astronaut, Khrushchev quipped, “Gagarin flew into space but didn’t see any god there.” Of course, we are not surprised by this; it can’t seriously be taken as a “proof” that God doesn’t exist, isn’t “anywhere.” Yet we still habitually think and speak within the same kind of framework. What I mean is that we tend to treat “God” as a “being” who is not within the created universe, but … but where? Outside? What would that mean if not to put him in parallel with the universe in some overarching realm of “being.” Or perhaps we think of “God” as a kind of “power,” a glue, as it were, that holds all things together and perhaps orders all things through a regulatory mechanism we might call providence. But what would this be, apart from something internal to the universe itself? Are we forced to conclude that either there is a “God” somewhere out there or there is no God at all?

The Christian tradition, with its fundamental convictions that God is the Creator and that the Son of God was incarnate within this world, approaches this Big Question in a very particular way, holding its various elements together in a dynamic tension.

“We must begin with God’s own revelation. . .”
On the one hand, the claim that God created the world, understood to mean the universe, underscores the radical otherness of God. If God is the creator of all that is, then God is not part of “all that is”; God is not somewhere out there, beyond the limits of what we can see or beyond the boundaries of the universe in a realm that we can’t see. And neither, consequently, is God subject to the various limitations of created reality; God is not spatially and temporally restricted. As one Eastern theologian from the Byzantine period, Gregory Palamas, put it: “If God is being, we are not being, if we are being, God is not”. One cannot use the word “is” of God and created reality synonymously or in parallel.

On the other hand, despite the apparently enormous difficulties that this seems to raise for even speaking about God, a God who “is” not (at least as we use the word “is” for things in this world), it also opens up a very dynamic space in which God can act. God and created reality are not set in opposition to each other, as they would be if God were somewhere “outside” the material universe. Nor does any particular aspect of created reality, say the “spirit,” have any greater kinship with God than any other, for instance the “flesh.” We might hold that one aspect of our being is higher, superior, or more noble or supposedly “divine” than another, but all aspects of our being stand together on this side of created reality, in distinction to the God who has created all things.

We cannot, then, begin with ourselves and project that aspect of ourselves that we think of as more “divine” onto God in some kind of anthropomorphic manner. Such God would be at most the best that we can think up within our own horizons yet just infinitely greater — all-powerful, all-knowing, all-compassionate, where power, knowledge, compassion are understood on our own terms.

Rather we must begin with God’s own revelation of himself. And here, another Gregory, this time a fourth-century bishop from the Cappadocian city of Nyssa, takes us further. He points out that if God reveals himself, he must necessarily do so in that which he is not: in the way Scripture speaks, He is light shining in darkness, the Word revealed in the flesh, life in death. But then, Gregory notes, there is a further aspect to such revelation: it is only when light shines in darkness that the darkness is known to be dark, yet at the same time it is illuminated, becomes light. The Word becoming flesh is only known once we no longer know the Word in the flesh; only after Christ’s return to his Father do the disciples begin to know who he really is and proclaim that the Word became flesh.

To use an image that Gregory and many others utilized: an iron sword is known by properties such as being cold, hard, and sharp; but when placed in a fire such that it becomes red-hot, though the matter itself remains the same, the properties it now exhibits are very different: it is hot, fluid, and burns. And, finally, life and death are reversed: life is not that which we think we have coming into the world, subject as this is to the necessity of death, but rather through death, no longer living for oneself but for others, comes about a manner of life which, because entered into through “death,” is no longer subject to death and so alone can truly be called life.

Material reality is not an obstacle. . .”

