Philosophy has traditionally distinguished between the essence of things and the existence of things. ‘Essence’ normally refers to the qualities or values inherent in an ‘actual entity’ while ‘existence’ is usually thought to be value free: it just is.
In his great ontological poem, On Nature, Parmenides, arguably the father of Western philosophy, spoke of two modes of being: Aletheia (truth) and Doxa (appearance). Aletheia is featureless; Doxa is all about colors, shapes and forms. One (just one) way to read this foundational work is to understand Aletheia as the existence of things and Doxa as their essence.
Later philosophers talked of substances (existence) and accidents (essence). Kant wrote of noumena (substances) and phenomena (qualities). Philosophers from the Idealist and Empiricist schools championed essence at the expense of existence. At one point in his career, Bertrand Russell held that the world consisted only of “universals” (qualities) and that so-called objects and events were merely intersections of those universals.
The rise of Existentialism restored a balance. Most clearly, Heidegger spoke of Wasein (what it is) and Dasein (that it is) and Jean Paul Sartre made use of the essence/existence dichotomy to define God and Man: God is the being whose essence precedes his existence while Man is the being whose existence precedes his essence.
In rare instances the distinction collapses entirely. Anselm of Bec (c. 1077) for example, in his ‘ontological proof’ for the existence of God, defines God as the supreme Good (essence). Then he goes on to reason that existence is ‘better’ than non-existence so for an entity to be supremely good, it must exist. Existence is reduced to a quality among qualities. Starting with essence, Anselm ‘proves’ existence.
A 6th century Irish poet, Saint Dallan, makes a similar argument; but he starts from the opposite perspective: the perspective of existence . He argued that only the existence of God matters since every thing of value (essence) flows from that automatically: “Naught is all else to me save that Thou art.”
Concerning God, Anselm of Bec wrote (Proslogion): “…You are wisdom, you are truth, you are goodness, you are eternity, and you are every true good.” And later, “Therefore, you alone, Lord, are what you are…”
Dallan’s famous poem, written in the form of a prayer, is also a creed! Sometimes called “Be Thou my Vision” (from its first line), other times just called “A Prayer”, it is found in The Poem Book of the Gael, a treasure trove of old Irish verse:
“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart, Naught is all else to me save that Thou art. Thou my best thought by day and by night, Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
“Be Thou my Wisdom, Thou my true Word; I ever with Thee, Thou with me, Lord. Thou my great Father, I thy dear son; Thou in me dwelling, I with Thee one.
“Be Thou my breastplate, sword for the fight. Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight. Thou my soul’s shelter, Thou my high tower; Rise Thou me heavenward, Power of my power.
“Riches I heed not or man’s empty praise, Thou mine inheritance now and always. Thou, and Thou only, first in my heart, High King of Heaven, my treasure Thou art.
“King of the seven heavens, grant me for dole, Thy love in my heart, Thy light in my soul. Thy light from my soul, Thy love from my heart, King of the seven heavens, may they never depart.
“With the High King of heaven, after victory won, May I reach heaven’s joys, O Bright heaven’s Sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Be Thou my vision, O Ruler of all.”
Dallan’s ‘existentialism’ challenges dualist and essentialist views head on. Notice that every word he uses to ‘describe’ God is a noun. No adjectives. Dallan is Sartre turned inside out. Essences, qualities do not matter whatsoever to this poet; all that matters is the existence of God. Why?
Dallan variously refers to God as “my Vision…my Wisdom…my dignity”. He does not thank God for the ‘gift’ of Vision or Wisdom or Dignity (as many would). For Dallan, God is Vision, Wisdom and Dignity per se and God is specifically Dallan’s vision, wisdom and dignity.
Anselm: “Therefore, you are the very life by which you live, the wisdom by which you are wise, and the very goodness by which you are good to the good and to the wicked…”
We exist because we participate in God, who is Being. At the same time God, who is Good, participates in us. We derive our existence by participating in God (Being) and we derive our nature (Good) by God’s participation in us.
God is supremely good; I am not! But I have the capacity to be good, to make right choices, and that capacity I derive from God.
This is not just ‘any god’. This is an explicitly Trinitarian God. In my relatedness (Vision), I recapitulate the Son; in my consciousness (Wisdom), I recapitulate the Spirit; and in my identity (Dignity), I recapitulate the Father. Our lives are a direct participation in the life of the Trinity and God is the modes of our participation.
