Disturbing the Universe
Today, in an exclusive preview from the new issue of the Jewish Review of Books, preeminent Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt steps away from his Zohar translation for the first time in years to review Lawrence Krauss's New Atheist account of the Big Bang and Alan Lightman's quirky novel about creation. Special to Jewish Ideas Daily readers: Click here to receive a free copy of the whole summer issue!
Can we explain how the universe began without invoking God? Certainly, answers the noted cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss in A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, because, bizarre as it sounds, “nothingness” contains energy. Near the beginning of time (approximately 13.72 billion years ago), through a process of rapid expansion, this energy of empty space was converted into the energy of something—particles and radiation.
The modern scientific creation story goes like this: Within a second or so after the Big Bang, the building blocks of atoms emerged—protons, neutrons, and electrons. By the end of three minutes, protons and neutrons joined, forming the first atomic nuclei. But roughly 300,000 years passed before things cooled down enough for electrons to combine with these nuclei to create full-fledged atoms. Over the next billion years, giant clouds of such primordial atoms coalesced to form stars and galaxies. Deep within these stars, nuclear reactions gave birth to heavier elements such as carbon and iron. When the stars grew old, they exploded, spewing these elements into the universe. Eventually this matter was recycled into solar systems such as ours.
Krauss writes, “One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded.” We, along with everything else, are literally made of stardust.
Taken together with the elegant laws that govern the universe, such facts evoke a sense of wonder. As Krauss writes, “for Einstein, the existence of order in the universe provided a sense of such profound wonder that he felt a spiritual attachment to it, which he labeled . . . ‘God.’” Although Krauss knows that Einstein’s God was not the God of the Bible, he stills wants none of it: “‘something’ can arise out of nothing without the need for any divine guidance.” Science, not religion, provides the path to understanding, and a picture of reality that is
based on the work of tens of thousands of dedicated minds over the past century, building some of the most complex machines ever devised and developing some of the most beautiful and also the most complex ideas with which humanity has ever had to grapple. It is a picture whose creation emphasizes the best about what it is to be human—our ability to imagine the vast possibilities of existence and the adventurousness to bravely explore them—without passing the buck to a vague creative force or to a creator who is, by definition, forever unfathomable.
For Krauss, it’s either/or—the clear-eyed, rational project of science or the outmoded, blinkered bias of religion. “Theology,” he writes, “has made no contribution to knowledge in the past five hundred years, since the dawn of science.”
The God that Krauss dismisses is “some external agency existing separate from space, time, and indeed from physical reality itself.” However, this is far from the only definition of God. Just as Krauss depends on a new conception of “nothing”—“empty space endowed with energy”—he might also expand his understanding of what “God” could mean, or has meant over the last five hundred (or one thousand) years of theology.
Among other conceptions of the divine are several that figure prominently in Kabbalah. One of these is Ein Sof, Infinity (literally, “there is no end”). Ein Sof is the ultimate divine reality, or (to borrow a phrase from the great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart) the “God beyond God.” Where, you might ask, does Ein Sof appear in the Bible? Kabbalah acknowledges that it is never mentioned explicitly, but the author of the Zohar uncovers it in the very first words of Genesis.
Read hyperliterally, the first words of the Bible don’t mean, “In the beginning God created . . .” but rather “With Beginning (identified with Wisdom), It created God.” The invisible subject “It” refers to Ein Sof, while “God” designates one of the emerging aspects (or sefirot) of divine being, specifically, in this case, the Divine Mother, Binah (Understanding). According to the kabbalists, the divine personality or being that emerges from Ein Sof is dynamic and continually unfolding, a God that includes both male and female elements whose union depends on virtuous human conduct.
One way to understand this radical rereading is as a critique of previous theology. Our notions of God cannot encompass the true nature of divinity; such imaginings are puny and secondary compared with the vastness of Ein Sof. At best we can imagine the God of the sefirot, where Infinity manifests, as the personal God.
Sometimes the kabbalists use a more radical name than Ein Sof. This is the name Ayin, Nothingness. We encounter this bizarre term among Christian mystics too: Johannes Scotus Eriugena calls God Nihil; Eckhart, Nichts; St. John of the Cross, Nada. To call God “Nothingness” does not mean that God does not exist. Rather, it conveys the idea that God is no thing. God animates all things and cannot be contained by any of them. God is the oneness that is no particular thing, “no thingness.”
This mystical nothingness is neither empty nor barren; it is fertile and overflowing, engendering the myriad forms of life. The mystics teach that the universe emanated from divine nothingness, a view that resonates surprisingly with Krauss’ description of unstable nothingness, out of which something is constantly liable to spring—or with the vacuum state: “empty space endowed with energy.”
Yet, the mystical description of matter and energy is composed in a different key. Material existence emerges out of Ayin, the pool of divine energy. Ultimately, the world is not other than God, for this energy is concealed within all forms of being. Were it not concealed, there could be no individual existence; everything would dissolve back into oneness, or nothingness.
