The Primacy of Esse

What the revelatory traditions of Bible and Qur'an alike insist upon is "the distinction" of creator from creation: nothing uncreated can be "associated with" the creator, as Islam prefers to put it in celebrating the radical oneness of God [tawhid]. The rabbis were equally insistent, of course, in distinguishing God's revelation to Israel from the surrounding polytheisms, for the revelation of there being but one God cannot simply mean that one out of the current pantheon wins out. Once this one God is identified as the One from whom all-that-is comes forth, such a One cannot be part of the universe God originates, nor have any rivals. That is the simple logic of asserting the oneness of the creator. Robert Sokolowski has detailed the implications of this logic, introducing it by a philosophical conceit which he calls "the distinction."5 He insists, of course, that it cannot be a distinction like the ones we routinely make, for creator and creatures do not share a common domain; indeed, this distinction is utterly unique in that "one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself [once it] is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is." For in this distinction "God is understood as 'being' God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world, [since] God is understood not only to have created the world, but to have permitted the distinction between himself and world to occur" (32-33). As the metaphysician Aquinas will identify existing [esse] with Aristotle's premier analytic category of act, thereby transforming Aristotle's meta-physics to meet the demands of a universe revealed to be created; so the phenomenologist Sokolowski (1979) will exploit what he has already identified as the premier activity of philosophers—making distinctions—to show how a central feature of the faith-life of Christians carries profound philosophical implications.

The first of these is the way in which "Christian belief in creation makes the world or the whole explicitly thematic because it urges a special kind of negation of the world or the whole; it urges a distinction between the whole and God" (46). Yet a distinction of a unique sort, for "one danger in this is that the world might lose its character as a matrix and ultimate setting and begin to look like a large thing, a global object, instead of being taken as a setting for things and objects; this would occur if the distinction between God and the world is misread as one of the distinctions we make naturally and spontaneously between things within the world. This misunderstanding of both the world and God, this taking of both of them as new kinds of objects, can be prevented by a proper emphasis on the philosophical inquiry into the whole and its necessities; by an awareness of the special sense of God as ipsum esse subsistens and the special transformation of language that occurs when we begin to speak, religiously and theologically about God; and by an explicit study of the unusual character of the distinction between the whole and God" (46). A challenging agenda, any one of whose demands has often been neglected in much that passes for "philosophy of religion," yet the focus of our exposition will be the way in which Aquinas' ability to characterize the creator as ipsum esse subsistens allows him to offer a way of articulating the singularity of the relation of creator to creation.6 And since the relation in question only emerges with the revelation of a free creator, one could hardly expect the philosophical tools needed to articulate it to be found ready to hand in Greek philosophy. Like "the distinction," this relation will be unlike any that we can know between items in the universe. How then does Aquinas' strategic use of esse [existing] as act serve to transform the metaphysical matrix which he had inherited, and had determined to make available to Christian theology, thereby allowing him to set at the center of his work something they had managed to overlook? And what does the ensuing relation look like?

To characterize creation in a manner faithful to the whole of the scriptures, creator and creatures must be related by a "non-reciprocal relation of dependence."7 Aquinas' reasoning to this special status for the creator/creature relation coheres neatly with the uniqueness of Sokolowski's "distinction":

.since God is altogether outside the order of creatures, since they are ordered to him but not he to them, it is clear that being related to God is a reality in creatures, but being related to creatures is not a reality in God; we say it about him because of the real relation in creatures (ST 1.13.7).

Those untutored in "the distinction" have misread this passage as stating that the creator is "unrelated to the world" in the sense of being indifferent to it. But what Aquinas means by the "real relation" which he is careful to deny of the creator is a reciprocal one which obtains between two items in the universe, so denying reciprocity is but another way of calling our attention to the fact that creatures have their very being from the One who is, while that One's being in no way depends on creating. Yet were one to think of God and creatures simply as two things, quite naturally presuming them both to be items in the universe, to deny any real relation between them would indeed be to separate one radically from the other. In the light of "the distinction," however, we shall see how denying that sort of reciprocal relation amounts rather to affirming an inexpressible intimacy of creature to creator which Sara Grant suggests is best expressed by Sankara's term "nonduality." Yet the metaphysical device needed to bridge the ostensible gap (or "infinite qualitative difference") between creator and creature will be esse as the "act of being" proper to each existing thing, with creatures participating in the esse which God is.8

Both esse and participation, however, are ways of attempting to express the inexpressible, for just as "the distinction" must be unlike any one we know, so a "nonreciprocal relation of dependence" cannot obtain between items within the universe. Metaphysics is being stretched to serve a revelation whose affirmations exceed its proper reach. As Sokolowski puts it: "the distinction is glimpsed on the margin of reason, [indeed] at the intersection of reason and faith" (39). This fact brings out better than any other a characteristic peculiar to thirteenth-century thought, notably that of Aquinas, and helps to account for the fragility of his synthesis. For reason and revelation need to function together as interlocking criteria, and do so in the face of conventional ways of distinguishing them which tend to separate their respective contributions, with reason ideally leading to knowledge in such a way that once something is known it need no longer be believed. Aquinas' deft recasting of Avicenna's distinction between essence [mahiyya] and existence [wujud] to make esse to be act rather than accident already gestured towards an ineffable aspect of esse, since Aristotle had already remarked that we cannot define act so much as discover its presence by a string of examples marking the difference of waking from sleeping, seeing from looking, understanding from thinking. Since there is no potentiality at all (like that of thinking prior to understanding) to lead one into ipsum esse subsistens, however, it will utterly defy conceptualization; and the participated esse which creatures enjoy will share in that ineffability, given the fact that essences are what we can understand and classify.

That something we have thought of in fact exists can hardly follow from our thinking about it, nor can it be simply a "fact," in our sense of the term, either. There is an irruption to existing, signaled by Aquinas' using Aristotle's energeia to identify it, yet recognizing this singularity may well require prior attention to the originating activity of the creator.9 To bracket the origination of the universe, as modernity felt impelled to do, has the effect of dulling our sensibilities to the novelty of existing, inclining us to regard it a mere given rather than an undeserved gift, thereby allowing philosophers to move in accustomed conceptual paths which quite naturally privilege essence.10

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