The Envy of Existence – Athanasius on Creation

“Betrayal” – a depiction of jealousy

Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be.

– Plato, Timaeus, (ca 360 BC)

You probably remember that in the Republic, Socrates describes what he thinks the perfect city would be like. “Republic” is actually the Latin name for the work. Its Greek name is Politeia, meaning “pertaining to the city.”  This can be confusing because the perfect city in Plato’s Republic is not a democracy or republic at all, but ironically a monarchical dictatorship protected by philosopher vigilantes.  Within the work itself, the perfect city is called Kallipolis, literally “the beautiful city” or “the good city” (Greek philosophers treated beauty as goodness). The reason Socrates gives the constitution of Kallipolis is that his students ask him what “justice” really is. Justice must be more than simple revenge or the advantage that strong and cunning people have over weak and gullible ones. But if justice is different from mere fairness or getting what you deserve, what is it?

This turns out to be a difficult question to answer, so Socrates proposes that perhaps if people saw justice at work in a city full of people, we could then proceed to see what it is for a single person to be just. But in order to find out what justice is in a city, you need to design a city in which justice is theoretically possible. This is how the Republic gets its shape. It is the theoretical (not literal or practical) constitution of a just city in Plato-Socrates’ philosophy.

How would such a city get along with other cities? Long ago, according to Socrates, two such cities, Athens and the lost city of Atlantis went to war with each other… But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and that’s a story for another day. Before we can describe how cities even came to be, from theoretical Kallipolis to actual Athens or Atlantis, we need to know how anything came to exist. This is why the Timaeus (arguably Plato’s masterpiece) was written in about 360 BC. Timaeus is the character in this dialogue who gives the account of how the world came to be, and very much like in the Bible, it starts in the beginning.

Look around and everything may seem to make sense. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the grass is growing, and you’re on your way to class or work. Little do you know that one day the sun won’t shine any more. It’ll explode in size, getting hotter as it prepares to die, but not before engulfing the long dead planet Earth and all the other planets, and then shrinking into a cold dwarf star burning dimly till it fizzles out. Depending on where you are (I live in a desert), the grass is growing only because of a serious misappropriation of water, as the world is in a water crisis as fresh water sources such as lakes, rivers, springs, and glaciers dwindle because of rising temperatures, global climate change, and overuse by Americans who insist on drinking Icelandic glacier water. One day most of the grass you’re walking on will probably be desert. The birds are singing, or are they (in their own bird language) screaming because they are hungry or diseased, or about to be hit by a speeding car? The birds may very well all migrate away as the magnetic poles of the Earth change, shaking up their navigation instincts. And though you speed on your way to work or school, chances are the job you will have in the future does not exist now. The thing you are studying is probably not the thing you will do for the rest of your life. And professional prospects are not looking good for you if, like me, you are studying something totally useless like philosophy or literature. The glorious liberality of a liberal arts education will probably cost more in the long run than expected. And the game’s not over if your studying STEM. You might think you’re cool because you’ll make your living designing video games for washed up millennials who will still play video games in their thirties and forties, but of course by that time, there may be no more time for games as the world is swallowed up in global conflicts, the rift between rich and poor becomes unbearable, and the world is dying of newly unforeseen super viruses or else we’re all getting chemo for cancer.

What’s the rather grim and melodramatic point? Things always change. Reframe it in any popular adage you want: “The only constant is change,” “Time wastes no time,” “Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future…” (am I dating myself?). In the modern religious market, Western people and Christians usually get criticized (and caricatured) for not handling change well. We are so obsessed with eternal life, “happily ever after,” and our western ideals, we get our undies in a bundle just because things are changing so fast all around us.

“Change” – the beauty of the changing seasons can also be terrifying

Buddhist philosophers like Dzongsar Khyentse, often criticism, even joke about the West being what Buddhism calls “eternalist,” i.e. believing that things are or should be unchanging or eternal. But this accusation is only partially true. Buddhism boasts as one of its central “Four Seals” or four distinguishing metaphysical/epistemological claims, that everything is impermanent. Everything is always changing. No compounded thing, i.e. nothing that is composite or made up of other things, is exempt from one day dissolving, and this dissolution we experience as change, loss, and ultimately death.

