Nothing Comes from Nothing? God in the Middle

Note: This paper was recently presented at the Catholic Theological Society of America annual conference in the Comparative Theology Reading Group: “On Reading the Bhagavad Gītā” With Francis Clooney, S.J.

Straining for a Properly Interreligious Vocabulary

On June 10, 1994, at the CTSA meeting in Baltimore, in response to Frank Clooney’s Theology after Vedānta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology, I complained that Frank was inconclusive. I discovered contrasts where he discovered comparison. He responded, as he has often, that systematic interpretation needs a theologically coherent community of discourse. I agree. A community of discourse needs vocabularies across languages. Translators are both traitors and bridge-builders.

A mixed English theological vocabulary based on Jewish and Christian scripture and theology, Greek and Latin philosophy, the English philosophical tradition, and the religion and irreligion of English speakers, constrains us. Sanskrit is almost always a later acquisition. Translating the Bhagavad Gītā is challenging. From the Hindu side, Parimal Patil states:

gitalogo“It is not possible . . . to accurately describe Hindu arguments and theories in English without a deep familiarity with philosophical and Christian theological writing in English. Thus, any discussion of Hindu material that is authentic to tradition and intelligible to contemporary theologians will already have to be comparative and dialogically responsible to Christian traditions of theology . . . As theologians from other traditions are allowed to contribute to the conceptual resources of the discipline, the vocabulary and style of English language theology should . . . become properly interreligious.”[1]

Patel is too sanguine about the coherence of our English theological vocabulary, not yet “properly interreligious.”

Forty-three years ago in June 1972, I began studying Sanskrit, tutored by Fr. Thomas Berry. My first assignment was the Gītā. I translated it before reading it. I spent the summer flipping through Sanskrit-English dictionaries looking for English words that might match the Gītā’s Sanskrit. I did not understand that the dictionaries depended on Oxbridge study of Latin and Greek, the Authorized Version, the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare, etc. The dictionaries were unfamiliar with philosophical and theological vocabularies from the Latin Christian tradition, and were certainly unfamiliar with the Greek and Oriental Christian traditions. The emergence over the past fifty years of scholars professionally literate in Sanskrit and in Catholic theology is significant, but not sufficient to the task. We may be losing ground. As Frank states:

“Behind all of this, I think, is the problem that there are fewer scholars today with a solid theological education; ‘theology’ and all the doctrines included in a major Christian tradition keep getting blurred, even if this or that scholar is more careful on the Hindu side. Perhaps the real threat to comparative theology is simply a loss of any proper sense of theology, and a forgetting of the obligations of the theologian to know something definite!”[2]

To know something definite in comparative theology, we need a properly interreligious English theological vocabulary that is appropriate both to the Christian traditions and to the Hindu traditions.

Kṛṣṇa’s Oracle

Chapter 2 presents Kṛṣṇa’s response to Arjuna’s reluctance to fight. Having lost my translation from 1972, I use Feuerstein’s translation.[3]

“The Blessed Lord said.” What follows is oracular. “Haec dicit Dominus.”

“You grieve [for those who are] not to be grieved for, and [yet] you speak words of wisdom. The learned do not sorrow for the dead or the living. Verily, never was I not, were you not, or were these rulers not, nor will any one of us not be henceforth. Just as in this body the body-essence [experiences] childhood, youth, and old age, so too it obtains another body after death. A thoughtful [man] is not confused by this . . . Of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being; of the existent there is no disappearance. Moreover, the ‘end’ of both is seen by the seers-of-Reality. Yet know as indestructible that by which this entire [world] is spread out. No one is able to accomplish the destruction of this immutable [Reality]. Finite are said [to be] these bodies of the eternal embodied [Self], the Indestructible, the Incommensurable. Hence fight, O descendant-of-Bharata.” [2.11-12, 16-18]

First Contrast: Creatio Ex Nihilo

I will consider three contrasts. The Gītā’s worldview is not the worldview of natum ex Patre unigenitum [the only-begotten born from the Father], of creatio ex nihilo [creation out of nothing], and of beginning. This worldview, since the Council of Nicaea, has centered Christian doctrine. Kṛṣṇa’s assertion challenges it head-on: “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being.”[4] There is a peculiar logic here caught by the Sound of Music: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could so somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” The judgments of the two worldviews are asymmetrical.[5] The works of Sarah Grant and David Burrell with their focus on Śaṅkara are helpful.[6] They propose that Śaṅkara’s teaching of a “non-reciprocal relation of dependence” is a bridge to Aquinas’ theology of creation. About a thousand years after the Gītā’s composition, Śaṅkara wrote its first extant commentary from the position of advaita, non-dualism. To avoid category mistakes and genealogical confusion, caution is needed. The Gītā’s teaching is not premised on anything like creatio ex nihilo. Nor is it premised on Śaṅkara’s subtle teaching on advaita, which, however, builds on this very verse.