For Dallan, God is also “power of my power” and “heart of my own heart”. From God’s Trinitarian life comes my ability to act (“power of my power”) and to be acted upon (“heart of my heart”). Power and heart, action and passion, exhaustively define our interaction with the world: how we influence events and how we are influenced by events. God’s existence is the sole source of our ability to act and to be acted upon.
To act on the world and to be acted upon by the world, we must be of the world and in the world but distinct from the world…just as God is in all things and all things are in God, yet God is distinct from all things. We are after all his image and likeness.
So God’s existence constitutes both the structure (vision, wisdom, dignity) and the process (power, heart) of my existence.
Dallan’s creed also defines our relationship with God: “I ever with Thee, Thou with me, Lord…Thou in me dwelling, I with Thee one…Thou mine inheritance now and always.”
To understand Dallan here, we need to take a step back. We have already spoken of our ability to act on the world (“my power”) and to be acted upon by the world (“my heart”). In grammar, these two modalities are called the “active voice” and the “passive voice”: we act, we are acted upon.
But our relationship with God is neither active nor passive; it is perfectly reciprocal: “I ever with Thee, Thou with me, Lord…Thou in me dwelling, I with Thee one.” Consider Eucharist: we incorporate the body of Christ (communion) and by that act we are simultaneously incorporated into Christ’s body.
How can we describe this kind of relationship? It turns out that in many ancient languages (e.g. Greek, Old Norse) verbs had a third voice in addition to the active and passive voices. This voice is usually referred to as the “middle voice”, ostensibly because it falls between active and passive, but in reality it transcends them. The middle voice is the voice of love, the voice of contemplation and the only voice we should use when speaking of our relationship with God.
The middle voice is the voice of Martin Buber when we wrote the famous line, “At the foundation is relationship” in his theological masterpiece, I Thou.
Now we can understand the phrase, “Thou mine inheritance”. Like all aspects of our relationship with God, its meaning is two sided. Do I inherit God or does God inherit me? Both! I inherit God and therefore God dwells in me (“Thou in me dwelling”); God inherits me and therefore I dwell in God (“I with Thee one”). He inherits/I inherit; He dwells/I dwell. It is a perfect middle voice paradigm.
“Thou mine inheritance, now and always.” This inheritance is not something that occurs at the end of my days or even at the end of time itself. It is immediate and continuous, “now and always”. My relationship with God gives an entire other dimension to my being.
I interact with the world on a spatiotemporal basis (power and heart: active and passive) but I interact with God on an eternal basis (inherit and dwell: middle voice). But we also know from scripture (e.g. I Cor. 15: 20 – 28) that the spatiotemporal realm and the eternal realm will ultimately be one…when God is “all in all.”
Just as the spatiotemporal world is a projection of the eternal, so the eternal world is a roll-up of the spatiotemporal: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
But what of the so-called qualities that are so important to mainstream philosophy? “Naught is all else to me, save that Thou art.” I understand that God’s existence constitutes my relation to the world and to God, but doesn’t “naught is all else to me” go a bit too far? “Naught is all else” refers precisely to those things that mainstream philosophy calls ‘qualities’. Don’t we need qualities and doesn’t any cogent ontology need to account for them?
Of course! But as we shall see shortly the existence of qualities is already assumed and guaranteed by the existence of God. We don’t need a separate ontology for ‘essence’; it is embodied in ‘existence’.
According to Thomas Aquinas: “God alone is Good essentially…whatever belongs to others accidentally, belongs to Him essentially…Everything is called good by reason of the likeness of divine goodness belonging to it…Everything seeks its own perfection…(and) all things, by desiring their own perfection, desire God Himself.”
The Good that belongs to God essentially is the source of everything we call a “quality”. In fact, Good is precisely ‘all qualities existing absolutely and in perfect harmony in God’. When these qualities exist in the spatiotemporal realm, they exist relatively (rather than absolutely) and they often appear to be in conflict (rather than harmony).
God is Good essentially and it is the Good that is God that constitutes the raison d’etre for all other beings. Existence is the process of seeking perfection. The urge to exist is the urge to be Good, to be like God. Perfection is defined and measured by “the likeness of divine goodness” belonging to an entity.
While Anselm subsumes God’s existence under his essence, Dallan subsumes God’s essence under his existence.
God is the structure and the process of our existence: Vision, Wisdom, Identity, Power and Heart. The pursuit of Good, however, seeking our own perfection, originates within each of us. Ontogenesis begins as the desire for Good; the existence of God enables that primal desire to form an actual entity, something that exists in its own right. But existence is the pursuit of Good, not the realization of Good, so God must wear two hats: God is both the pursuit of Good and the full realization of Good. How can that be?
