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Is God Wholly Separate from the Material Universe?

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?