The doctrine of creation is not easily explained. It is possible to conceive of God without a created world. It is possible to conceive of a world without God. The world might not have been. If it does exist by creation, it is “gifted” by God. Gratitude is the appropriate response. Gratitude yields a theology of human freedom and love for God. One thing that creation is not is a change. Therefore the notion of beginning is almost as peculiar a notion as creation itself. In contrast to the Gītā’s teaching, the created universe has no material cause. Nothing changes in creation. Thomas Aquinas states this emphatically.

“Creation is not change, except merely according to a mode of understanding. For change means that the same something should be different now from what it was previously . . . But in creation, by which the whole substance of a thing is produced, the same thing can be taken as different now and before only according to our way of understanding, so that a thing is understood first as not existing at all, and afterwards as existing . . . Creation places something in the thing created according to relation only; because what is created is not made by movement or change . . . Hence creation in the creature is only a certain relation to the Creator as to the principle of its being.”[7]

Aquinas also argued that “in the beginning” could not be reasoned to. It requires revelation.

“I answer that, by faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist.”[8]

Thus the great Hindu dialecticians had no reason to reason to “beginning.” The conjoined creation of the universe by God out of nothing and of one that begins may be a “haplax legoumena” [one-time teaching] with no corresponding Hindu homologue. This judgment is tentative. The Gītā’s teaching that “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being” and the Christian teaching that God created the world out of nothing with a beginning depend on revelation, not on reasoning alone. Both are, to borrow John Millbank’s phrase, in a “suspended middle” between reason and revelation.[9] A properly interreligious vocabulary will attend to this “suspension.

Second Contrast: Why Is There Anything?

The second contrast challenges both the Gītā’s worldview and the Christian. Contrasts are not just binary. There are more than two hands involved [Shiva has six hands]. The question why there is anything rather than nothing haunts contemporary philosophical culture. The question is oblique both to Christian doctrine and to the Gītā. Martin Heidegger asks:

“Why are there ‘existents’ rather than nothing? That is the question. Clearly it is no ordinary question . . . And yet each of us is grazed at least once, perhaps more than once, by the hidden power of this question, even if he is not aware of what is happening to him.”[10]

This question cannot be answered. It is open. There is no Archimedean point from which to answer. Hans Urs von Balthasar states:

“Why in fact is there something rather than nothing? The question remains open regardless of whether one affirms or denies the existence of an absolute being. If there is no absolute being, whatever reason could there be that these finite, ephemeral things exist in the midst of nothing, things that could never add up to the absolute as a whole or evolve into it? But, on the other hand, if there is an absolute being, and if this being is sufficient unto itself, it is almost more mysterious why there should exist something else.”[11]

Contrasting Christian creatio ex nihilo and the Gītā’s “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being” leaves us in a second “suspended middle” of differing rationalities and revelations. The question why there is anything at all and the peculiar logics of a peculiarly unanswerable question compound the task. We are suspended in a suspension. The tasks of comparative theology are not just theological. Therefore we need to develop a properly interreligious vocabulary.

Concluding Contrast: Seeing with a New Eye

Chapter two was a good place to begin reading, but should not end there. Kṛṣṇa’s answers to Arjuna’s questions lead in chapter ten to wonder at who Kṛṣṇa really is. He is clearly more than a mere chariot driver. Then in chapter eleven, Kṛṣṇa gives Arjuna a new eye to really see him.

“If, Lord, You think it possible for me to see that [form of Yours], O Lord of Yoga, then do reveal to me [Your] immutable self. The Blessed Lord said: O Son-of-Prithā, behold My forms, [which are] a hundredfold, a thousandfold, of varied kinds, divine, many-colored and many-shaped . . . Behold now, O Gudākesha, the whole universe, [with all] moving and unmoving [things], abiding as one here in My [cosmic] body, and whatever else you desire to see. Yet, you will not be able to see Me with your own [physical] eye. I will give you the divine eye . . . Then the son-of-Pandu saw the whole universe, divided manifold, abiding in the One, there in the body of the God of gods . . . The Blessed Lord said: Therefore you arise [and] win glory! Conquering the enemies, enjoy a prosperous kingdom! Verily, they are [all] slain by Me. Be [My] mere instrument, O Savyasācin!” [11:4-5, 8, 13, 33]

Non est finis legendi et quaerendi!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1]Parimal G. Patel, “A Hindu Theologian’s Response: A Prolegomenon to ‘Christian God, Hindu God,’’ in Francis X. Clooney, Hindu God, Christian God: How Reason Helps Break Down the Boundaries between Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 192.

