Tzimtzum and Inherent Vice: A Personal Myth of Pattern

The last time I wrote about the pattern-based worldview I’m trying to work out, I got on the topic of afterlives and religion, in a way very brief, casual, and personally unsatisfying way. I do not have a strong sense of my audience yet, so I can’t say whether that’s something that would bore or bother you; nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about my personal religious attitudes for at least a few more posts while I talk about living and thinking in this world I’m working out. For this post I’m going to pick up where I left off when I was talking about digital phylacteries: if resurrection is “easy,” why would Christianity suggest that it is difficult for God to effect?


“Order. Chaos. Order.” Source: Mike Mahaffie at

But first I want to make something clear: what follows is on the order of myth. I do not mean to offer it as a complete, literal cosmology, not even of a highly speculative variety. Certainly it is no replacement for physics as a description of the cosmos. Moreover, I am open to correction on how compatible this myth is with other bodies of knowledge; if you see problems, let me know.

A second thing I should make clear is that this account is stitched together from Richard Beck’s “Warfare and Weakness,” a series of posts on his blog Experimental Theology, in which Beck looks to combine the insights of John D. Caputo’s The Weakness of God and Greg Boyd’s God at War to create an invigorating, enabling warfare theology that will rescue progressive theology from its doldrums.1 In particular, I am drawing on “Part 5, The Weakness of God,” “Part 6, Let There Be Light,” and “Part 7, The Victory of the Lamb.” I have also layered it with my own views on emergence, reality-as-reliability, and other pattern-based worldview work, which don’t appear in Beck’s version nor, as far as I know, in Caputo’s and Boyd’s books.

Without further ado, the myth:

In the beginning was God. God desired to create a universe, but all there was, was God, and so there was no place for a universe. God therefore withdrew into Godself, a process which certain Jewish mystics call tzimtzum.2 In this place which God’s tzimtzum opened up there was void not-God. God, the Patterner, then re-entered the void as a creative ordering force, shaping and patterning the void: chaos became matter, time, and space,3 and out of matter emerged elements, minerals, planets, organisms, people. Or, in more metaphorical language,

The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Therefore God the Patterner fashioned reality out of chaos… and chaos, not-God, the Nihil, inheres in reality, for that is the raw material (or the substrate) of the patterns.

All things tend toward dissolution; as we know from thermodynamics, all order is lost to disorder in the form of entropy. To stave off dissolution, patterned things steal order from other patterned things. In order to live, all living things must break down other things; organisms must die for organisms to live. Patterns do not merely break down over time; to shore themselves up, some patterns destroy other patterns. In such a world, sometimes patterns lock in mutually-destructive relationships. In such a world, sometimes patterns must adapt to certain threatening circumstances, only to find that those adaptions will make them bash themselves to pieces in more peaceful circumstances. The chaotic void, which lurks in all things, wants its own back.

God, the Patterner, desires for pattern to flourish, to proliferate, to continue to become, and would like to intervene to stabilize, heal, maintain, and encourage the patterns. But God the Patterner will not destroy or coerce; destruction and coercion are in the nature of void, not in the nature of God the Patterner. God’s only tools to help fix creation are in weakness submitting to the void’s violent power and in healing and working through those patterns who consent to it (for changing a pattern into another sort of pattern is an act of violence, unless the pattern itself is tending toward that change).4 The specific ways in which God the Patterner acts in weakness are revelation (necessarily imperfect, given the vehicles) and sacrificial incarnation; the current and ongoing influence of God the Patterner through those committed to maintaining that pattern (ie. through God’s people) is called the Kingdom of God.

The afterlife, if there is such a thing, would involve God the Patterner permanently sustaining particular patterns (conscious ones, likely, which we could call souls, but only with the understanding that there is no mind/body split and the whole person, including the fleshy parts, constitutes a soul). But since all patterns, as they are now, contain destructive elements thanks to chaos, the patterns must not only be fixed but endlessly renewed and sustained… and since God will not coerce, that could be difficult. The various mechanisms of salvation—crucifixion, hell5—are all intended to remove from the patterns those destructive elements that chaos has introduced and then to prevent such elements from emerging again. This afterlife will likely be smaller, in some ways, than we might be tempted to imagine: since the void must continue if there is to be anything at all that isn’t wholly God, then the afterlife (if there is such a thing) must continue to involve a distinction between order and chaos, reality and dissolution, Creation and the Darkness on the Face of the Deep. Thus heaven is the City of God with doors forever swung wide on the deep for those who are ready to enter.

The point of this account, again, is not to lay down a definitive version of the events that took place at the beginning, and then the end, of the universe, but rather to structure my overall approach to the world: God is the Patterner of a world characterized by an opposition between pattern and its inherent dissolution, and God, as Patterner, is on the side of the patterns.

