ESSE and us

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 existenceesseis 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 conatusIn 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.


Tony Equale

12 comments on “ESSE and us

  1. Hi Tony,

    You may say you’ve already answered this, but could you explain, in terms as simple as possible, exactly what you meant by ‘That is why 200,000 Haitians died’?

    Thanks, Chris.

    • tonyequale says:

      Chris, hi! … nice to hear from you.

      I apologize for a failure to provide context here. The post is in the “pan-en-theist” series which includes the previous two postings on the “descent” of God, a metaphor used by professional Catholic theologian John Haught to describe “God’s” willingness to “allow” creation to evolve by itself. I believe it is an absurd notion that immediately forces you to say that “God” also “allowed” the Haitian earthquake to kill 200,000 people. I challenged that in “The Descent of God.” Supernatural theists must insist on the “voluntary” nature of “God’s” powerlessness, or “he” stops being “God” as they require “him” to be for their purposes.


      • Thanks Tony,

        Whenever I dip into Catholic theology – which admittedly isn’t that often – it makes me think of an endless choice between different pathways, each leading through its own configuration of thicket, swamp, desert and minefield, but hopefully all leading to the same sort of place. That’s assuming the traveller doesn’t die of exhaustion on the way.

        There is probably a good reason why the most obvious, quick, simple, easy, uncluttered path is always ignored (there is only what we think we know, and what we think knowing is). But ultimately it always escapes me.

        Thanks again, Chris.

  2. tonyequale says:


    The problem with “ideas” is that they disguise themselves as “reality” when they are in fact the products of a groping process of experimentation in common perception among human organisms forming themselves into a superorganism through time. History like all evolution is also convolution. It gropes; it is not linear. For those who relish the mind-boggling clutter of minute, disperse but always relevant detail, it is fascinating. But, yes indeed, you can die of exhaustion.


    • Thanks again Tony,

      I was specifically referring to the concept of God, not philosophy in general or ideas in general. The problematic pathways were ones which factored in some sort of concept of God as an axiom. The uncluttered path was the one free of that axiom.

      But that was just in a theological context. (I called it ‘Catholic theology’ only because Catholic theology seems to go that extra polysyllabic mile.) Once all the theological thickets are taken out of contention that one remaining uncluttered path starts to fork and fork and lead to thickets and swamps of its own. But at least the air seems a little clearer.

      I remember a book by Don Cupitt called Taking Leave of God, which I may or may not have read. I’ve read a number of his, and a lot of them could have had that title, so it’s probably academic. The thing that’s always intrigued me is that if one has been in a theological environment and struggled with the implications and contradictions the concept of God can contain and engender, and then one comes out the other side with a concept of God which is logically indistinguishable from the absence of God*, is that any different from never having had the concept of God in the first place? Must it be different?

      (*By ‘absence of God’ I mean for example one realises that God is on both the top and the bottom of the equation so one can remove God by dividing through by God. Or for example God turns out to be identical with something else one assumed or half expected was also there all along – eg being, or the universe, or matter, or energy.)

      Hope this makes some kind of sense.

      Thanks, Chris.

      • Chris – I haven’t read Cupitt, but I think I recognize the reality of what he is talking about. I can see it more clearly in others than in myself, but I’m never confident that the “god” in whom I no longer believe does not still inform the fundamental structure of my reality. My brother recently told me he was completely without faith, but was subsequently shocked when I said I believedneither in god or that I had a “soul.” His belief that a soul was the only way to distinguish between a corpse and a living organism seemed logically beyond question to him and was not a matter of faith. And of course, the evidence for the existence of God is that the universe exists at all. Both of these ideas are so deeply ingrained in the structure of Christian reality that they are as unquestionable to my brother as the rising sun.

        For me, it’s a fascinating exercise in this stage in my life to try to experience the warp and woof of existence from a perspective that was never explained by god. I suppose the experience is the opposite for you. I personally have reached the point where I run in a kind of horror from the word “sacred” but I do look with some continued care at my use of the word “mystery.” Scientists every bit as much as mystics have experienced the universe as a profound, awe-inspiring place. But I would love to have a chance to examine whether the experiences are similar, or whether it is simply the same words used to describe something substantially different.

        Terry Sissons

  3. Tony –
    I agree that within the “metaphor” you describe, Dawkins et al. would also be right. But I do not think it eliminates the “mind-body” problem so much as to redefine it as a natural problem, as a scientific problem in its own right. Within science, how consciousness arises out of biology is still an unanswered question, quite similar to the problem of the relationship between matter and energy until Einstein demonstrated that these two seemingly different things were forms of the same thing. Science accepted the matter/energy problem, though as real and never tried to solve it by denying the existence of energy. With the mind-body problem, however, science has experimented with denying that consciousness actually even exists in its own right because it was historically equated with “the soul” and with the supernatural world. What your position opens up is the possibility of solving the mind-body problem in scientific, rather than Platonic, terms.

