What is it Like to Be Created Ex Nihilo?

Why is this post about metaphysics appearing at a website devoted to traditionalism, which is primarily concerned with culture? Because if a people is to make sense of its culture, and feel truly acculturated, and feel that their acculturation fits them well for life in this world – if, i.e., they are to feel, or be, truly sane – they must understand how their culture agrees with the order of being. In respect to that agreement – or, these days, mostly disagreement – and through no particular fault of their own, the people of the West are now quite obtuse. How do I know? I’m obtuse myself.

Perhaps it was ever thus. But, perhaps not. Either way, this culture has only a few years to get its bearings.

So, from time to time I may post about how metaphysical notions that can seem quite incomprehensible at first glance are expressed in our experience – in all our experience. We don’t generally notice these aspects of experience, and in fact picking them out can be quite difficult – at least, I have found it so – because they characterize experience per se. You can’t have an experience at all without expressing these metaphysical notions. But this makes them – like motion or time – very hard to notice, or therefore to think about.

The point of connection to traditionalism is that these basic notions have, it turns out, all been worked through comprehensively by our forefathers. They lie at the core of what it is to be a member of our culture. As it behooves us to understand and honor our patrimony, it behooves us likewise to understand its basic philosophical axioms.     

I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that I do yet understand them. On the contrary; I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, and I still feel mostly confused. But, sometimes a light goes on in my head.

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How did I get to be “in” this moment that I am now in, this moment of experience in the career of such moments that is my life? Where did this moment come from? When I search for the root of my own being – the being that is this moment of me, right now – I cannot find it. It is as if there is nothing there to be found in the first place. My origin is a mystery.

I can, to be sure, see the connections between my past moments. I can see how one thing I did, or that happened to me, led in orderly fashion to another. Also, I can see the connections between past moments of my life and other occasions in the world, those that formed my environment. But these connections I can see only ex post facto. Of the future, I can see nothing. Indeed, if there was something there in the future to be seen, that future would not be future at all, but rather a part of the past. The future would in that case lose all of its character of futurity.

And, while I can see how the moments of my past influence this moment, they did not provide or produce it. If the production of this present moment were something we could properly refer to the past, then this present moment would be nothing more than an aspect of the past; and while this moment feels intimately related to its past, it feels also utterly different than that past. If it were not thus different, why then it would not exist as itself, at all. The past is the past, is complete and whole; it has a surface, a character of its own that is just its own, and that it presents to its future – to these moments we are in right now – as an accomplished fact. If it did not, how could it appear to us as past, or as fact?

The past does not intrude or merge into this present moment, for that would make it not really past. To the extent that any aspect of the past is found in the present moment, it is as a quality of the present moment that is also a quality of some past moment. But the fact that a past moment and a present moment are both characterized by the same quality does not make them somehow ontologically continuous with each other, any more than the red maple leaf and the red ball are continuous parts of the same entity just because they are both red.

Of the present, the moment that is forming right now, I can see the influences arriving from my past, and from the past of the world. They are arriving at some terminus ad quem, some point, where they are all as it were collected and accounted for, and combined into a synthesis, which is the way this moment feels. With Plato, let’s call that point the Receptacle. I cannot discern the origin of the Receptacle of this moment.  Indeed, it seems to me that it was not, at all; that, before these influences from my past began arriving at the Receptacle, there simply was no Receptacle. But then, before there was a Receptacle of the form of me at this moment, there was no me at this moment to apprehend any Receptacles.

When you are knitting a net, and you are about to tie a knot, where is the node in the nexus that your knot will form, before you have knit it? How can you tie a knot at a node that does not yet exist?

So, perhaps the way this moment feels to me – and the way it feels to you – is what it is like to be created ex nihilo.

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We tend to think of creation ex nihilo as something that happened at the origin of the world, but the process of creation is not something that happened once and was then done with. Not in the order of time, anyway. In the order of eternity – i.e., as things most truly are – creation is indeed something that is happening once, and simultaneously at each occasion of becoming. But in the order of time, creation ex nihilo is operative at each occasion of becoming in sequence.

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These deliberations were prompted by a conversation with Joseph Arimatheus over the past year or so. I am indebted to him for sharing his fascinating notion of henadic strings. Apologies to Thomas Nagel for the title of this post.

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9 thoughts on “What is it Like to Be Created Ex Nihilo?