Three points are essential in all this. First, that God is not spatially somewhere else, acting upon the universe from without. Rather it is within this world, this material universe, that God does indeed act, energetically. Later Byzantine writers would distinguish between what God is in himself, his “essence” known only to God, and his “energies” that permeate all of created reality. Second, that this revelatory activity is transformative, and in a very dramatic manner: that which is not God becomes imbued with his properties, as the red-hot iron sword. Material reality is not an obstacle to the revelation or knowledge of God, but is rather the very means and medium of that revelation, and this is at the same time an act of communion or an exchange of properties. And third, this transformation reverses all that we usually think about God. The words from Gregory of Nyssa, referred to earlier, were directed against a certain figure named Eunomius. He claimed that the fact that Christ was crucified and died demonstrates that he could not possibly be as divine as God himself. Gregory’s response was that Christ’s crucifixion in fact demonstrates the superabundance of the transcendent and transforming power of “the God revealed through the cross”.

In this light, early Christians were prepared to see God throughout all creation: the shape of birds with their wings outstretched, the form of the human face with its horizontal axis of the eyes and vertical axis of the nose, and even the banners lifted up by the Roman army, all these, they said, show how the power of the cross is manifest in all created reality, for the cross, they claimed, is the axis, which stands eternally still, while the world rotates around it. This might strike us as rather fanciful, but it does bear witness to the dynamic manner in which the revelation of God in Christ creates a world reflecting himself.

Such would be some reflections from first millennium or so of Christian theology on the question of the relation between God and material reality. It is very interesting to note that what is sometimes called the “theological turn” in contemporary phenomenology comes to very similar conclusions, especially Jean-Luc Marion’s analysis of “saturated phenomenon.”

“Phenomenon are ‘saturated’. . .”

Beginning with Kant, modern thought has often found itself in a bind, trying to make a connection between “things in themselves” and our perception, intuition, or concept of them, situated as this must be within our minds and structured accordingly. All we can actually know, it is argued, are the intuitions we have of the “things in themselves,” and our only secure knowledge is of this and the categories by which the intuitions are structured. Marion argues, on the other hand, that we should begin with the “givennness” of the “phenomenon” (meaning: “that which appears”), recognizing that it always exceeds our attempts to grasp it, that there is more to what appears than is captured by our perceptions, that phenomena are “saturated”.

Beginning with this givenness of what shows itself to us, as it shows itself, phenomenon are “saturated,” as Event (saturating according to quantity, unable to be accounted); as Idol (saturating according to quality, being unbearable by the look); as Flesh (saturating according to relation, being absolute); and as Icon (saturating to modality, being unable to be looked at). Accepting phenomena as saturated in this way, also means accepting their revelatory nature, accepting that something is being revealed to us, rather than “things in themselves” being posited as correlates of our own internal intuitions. Moreover, according to Marion, these four modes of saturation culminate in the figure of Christ, “precisely because as icon He [Christ] regards me in such a way that he constitutes me as his witness rather than as some transcendentalIconstituting Him to its own liking.” If we learn to “see” again, Marion is suggesting, to see what is shown as revelation rather than by setting it in a world which we ourselves create by our own thought processes, we will not simple see more but rather see anew, with new eyes in a new world; as the Psalmist puts it, “in Thy light we see light”.

Questions for Discussion:

Is it possible, then, that the various paradigm shifts that have been taking place in modern science are, analogously, not simply new discoveries of more “facts,” of more knowledge about things at hand, but rather a discovery of a new way of seeing, seeing energy and light as the underlying fabric of all reality?

Is it possible that, in the light of the above, we can see the process of death—from the death of stars to the death of cells, and of course of ourselves—as the driving force of life?

Is it possible that the balance between life and death, described above, is the basis for the drive of the human race to live altruistically in a life of virtue?

Is it possible, finally, not to see God and material reality not as separate or opposed to each other, but rather to see the material reality of the universe as the arena where the activity of God is deployed, bringing all things to himself and transforming all things to become his creation?

How does your faith shape your understanding of the nature of God and the nature of reality?

If you do not claim a faith tradition, what do you believe about the nature of the material universe?

Discussion Summary

Perhaps the most important issue that came up in the discussion on this Big Questions essay was just how difficult it is to talk about God!

