ESSE and us
In explaining his vision of the “Creator-creature” relationship, Thomas Aquinas centers on the fact that God is “being,” “existence” — in Latin, ESSE. Both God and creatures exist by one and the same esse — God. He calls the esse of creatures “common esse;“ he doesn’t call it “created esse.” Esse cannot be created, for it is God.
He calls God by a different name: “subsistent esse.” The distinction between the two he says, while real, is “formal;” for what are “distinct” in each case are the forms or essences not the existence. The existence — esse — is the same. Esse, is God, and by nature infinite. But because the created “forms” (essences) which exist by esse are radically different from God’s “essence,” esse is activated in each in radically different ways. “Common esse” is God’s infinite esse attenuated or “constricted” by the finite and limited “forms” that it enlivens; we might think of the way electrical voltage is reduced by the resistance of the work-load it is energizing. “Subsistent esse,” however, since it is the self-actuation of infinite superessentiality, has no limits. For both Creator and creatures it is the same Esse — God — but it “acts” differently in each case. That is the significance of the distinction. It is not easy to imagine.
Today the hypothesis about the dualities of “matter and form” and “essence and existence” is discarded as incompatible with modern science. Thomas’ vision, built on that hypothesis, is likewise dismissed as a series of mediaeval thought experiments, in the same category as alchemy and of interest only to the antiquarian.
But we have to realize these ethereal ruminations were a highly significant factor in the formation of the Western view of the world. They shaped and colored the way we “picture” reality; and “God’ was an intrinsic part of that picture. What kind of “God” did Aquinas’ “distinctions” picture?
Aquinas was not much help here for he claimed to paint no picture at all. He was trying to find a way to say that even though esse is the same, “God” was not creation; they were “distinct.” His distinction was an exercise in abstract thought, not appearance. Appearance engages the imagination not just the intellect. What may be metaphysically distinct and its “formal” distinction clear to mediaeval metaphysicians, can be misleading to the rest of us because the word “distinct” causes us to conjure images of creatures as “entities independent of God” as if they had their own esse. We “think” in pictures, as Wittgenstein said, and so we tend to imagine esse as if it were some “thing” that distinct entities “have,” given to them by God, like money in the pocket or a level of electrical charge, or more poetically, an intensity of light or a degree of beauty. But these images, even the more refined ones, are faulty.
Let’s take the favorite example of the Fathers: light. To imagine common esse, we may “picture” each created “thing” illuminated and made visible by light, to a degree of intensity proportionate to the level of conscious autonomy of each “essence” — a rock, a plant, an animal, a human — each progressively brighter. Correspondingly, subsistent esse, “God,” would be likened to a super-brilliant light source, like the sun, which we cannot even look at because it blinds us; its intensity totally exceeds our ability to see. The analogy seems to work because this “un-seeable” light which makes objects visible is the sun’s light, it is not theirs; just as we exist by the unknowable God’s act of existing, it is not ours.
The analogy’s aptness ends abruptly, however, because we tend to imagine it in two ways that are erroneous: we think of light as if it were (1) some “thing” showered on (2) independently existing entities. That is not faithful to the reality. Let me explain. We naturally picture the sun as an independent object shining on other independently existing objects. But in the case of esse it is the very existence of those objects that is the real point of the analogy, not their visibility. Esse is the existence of the existent itself, it is not a subsequent “quality” bestowed on a prior existing thing, the way light is. Nothing exists before it is actuated with esse. Therefore the analogy “limps.”
But it is hobbled by another error: esse is not a “thing;” it is “act” (that is the scholastic word; we might say, “energy”). The sun makes all things “visible” by its shin-ing, God makes all things “be” by “his” be-ing. That the very esse of things is God’s own act of existing makes the relationship existentially dynamic, not static. It makes the usual image of “God’s presence” a gross understatement because our relationship is more suffusive, more inclusive, more intimate, more “indistinct,” than even the image of the sun making the rapturously beautiful earth “shine” for our delighted eyes. It is our being — this “presence” is us. The light shining from visible objects “participates” in the sun’s shin-ing; the existence of things “participates” in God’s be-ing. We ride on God’s existing as on eagle’s wings.
Whatever imagery we use will turn our conceptualizations into metaphor. Some metaphors are better than others, and in an historical context like ours where religious imagery is flat-out anthropomorphic (I prefer the word, “humanoid“) like that of “the book,” they can be totally misleading. Judging from the way “God” acts (or better, does not act), “God” is infinitely more like sunlight than like a near eastern warlord. But, as we’ve been seeing, even sunlight fails to represent the full picture of what “participation in being” means.
This speaks to the heart of what theology is all about: finding the proper ways to think of and imagine the reality “in which we live and move and have our being.” But we are not adrift on a sea of unknowables here. For we always have the reality right in front of our eyes against which we can check our imagery. I believe that’s how Aquinas did it; we can do it too.
The human imagination is a powerful force. It allows us to picture things that we cannot see and perhaps do not exist. We may use it to imagine entities and forces to explain why things are behaving the way they do. But are they real? What is real is, in the first place, the way things right before our eyes are behaving. That is our anchor. That is what we are trying to understand.
