God and Creation, Part 1: Transcendence
This series is drawn from David’s podcasts, which are available on his website.
If we want to talk about God, creation, and science, where should we start? It’s easy to begin with conflict. We can claim that the rise of modern science is the root of cultural decline. We can dive right into some of the contentious questions about how the Bible and science relate to each other. We can adopt a posture of defensiveness about what Christians believe and the ways in which some people think science threatens our beliefs.
But this is not a good place to start. The place to start is the place where all good Christian theology must start: with God.
“In the beginning, God….” These are the first words of the Bible. “I believe in God….” These are the first words of the Apostle’s Creed. If we want to develop wisdom and understanding about the relation between God and creation, then we need to start with the source of everything: God.
But how do we know anything about God? And how can we say anything about God? As we go about our daily lives, we can’t converse with God in exactly the same way that we might talk with our families, friends or neighbors. We can’t touch or smell God like a patch of green grass or taste Him like an apple. We can’t see him like an image on our TV screens. In theological terms, there is a sense in which God is “hidden” to our human senses. Many great Christian thinkers, such as Martin Luther, spent a good part of their lives reflecting on the “hiddenness” of God.
It may surprise you to hear God described as “hidden.” Those of us who have been in the Church for a while often are much more familiar with talk of how God has revealed Himself to us. We seem to gravitate towards detailed and systematic explanations of what we think we can know about God. God has, of course, revealed Himself to us – or else there would be very little point in trying to speak about Him. In scripture, in the proclamation of the Church, in the created world, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ, God has made Himself known. So why start with how God is “hidden?”
The very fact that God cannot be directly perceived by our ordinary human senses tells us something important about God and creation. God is “hidden” because He is “other.” God is not a patch of grass, and a patch of grass is not God. God is not an apple, and an apple is not God. God is not a television image or painting or statute, and a television image, painting or statute is not God. God is not a human being, and human beings are not God. God is not matter, the stuff of the created world, and matter is not God.
In theological terms, God is transcendent. “God” and “creation” are not the same thing. This is a basic idea that distinguishes Christian understandings of God from many other philosophies and religions. In fact, this emphasis on God’s transcendence is one important difference between the Hebrew and Christian theologies of creation and the prevailing ideas in the ancient near eastern world of the Biblical writers. It also distinguishes Christian thinking about God and creation from some of the important ideas that are common today.
In many ancient near eastern creation myths, the material creation was derived from the body of a god. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, for example, the female god Tiamat is killed by another god, Marduk, and the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse become the earth and the skies. In Egyptian mythology, many of the gods were related to material entities. Ra, for example, was the god of the Sun, Nut was god of the sky, and Geb was god of the earth. These stories reflect an ontology in which there is no sharp distinction between the gods and the material world. The Biblical literature, in contrast, separates the nature and being of the creator-God from the nature and being of His creation.
In contemporary popular Western culture, two of the most common ideas about God and creation really are very old notions dressed up in new clothes.
One is a thought you might hearon TV talk shows, in self-help books, or in popular music or movies: that “everything is one” or that “God is in everything and everyone.” This usually sounds like “pantheism” — the notion that God and the world around us really are essentially the same thing. In American popular culture, this often boils down to God becoming the same thing as our own individual selves. How often have you heard a line like this in a song or TV show or movie: “what you’ve been looking for has been right inside yourself all along” or “the most important thing is to find out who you are?”
The truth of God’s transcendence means that the real basis for a meaningful and good life lies outside of our selves. We are part of creation, and therefore we are not God. We must look outside ourselves to find the source of life. Before we become too critical here, we need to preview for a moment another important theme in Christian theology: that God is also immanent. It is true that creation is an interconnected system and that God is always present throughout all of creation. It is also true that in our created humanity we are made for an intimate connection with God. It is right to look into ourselves as we seek God. As Augustine described in his Confessions, an honest search of the self should reveal a nature that is not self-sufficient, that is not meant to be alone, that longs for relationship with a beauty and harmony and love that the individual self cannot sustain. Augustine called this a “God-shaped void” at the heart of every person.
Yet we also need to be clear that, while the search may begin within our selves, it must not stop there. God is “other,” so we must continue beyond ourselves, in fact beyond everything we think we see, in order to find Him. And the paradox here is that we can only find the true meaning and purpose of our own selves by going beyond ourselves and finding the God who is other than us and who made us.
The other idea often expressed in our popular culture is that “matter is all there is.” Unfortunately, for some people this idea has become the standard for supposedly “scientific” thinking about the world. But this is not a “scientific” idea at all – it is a metaphysical statement (“metaphysical” just means “beyond the physical”) with roots going back to the ancient Greek Stoics. For many educated people in Western culture, if something cannot be verified with the human senses, it is not “real,” or at least it is not worthy of consideration as a matter of “fact” or “reason.”
There are many reasons why this way of thinking about what counts as truth or knowledge has become so influential. Our modern intellectual, political and social systems were shaped by the period from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries known as the “Enlightenment.” Even modern Christianity has been tinged in significant ways by Enlightenment thought.
The Enlightenment, of course, was not all bad. It gave us some great gifts, including the contemporary scientific method and the political frameworks, such as the U.S. Constitution, that support the freedoms we now take for granted.
But like many exciting moments in history, the Enlightenment produced some unbalanced perspectives. The ways in which human beings can know things in addition to observation of the tangible world around us were lost. The sorts of intuitions and experiences that human beings throughout history had understood to reach beyond reason were discredited. The thought that a transcendent God might have broken into history to reveal anything about Himself was mostly set aside.
Christian theology has always asserted that because God is transcendent, human observation and human reason are neither the starting point nor the ending point for true knowledge, wisdom and understanding. If matter is not all there is, then our search for truth cannot be limited to the material world alone. In fact, the beginning of knowledge and wisdom is the realization that God is beyond and other than the created world. Again, a word of balance is in order. Human observation and reason do matter, precisely because God created us as part of a world that is in important ways orderly and knowable. The great Christian thinker Anselm said that knowledge is the act of “faith seeking understanding.” “Understanding” – the sometimes difficult process of bringing all our resources, including reason, to bear on the search for truth – depends on and follows “faith.”
God’s transcendence means that the physical world does not represent the limits of what is true and real. Indeed, the physical world is not the beginning or end of what is true and real. The “beginning and end,” the “alpha and omega,” is the God who is beyond all our thoughts and imaginings.
David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.