But there is nothing really groundbreaking about this claim. I think the Buddha himself would acknowledge that this is really just a statement of the obvious. (Buddhism in general seems to revel in pointing out obvious things). But an examination of ancient Greek and Latin philosophy would reveal that actually people in the West have known this since time immemorial as well. Heraclitus was the one who said that you can never step into the same river twice. And the mystical philosopher Pythagoras knew that the world around us is always changing and shifting. This then is the context for Timaeus’ account of “creation.” Why would God (or the gods) bother making anything in this universe of rapid change and entropy? Why would God make this world of “generation,” of constant becoming and change?

According to Timaeus, God made the world because He is Good. What does that have to do with anything? According to Timaeus, “the Good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be.” The logic of this idea is still not entirely clear. What does jealousy or envy have to do with anything?

When I was a toddler, my mom got pregnant with my little brother. I still remember the day my little brother was born when I was about three years old. It is one of my earliest memories. I only have a handful of memories from before my little brother was born. What I don’t remember (my mom told me this) is that whereas my older brother took the news of another baby rather well when I was born, when my mom told me she was going to have another baby, I was really upset. I don’t remember this, but I do know that my relationship with my little brother was always strained growing up, and it may spring from the fact that unlike my older brother, I have always been a very jealous person. Even the thought of sharing my childhood (and retrospectively it wasn’t even a great childhood) with another being I hadn’t accounted or planned for, obviously made me, a tiny little premature child, very angry.

So I was not a good big brother. What does this have to do with God? And what does it have to do with the church-father Athanasius (CE 298-373), whose name appears in the title of this post? It is not actually clear whether Athanasius studied Plato in depth. He definitely had some exposure, but then again, he lived in Alexandria, so it’s likely that everyone was exposed to Neoplatonism. In the beginning (our beginning anyway), God wanted everything to be good: as good as Himself, or at least as good as was possible. To achieve this goodness, even in a world that was always changing and decaying, God created intelligence. He placed intelligence in the soul or psyche, and the psyche, He put into a human body so that humans could use their intelligence to achieve virtue and good. Through human beings, God put intelligence into the world, so that we could bring order to all the chaos.

One thing you might miss about this rather nice story is the fact that apparently the chaos of nature already existed, and God put human beings in it to bring order to it. Indeed, Plato thought that the world of chaotic matter was eternal just like God. God did create human beings, but He did not create the “world” in the strict sense of the word. God, like a skilled craftsman, used pre-existing matter to shape the universe as we know it. In the first couple of chapters of On the Incarnation Athanasius criticizes this view of creation.

“The Ancient of Days” by William Blake, (1794)

The making of the world, and the creation of all things have been taken differently by many, and each has propounded as each has wished. Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans… Others, amongst whom is Plato, that giant among the Greeks, declare that God made the universe from preexistent and uncreated matter, as God is unable to make anything unless matter preexisted, just as a carpenter must already have wood so that it may be used… And if this is so, as they thus have it, according to them God is only a craftsman and not the Creator of being, if he fashions underlying matter but is not himself the cause of matter. He could in no way be called “Creator,” if he does not create matter, from which created things come into being. (De Incarnatione ch 2)

This is an interesting passage at the beginning of On the Incarnation, and the full text is pretty dense stuff. But first, let’s discuss some of the assumptions that Athanasius is not fessing up to. I may have mentioned elsewhere that reading early Christian argument (of which Athanasius is an excellent example) is beneficial to modern Christians, not necessarily because the arguments are good, but because resonating with the point of the argument, rather than its logic, will help us formulate our own appropriate response to the same ancient problem(s). Let’s look closely.

Athanasius first of all writes:

“The making of the world… have been taken differently by many, and each has propounded as each has wished.”