Talking about God brings into view more acutely than most other subjects the relationship between language and reality. We all know what it is to live in a world full of material objects, things we bump into, can point to, and hand to each other. We might use different terms for the same objects, but we know what it is that we are talking about. It gets more difficult when we start talking about things we can’t see, say electromagnetic fields or gravity. But here we have a common shared experience: magnets attract iron object, apples fall from trees, and so on. Whatever terms we use, in whatever language, we know we are speaking of the same thing, and so can translate our words, and, if we wish, turn to scientists for a more precise account.

Things get more nebulous when we start to talk about theoretical constructs, such as “the forces of history” or “market forces”, or when we elaborate scientific theories to account aspects of the world in which we live and postulate the existence of particles or forces (which we then invest time and money trying to find) to fill in the gaps of our theories, for in these cases it is our accounts alone (until we find the missing particle) to which we can point when asked what it is that we are speaking of. At this level, though some would argue this is always the case, language and reality are inextricably bound up together.

But when talking about God things are more difficult still. We are not talking about a material object within our world nor are we talking about a “theoretical construct,” at least those who believe in God do not think so, nor are we even talking about something equivalent to a missing particle.

Yet, as was clear from the discussion, there is, on the one hand, a tendency to hold that those who speak about God are all really talking about the same thing, or, on the other hand, to suspect that focusing attention on what is being said about God by particular individuals or faith traditions undermines the reality of God, leaving us no longer actually talking about God but rather only speaking words about words.

The first tendency doesn’t pay attention to what particular faiths actually say, for it assumes that it already knows what the word God means. This is true even if it denies the existence of God: that which is denied is not necessarily the God others believe in. Yet, with regard to the suspicion in the opposite direction, paying attention to the particularity of different religious or theological discourses does not undermine the reality of the God believed in by faith, but in fact opens up the possibility for attentive and respectful dialogue.

Now all of this is of particular importance when we attempt to tackle the question of the relationship between God and material reality. One can, of course, as one commentator did, identify God and the material universe. Such, however, would not be the one that the Christian tradition, and most of the other great faith traditions, identifies as their God. Common to most faith traditions is the claim that God is the creator, with the implication that God is therefore other than that which has been brought into being, that which we think of as existing. But this actually says very little about God. One might, as some early Christian theologians did, claim that the “principle” (loogs) of each created being embodies an idea within the mind of God, summed up together in the Word (Logos) of God. Often, in recent centuries, such a God is likened to a watchmaker who creates a watch, sets it going, and then leaves it to itself, unless this God is needed to account for that which we cannot. But beyond such things, the Christian tradition makes a very specific claim: that God has acted within this world to reveal himself in a very particular way, transforming that which we all experience in common, death, into the beginning and mode of a new and divine life, one which is no longer lives for oneself but altruistically for others. Thus the God proclaimed by Christianity is not another object within the world or outside, yet still parallel to, the world, but, as the Creator is of a different order of reality than the created, and so able to act within the world for its life and salvation.

New Big Questions:

How does one frame a discussion about God across different faith traditions respecting the particularity of each tradition yet enabling meaningful discourse?

How does one frame a discussion between theology and science, again respecting the tradition and logic of each discourse so that each party is talking to, not past, each other?

Does the common experience, to be shared by all, of death, provide a point of reference that can facilitate meaningful discussion?

24 Responses

  1. James Laird says:

    I believe that God exists, but I don’t believe God exists separately from the universe.

    Is it possible for something to have always existed (e.g., God)?

    If your answer is yes, then why not simply believe that the universe has always existed, regardless of its contents, and God has always existed as part of the universe? From there, we can believe that God expanded the contents of the universe. What I’m suggesting, is there’s no *reason* to believe that the universe is a subset of reality. The two terms likely represent one and the same, and there’s no value added by believing in a two-tier system.

    To better relate to the existence of God, perhaps mankind needs a new way of looking at things.