  1. This recalls the famous first passage from Meister Eckhart’s first German sermon, given on Christmas Day (tr. Walshe):

    “Here in time we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and unceasingly bears in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says, ‘What does it avail me that the birth is always happening, if it does not happen to me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’…”

    Both this and the second to last paragraph of the post above may be taken as representative of the traditional doctrine of continual or perpetual creation, or ‘the renewal of creation at each instant’. As expressed by Seyyed Hossein Nasr: “[F]rom the metaphysical point of view the effect can never be divorced from it cause. The word can never be totally separated from its Creator, and there is no logical or philosophical reason whatsoever to refuse the possibility of continuous creation or a series of creations as all traditional doctrines have held.” [Nasr, “Man and Nature”, p.125]

    As for detailed treatments of the topic of continual creation, there is a very good study by Toshikito Izutsu, “The Concept of Perpetual Creation in Islamic Mysticism and Zen Buddhism” in “Mélanges offerts à Henry Corbin” (Tehran: 1977) Also, see Izutsu’s article, “Creation and the Timeless Order of Things”. Other treatments of the topic include Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “Science and Civilization in Islam”, ch.13 and Titus Burckhardt, “Introduction to Sufi Doctrine”, ch.10.

  2. Now when the Father who had begotten the universe observed it set in motion and alive, a thing that had come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods, he was well pleased, and in his delight he thought of making it more like its model still. So, as the model was itself an everlasing Living Thing, he set himself to bringing this universe to completion in such a way that it, too, would have that character to the extent that was possible. Now it was the Living Thing’s nature to be eternal, but it isn’t possible to bestow eternity fully upon anything that is begotten. And so he began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we now call “time.”

    (Timaeus 37c-d, tr. Zeyl)

    As for Nagel’s question, I always imagined that mosquitoes tasted horrible!

  3. This post is a reminder to me of what is becoming, so it seems to me, more and more necessary as the days pass by: for the layman to be able to defend deliberately what every generation of laymen prior to ours was able to take for granted and needed not to deliberate whatsoever upon. Kristor begins with “If a people is to make sense of its culture…” Did anyone before us feel the need to make sense of its culture? Yet I see how any kind of interaction with other people in our society, that is, to live in a particular culture (or perhaps better, to regain that culture), is requiring me to defend and explain first things to the point where I am exhausted before I even begin the real stuff of living. I’m forced to deal with even the closest of family members in what was once a close-knit family throwing my words back at my face with a sometime flippant, sometime pointed and angry, “Well, that’s just what you believe”

    It has always been refreshing to me to take active part in knowing what I believe in regard to religion and divine revelation, i.e., why I am a Christian. But the extreme disintegration in our society, which goes beyond matters of belief, is becoming unbearable. Being required to explain how I know that I know is wearing me out.

  4. But Joseph, you aren’t thinking like a bat! Bats must *love* mosquitoes.

    buckyinky, when someone says, “Well, that’s just what *you* believe,” what they are really saying is, “Well, I’ve run out of arguments that might buttress my position, but I’m attached to it and I refuse to surrender it, so poo on you.” After approximately a thousand experiences like that, I stopped trying to fight them and explain my position. Instead, I just asked them to explain their reasoning, and by wholly unobjectionable, polite questions, asked in the spirit of inquiry, forced them to nail down every step in their arguments. This they cannot ever do. So I usually get to end by saying something like, “so it looks like there is just no way to reconcile your statement x with your statement y.” In the nicest way. When I do this, they sometimes walk away doubting their philosophical convictions, in a way they never would if I had simply demolished all their arguments. Either that, or they explicitly reject either reason or knowledge. That sort is truly gone, and nothing you say can ever work with them. All that will work with the pragmatical types who reject reason or knowledge is for you to live an obviously – not ostentatiously, but just inarguably – better, more virtuous, and thus happier and better-ordered life.

  5. Hi, I am from Australia.

    What is interesting about your essay is that you never used the word Consciousness with a capital C – and yet everything appears in, and is a modification of Consciousness or Conscious Light

    Please check out these two references on Consciousness, and how to live Right Life

    http://www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/truth-life.aspx
    http://global.adidam.org/books/eleutherios.html

    Plus following on from Nagel re understanding Bats or the non-humans

    http://www.fearnomorezoo.org/literature/observe_learn.php

  6. For me at least, a big part of the problem is that “nothing” is a concept I can only grasp intellectually. Try as I might, I can’t intuit or imagine it.

    It’s like trying to see the blind spot that’s right in front of your nose.

    I thank Peter S. for the references to what others have said about continual or perpetual creation. Feser also discusses this in _The Last Superstition_, identifies it with A-T’s First Cause or Prime Mover, and explains how it resolves many of the paradoxes that atheists claim to have found in the doctrine of Creation.

  7. I hope I don’t need to apologize for adding yet another comment, but I had another thought:

    From a somewhat Platonic perspective, continuous creation feels remarkably like participation in the eternal Forms.

    Now I’m off to find my copies of Charles Williams’s _Place of the Lion_ and Henry Corbin’s _Alone with the Alone_.

  8. @ Corky:

    From a somewhat Platonic perspective, continuous creation feels remarkably like participation in the eternal Forms.

    Yup.

  9. Pingback: Credo: Before all Worlds « The Orthosphere

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