Number and the Things Beyond

Number and the Things Beyond the Cosmos.

Scripture has many instances of numbers that express the superabundance of heavenly things: of the angels, there is “thousand thousands [of angels] ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him (Dan. 7:10)” and “the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands (Rev. 5:11)”. To express the magnitude of what is forgiven by grace, we have Christ saying: “one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents (Mt. 18:27)”. The idea with these is not to indicate a specific sum, but rather to exhaust the imagination. We were meant to encounter those numbers as unimaginable sums, which leads to a sort of ecstasy of contemplation. Ten thousand times ten thousand was supposed to mean something like “beyond all number”.

But ten thousand times ten thousand is not beyond all number for the modern mind. Even very young children will talk about billions and trillions- and if you give them the names for higher numbers they will speak of them too. Eighth grade science textbooks will throw around far greater numbers than billions, and one can write out numbers of unimaginable magnitude quite easily using scientific notation. No matter how absurdly large one wants a number, scientific notation makes brief work of it: the number of grams the sun weighs (2 x 10^33) the distance to the furthest known galaxy in nanometers, etc. Once one knows the method for manipulating scientific notation, he doesn’t have to do much more than be able to multiply single digits, and add doubles to easily write out numbers that seem as great as can be calculated.

I like the modern mind on this account. Because there is no number that can dazzle our minds simply as number, we are more forced to come to grips with what it means to be “beyond number”. This getting beyond number is, to my mind, one of the hardest things to understand about the things beyond the cosmos. When we say “there are three divine persons” and “there are three oranges on the table” the word “three” does not mean the same thing in both statements. Likewise, “ten thousand angels” and “ten thousand puppies” do not use the word “ten thousand” in the same way. Angels do not have the sort of homogeneity that number requires, the homogeneity of quantity. All the things that happen in the cosmos have a sort of homogeneity, of space or time or both, which allows us to count them.

The things of heaven do not have this homogeneity in any way, because they have a degree of uniqueness that exceeds anything in the cosmos, even man. When we are in heaven, and first see an angel- we will first think that it is God- but even after we are told that it is not God, the next time we look at an angel, the exact same thing will happen. Angels are not what we call “alike”. Each individual is a completely different species. One angel need not remind us of another, the way all men are recognizable as men, for each angel is a subsistent species. God is further than even this, for he is beyond all species and genera absolutely. Any sort of universality of genus or species is utterly impossible to say of God. If there were one, it could only be “esse” or “existence”- but this is not a genus.

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