What if …
So let’s do our own “thought experiment.” Let’s temporarily de-activate our imagination. Keeping all other things equal, what if we just relieve ourselves of the burden of searching for an adequate metaphor for Thomas’ “distinction.” What if the esse, both common and self-subsistent, can be “pictured” as we see it actually functioning in the real world right in front of our eyes? In other words, what if we let the real world be the metaphor, the imagery of the relationships within esse … what kind of picture would that paint for us?
”God’s” esse would be the existential energy of matter which (1) is neither created nor destroyed (and therefore approximates esse in se subsistens). (2) It displays its existential self-embrace in a universal conatus sese conservandi (impulse for self-preservation) observable by us in every living thing, including ourselves, as a drive to survive responsible for all creative evolution in the universe. Existential energy, esse, has in fact evolved (“created”) every aspect of this astonishing cosmos which includes earth’s biosphere and noosphere. This existential energy is indisputably (3) the sustaining matrix in which “we live and move and have our being;” it displays (4) such a self-emptying availability (kenosis) that others exist in and by its own existing. The human conatus, derived from matter’s existential energy, translates to our love of our life. It may also be reasonably said to (5) account for our universal “sense of the sacred” directed at our be-ing and all those things that support it …
In this case, Dawkins et al., would be right. There is only “one thing” visible out there, matter’s existential energy, and the phenomena we have heretofore assigned to a separate unseen and unverified “second substance” and separate world where it was thought to reside, are in fact expressions of the properties of material energy — esse — itself. There is no “mind-body” problem, nor two worlds to explain it, because there are not two diametrically opposed “substances” to reconcile. The world is exactly as we see it: the creative unfolding of esse.
In this case, also, the perennial philosophy would be right. The dualism-idealism of western philosophy will be seen to be an understandable case of “reification ” … by that I mean the virtually unavoidable projection of the existence of invisible separate “things” (like the “soul”) employed in order to be faithful to the existence and character of inexplicable phenomena that have no apparent source other than the material bundle from which they emanate. This reification created an imaginary parallel world and a “God-entity-person” whose “distinctness” was translated into “separateness” to explain things. But, once understood, features of the perennial philosophy (like “divine immanence” and “participation in being”) as we are seeing, will be found to reflect the true inter-relationships within material energy and bring us closer to an actual picture of how and why we perceive the material universe as sacred.
And in this case, finally, religion would also be right. The myriad of invisible “facts” adduced by religion, whether accepted as factual or not, will be seen to have a real and abiding relevance as powerful evocative archetypal metaphors (the reprise of “myths” that are very ancient in origin like the presence of “god-men” among us heralded by “virgin-births” etc.). These “facts” poetically and therefore from a human relational point of view, aptly and accurately elicit attitudes conducive to a correct and intense relationship to esse with its five “divine” identifiers mentioned above. They also represent a human solidarity that spans the centuries and embraces all human traditions in the search for the Sacred.
So could we say that “matter’s energy” itself and the cosmos it has evolved, is God’s “personally chosen” metaphor? … what the Irish theologian and mystic, Eriúgena, called “The Mask of God”? (A mask like those at a masquerade, that seem to hide, but are really meant to reveal.) It answers the question, what is “God” like? And it says, “God” is like this living, dynamic cosmos, neither more nor less, exactly as it is and exactly as we observe it actively unfolding before our astonished eyes. There is nothing else to “see.” “God” is distinct only insofar as “he” is its existential energy — its esse — palpable for us in the conatus. In all other respects, we are not distinguishable. “God” is not a separate rational (discursively reasoning and sequentially choosing) entity-person like us. “God” is not a “he” or a “she” or an “it.” Esse is a transcendent subjectivity at the core of material reality that displays a boundless generosity of creative energy which is endlessly extruding new realities … and unable to be anything other than what “it” is: Esse — the “Pure Act” of existing.
. . .
In January 2010, 200,000 Haitians, the majority children and among the poorest people on the face of the earth, were crushed to death by falling buildings in a massive earthquake that struck the densely populated city of Port-au-Prince.
Some called the slaughter “incomprehensible.” No one quibbled; it was a word that betrays an unspoken, all-too-common assumption: “God” somehow “permitted” those people to die in that way because “he” did nothing to prevent it. How could “he” have allowed such a thing to happen? That is the significance of the word. It implies a moral judgment … on “God” and on God’s universe.
But I say what is “incomprehensible” is the image of “God” it assumes — a false “picture” we have fabricated for ourselves.
The imaginary, all-powerful, humanoid miracle-worker of naïve supernatural theism did nothing because that “God” does not exist. The real “God,” Aquinas’ vision suggests, is present as esse, and only as esse, in all the things esse energizes — a flower, or a cloud … or an earthquake! Recently The Washington Post reported that:
More than seven months after the earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, an estimated 1.3 million Haitians — 15 percent of the population — are still living in tents or under leaky tarps, unable to protect themselves from the Caribbean’s relentless summer rains, even though foreign governments and charities have pledged billions of dollars for relief and reconstruction.
But esse also energizes human beings. “God’s” esse is the existential energy of those who are responding … and those who are not!
There were no miracles here, neither physical nor moral. We believe in “God”? We do well. But we must be careful what we imagine “God” is like.