“We are not what we are and we are what we are not.” — Jean Paul Sartre
Our being is really a perpetual becoming. We are never static, never at rest. We are always between selves, no longer what we were, not yet what we are coming to be. Why is this, what dynamic is at work here?
We emerged out of nothing. (Don’t say, “No, we emerged out of DNA.” We are not DNA. A particular configuration of DNA is the place where we came to be, nothing more; we came to be out of nothing.)
At the core of our being, we are nothing. Sartre called this nothingness, “Neant”. But Neant is really more of a verb than a noun; it is a process. Neant is the eternal negative act of nothingness upon itself. For Sartre, Neant is not the mere absence of something; it is the presence of negation.
As Neant, we negate the nothingness that we are essentially. We are a double negative. Now, we have all been taught that a double negative is the equivalent of a positive. But ontology is not linguistics, or logic; here a double negative does not a positive make.
The nothing that we are is eternally negated. But the force of that Neant, by itself, is not enough to make Pinocchio a real boy. The eternal tendency of nothingness to negate itself only matters if that negation is directed toward becoming; and all becoming is becoming “something” (rather than nothing). When the negation of nothing is directed toward the becoming of something, it becomes what philosophers call “Will”.
But what is “something”? Every something is an existent and everything that exists by manifesting qualities. According to German Existenialist, Martin Heidegger, it is only by its qualities that we know what something is. To become something is to adopt and manifest qualities. The particular combination of qualities we choose to adopt and manifest are what we are.
The qualities that we adopt and manifest are what we are (not who we are). To become something is to choose, out of the unlimited cornucopia of pure potentiality, a unique and limited combination of fruits. The particular combination of fruits that I choose to adopt for myself constitutes what British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead calls my “satisfaction”.
Three questions immediately arise:
- Where do these qualities come from?
- Why do I choose the qualities I choose?
- What happens when I reach the satisfaction I’ve aimed at?
First, qualities originate in God. All qualities belong to God and God alone. Qualities are what God is. In the language of Sartre, God is the being whose essence preceeds his existence.
In fact, God is Quality itself (i.e. The Good). As Good, God is the harmonic unity of all qualities and that harmonic unity constitutes The Good. In that harmonic unity, God, each quality inheres purely, perfectly and without gradation.
Through will, we clothe ourselves (adopt & manifest) with qualities that originate outside ourselves. Ultimately, all qualities derive from God; but often they are mediated to us by other existents that have adopted particular combinations and gradations of qualities.
Qualities are never really ours; they can never be who we are. We are not God. Qualities can never inhere in us. Qualities are lures; they draw us out of nothingness into existence, they inspire becoming. So our coming to be is really a two part story. It is ontologically possible because of the force of Neant; but it is actually possible because of the lure of Quality, i.e. The Good, God.
(Note: This creation story is closer to one told in Genesis than the one found in the Roman Catholic Catechism. In the Catechism, God creates ex nihilo. In Genesis, “…the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters – Then God said, Let there be light.” Both stories are true, but Genesis comes much closer to capturing the underlying dynamic.)
So we each consist of two poles: the qualities we seek to adopt and manifest and the will that drives us there. But why is it that we choose the specific set of qualities we do? Why these qualities and not others?
In one sense, the answer is a simple shrug of the shoulder. Like the child who is asked, “Why did you hit your sister?”, our answer is, “Dunno”. And in one sense, that verbal shrug is the correct answer. The will is free to do what the will does. It is entirely unconditioned by anything. And it is easy to see why that is true: it rises out of nothingness and it does not yet manifest any qualities that would immerse it the world of causality (i.e. the world of existents). It is no longer primal chaos but it is not yet “something”, a real existent. Therefore, it can be nothing other than unconditioned freedom.
(Note: Sartre’s doctrine of unconditioned freedom is one his most controversial. Many who walk a mile with him part company on this point. But why? It cannot possibly be any other way!)
That said, the unconditioned freedom that is will has its own agenda. The lure of quality is only a lure if the will can imagine itself clothed in qualities. Before the will is anything, it enjoys a vision of itself as an existent in the universe of existents. (Whitehead called this vision a “proposition”.) The will is not yet part of the universe of existents (and therefore is free from any causal influence) but it imagines itself as such. To stick with Whitehead’s terminology, it “proposes” to join the universe of existents in a particular fashion, i.e. on its own terms. (Think Cyprus joining the EU.)
But what fashion, what terms? Initially, the will is stimulated by the harmonic systhesis of qualities which is God. But as it begins to form its self-image, its proposition, the will also samples myriad alternative syntheses that are projected into the world by myriad actual existents. Ultimately, the will makes its choices not only from the example of God but from the examples set by every actual existent.