I want to make some points before I end this; with luck I’ll expand some of these in later posts, but I think I’d be remiss if I did not mention them now.

  1. I came to Beck’s account of things independently of Hofstadter’s and found both independently compelling. When I looked to see if I could combine the two into a coherent system, I found that it seemed incredibly sensible to do so. Each point of contact clicked nicely into place. That was a very pleasant surprise.
  2. 3KBq1n

    Source: Avacados at

    Out of that new system emerged a feature which reminded me very much of an insight I had during my Conservation and Preservation class, an archives course cross-listed for library and information studies students. In that class I learned the term inherent vice, which means a self-destructive property of an archival material. For instance, certain inks slowly dissolve paper, so that over time the words will eat the page; the magnetic fields of the metal bits embedded in magnetic tape can interfere with one another so long as the tape is wound, gradually reorienting those fields throughout the tape and thereby erasing the information encoded with those fields. All documents (even the hard drives that make up the Cloud) have inherent vices, so all conservation and preservation is a losing war against entropy. Migration solutions can stave off defeat for a very long time, but not forever. (See also “The Digital Library in the Ashes of Alexandria” for more on information studies as a war against entropy.)
    At any rate, I liked the term inherent vice because it reminded me of original sin, though at the time I thought the concepts differed too much to make use of the similarity. Now, in this new worldview of pattern, I consider them to be the very same concept applied to different systems.

  3. Although this myth draws heavily from the order/chaos dichotomy, I understand it differently from the Lawful vs Chaotic axis in the Dungeons & Dragons moral alignment system. Order/pattern and dissolution/chaos are metaphysical, not political, concepts in this myth and analogical reasoning should not apply here (nor anywhere).
  4. I’d like to point out the similarity between Thomas Aquinas’s view of God as Being Itself, and Paul Tillich’s view of God as the Ground of All Being, and my view of God as the Patterner (in a world where being patterned is the same thing as existing). Although I make no claim that the three views are identical, just in different terms, I hope mentioning the comparison will be suggestive for anyone familiar with these views.
  5. I think the biggest problem I have with this myth as it stands is that I can’t articulate how God the Patterner could incarnate as Jesus Christ (or as anything or anyone, for that matter). Jesus must be or have been some kind of pattern to have existed; God the Patterner is not a pattern, but rather that which patterns. So in what sense can a non-pattern be incarnated as a pattern? This strikes me as a problem in all systems which posit a God who does not technically exist, like Aquinas’s or Tillich’s: how can God-who-does-not-exist be meaningfully incarnated as Jesus-who-exists?
    However, I’m not willing to throw out the system yet because, as far as I can see, everything else really works quite. I don’t want you to think that I’m unaware of the problem, however.


  1. If “warfare theology” and “progressive Christianity” appearing in the same sentence strikes you as strange, then don’t worry: you’re right that it’s strange. It was a difficult sell on Beck’s part, which he is likely taking up in more detail with his newest book, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. I haven’t read the book yet, though I look forward to doing so.
  2. I swear I learned about tzimtzum from “On Warfare and Weakness,” but I can’t find any mention of it now that I re-read it. Maybe I’m just being a fool and overlooking it.
  3. Apologies if I am butchering physics here, but as I understand from David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, time and space are not backgrounds or separately-existing entities but rather the relationship between things in the world; therefore time and space would not exist until there were things—that is, particles or whatever makes up particles? I think?
  4. See also Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion and, especially, Paladin of Souls.
  5. As I mentioned before, I’m what’s called a dogmatic universalist: I believe that if there’s an afterlife, all people will be reunited with God and saved. This doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s a hell; rather, I would say that if there is a hell, it works more like the Roman Catholic idea of purgatory (purifying souls until they are ready for heaven or, in this version, until they can be endlessly sustained) rather than the Roman Catholic or standard Protestant idea of hell (punishing souls without end). I am more convinced that, if there is a God, then all people will eventually be reconciled to and reunited with God, than I am that there is a God at all.

5 thoughts on “Tzimtzum and Inherent Vice: A Personal Myth of Pattern

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  4. This is challenging and refreshing to read for someone who grew up in staunchly conservative/fundamentalist Christian circles. I’ve been experiencing some acute disenchantment and disillusionment with that background and my faith in general. You’re writing is like therapy for me right now as I’m working through it all. Keep it up!!


    • Thank-you! And I am happy that what I have written helps. (In particular as I spent a little time in conservative Christian circles and I know how disorienting it can be; I wish I had found progressive Christians at that time.)


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