Shakespeare’s King Lear says, “Nothing will come of nothing.” In common terms, so true; but in the classic Christian doctrine of creation–“creatio ex nihil”–creation out of nothing–the whole universe, the whole of reality comes out of nothing. This is not a Biblical account but a spiritual and philosophical intuition and result of a certain line of reasoning. Here we are in the antechamber of a great mystery. Of course one can deny the whole thing by saying that this whole always existed, never not-existed. We are merely a random rearrangement of elements that always existed–ultimately we are the result of chance. Between these two positions there are some philosophical choices about what line of reasoning one finds more plausible. Ultimately of course the choice is never made without other directing influences. But in either case, there is this annoying and mysterious reality of “nothingness” still hovering around.
Let us clarify: there is nothing, and then there is “nothing”. By “nothing” we do not mean just an empty space. Afterall, an empty space is still something! So “nothingness” here will mean a lot more than just emptiness in the normal sense.
There is a nothingness that is beyond all our conceptions of nothing. It is not just non-being as opposed to being. No it transcends the opposition of being and non-being.
There is a poverty that is beyond poverty.
There is a silence which is beyond all silence.
There is a solitude that is beyond all solitude.
There is a communion beyond all community, togetherness and connectivity!
There is a Name beyond all names and it cannot be named.
Such is the spiritual and mystical intuition that inhabits a number of traditions.
The cawing of the crow in the freshness of the morning stillness emerges out of this Nothingness and returns to it. When your log fire goes out, this is where it goes to.
One of the deep metaphysical fears lurking in the thought of death is that we will slide into nothingness. Even some of the saints have reported that at the approach of death there was this chilling, cold feeling of nothingness opening up before them. They go beyond this, of course, but some will say this is simply a delusion; others will say that they transcend this fear of non-being that death signifies and they transcend into the Nothingness beyond non-being.
The Christian notion of God is beyond both being and non-being, and this is the beginning of the mystery of God. Classic Catholic mystical theology has always said that we know God most when we realize that we do know God. St. Augustine said: “If we can grasp it, it’s not God.”
Most Christians rely on the figure of Jesus in the New Testament, both artistically and in the ideas and images in their minds. They also may rely on the images of Mary and the saints. This seems to bring the reality of God close to them in a comforting way. All this is absolutely true and good. However, what too often happens is that a person never really encounters the awesome mystery of God which abides in their hearts and surrounds their lives on all sides. Without some such encounter of this awesome Mystery, our common piety is apt to deteriorate into something trivial and superficial. Mystery is the essential foundation of the spiritual life. When our spiritual senses are alive, we sense that our lives are immersed in a holy mystery that is closer to us than we are to ourselves. It is also a Mystery that offers itself to us as Gift in every concrete encounter with every concrete reality. And yet it is also at the same time a Mystery that is Wholly Other–so other that it best be left described as Nothingness.
When we say “mystery” we do not mean the word in the usual sense. It is not something to be solved, a puzzle or a riddle that we can solve given enough time and resources. No, the mystery of God is something much. much deeper. The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, spoke of “the human being in the presence of Absolute Mystery.” Some Christians might balk that after Jesus we have this knowledge of God and that’s it. This is a delicate theological point, which we will ponder in Part II, in a later posting. Suffice it to say now that even after the revelation of Jesus Christ, there still remains the absolute incomprehensible mystery of God. The incomprehensibility of God is an infinite richness that we will never exhaust, and it remains even after God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ–Mystery remaining Mystery, not because of a lack of intelligibility, but because of an excess of intelligibility.
There are all kinds of images of God in the Bible. Some of them profound; some of them good, enticing, inviting; some of them not so good, even repellent. Not all images of God are equal. A fundamentalist approach makes each image equal and each image basically infallible–not realizing how humanly constructed they are. Mystery takes us beyond all images, both the good and the not good.
Apart from the Bible, people of all kinds have promoted all kinds of other images of God. And everyone, including atheists, have an image of God whether they care to realize that or not. New Agers often have this sense of God as somekind of universal force; old and modern deists have this image of God as the Great Clockmaker–somewhat scientifically acceptable. Often personal images of God are reduced to someone who doles out punishments or treats/rewards. In that case you try hard to appease this entity. Then Mormons have this image of God that is very peculiar coming from the Christian side–God is seen as being in the form of a man, physically so.
And what do you mean when you say the word “God”?