Leaving aside Krauss’ anti-religious bias (the book contains a characteristically strident afterword from arch-polemicist Richard Dawkins), his book is a superb summary of the latest cosmological research and speculation, in which Krauss himself has played a significant role.
Alan Lightman’s new novel Mr g: A Novel About the Creation begins with a casual bang: “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.”
A theoretical physicist by training, Lightman burst onto the literary scene nearly twenty years ago with Einstein’s Dreams. In Mr g, he approaches Creation as a novelist imagining his way into the divine perspective. This God has a simple, folksy, lower-case personality, and Lightman’s tone is correspondingly light, but before long he and Mr g are delving into profound questions of existence.
Mr g begins by issuing certain basic organizational principles, for instance the principle of causality: “Every event should be necessarily caused by a previous event.” But he ensures that humanity will retain a sense of wonder.
Even if a very intelligent creature within this universe could trace each event to a previous event, and trace that event to a previous event, and so on, back and back, the creature could not penetrate earlier than the First Event. The creature could never know where that First Event came from because it came from outside the universe, just as the creature could never experience the Void. The origin of the First Event would always remain unknowable, and the creature would be left wondering, and that wondering would leave a mystery. So my universe would have logic and rationality and organizational principles, but it would also have spirituality and mystery.
If you’re writing a novel about God and Creation, how do you deal with the traditional account in the Bible? At times, Lightman fashions a kind of cosmological midrash. He riffs, for example, on the famous refrain in the opening lines of Genesis: God saw . . . that it was good . . . There was evening and there was morning, one day. But, being scientifically accurate, he expands the cosmic zone:
At a certain moment of time, a particular planet in the universe completed its first rotation, before any other planet, the end of its first day. This was the first day in the universe. I noted when this happened, and it was good (or at least satisfying), and this was the end of the first day on that planet. Then, in another galaxy . . . another planet completed its first rotation, its first day, and I noted when this happened, and it was also good, and this was the end of the first day on that planet. Then . . . another, and another . . . all with different rates of rotation, completed their first days . . . There were billions and trillions of first days, all of them good.
Mr g observes many planets, and sees bolts of electricity slamming energy into their atmospheres, forming complex new molecules. “I could hardly wait to see what would happen.” Eventually, self-replicating cells emerge, and then animate matter. “As was now apparent to me, animate matter was an inevitable consequence of a universe with matter and energy and a few initial parameters . . . If I wanted, I could destroy life. But I was only a spectator in its creation.”
Yet all is not blissful. Mr g has an antagonist—or a shadow side—called Belhor (a variant of Belial, the name of the Devil in some pseudepigraphic literature). This unsettling figure (“my dim shadow . . . my antipodal companion”), demonic yet wise, argues that Mr g should relinquish some of his omnipotence and allow intelligent beings to act on their own. “Let the creatures act without your foreknowledge.”
Mr g hesitates; he is concerned that they will suffer and come to harm. But this, it seems, is unavoidable. As Belhor explains to Mr g:
You have created a universe with minds. It is the nature of mortal minds to suffer, just as it is the nature of flesh to expire. The higher the intelligence, the greater the capacity for suffering.
There is no turning back, and humans must learn to live with chance, free will, and vulnerability. Yet, their intelligence also enables these feeble mortals to discover music, mathematics, and the laws of nature, to realize how they are connected to the galaxies and the stars.
They begin to speculate, too, about Mr g himself. “The creatures have made up their own ideas about me . . . They have religions.” Mr g understands that humans need to believe in something, to give meaning to their lives, and he admires them for that. Since they cannot be immortal, “they want something to be immortal. They come and go so quickly. They want something to last.”
Mr g realizes that humans are just guessing, that they are missing the true reality of God, which is basically Infinity and the Void. But he concludes that “guessing is not so bad.” Humans “feel a mystery about it all,” which yields inspiration. He hopes to give them at least a glimpse of the Void, so that they may understand that their brief lives partake of an endless stream.
To some extent like the God of the kabbalists, Lightman’s Mr g is a God who evolves, who is enriched by his Creation. As galaxies and stars form, he feels “as if new things had been created within Me.” His imagination is amplified, and he discovers things he hadn’t known before. As independent creatures chart their own course, Mr g learns that not everything can be controlled. “Events spill out and slide and defeat attempts to explain . . . This I have learned from the new universe.” He learns, too, that he can take chances, that he can act, even with doubts.
Lawrence Krauss is sure that he can explain how the world came into existence. Alan Lightman dares to take a wild guess. If you go along for the ride, you won’t stop wondering for a long while afterward.
Daniel C. Matt, author of God & the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science & Spirituality, taught at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California for more than twenty years. The seventh volume of his ongoing translation and commentary, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, will appear this fall.
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