When will emerges out of nothingness, it doesn’t just pursue Quality in the abstract, it seeks particular qualities in a particular combination. It doesn’t aim to be an existent per se; it aims to be one particular existent. Any parent would be proud, “Johnnie knows exactly what he wants to be when he grows up.”
But what he wants to be and why he wants to be that…those are Johnnie’s secrets! Never to be revealed.
And what happens when the will gets its way, when the aim achieves its satisfaction, when Johnnie grows up? Here is the terrible, but ultimately wonderful, rub: Johnnie never does grow up, the aim (arrow) never reaches its satisfaction (target), lie quite Zeno, the will never does get its way.
You ask, “Why not?” You’ve already forgotten what the will really is: it is Neant, the process of negation. In the words of the song, “The nearer your destination, the more it’s slip slidin’ away”. Ultimately the will cannot take possession of any quality; only God can. The will can only continue its relentless pursuit of a satisfaction it can never achieve. Qualities are the clothes we wear and in ontology, clothes do not make the man!
Like Alice chasing the White Rabbit, most of us begin our lives believing that we really can catch up to qualities and make them our own. According to the Buddha, we fall prey to attachment and attachment is the origin of human misery. We become attached to the qualities we seek. We imagine that we may someday possess them and that they will one day “satisfy” us, make us happy.
But that can never be. Only God has qualities as his essential nature. We are doomed to chase after those qualities endlessly, like greyhounds chasing “Swifty” at a dog track. And when we do that, we make those qualities our “ultimate concern”. Theologian Paul Tillich said that Faith is the matter of our ultimate concern. For most of us, our faith is in qualities.
What makes this unbearably ironic is that every quality we seek is part of God’s essential nature. But no selection of qualities, no combination of qualities, no gradation of qualities is God.
God is the harmonic unity of all qualities, each pure, perfect and without gradation. When we make a fetish of one quality, combination of qualities or gradation of qualities, we create an idol (a false god) and we make ourselves idolaters.
Sadly, most of us spend our lives chasing qualities and on balance we suffer much for it. But some people, at least some of the time, glimpse something beyond. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, they see that, “…all things are vanity!”
Once we understand and accept the fundamental ontological disconnect between God as the source of all qualities and us as, well, nothing, we can ask if there is any way for us to live our lives that might yet give those lives meaning.
And voila! With the question comes the answer. While we can never make qualities part of our nature, we can clothe ourselves with qualities and when we do so we do become an existent in the universe of existents and we do project those qualities back into the world. Whenever we act in any way, we project qualities, combinations of qualities, gradations of qualities back into the world.
When we project qualities into the world, those qualities in turn become lures for other wills; our actions quite simply motivate others to act. Just as the unique synthesis of qualities that is God lured each of us out of nothingness, so the unique synthesis of qualities each one of us projects back into the world motivates the behavior of others.
So what? Why should we care?
In a previous essay in this collection, The Nature of God, we showed that God was Good, essentially, and that God was eternal, eternity itself in fact. The Good is the harmonic synthesis of all qualities. Therefore, qualities themselves are eternal.
God is simple and one. Existents are complex and many. In God, all qualities inhere purely, perfectly, and without gradation and God is the harmonic synthesis of those qualities.
In the world, innumerable unconditioned wills project a nearly chaotic avalanche of qualities in various combinations and gradations. God cannot ignore this riot of color on the world canvass. All of the qualities, all of the crazy combinations of qualities, that we exhibit must somehow be reconciled in God’s eternal nature. Without destroying or rearranging a single molecule of paint, a Jackson Pollack must somehow come to look like a Rembrandt.
We said earlier that the the particular combinations of qualities we choose in order to define ourselves can never be ours, can never be us; and that is true. We did not say, however, that those combinations could not be God. They can be, actually they must be, and they will be, because all qualities exist soley and essentially in God. When we adopt a combination of qualities (a proposition), we fuse ontologically with God.
Of course, our propositions (projections) need to undergo a transformation…a massive transformation. They must be harmonized with myriad other combinations projected by myriad other existents. But as this process occurs, our propositions come to rest in God; and through our attachment to those propositions we come to reside in Heaven.
So it turns out that the action of God on the world is really two-fold: first to lure existents out of nothingness (this is his function as Creator) and then to reconcile their unique propositions into his own simple nature (this is his function as Redeemer). That is what we call “Grace”.
We can never achieve our aims; but those aims are realized, outside of space and time, in the nature of God. In God, our goals are realized after all…and that realization is eternal.
In this process, we do not lose our character as will. We do not become God; but do come to “live in God” through the “intercession” of the qualities that inspired our propositions. Not bad for a kid dragged out of the ghetto of nothingness…by the Grace of God!