    Each of us perceives of ourselves as a singular entity, an “I” if you will – a single point of emergence that’s associated with a certain 3-space (i.e., a physical body). Perhaps God is fundamentally different – God isn’t an “I”; God doesn’t exist as a singular being. Perhaps God emerges *across* all of the points of emergence that exist in the spectrum of 3-D scale (i.e., the universe).

    There isn’t any reason to believe there was a time when nothing existed in reality, and therefore, there isn’t any reason to believe that everything was created from nothing (that would be quite a big contradiction to believe in). If something has always existed, then whatever that something was, perhaps God emerged across it and therefore God has always existed as well. There is no contradiction therein. Something has always existed, and God has always existed.

  2. Jan Russell Dexter says:

    I enjoyed this rumination, and my knowledge of different Gods and religions is to some extent restricted. So before I comment, are we speaking here about the Christian concept of God (Christ I think is the only earlhtly manifestation mentioned?) against which to measure our separation/commonalities, or going wider?   The discussoin seemed  a little narrow to me, though I seek this clarification before a full response. 

    • Father John Behr says:

      Thank you for the very pertinent question.

      Yes, indeed, it is the Christian God that I am speaking of. When speaking of God, one cannot really speak in general terms, but must identify which God it is of whom one speaks. Moreover, I am doing so within a particular tradition of reflection – my own area of study being that of the Christian theologians of the East during the first millenium, and my own faith being that of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

      I don’t think that this should necessarily be taken as a limitation, but rather as an open and explicit recognition of the ground on which I stand and speak. Only by doing so can we engage in a meaningful dialogue, rather than speaking in general (about which God indeed?).

      I look forward to hearing more about your reflections on the piece or about how you would understand the issues involved from your own perspective.

      • James Laird says:

        I’m thinking that there’s only one truth – one way that reality is for each moment of time. Therefore, when we talk about the existence of God, aren’t different religious labels irrelevant? In other words, regardless of how one human or another imagines the nature of God, that doesn’t change how God actually is. When you say “about which God indeed”, I’m assuming that you believe there’s only one God, and what you’re really saying is “about which definition of God”.

        • rocksteady88 says:

          Do you think people would accept a God that didn’t fit their perception of what it should be? I personally think that if there is a god, we don’t know anything about it. We’re limited to conceiving a God that is just far superior to what we are now, but human beings may have not even reached their full potential.

        • Father John Behr says:

          Thank you James,

          Do you think that labels are really irrelevant? Are labels just labels? That might be the case when we have a material object before us, which I call X and someone else calls Y, but we are both pointing at the same thing. But what happens when we can’t simply point to what it is that we are talking about. Don’t we then have to pay attention to how someone describes that which they are speaking about?

          So, when I hear someone talking about “God”, I would want to know who it is that they are speaking about. My conversation is with the person in front of me, and so I would want to know whether we are indeed speaking about the same God. I certainly believe that there is only one God, but many others don’t, and even if they do I would want to know more about whom it is they believe in before conversing further.

          No I don’t think it is just a matter of different definitions of one and the same God. Wouldn’t taking that approach presume that whatever is being said, everyone is in fact speaking of the same reality. In that case, would one  in fact be listening to whatever someone says about the God they believe in? And then, to which God would one be referring whatever is said, and on what basis?

          • James Laird says:

            Father John Behr,

            You’re right – I wasn’t clear in my comment this morning, and I agree with you that it’s important to use different labels when conversing with others; we need a means for referring to different ideas.

            I guess what I was trying to say, is that whenever people are talking about God, we’re all talking about the same *entity*. The entity doesn’t change depending upon human ideas. Yes, we need to use different terms when communicating with each other about God, but God doesn’t depend on any humans ideas. In other words, when we’re talking about God, we’re searching for ideas that represent the truth, but our ideas don’t affect what God is or isn’t.

            Here’s an analogy to help illustrate what I’m trying to say: Imagine the stars in the night sky. We can think about the nature of the stars, but our ideas don’t affect the reality of the stars – they are what they are.

