The solitude of God

Western scriptural religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) present God as a solitary. By definition, monotheism defines God as solitary. Even removing anthropomorphism, this depiction of God is alien to human beings, who are raised in social settings and for whom interdependence is necessary to existence. God does not elect to be a hermit. The solitude of God is not voluntary.

The recognition of this profound solitude of God has not been lost on those who reflected on the logic of creation. If God created the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), then creation is not something of God but some stuff that is different and alien from God, even if it is loved or nurtured by God. What is this stuff of creation and from where did it come?

The early medieval Arab philosophers were the first to propose emanation as an alternative to creation because it reshapes the solitude of God. It makes the universe intrinsically part of God instead of an alien substance. Though orthodox (with a small-case o) thinking is uncomfortable with emanation, emanation is implicit in Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Gnostic thought — and in Jewish, Sufi and Christian mysticism and in the Orthodox concept of divinization. (It is, of course, intrinsic to other religions of Europe and beyond, but these are not monotheistic as such). Emanation rescues the universe from an unfathomable gulf between God and everything else.

To admit that God is absolutely solitary is for the mystic not only an alienation but a painful and wretched wound to heal or gap to close. It is as if an enormous abyss separated human beings and God, and human consciousness could never bridge it. The penny catechism portrays God as wanting to share his goodness with a like-minded creature, but there is no solace in this explanation. The yearning of God in his solitude is a frightening pathos. This yearning can never be satisfied, and in the biblical stories it is not. The solitary God, seeking solace, tries and fails to create the perfect companion, which is to say that the biblical authors recognized the profound Otherness of God in his solitude and could not bridge it. Instead, the powerful contrived revelations to themselves, which, in turn, cannnot explain or justify or their supposed authority. Nor can they bring the people solace or knowledge of God.

Mysticism is a solitary path. Mysticism recognizes that emanation accounts for imperfection, and takes the route of love as a way of flinging the divine spark of human consciousness directly into the path of the yearning God so that the two (God and the spark) may be reunited. The mystic seeks to tear down the solitude of God and make God desire to be engaged, to yield, to give of self, to make God respond. But mysticism itself is a very solitary project. The mystic is like the one lover who alone knows how to woo the other, the other whom a third person cannot know or imitate. And whether this union merely obliterates the lover — the solitary mystic — without revealing a path for the rest of us is the grand risk involved in trying to fathom the frightening solitude of God.