It’s as if Athanasius assumes people are just talking out of their asses. “As they have wished,” as if scientists, scholars and philosophers of history (including Athanasius himself) simply made “vain” speculations about the origin of the universe because they felt like it. Think about the way modern Christians resist the Darwinian theory of evolution. So, so many Christians insist that evolution is “only a theory” without understanding that “theory” in scientific jargon does not signify a hypothesis but a well documented and supported explanation. It is impossible for science to “prove” anything empirically (it would be worth exploring the use of “proof” in Athanasius). The best empirical science can do (and this they admit) is to observe (theory comes from the Greek word which means “to see”) a phenomenon consistently over time. To call something a “theory” in science is not to suggest it is uncertain, but to credit it with the highest level of certainty science is capable of bestowing at this time.

The billions of galaxies could be an accident, the product of intelligence, or neither

By contrast, creationism, the belief that once upon a time, a farmer named God literally planted a magic bean in a place called Eden, UT, and Paradise sprouted up; and ideas like the Big Bang, (for the sake of equal-opportunity caricaturing) the belief that everything was in an extremely hot dense point which suddenly got explosive ontological diarrhea and everything, time and space, just sort of spread out (and like all diarrhea is now getting cold); are  indeed hypotheses. They are hypotheses not because they are inherently unlikely and therefore only “educated guesses” (as school children in Texas are unfortunately taught) but because we could never observe the event in question (being only human). They are postulates constrained by logical possibility, constrained by worldviews which rarely talk about their presuppositions. And that’s not to say that either should or should not be taken seriously.

But ideas have consequences, and while we can never cheat our own constraints and look back in time, we can totally see what consequences certain ideas have right now. That is what Athanasius is doing, and that is why this paragraph is interesting. If matter is eternal and uncreated like God in Plato’s account, then God is not really the Creator but really just the Craftsman of creation. If God did not create matter, but only constructed everything we know out of it, then He is not ultimately the Creator of the world, but just the Craftsman. This is straightforward statement. It could even be true. How do we know God made matter? Doesn’t Genesis 1:1-2 say:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (NRSVCE)

Doesn’t this imply that the earth and waters already existed when God began to “create” (renovate) them? This is why it is so important to understand the Bible in the context of what the spiritual meaning actually is. At a first glance, the story of Creation in Genesis seems to support the Platonic idea that God just sort of went with what already was there (a “formless” “void,” and “dark” world that nevertheless really did exist)  and sort of fixed it up a bit. But the story of Creation in Genesis is also probably derived from a Babylonian myth. Additionally, it is a myth which is shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, so there is nothing distinctively Christian about it. One can’t learn the Christian faith from creationism, so Christians don’t need to invest any emotion or argument in defending the particular version of it that is now being fought about. What is the real meaning of Creation according to Athanasius?

For God, Maker of all and King of all, Who has His Being beyond all substance and human discovery, inasmuch as He is good and exceeding noble, made, through His own Logos, our Savior Jesus Christ, the human race after His own image, and constituted man able to see and know realities by means of this assimilation to Himself, giving him also a conception and knowledge even of His own eternity…

For when the mind … is raised up on high … it sees [in the Logos] the Father of the Logos, taking pleasure in contemplating Him, and gaining renewal by its desire toward Him; exactly as the first of men created, the one named Adam in Hebrew, is described in the Holy Scriptures as having at the beginning had his mind to God-ward in a freedom unembarrassed by shame, … in that contemplation of things perceived by the mind which he enjoyed in the place where he was—the place which the holy Moses called in figure a Garden. So purity of soul is sufficient of itself to reflect God, as the Lord also says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Contra Gentes 2)

(FYI: This is why you should read Contra Gentes and not just De Incarnatione).

God is beyond our human concepts. His Being is beyond all substance and human discovery. We’ll never fully know What He Is. The Bible does not exist to teach us about the Nature of God, but about His purposes toward us. But, because God is Good, He has made human nature after the image and likeness of His Logos (our Savior Jesus Christ), and made us able to know realities and get a conception and knowledge of His eternity. When our minds are elevated by spiritual pursuit, we see Jesus, and in Jesus we see God. This vision renews us the same way it renewed Adam. But Adam and the place he was put was called in a figure (i.e. figuratively) a Garden of Eden. The story isn’t history: it is what the Church Fathers call a typos which is like a literary foreshadowing or analogy.