            Whenever people are speaking with one another and are working together to search for truth, I believe they’re *always* speaking about the same reality. We need some kind of foundation to base rational conversation upon, and I believe part of that foundation is the following: There is only one reality, and reality exists in only one manner for each moment of time (i.e., there are no contradictions in material reality – contradictions only exist between different ideas in peoples’ minds). If we aren’t willing to agree that there’s only one reality, then we’d need a means for referring to different realities so we could know which reality a person’s ideas are associated with. In addition, we aren’t currently able to relate to any other realities than the one we’re in, so what would be the point in trying to refer to other realities? We must assume there’s only one reality, or else we simply can’t debate what the truth is.

          • Father John Behr says:

            Hi James,

            Thanks for trying again.

            But look at the first sentence of your second paragraph: “I guess what I was trying to say, is that whenever people are talking about God, we’re all talking about the same *entity*. “

            Is that really so? If two people use the word “God,” does their use of the same word mean that they are speaking about the same reality?

            Most people, unreflectingly, immediately have an idea in mind when they hear the word “God” – a kind of super-being, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc, where these terms are based upon our own experience of ‘power’ or ‘knowing’ and so on.

            In my essay I tried to be very clear and specific about the God that, as a Christian theologian, I believe to have revealed himself in Christ, and how that revelation is in fact a transformation – turning upside down all our prior conceptions (service is the true mode of lordship, not living for oneself is entry into a life which, because entered into through ‘death’, cannot be touched by death, and so on) – manifesting the activity of God who is always at work in and through the material universe.

            Someone else from a different religious tradition would use the word “God” with a very different content.

            So, in what sense are we in fact all talking about the same God?

            Doesn’t claiming that everyone in fact is, subject whatever they might be saying to what we are thinking already (if there is a God, there can only be one, and so everyone must really be talking about him), without even really listening to them?

            These are really difficulty, but really important, questions.

          • James Laird says:

            Father John Behr,

            I agree with you – these are really difficult questions.

            When you ask “in what sense are we in fact all talking about the same God”, you imply that there could be more than one God to talk about. What I’m trying to say, is that there’s more than one idea that humans have about God, but there’s likely only one God.

          • Father John Behr says:

            Hi James,

            The apostle Paul says simple “there are many gods and many lords” – don’t worry about the word “gods” being written with lower case; this is a modern convention. Look around- both in his time and in ours – there are many different people using the word “god” in all sorts of ways; and also, living with respect to something that is effectively their god, even if they don’t use the word.

            But then Paul continues “for us there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 8.5-6). And I would certainly say the same, and on the basis of this confession, say that the other “gods” are not real (and so spell it with a lower case g). But that doesn’t mean that those who are speaking of their “gods” are really, all the time, speaking of the one I call God.

            So descriptions really do matter. We have come, for all sorts of historical reasons, to simply assume a concept of God – somewhere “out there”, all-perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful – often a rather “anthropomorphic” projection (ie taking all the things we value in ourself and project them in a superlative manner on an infinite being). And then one ends up with the predicament with which I started the essay: something like Gagarin saying, I was in space but I didn’t see him. Or else we end up with questions such as how does this infinitely perfect being relate to our material universe.

            By working carefully through how early Christian theologians, following the Gospel, speak about God – identify him (ie not as an “anthropomorphic projection”) we end up in a much more interesting space and place. Perhaps have a look again.

            Hope this hleps.

          • James Laird says:

            Father John Behr,

            When the apostle Paul said “there are many gods”, I’m thinking that he meant there are many different *ideas* in peoples’ minds about God; I don’t think he meant there are actually multiple Gods that exist in reality. Here’s why I say that: When Paul continues and says “for us there is one God”, he effectively states there is one sole creator, thereby implying (as you said) “that the other “gods” are not real” – they’re simply false *ideas* in people’s minds. In other words, apostle Paul likely knew that it would be a contradiction to believe that more than one sole creator exists in reality (i.e., the Christian God is the sole creator, and in addition, there are also other creators). Therefore, I believe Paul’s words should be interpreted to mean: there are many different ideas in peoples’ minds about God.

