St. Justin Martyr

Is the Universe God’s Selfie?


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 that the image of God in us is found in our personhood and its spiritual faculties (intellect and will), and that 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, or, in other words, that the only “absolute reality” is the very cosmos itself in its totality (we recall Carl Sagan’s compact confession of his naturalist creed: “The cosmos is all that is, that ever was and that ever will be”); the other proposed solution simply proclaims that all of existence is reductively one. Although both get rid of the duality and might seem to be saying 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); instead of resorting to Platonic shades or shifty maya, one simply proclaims total identification. In monism, however, the emphasis is on oneness, and thus the multiplicity in which the universe ostensibly 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. A God who is identical to the universe would not be much of a god to begin with; we would do better to jettison our prayer-books and intone the mantra E=mc² as sufficient invocation of the cosmic deity. Our inbuilt habit of looking to some great “beyond” would seem to find adequate fulfilment through the study of astrophysics rather than in pipe-dreams of theology. There are rational means of getting over the world’s optical tricks. Still, although apparent water on the asphalt may be an illusion indeed, Iguaçu Falls (Niagra, or Victoria Falls) is not. Our materialists are right: this world is too real and assertive to be deemed a delusion.

However, there is another way to approach the question. 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 solar system – 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 augmented knowledge and deepened 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 in the case of the Creator, 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 him – also does not bring him 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. Something is “added” indeed, but not to him. As with even a huge increase in illumination, the amount of Light remains the same. In creation, it is the creatures who are the real winners. More beings, but no more Being.


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