So why does it matter to Athanasius if God is not the Creator of the universe but only a Craftsman? For our limited human purposes, aren’t they practically the same thing? We talk about “creativity” all the time. We call painters, musicians, and writers “creative.” It doesn’t really matter to us that painters didn’t invent color, musicians didn’t invent sound, and writers didn’t invent language. We talk about the “Creative Commons,” but only as a legal designation for using other people’s preexistent stuff (without which this blog would be blander than it is). We talk about the rights of “creator” attribution or the moral rights of an “author,” but only in pursuit of making sure that Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber get paid what they deserve on Spotify or iTunes. Is there really a difference between whether God made matter and the physical universe, or if He’s just the Deist puppeteer running the show as we see it?

Think about this. In Plato’s theology, God is eternal. Matter also is eternal, and for that reason, Matter and God are in some sense in competition. Of course, matter is not conscious, so this competition is not really antagonizing for either God or matter. But it is a world in which God is always trying to make matter something it cannot be. There is something else eternal in Plato’s thought: the Forms. The Forms are the mysterious exalted Ideas behind things in this world. There is a Form or Ideal of Justice (which is what the Republic was written about). There is a Form or Ideal of Goodness (which we’ll talk about shortly). There is also an Ideal of Beauty. God shapes matter according to the perfect Forms, but matter cannot stay in the right form because it is chaotic and unstable, whereas the Forms are unchanging and constant. Here’s an example.

Somewhere out there in the universe (or perhaps the “mind of God”) there is a version of me who is 6’2″ tall with an incredibly cut physique, washboard abs, immaculate fair skin, dirty blonde hair, and blue eyes. OK, so I’m being a little facetious. But there is in Plato’s thought an ideal Form of Beauty which, if only we could see, would be instantly compelling to us and of which all material beings fall short. Matter is not beautiful, therefore, when God keeps trying to make my atoms fit into the body of a 6’2″ Scandinavian, they won’t stay put! They rebelliously devolve into the body of 5’4″ mixed race person who is always having people ask “so, what are you?” They can’t even keep my hair straight, let alone the rest of me! But luckily, when I die, and this miserable body finishes dissolving (it’s been dissolving the whole time, as we’ve mentioned), while the Three Judges tally my deeds, I’ll have a opportunity to contemplate (i.e. stare at for a really long time) the perfect me in the afterlife (probably while touching myself), and when I’m finally ready to be reincarnated, God and I can give it another go: see if this time, I’ll be more beautiful.

In some ways, I really like this myth. It contains in it the seeds for a possible hope and expectation. There’s always next time. But what it bequeaths us in the meantime is anxiety, regret, and a never ending restlessness to exert effort in a seemingly unobtainable direction. And this is why ultimately Athanasius cannot accept the Platonic myth of Creation. It is a theology in which hope can only ever be the flipside of a grudge against our self. The reason I hope for next time, is because I begrudge having to live this time. And the reason I want next time’s body (come on guys, we’re talking about a really hot body here!) is ultimately because I envy it.

If God did not create matter, if He did not create the substance of which we are made, and if what we are is inherently un-godlike; in other words, if what we are is eternally imperfect, then our existence and our relationship with God can only ever be one in which no matter how fond He is of us, there will always be an element of disappointment when God looks at us.

anorexic female
God’s gaze is kinder than the gaze of your reflection

God did not just fashion us out of used parts. He created creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). Remember that Plato said God created because He is Good, and the Good has no envy concerning anything. He believed this even though He thought the universe was somehow disappointing to God. Athanasius quoted Plato, but gave his famous quote an entirely new meaning. God was so Good, He didn’t just want good things to exist. He even willed existence to exist. Because to say, as Athanasius insists, that God created everything out of nothing, does not just mean that everything comes from extremely basic physical laws like gravity or extremely simple primordial units like atoms. It doesn’t mean that it’s as if everything came from nothing, like a hot dense point for example. It means that before there was even nothing, God willed there to be something. And this something is not an accident.

In order for there to be more good beings like Himself, God had to will not only that they could be good, but that they could first and foremost be anything. This is where Athanasius utters one of the most important lines in the entire work.