            Paul’s words support the fundamental point that I’m trying to make.

          • Father John Behr says:

            Thank you James,

            Perhaps the most important point in all this is that if I am having a discussion with someone else, who uses the word “God” in a totally different sense than I would, I would certainly hold that the God of which they speak is not real, does not exist; but nevertheless that “God” seems to “exist” for them, and if we are to have a conversation, I need to take that fact into account (whatever I may think about it). Of course, I could just end the conversation, or continue to speak my mind without listening to the other person; but the chances are that I would not be listened to in return.

            Hence, my repeated refrain, that we need to be clear about how we are using the term “God” and of whom it is we are speaking when we so do.  But, as I have also tried to point out, this is not a limitation or a restriction, but actually enables us to be clearer and offer more positive content, opening  up spaces in which we find out more than we thought before.

  3. rocksteady88 says:

     If a being that Christians considered to be God did exist I don’t believe it would have to be separate from the material world. I think that if there is a God it is the material universe. Why must God possess ability beyond what we encounter? Maybe when we look at the Earth and different parts of the universe we are seeing what God knows. We are seeing the limits of God’s powers. We’re right smack in the middle of God.

     People believe that in order for one to be considered the Christian God it must be perfect in every way, but if we are not perfect ourselves, how can we be so sure that this God is familiar with our idea of perfection. We could be holding God to an incredibly high standard that isn’t fair.  This is the problem of our perceptions of what should be, getting in the way of what is.

    I do believe that new discoveries in science are truly discoveries. A change in your perception of a certain fact can be a discovery in itself.  This is similar to the realization that you are going to die one day. The knowledge has always been there from the start, but it’s not until your perception of what it means to not have life changes, that you begin to truly contemplate death and I believe that in some people this can be a major driver in what they do with the rest of their time here.

    • Father John Behr says:

      Thank you for your reflection on my comments.

      Your comments raise many more questions: what does it mean to say that God is the material universe? Would one reverse the statement to say the material world is God?

      Regarding the points about projecting a humanly conceived perfection upon God, although there is a long tradition of doing something like that (speaking of God as “all-powerful”, “all-knowing” etc), when the Christian tradition speaks like this it does so in the framework of an overriding reversal: the “all” doesn’t function so much to say “like us but even more”, but rather overturns such comparisons, so that the strength of God is manifest in weakness, wisdom in folly (and the other reversals that the apostle Paul speaks of). What I tried to do in the essay above is to think consistenly within the paradigm of such revelation, about the God that Christians claim has been revealed in Christ, rather than about a “God” in general, without being clear about whom we are speaking or how. I would suggest that when we are clear about this, we find a greater space, than we might have expected, in which God does indeed act within the material universe, the arena of in which the wisdom of God is played out, and so can be open to advances in scientific and philosophical knowledge. 

  4. Jon Trevathan says:

    Albert Einstein claimed that “Matter is frozen energy”
    David Bohm has stated that “Matter is frozen light”
    I have not found that either physicist expounded further on these statements.
    However, if matter is understood to be a lower energy condensate of a highe
    r energy reality, a connection between the physics and numerous ontological/theological writings from multiple faith traditions can be made.

    • Jon Trevathan says:

      Let’s first consider the “matter” in the context of Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2? “According to the theory of relativity, mass and energy as commonly understood, are two names for the same thing.” Louis de Broglie then connected energy, mass, and momentum through the relativistic relation E2 = (mc2)2 + (pc)2 Where E=Energy; m=mass; c=the speed of light; and p=momentum Which he reduced to its nonrelativistic limit: E = p2/2m. Louis de Broglie went on to postulate that all particles with momentum would have a wavelength lambda λ = h/p where h is Planck’s constant, and p is the magnitude of the momentum of the particle. This became one of the basis of quantum mechanics and experiments have since shown that elementary particles, atomic nuclei, atoms, and even molecules exhibit wave properties. The further reduction of waves into vibrations/oscillations is very nearly a tautology Max Planck As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter. Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944) (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797)