[2] Personal communication.

[3] Georg Feuerstein, with Brenda Feuerstein, trans. The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (Boston: Shambala, 2014).

[4] See the chapter entitled “Preference for the Negative” in Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1964), pp. 52-57.

[5] See my, “The Asymmetry of ‘Creation’ and ‘Origination’: Contrasts within Comparative Theology,” forthcoming in Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies.

[6] See Sara Grant, Toward An Alternative Theology: Confessions of a Non-Dualist Christian (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); “The Contemporary Relevance of the Advaita of Sankaracarya” in Bradley J. Malkovsky ed., New Perspectives on Advaita Vedanta: Essays in Commemoration of Professor Richard De Smet, S.J. (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 148-163; and David Burrell, Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

[7]Summa Theologiae I, 45, 2, ad 2 and I.45.3.

[8] I.46.

[9] John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate concerning the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2005).

[10]Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961 [1953]), p. 1.

[11]Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004 [1963], p. 143.

Is Marriage a Name or a Reality?

obergefell vs hodgesThe Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges cries out for commentary, and there are many more able persons than I providing just that. I won’t try to speak to the decision itself, or even to its consequences. What I would like to talk about is its antecedents: how did we get here? To those of you who study theology (perhaps at St. Joseph’s College!), I want to affirm what you are doing and show how the supposedly abstract ideas we think about actually have enormous power to shape the world for good or ill.

The key to the marriage debate, it seems to me, is the choice between two options: either marriage is a reality to which we conform ourselves, or it is a name for something that we change to fit our desires. Marriage either changes us, or we change it. Guess which one is more comfortable?

The first option is usually called “realism.” The philosophy lying beneath the second option is called “nominalism.” To oversimplify, nominalism holds that reality is disconnected from what happens in our minds. We have concepts or ideas, but those concepts don’t necessarily line up with the real world. So when we name something—say, a minivan—what we are really doing is sorting out our own thoughts about transportation, not naming something that really is beyond our mind. For the nominalist, there is a disconnect between the reality between his ears and the reality of the rest of the world. “Nominalism” comes from the Latin word for names. For the nominalist, names don’t signify something real in the world. We can play with names, make them into what we want. There is no reality tying us down.

That might all seem very abstract, until we apply it to our culture. Then we see that we are all nominalists, unless we work really hard not to be.

Let’s apply these categories to the marriage debate. If marriage is not a “mere” name but is a reality, then our task is to understand that reality and act accordingly. (This is a receptive approach to the world, if you like.) Even prescinding from what Scripture says, the history of human society demonstrates that marriage is the pair-bonding relationship between a man and a woman that facilitates the best environment for raising children. Its features are fidelity, exclusivity, and totality. It is, as the Code of Canon Law says, a partnership of the whole of life oriented to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.

This orientation toward children is, by the way, why governments have ever cared about marriage. The government does not and should not care about your intimate friendships. You don’t have to get a friendship license. You don’t need to appear before a justice of the peace to swear your commitment to your best friend. And this is a good thing. The government is not in the love-and-friendship business. It is very much in the looking-out-for-the-future business, which is why it has cared about marriage, because kids flourish when their biological parents are committed to each other and to them.

If, conversely, “marriage” is just a name that we tack onto intimate relationships, then it is elastic and can be stretched to accommodate all kinds of relationships. Why stop at two people? Marriage is just a name for indicating “the relationships which we value.” It’s a governmental seal of approval. Without it, our relationships aren’t just not-marriage; they are actually, positively demeaned. If marriage is desirable, and people desire it, they should have it. A double-tall latte is desirable; if people desire it, they should be able to have it, and if they can’t, it’s discrimination.

What may or may not apply to consumerist choices cannot apply to relationships, though. Plenty of people can’t marry: my six kids, for example. They don’t have the prerequisites to marry (such as psychological and sexual maturity). It’s not discrimination to tell my kids they can’t marry; it’s simply a realization that “marriage” is not an empty name signifying nothing but rather a reality that you either can or cannot fit into. It’s certainly not a condemnation or judgment of my kids. I can’t be a basketball center (I’m 4’11” and most certainly cannot jump). While this has caused fleeting moments of discomfort—stupid gym class!—it is not a matter of discrimination, but of reality.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t believe Justice Anthony Kennedy posted a status update along the lines of: “Just confirmed my nominalism in the Obergefell majority decision! ‘Like’ it if you reject metaphysical realism too!” Nominalism is generally not a consciously chosen lifestyle option. It’s just the default mode. But it’s not healthy. As I have argued elsewhere, it’s better to live in reality, even when it requires me to change, than to try to construct reality to fit me.

Angela Franks teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.