…But from nothing and having absolutely no existence, God brought the universe into being through the Logos, which it says through Moses, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth,” and through that most useful book of the Shepherd [of Hermas], “First of all believe that God is one, who created and framed all things, and made them from non-existence into being,” as also Paul indicates when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which appear.” For God is good, or rather the source of all goodness, and one who is good grudges nothing, so that grudging nothing its existence, he made all things through his own Logos, our Lord Jesus Christ. (De Incarnatione 3)

And that’s not all! One of the things Athanasius criticizes about the Epicurean (as opposed to the Platonic) view of creation is the idea that things just come into being spontaneously. This view could accommodate the Big Bang Theory, but not something like human evolution. If things came into being through pure accident, Athanasius maintains they would have “mere” being or “mere” existence (much as I imagine many people are satisfied with “mere” Christianity). In other words, we would exist, but what would the quality of that existence be, if all that existed were dark matter and dark energy with no perceivable intelligence (like 95% of the universe now)? For that reason, Athanasius, rather like Plato, but again suitably changed, continues:

Among these things, of all things upon earth He had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being it would not be able to endure eternally, he granted them a further gift, creating human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth but making them according to his own image, giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that having as it were shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to abide in blessedness… (De Incarnatione 3)

In Plato’s myth of creation, mankind is basically God’s gift to the wretched world. But in Athanasius’s theology, its human beings who are the wretched ones. God had special compassion on the human race because He knows that being conscious and conscientious in a vast, dark, chaotic universe in which things seem to happen for no reason really sucks. He knows that on our own, we can’t keep hold of the tiny flicker of the logos we have inside of us. We easily lose the understanding of God’s nature we are granted and collapse into selfish, depraved beings.

So God gave us the greatest gift: His Image. He also gave us ways to maintain that Image if we are obedient to His will. He gave us minds so that we might be able to abide or remain in blessedness. Ignorance is not bliss: Knowledge is, and God revealed Himself so we wouldn’t have to be deprived of the bliss of knowing Him. God is concerned not only about our life, but about the quality of our life. He doesn’t just tell us, “You should be happy you exist at all!” and he definitely never utters the threat (like many parents do) “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” There is something ludicrously, gloriously, unbelievably generous about God’s relationship with the universe and human race He has caused to exist, and ultimately this is for one simple reason: God doesn’t envy you.

That’s not just another way of saying your life sucks. God doesn’t envy you because He knows that without Him, there is nothing to envy. He is not jealous of the life you are leading, but He is jealous for it. God is not disappointed in you because you don’t live up to His expectations. He willed existence itself to come into existence just so that you could have the experience of not living up to His expectations. I know it will probably seem weird to contemplate, but God is so generous, He wills you to exist, even if you don’t want to: even if you don’t believe in Him. He wills the existence in every moment of both Christians’ and non-Christians’ lives. He is willing to sustain your existence, even if you choose to live that existence in bitterness and regret. And through it all, He doesn’t see you as competition.

I don’t know who this post is for, if anyone, but I think that this is one of the most important aspects of Athanasian theology that is especially neglected by modern Christians since they don’t read original sources like they should. This is Athanasius’ introductory message for you. Athanasius is not a perfect arguer or scholar, but he has experienced something many believers miss altogether: God wants you to be happy, even if that means letting you choose to be unhappy. And if you ever choose to be unhappy, God won’t give up on you and rescind all your choices.

Things always change, like I said, which means that in any moment you choose, you can be happy that God is not a jealous God. He invented giving, just so He could give you everything.



Image Credits: “Betrayal” by Jake Stimpson. Created on March 17, 2015. Accessed through Flickr on September 22, 2015. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Used by permission.

“Change” by Bryan Birdwell. Created October 21, 2006. Accessed through Flickr on September 22, 2015. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (CC-BY-NC 2.0). Used by permission.

“Anorexia” by Evelina Zachariou. Created November 26, 2011. Accessed through Flickr on October 1, 2015. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial –NoDerivs 2.0. Used by Permission.

NB: This blog post reuses and rewords material from a post on another blog of mine which can be found here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s