  5. Jon Trevathan says:

    “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”     (1 John King 1:5, James Bible, )

    The Islamic philosopher Suhrawardi developed an ontological framework based entirely upon light. “Light (nur) is the most basic and self-evident substance (actually a beyond or meta-substance) underlying existence, all reality is nothing but light in varying degrees of intensity. ‘In fact, all things are made evident by it and should be identified in reference to it’.’ God, whose first attribute is unity, is pure light. He is described as the Light-of-lights (nur al-anwar) by which all things in existence subsist:
    ‘The Essence of the First Absolute Light, God, gives constant illumination, whereby it is manifested and it brings all things into existence, giving life to them by its rays. Everything in the world is derived from the Light of His essence and all beauty and perfection are the gift of His bounty, and to attain fully to this illumination is salvation.’
    All beings share in His light, but their reality depends to large extent on how close in proximity they come to it: the closer they are the more real; the further, less real. Light, therefore, is existence and darkness (zolma), non-existence. ...
    A significant development for Islámic philosophy and Sufism issuing from Suhrawardi’s ontological schema, is the notion of the `alam al-mithal (the World of Image Exemplars, what Corbin has dubbed the Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginal [not imaginary] World). The Mundus Imaginalis is analogous to Plato’s “World of Forms” and is situated as intermediary realm between the world of pure angelic intelligences (jabarut) and our sensible cosmos. It is an isthmus (barzakh), world of the Kingdom (malakut) and the plane where all visionary, mystical, eschatological and initial after-death experiences occur. As such, on this level “bodies are spiritualized and spirits corporealized.”

    SOURCE: Nima Hazini, Neoplatonism: Framework for a Bahá’í Metaphysics

  6. Jon Trevathan says:

    In quantum mechanics, the initial quantum state of any system evolves over time into a probability distribution of all possible states consistent with the initial boundary condition. If an initial state is assumed in which all Divinely ordained states and spacetime geometries are subsumed, a probability distribution of possible states, including all observable states, will necessarily arise. Applying time symmetry, this probability distribution will simultaneously appear as the set of all futures and the set all histories which can arise from and lead to this common point of origination and destiny. As this point of origination constitutes both the system’s beginning and ending boundary condition, all actualizations must occur within this contextuality.

    If the big bang is then understood to have occurred as an actualization event within this preexistent contextuality, it would constitute the initial boundary condition for our universe and, inter alia, embody all of the laws of physics pursuant to which our universe could thereafter evolve. All subsequent actualizations would then be strongly bounded by this and the set of all immediately preceding actualizations; but would also be subtly influenced by a future unity or destiny toward which all of our possible futures would necessarily converge.

    This speculation introduces a kind of “determinism” into the time-evolution of Creation. From the frame of reference of the scientist, the process is an entirely “natural phenomena” and, from the frame of reference of the theologian, the centripetal convergence toward unity is the Divine destiny ordained by God”. The beauty of the speculation is that “determinism” comprised of contingency preserves “Free Will” within that contingency. In other words, human choice exists within those individualized boundary conditions of each person’s “Now”.

  7. David Roemer says:

    Fr. Behr sounds like he agrees with John Dewey’s concept of God: God is real because people act as if God exists. Liberal Christians think life ends in the grave, but keep it to themselves to express their feelings of compassion for their fellow human beings. They believe in Jesus’ teaching about peace and good will, but not about hell fire.

    Humans are not “material beings,” as Fr. Behr says. Humans are embodied spirits. We can comprehend what a human is because we know everything we do and everything that happens to us. But we can’t define or explicate what a human being is other than to say humans are attentive, intelligent, rational, and responsible animals.

