Being and Nothingness

This post is a general ramble inspired by a comment I read by a Christian in a discussion of Buddhism, to the effect that Buddhism and Christianity had diametrically opposite views on the nature of the Divine Reality behind all existence. Christianity, contended this writer (with support from Exodus) regards the Supreme Reality as Absolute Being, whereas Buddhism regards it as Absolute Non-Being or nothingness.

Candle FlameDescribing the Absolute has always been an almost insurmountable difficulty. Many mystics simply put it down as “ineffable” and leave it at that. Assuming we press on and try to come up with some kind of definite description, here are some of the stages and difficulties we are likely to go through…

Once we move beyond the idea of a bearded Zeus-like figure on a throne, we are likely to come up with some idea of God similar to what St. Anselm provided – “That Being, than whom, no greater can be conceived”. Absolute Being. The Great “I AM”. The Nature of all natures, the Essence of all essences. The problem comes when we try to describe the existence of such a Being. Naturally, we would like to think of absolute being as having some kind of real existence. But what kind?

Typically (in fact universally) things EXIST by having concrete reality at a particular place and during a particular time. They come into existence at a particular place and time, for particular causes. They change, due to particular circumstances, and they finally cease to exist – usually leaving other things behind them. But in the case of God, these things are not true.

God’s existence is not confined to a particular place. If it were, he would not be “That Being, than whom no greater can be conceived”. Why? Because we can conceive of a GREATER being – one who is NOT confined to a particular place. We might try to say that God is in ALL places. But what if the universe is FINITE? Does God cease to exist beyond the boundaries of the cosmos? Before there WERE “places” did God not exist? It seems clear that it is more precise to think of God – NOT as existing “everywhere” – but of not being bound by location at all – of being confined to NO location.

Similarly, God could be said to exist at ALL times – but it would be more effective to say that he is not bound by time at all. He did not begin to exist with the beginning of time, nor will he end with the end of time (assuming there even are beginnings and ends of time). God is confined to NO particular time.

Going further, and by similar lines of thought, we would have to say that God, being the greatest being who can be conceived, is not limited by contingent causes. A bit harder, but of the same line of reasoning – we would have to say that God cannot change. Why? Because change involves giving up one state of being, and acquiring another one. If God is absolute Being, then he cannot give up any “being”, nor is there any additional “being” he can acquire.

At this point, we may begin to notice something. All the things we can say about the “being” of God are basically NEGATIVE. He exists at NO time and NO place. He lacks causes and he demonstrates no change. Describing absolute being ends up sounding very much like describing absolute NON-being. What, in fact, is the difference in the descriptions? Is it in the effects? Is the positive nature of God found in what he causes? But who is to say that absolute non-being cannot be conceived as a profoundly creative concept? Who is to say that the Void doesn’t give birth to all being?

Small wonder, then, that mystics have often described God not only in positive terms, as absolute being, but in negative terms, as absolute nothingness. These only appear contradictory because we are using finite concepts to describe the absolute.

When positive mystics describe God as absolute being, they are simply emphasizing his creative power – the fact that he is the foundation of all reality.

When negative mystics describe God as absolute nothingness, they are simply emphasizing the lack of the FINITE attributes that characterize all being.

Both are describing the same thing.

The highest expression, in my opinion, is to arrive at the point of seeing that God is beyond existence AND non-existence. He is the ineffable source of both sets of dualistic opposites.

Some examples:

Christian:

“Or if I say that “God exists”, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being. Therefore St. Augustine says: “The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.” Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding.”

– Meister Eckhart

Jewish (Kabbalistic)

“The major problem that Mystics of all eras have come up against in trying to express their transcendental experiences to others is that these experiences lie beyond the bounds of the rational (and even intuitional) mind on which human written and verbal communication is based. Many methods have been tried, including allegory, antinomy, poetry and mundane approximation; but all founder on the fact that transcendental experience cannot be adequately conveyed through sub-transcendental means of communication.” In Kabbalism, this problem occurs especially in discussions of the higher sefirot on the Tree of Life, and becomes insurmountable in discussing that which lies beyond or above the Tree. The manifest Tree expressed through the sefirot in the four worlds is as much as can usefully be conveyed to the human mind through language; and beyond this, beyond Kether of Atziluth, are drawn the Three Veils of Negative Existence: en (Nothing), en sof (Limitless Nothing), and en sof or (Limitless Light). (Atziluth itself, and even Briah, are really beyond human conception, their “structure” being hinted at through the tangible expressions of the sefirot in the lower worlds.)”

– Discussion of the Kabbalah

Islamic:

“Allah is non-being and being, existence and non-existence. He is the relative and the Absolute. All these concepts return to Allah, for there is nothing we can comprehend or write or speak about that is not Allah”

– Abd Al Kader

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