    On another matter, I would like to raise a small objection to your saying that esse also energizes those of us “who are responding. Esse is present, period. I can’t see that it’s a moral choice that determines that it is God’s esse or presumably a lesser esse (perhaps a more secular esse?) that is present in all things.

    But I would like to say thank you, Tony. Your thinking about these things, and your attempt to bridge the great gulf between modern science and the cosmology of traditional Christianity is hugely liberating for people like me looking for a more logical grounding than that provided by my Platonic roots.

    Terry Sissons

  4. tonyequale says:


    “God” was a cosmological constant for the ancients. That position held until the 19th century and Darwin. At that point there was no longer any necessity to have recourse to “God” as a “fact” to explain other “facts.” So from my point of view, since philosophy is the primary interpretation of verified facts, and participates in the literalism of the scientific objective, “God” is no longer an object for philosophy … and insofar as philosophical theology is dependent on its philosophical foundations, it ceases to be an object of inquiry there as well. Theology becomes confined to an elaboration of the social and personal significance of archetypal myths and metaphors, a la Jung, Freud et multi al.

    Hence, for me, “God” is no longer an object of my enquiry. But existential energy is. And insofar as existential energy explains (by being the source of) my “sense of the sacred” (a corollary of my conatus), the existential energy of matter begins to perform the functions and play the role in my life that once belonged to “God.” But I insist you accept my thesis as sincere and without guile, SLEIGHT-OF-HAND or manipulation: I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT “GOD”!

    i REPEAT I am not talking about “God.” I am talking about a primary interpretation of verified facts that says without any speculation whatsoever that:

    (1) existential energy is neither created nor destroyed, therefore it might appropriately BE called self-subsistent
    (2) existential energy is the matrix in which I live and move and have my being
    (3) exitential energy is the exclusive creative CAUSE of every fact, feature and force in the universe
    (4) existential energy does not exist apart from its extruded forms
    (5) existential energy explains my “sense of the sacred.”

    That is as far as my “philosophy” goes. I go no further with any claim to validly interpret the literal meaning of facts that have been verified by science. All I have discovered as far as my philosophy is concerned is (1) the self-explanatory source of existence (2) the ground of universal community (3) the transcendent creativity of matter and (4) the human sense of the sacred. Frankly — and I am completely sincere in saying this — I don’t care if you call existential energy “God” or not. And I would actually prefer you didn’t. “God” does not exist. In that you and I agree. But what does exist … and indisputably … is existential energy which is (1), (2), (3) … and etc!

    Do I want to go further? Where can I go from here? There is only one place to go: relationshhip … if I want to go there

    But, that is another topic …


  5. tonyequale says:

    Terry, hi!

    The ESSE that actuates the earthquake responders does not have a moral import. The ESSE of the responders is no different AS ESSE from the ESSE of the non-responders. It is, in fact, the same — mutatis mutandi — as the earthquake itself. But by the fact that existential energy, over eons and eons of time, is the unique and exclusive ground and dynamism responsible for these communitarian moral (and immoral) agents called human organisms, ESSE IN US has a communitarian moral dimension. I repeat, IN US, not apart from us. We can never imagine ourselves apart from existential energy, just as we can never imagine existential energy apart from the things it evolves, enlivens and sustains.

    I am not opting for “religion.” I am insisting, howver, that we accept matter exactly for what it is … and it is “sacred” in exactly the way that it is sacred and not in another way … especially not in the way that “religion” has conceived it.

    The “mind-body problem” is of the same category as you suggested. The very fact that it is called a “problem” is not due to the facts of the case, it is due to a faulty “primary interpretation of the facts” that assigned the phenomena we experience to another plane of being. As you so rightly say, it has now become a simple (?) problem of “science.” How does material energy, with the specific organic materialit has to work with, do what it does? It is no more of a “problem” than identifying the 95% of the matter-energy of the universe that remains unaccounted for. And that is ABSOLUTELY NOT a rhetorical statement.


    • Thank you, Tony. We are, as you know, in many ways in fundamental agreement. Except that you are at home with the word “sacred” and I am not. I’m quite open to the probability that this is my problem. For as far back as we can see into the existence of Homo sapiens, mankind has had a sense of what I think could be called the “sacred.” Why I do not is almost certainly an outcome of my particular kind of brain and the particular nurture within which it has developed. But for all the words of awe and wonder I can legitimately use to describe the universe, “sacred” just isn’t on the list.

      My sister, whose views on the universe are quite compatible with mine – and indeed yours – says it’s my background. Sacred is a word that not only resonates for her but gives her a strong sense of grounding. In me, it creates a kind of claustrophobic terror.

      I guess it’s a good thing I decided to leave the convent, do you think?

      Seriously, thank you for taking the dialogue so seriously. It is liberating.


  6. tonyequale says:


    Thanks for your comment. I guess it comes down to whatever word has not been “burned” for us. In your case it may be the “M” word … so long as I don’t put it in latin and call it
    MYSTERIUM … or even, God forbid, MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM. (But I am definitely tempted !)


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