God exists, like us, in relation to the world (Creator & Redeemer). But unlike us, apart from that relation, God simply is: God is Being, the ‘Ground of all Being’. Eternally, God is the full realization of Good. In his relationship with the spatiotemporal world, God joins us in the pursuit of Good.
How does God relate with the world? All qualities derive from the Good that is God. Whatever exists inherits God and therefore inherits the qualities that are God’s essence. But while all existents inherit God’s qualities, we are unconditionally free to appropriate those qualities in any way we wish. We may even reject them if we choose to do so.
Remember the inheritance you received from Uncle Joe. He left it to you in the hope that you would use it to make something of yourself. Perhaps you did just that. Perhaps you invested it in further education. Perhaps you used it to start a business. Perhaps you saved it and invested wisely. Or perhaps you spent it all in 6 months on frivolous travel, expensive wine and a flashy sports car.
Everything seeks its own perfection, but everything is unconditionally free to seek perfection in its own way…no matter how misguided that way may be.
Qualities constitute the medium of spatiotemporal relationships. We project qualities through action and we introject qualities through passion. The osmotic membrane that connects us with the world permits, actually requires, a reciprocal exchange of qualities. This is what led Bertrand Russell to conclude, incorrectly, that universals (qualities) are the only real entities. Qualities are indeed the currency of spatiotemporal relations, but God is the Central Bank.
Yet spatiotemporal relations constitute only one dimension of my being; I am also in an eternal relationship with God. Therefore, when we transact with the world, we simultaneously and fundamentally transact with God (“mine inheritance”). Remember the Great Commandment:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself..”
So I appropriate God’s qualities (“Thou in me dwelling”) and I know that my particular ways of appropriating those qualities, the way I choose to seek my own perfection, will in turn be appropriated by God (“I with Thee one”). How I treat my neighbor is how I treat God.
So qualities are never per se “naught”. In fact, these qualities are the essence of who God is. But they would be naught…”save that Thou art”. We don’t need essence and existence to account for the phenomena of the world. Existence includes essence; essence (Good) is the logical consequence of existence. Therefore, “naught is all else to me save that Thou art”.
It is said that Marx stood Hegel on his head. In the same way, Saint Dallan has stood the Ontological Argument on its head.
Dallan’s argument runs something like this: I exist. Since I exist, God must exist since God is the definition and structure of my existence. (One can imagine Descartes saying: “Sum ergo Deus est.”) In fact, God is existence.
But existence is the pursuit of Good. Therefore, God is the pursuit of Good. All things pursue Good and all things participate in God. By participating in God, they exist, they seek their own perfection. Therefore God must also be the perfection of all things, the absolute Good fully realized. The qualities that seem to make up the fabric of the world all derive from the Good that is God and from the participation of existents in God.
From Plato (Theory of Forms) onward, mainstream philosophy has struggled to reconcile essence and existence. Numerous extremely clever solutions have been proposed in an effort to account for both without slipping into dualism. But Dallan shows that it is all for naught. There is no dichotomy to resolve. Where God is concerned, existence entails essence.
While Dallan’s creed stands out against 24 centuries of philosophical meandering, it turns out that his idea is not at all original. It traces back to The Book of Exodus. In chapter 3, Moses asks God his “name” (i.e. his essence, his qualities). “God replied to Moses, ‘I am who am.’ Then he added: ‘This is what you will say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” (Ex. 3: 14) God does not need to enumerate his qualities. Unlike us, he does not need a name to define him, to let us know who he is. He is, period. That is all Moses and the Israelites needed to know; it is all Dallan needed to know and it is all we need to know. Everything else follows logically.
In a survey of Western philosophy, the doctrine that seems to come closest to embodying Dallan’s insight is the Process Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. For Whitehead, all qualities subsist absolutely and in perfect harmony in God (“God’s Primordial Nature”); but God’s project is to bring all existents (“actual entities”) into perfect harmony consistent with those primordial values (“God’s Consequent Nature”)…without of course violating in any way the fundamental ontological autonomy of those existents. The extensive universe is the medium through which that harmonization occurs.
So Dallan’s ‘simple’ Irish poem is much more than a poem and more even than an ordinary prayer; it is indeed a creed! It defines key elements of Christian ontology. Like other creeds, it accounts for creation, incarnation and salvation and it does so using a Trinitarian formula. Alongside the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed, we might call Dallan’s poem the “People’s Creed”.