Emanation: Traditional and Heretical

You ask what Schuon may have meant (in Logic and Transcendence) when he distinguished between “the traditional theory of emanation” and “the emanationist heresy, which has nothing metaphysical about it and which reduces the Principle to the level of manifestation or Substance to the level of accidents” (p. 58, note 11 of my edition).

As you know, Schuon always specified that “God is in things and things are in God” essentially, not substantially. Since it is in the very nature (or essence) of the Good to communicate itself, God cannot but “radiate”, and this radiation constitutes what we call manifestation or creation. Nonetheless this manifestation involves no division or extrusion of God, as if He were some sort of extended “thing” or “substance”, quod absit. He remains, His self-communication notwithstanding, completely transcendent, hence absolutely other than everything else.

Thus, as I understand the passage in question, “the traditional theory” points to God’s essential presence in manifestation, while “the heresy” makes the mistake of supposing that God is substantially present. It’s the difference, in other words, between panentheism and pantheism.

Perhaps the following observations, coming from two Christian Platonists living several centuries apart, would be helpful here:

“In a super-substantial manner, above the category of origin, the Godhead is the Origin of all origin and the good and bounteous Communication (so far as such may be) of hidden mysteries; and, in a word, It is the Life of all things that live and the Being of all that are, the Origin and Cause of all life and being through Its bounty, which both brings them into existence and maintains them. These mysteries we learn from the Divine Scriptures, and thou wilt find that, in well-nigh all the utterances of the Sacred Writers, the Divine Names refer in a Symbolical Revelation to Its beneficent Emanations” (Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, Chapter 1, my italics).

“I know that to create is defined as ‘to make out of nothing’, ex nihilo. But I take that to mean ‘not out of any pre-existing material’. It can’t mean that God makes what God has not thought of, or that He gives His creatures any powers or beauties which He Himself does not possess. Why, we think that even human work comes nearest to creation when the maker has ‘got it all out of his own head’. Nor am I suggesting a theory of ‘emanations’. The differentia of an ‘emanation’—literally an overflowing, a trickling out—would be that it suggests something involuntary. But my words—‘uttering’ and ‘inventing’—are meant to suggest an act” (C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter XIV).

It seems to me clear that the Areopagite is espousing “the traditional theory”, whereas Lewis is referring (at the end of this passage) to “the emanationist heresy”. Notice that Lewis adds one other important qualification: namely, that the heresy in question construes the creative process as mechanical or automatic, while Schuon and other “traditionalists”, though they underscore the inevitability of manifestation, do not divorce it from the Divine Will.

7 Responses to “Emanation: Traditional and Heretical”

  1. Marco Says:

    The understanding of emanation present in St Dionysius can also be found in St Gregory Palamas. St Thomas, though he does speak about “emanation”, tends to suppress the idea. Western Christianity is generally opposed to emanationism because it seems to deny God’s simplicity and to require a “Platonic” interpretation of Christianity, which has been largely rejected by the West since the 13th century or so.

  2. Christopher Says:

    Michael Sudduth, a philosopher of religion at San Francisco State University, recently announced his departure from Orthodox Christianity and conversion to Gaudiya Vaishnavism. In Mr. Sudduth’s conversion testimony, he states, “I now accept a panentheistic metaphysics in which the universe and human souls are, to put it roughly, in the being of God.”

    A fellow Christian philosopher, James Anderson, responded quite critically to this position as a fundamental contradiction of creatio ex nihilo. But as I understand it, Sudduth’s statement is not in violation of Christian orthodoxy at all. Anderson disagrees, stating:

    “On this view [panentheism], God is neither fully distinct from the universe (classical theism) nor identical with the universe (pantheism). Instead, the universe exists in or within God. The prepositions in and within are obviously not meant in a spatial sense (as in Bob is “in” the kitchen). Rather, they are meant to capture the idea of ontological containment. God pervades and encompasses the universe in such an intimate fashion that there is an overlap or intersection between the being of God and the being of the universe. While God is more than the universe, there is no clear ontological distinction between God and the universe (which includes us, of course).”

    On the subject of creation, it would seem that Anderson is insisting that unity and separation must be a matter of “either/or” and cannot be “both/and”. Does the essence-energies distinction resolve this perceived problem “higher up”?

