Ex nihilo

In Brief

Contemplating his humble beginning as a small being "lugged . . . squealing into life" by a midwife, Stephen then thinks more ambitiously of his spiritual origins: "Creation from nothing." Christian theologians have traditionally held that God created the cosmos ex nihilo, and many of them have seen the human soul in the same way. Two paragraphs later in Proteus, Stephen continues to think of himself according to these dualistic alternatives. He is a poor material creature "Wombed in sin darkness," but also an eternally existing soul, willed into existence by divine fiat "From before the ages."

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The first verse of Genesis says that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." It does not say whether or not God created these things from some pre-existing material, but by the second century AD Christian theologians were arguing that their God brought the world into being from nothing, as opposed to Gnostic accounts of a demiurge who fashioned it from primordial matter. A verse of 2 Maccabees (a second-century book deemed canonical by the Catholic church) says, "I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not, and so was mankind made likewise" (7:28).

This account of the creation of mankind seems to conflict with the statement in Genesis that God created man from "dust" (Genesis 2:7). Later philosophers, however—authorized by the following words of the verse, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul"—took pains to distinguish between the fleshly part of human nature and an immortal part called the rational soul which God makes in special, additional acts of creation ex nihilo. Stephen's beloved Thomas Aquinas argues that "The rational soul can be made only by creation," meaning that it "cannot be produced, save immediately by God" (Summa Theologica 1.90.2-3).

In canto 25 of Dante's Purgatorio, Statius gives a materialistic account of the growth of the vegetative and the animal souls in the human embryo, during the first few months of gestation, followed by a description of how God intervenes in the process to breathe a rational soul into the embryo: "once the brain's articulation / in the embryo arrives at its perfection, / the First Mover turns to it, rejoicing / in such handiwork of nature, and breathes / into it a spirit, new and full of power, / which then draws into its substance / all it there finds active and becomes a single soul / that lives, and feels, and reflects upon itself" (68-75). The rational soul, immortal and eternal, subsumes into itself the lesser forms of soul (plant and animal) that would otherwise be perishable.

Armed with this traditional way of thinking, Stephen makes sharp distinctions between the material part of his being and a spiritual dimension that exists eternally. His father and mother ("the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath") produced him by an act of sexual intercourse: they "clasped and sundered, did the coupler's will." (Gifford observes that God is the "coupler" because he joins men and women in the sacrament of marriage, and it is his "will" that human beings "should 'increase and multiply' (Genesis 1:28) by having as many children as possible.") In this sexual sense, Stephen was "made not begotten"—unlike the divine Christ, who according to the Nicene Creed was "begotten, but not made, of one essence consubstantial with the Father." (Begetting, as used in the Creed, is a theological term describing the mysterious, and only metaphorically sexual, relationship between two persons, Father and Son, who are "of one essence," "consubstantial," but nonetheless distinct.)

After thinking of himself as "made not begotten," however, Stephen turns to the spiritual account: "From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever. A lex eterna stays about Him." Gifford traces the "eternal law" to Summa Theologica 1.91.1: "The ruling idea of things which exists in God as the effective sovereign of them all has the nature of law. Then since God's mind does not conceive in time, but has an eternal concept . . . it follows that this law should be called eternal. Hence: 1. While not as yet existing in themselves things nevertheless exist in God in so far as they are foreseen and preordained by Him; so St. Paul speaks of God summoning things that are not yet in existence as if they already were. Thus the eternal concept of divine law bears the character of a law that is eternal as being God's ordination for the governance of things he foreknows."

Stephen's soul, then (combining the logic of this passage with what Aquinas says about the creation of the rational soul one question earlier in the Summa and what Dante says about embryology), did not come into actual existence until the moment it was infused into his gestating pre-rational body, but its existence was willed outside of time and thus exists in God for all eternity. And, since God's thinking "has the nature of law," it might be said (though here Stephen is flirting with heresy, as one of his teachers accuses him of doing in A Portrait of the Artist) that God is not able ever to will him into nonexistence. His existence is not only eternal, but guaranteed so.

Anyone who has followed Stephen's thoughts to these absurdly logical conclusions (and Joyce clearly insists that any worthy reader should do so) may be forgiven for thinking that Stephen's fundamental premise is deeply flawed (and Joyce probably intends for his reader to draw exactly this conclusion). The relentlessly logical training that has made Stephen "a fearful jesuit" even in his apostasy, and the puritanical Irish Catholic consciousness of sin that has made him a misogynist even in his hungrily gratified desire for female flesh, pale in significance before the mind-body dualism that he has absorbed from his religious upbringing. Caught between the material conception of himself as a miserable animal "wombed in sin darkness" and the spiritual sense that he may perhaps even participate in "the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial," where can Stephen look for a sane understanding of his human personality?

Many moments in his thinking—his contemplation of the "dogsbody" that "moves to one great goal," his description of God as "a shout in the street," his fantasy of God becoming man becoming fish, his notion of God as a killer, his theory of Shakespeare as a god who creates out of his sexual unhappiness—indicate that Stephen is acutely aware of the need to break down false dichotomies of the material and the spiritual. But not until he encounters Bloom will life give him a model for how these two aspects of experience may harmoniously interpenetrate. For the atheistical Bloom, human mentality may be satisfactorily explained as a materialistic phenomenon. But, caught in "the stream of life" in which all things come into and pass out of being, the human body-mind perpetually flowers into a kind of eternal life.

JH 2014
Source: shrewddoveapologetics.com.
Source: joyfulpapist.files.wordpress.com.
Eastern Orthodox icon depicting the first Council of Nicaea. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Aquinas. Source: corinquietam.blogspot.com.
Lotus flowers. Source: www.atlantisqueen.co.