So today I would like to deep dive with you into a topic which I absolutely love and which is way too much to do complete justice in a short blog post. But I want to try and at least spark a little curiosity in your mind, if nothing else.
You may have heard the term creatio ex nihilo before. It’s a Latin term which means creation from nothing and it is one of the foundational Christian tenets. Would it surprise you to learn that this doctrine is not as uncontested as many orthodox teachers would have you believe? Would it surprise you that I’m all about questioning this core doctrine?
Before I really started reading in depth about these kinds of questions, I had a deep and difficult religious experience. It was a dark night of the soul in which my life as I knew it fell apart, I lost my faith almost entirely, and I was healed from many of the wounds that had troubled me since my youth.
Part of this process was a revelation, over the course of several months, about the nature of infinity. One of the things I gleaned from this revelation (there were many) is that the universe was created not out of nothing, but rather out of everything. And so now I’m going to try and explain that to you very briefly and bring my favourite metaphyscian Eriugena into the discussion. To start with, I’m going to give you my simple definition of infinity :
Infinity is that which does not have any limits
To be infinite is to have no end, no boundaries, no limits. This means that if God is infinite (which God must be but that’s a discussion for another day) then God must have no boundaries. Origen actually mentions this in his work On Prayer while discussing the part of the Lord’s prayer which says “Our Father who art in Heaven”.
Origen rightly points out that God cannot dwell in Heaven because that would mean that Heaven surrounds God and, like I just said, to be infinite means to be without boundary. This inspires him to seek a deeper allegorical meaning, which we won’t be getting into today. Here’s what he says:
“When God is said to be the Father of the saints in heaven, we must not suppose that he is circumscribed by any corporeal shape and dwells in heaven. The reason is that God would be found contained as something less than heaven, since heaven would contain Him; and it is necessary to hold the conviction that everything is contained and held together by Him through the ineffable power of His divinity.”
So, keep this in mind as we move forward. Nothing can contain God because God contains all things. If there was a Heaven in which God lived, then Heaven would be bigger than God. This same logic applies for literally anything you can think of.
As soon as something is infinite it is everything. And this is where we need to realize that there are different ways of using the word infinite. It can mean a sequence without end, like the number π or the golden ratio. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. God doesn’t go forever in one direction. God goes forever in all directions.
For God to be the infinite source of all that is, God must not be bounded in any direction. If there were any boundary for God then God would not be omnipotent. That means that even things like logic are not boundaries which God cannot cross. God surrounds and gives existence to the laws of logic, not the other way around.
This kind of infinity, which I believe is what it means to be God, is therefore all things – everything. There is nothing which God is not. God is, as Eriugena puts it, the creator of everything which does and does not have being. Every possible timeline, every possible creature, every possible thing you could imagine exists eternally in God. In fact, not only the possible things but the impossible things exist in God as well. There is nothing which does not exist in God.
So, to bring this back to my original point, nothingness cannot be a boundary which surrounds God. God fills everything because God is everything. In the fullness of God’s being all of reality already exists. The act of creation, therefore, is not an act of bringing something into existence from nothing, but rather an act of separation.
God takes the boundless infinite existence and creates boundaries. God creates separations between things and this is how reality is formed. God separates those things which exist from those things which do not and in so doing creates existence as a separate entity.
If we want to bring this back to the scriptures, we can see that in Genesis 1 God does this very thing. God separates light from darkness. God does not create light out of nothing, rather God separates these principles thus giving life to both. Neither darkness nor light existed, as such, until there was a boundary created between them. In fact, this is mentioned specifically in the book of Job which says “He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.”
Everything which God creates in Genesis works in this fashion. God creates reality by separating it and sorting it and giving various elements of the infinite existence form and distinction. I talked about this a little bit in another article about the separation of gender called A Theology of Gender: Julian of Norwich and the Image of God.
So, I’m going to throw a dense heavy quote at you from Eriugena’s book Periphyseon. It is very technical neoplatonic language, but it is so right on. This is what I have been trying to say to you in the article, that the true cause of all things is eternal in Christ and that God is the source of all that is and is not, therefore creation is made from everything rather than nothing.
“What will you say, then, about the primordial causes? We must ask why they are called ’causes’ if they do not proceed into their effects. Of course, if all bodies come from elements and the elements come from nothing, then their cause will seem to be nothing rather than the primordial causes which God the Father made in His Word. If that is so, then nothing will not be nothing, but it will be a cause. But if it is a cause, it will be better than the things of which it is the cause.
The necessary consequence will be that either the Word of God, in which the Father made all things, is nothing – and to say ‘nothing’ in the privative sense is impious, for the negation of the Word is found in theology because of the excellence of Its nature, not because of privation of substance – or some cause outside the Word and called ‘nothing’ will be posited, from which God has made everything and in which He stationed everything before it was made. Otherwise there is no cause. And if that is so, I do not see why it is called ‘nothing’. I should have said that it is everything rather than nothing; for in a cause everything of which it is the cause subsists causally and primordially.”
If that makes your head spin you are not alone. Eriugena is famously difficult to understand. He was a weird kind of genius that saw the underlying truth of reality and it can be incredibly difficult for the rest of us to wrap our minds around. But, he pursues the Truth with relentless tenacity and I am convinced, both by my own direct experience of God and by Eriugena’s sound if tiresome logic, that God creates out of everything rather than out of nothing. Eriugena had a sense that the division of reality came about because of the fall of Adam and Eve, which only works for me metaphorically (and even for him was something that happened in the spiritual realm not a physical garden). This life of separation is what makes the darkness of the inner eyes possible and in that sense it is the curse of Adam, which sees the world in terms of boundaries between things. It is the curse of Adam which knows the difference between good and evil and which therefore has the potential to slip into the fog and lose its vitality.
The doctrine of creatio ex omnia is a way of seeing creation which opens our eyes to the fact that God is present in everything. This is the foundation upon which ideas like The Deification of All Creation are built. This way of seeing creation opens our eyes to the fact that God is present in everything. The natural world is merely a separation of the divine unity. And this separation is a beautiful work of art. One of the most flawed pieces of logic I have seen in these discussions is the assumption that because creation is full of separations that it is somehow less good. But, I trust in the intentions of God and I believe that without these separations we would not have the beautiful diversity of life we see all around us. These separations create contraries and that allows us to exercise our free will and choose between them. As Eriugena puts it:
“What appears ugly by itself as a part is not only beautiful in the whole because it has been ordered beautifully; it is also a cause of the beauty of the universe. Wisdom, knowledge, life and light are first recognized and praised through comparison with their opposites. Virtues would receive no praise were there not contrast between them and vices.”
Separation from God is not a sin, it is not an unfortunate accident, it is the way that God paints. It is the art of life, the universe, and everything. It is what allows this magnificent and beautiful creation to exist, and it is essential to the free will which God has bestowed upon us. Without these contraries, made possible by the division of nature, we would have neither vice nor virtue. Because we have free will we can relish in the diverse and beautiful creation of God. Part of the gift of our free will is that we can seek the unity of eternity while still being separate finite beings. And this, my dear friends, is the whole point of the religious life – to be a finite creature experiencing the beauty of the finite world while still knowing the unified source of all that is and is not – to realize that in your essence, you are one with the Everything from which you came.
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