  3. Johannes Says:

    It may be of interest that even Thomas Aquinas—considered by many as an Aristotelian pure and simple—interpreted the Biblical notion of creation by means of Neo-platonist concepts, which had come to him through Dionysius the Areopagite. So we read for example in the Summa Theologica (I, 45, i, ad 1):

    …non solum oportet considerare emanationem alicuius entis particularis ab aliquo particulari agente, sed etiam emanationem totius entis a causa universali, quae est Deus, et hanc quidem emanationem designamus nomine creationis.

    (…We must consider not only the emanation of a particular being from a particular agent, but also the emanation of all being from the universal cause, which is God; and this emanation we designate by the name of creation.)

    There is a German book that proves convincingly the often overlooked deep-rootedness of Thomas in Neo-platonism: Klaus Kremer, Die neuplatonische Seinsphilosophie und ihre Wirkung auf Thomas von Aquin (Leiden 1966).

  4. Christopher Says:

    The Angelic Doctor never departs from concepts derived from an Aristotelian-Platonic framework. I think the descent into modernity begins when Platonic essences and universals are called into question. The question is why? Why does realism give way ultimately to nominalism?

    The problem seems to have its root in the matter of Divine will. Aquinas took the view that “will follows upon intellect”, that reason is more fundamental than volition. The Thomistic philosopher, Edward Feser, tells us:

    [William of] Ockham reverses this “intellectualist” position in favor of “voluntarism”, which regards will as prior to intellect. Hence while Aquinas took God to will only in a manner consistent with the necessary truths entailed by the essences of the things His intellect apprehends, Ockham makes the Divine will primary and rejects essentialism as incompatible with its supreme freedom.

    I’m not sure, but I think these shifts in theology may correspond to an alternating predominance between emanationism and creationism.

  5. Joshua Robinson Says:

    I’m puzzled by the distinction between essence and substance that Schuon makes, and wonder what Greek terms he has in mind. Both terms are used to translate ousia, as in “consubstantial” or “essence vs. energies”. But perhaps Schuon has in mind eidos for essence? Without definition of these terms, the distinction does not yet have content for me.

  6. Robert Newman Says:

    It may be of interest to note that Gaudiya Vaishnavism (see Christopher’s February 12th post), although considered intrinsically orthodox by Schuon and his followers, doctrinally reverses the levels of Divinity and considers the personal God to be the ultimate Reality. Typical expressions of this are: “Impersonal Brahman is nothing but the bodily effulgence of Krishna,” and “A pure devotee considers the mukti of the jnanins to be worse than hell.” This branch of Hinduism is 100% bhakti-oriented, which it can afford to be since it exists side-by-side with Advaita Vedanta. Although Hinduism is not a world religion, it does seem to provide within itself as many distinct spiritual paths as there are human types.

  7. Johannes Says:

    Joshua Robinson asks for the meaning Schuon gives to the terms “essence” and “substance”. In search of an answer to this question, I found the following passage in Logic and Transcendence (“The Argument from Substance”):

    We speak of “Substance” in order to underscore the gulf between What subsists in itself and what exists only secondarily, the profound cause of which lies in a greater and higher reality. We use the term in this context in preference to “Essence” because it is possible to conceive of a sort of continuity between Substance and accident—“all things are Ātmā”—whereas between Essence and forms there is no continuity. The “Substance-accident” relationship can therefore be compared to that between water and drops of water and the “Essence-form” relationship to that between kernel and fruit or between fire and the wood it consumes: “Brahma is not in the world.” Substance can be compared to the center of a spiral and Essence to the center of a system of concentric circles; one could also say that the notion of Substance is nearer that of the Infinite and the notion of Essence that of the Absolute, or that there is in Substance an aspect of femininity and in Essence an aspect of masculinity.

    Schuon continues elsewhere in the same book, discussing the question of pantheism:

    Some people will see only pantheism in the argument from Substance, not realizing that ontological continuity, which proceeds from Being to things, is in no sense a material continuity and does not in any way abolish the relationship of transcendence or the incommensurability it implies. Because of the miracle of existence, the Universe is not nothingness, and for this reason there is something divine about it; possessing being, it is unable to leave Being behind. If this is a kind of pantheism, then we are obliged to admit that pantheism is not entirely without justification when considered from a particular standpoint, namely, that of the metaphysical homogeneity or solidarity of non-nothingness, non-unreality, or non-impossibility; in a certain sense all that is not nothing is God—not in its particularity but in and through ontological Substance (“Evidence and Mystery”, note 1).

    So the difference between traditional and heretical emanationism would be that the latter “understands emanation in a physical sense”, whereas the former “acknowledges that it [emanation] is purely causal while at the same time implying a certain consubstantiality since reality is one”.

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