    Fr. Behr explains the mysteriousness of God without explaining why we know that God is a real being and not a mental being. We know for sure that other humans exist, which means that humans are finite beings. But finite beings need a cause, so an infinite being must exist for the universe to be intelligible. In Western religions, the infinite being is called God. God has knowledge, and the other properties of a person, by analogy. Worms exist and worms have knowledge, humans exist and humans have knowledge. Since God exists, God has knowledge too.

    This raises the question of what motivated God to create finite beings. The only thing that could motivate God is self-love. Finite beings exist because God loves Himself as giving. Since God could love Himself without giving, the existence of finite beings is a mystery. 

    Fr. Behan may not be a liberal Christian, but he is certainly guilty of “casting his pearls before swine.” 

    • James Laird says:

      The truth is difficult to find, and humans move closer toward it through discussion and debate with others. It’s okay for good people to disagree during that process. When a person feels strongly about their religious views, and they’re unable to convince another person to believe in the same things that they do, there’s no reason for the religious person to believe they are somehow “better” than the other person, and the other person is a lower-form of life.

      Here’s how Wikipedia defines the meaning of the phrase “casting pearls before swine”: “Pearls before swine” and “casting pearls” refer to a quotation from Matthew 7:6 “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

      During our discussions on BQO, do we really want to stoop to the level where people whose beliefs are unlike yours are referred to as swine?

    • Father John Behr says:

      Dear David,

      I would certainly never say that God is real because people act as if he is real, or, to put it another way, reduce God to a mental construct. Certainly not!

      As my responses to various comments have indicated, I want to be really very clear and careful in how I speak and how I hear others speak, giving reasons for what I say and explaining how and why I make certain claims, what the content of those claims are, and their implications.

      In the essay I drew upon a tradition of reflection that spanned over a thousand years, and one that I would want to give voice to today (in dialogue with certain strands of contemporary philosophy and science). It is by no means everything that that tradition has to say; there is much, much more I could say (and do say and write in other contexts). The purpose of this essay for this forum was specifically focused: what is the relation between God and the material universe.

  8. jonjermey says:

    If the failure to observe God anywhere can’t be taken as evidence of the non-existence of God, then what can? I know God doesn’t exist for the same reason I know there is no elephant in my study; because the experiences I have in my study can be fully explained without the need to postulate the existence of an elephant, material or immaterial, effable or ineffable. Surely even Sophisticated Theologians (TM) can recognise that every apologetic move in the last two centuries has taken their hypothetical God one step further away from the properties and capabilities that we associate with real, existent objects, and one step closer to the properties and capabilities that we associate with fictional characters like Mr Pickwick and Harry Potter? If you think God ‘exists’ in any sense other than that which we can say Harry Potter ‘exists’, then you need to explain why you think so. What can your God do that Harry Potter can’t?

    • Father John Behr says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      Looking for God is not like looking for an elephant, whether in the room or not. If that is the kind of God one is looking for, one certainly will never “see God.”

      The tradition of reflection I drew upon in my essay is not from the last couple of centuries, when, with the rise of modern science it certainly seems that some religious apologists took the kind of route that you speak of and began to speak of God more a a hypothetical creator/designer rather than the ‘real objects’ spoken of by modern science. Rather I drew upon reflection from a thousand and more years prior to this modern predicament, to show how Christians were already speaking in a particular way: If God is the creator, then he will not appear as an elephant in the room; as the creator of all beings, he is not part of the realm of being that he has cause to be. So, how then does he reveal himself? I suggested that what characterizes the Christian view is that the revelation of God is always bound up with transformation, primarily conquering death – not removing it (for we still die, after all) – but conquering death by his death, so that our death can now be used as a means of life, already within this life (when I no longer live for myself alone, but for others, then the life I have begun to live even now is one entered in through death and so no longer touched by death) and then through our physical death. Primarily with this central message of Christianity, but then extending through other transformative events.

      Can one “see” this? Not directly; of course not. But can one see its effects? Certainly! Two thousand years of people living by this is certainly a phenomenon to be considered – surely a witness to something “real”!