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. Initially at least, 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.

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) 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 I Thou including the famous line, “At the foundation is relationship”.

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 entirely entailed 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”.


Robert Frost’s 1916 poem, The Road Not Taken, appears to be a comment on existential angst and the human condition; and on one level it is no doubt just exactly that. But on another level, it raises all the questions that haunt the science of Quantum Mechanics (QM) to this day. Of course, that could not have been Frost’s intent; there was no such thing as QM in 1916. The world was just beginning to learn about Relativity.

But a poem is a poem is a poem. Once written, it transcends its author and even its milieu. We must meet the text head on, on its own terms, regardless of the author’s subjective intent. Perhaps in doing so, however, we will discover a deep connection between the poem’s overtly human themes and its underlying ontological implications:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them both about the same.

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.


A hundred plus years ago it was popular to think of Universe as if it were a finely tuned Swiss time piece, wound up by God “in the beginning” and running mechanically ever since toward some unforeseen but determined end. But beginning around 1890, a series of observations and experiments made this view of Universe increasingly untenable.

These observations and experiments eventually gave rise to the science of Quantum Mechanics. QM showed that there is no pre-determined course of events, that outcomes are more a matter of probability than causality, and that Universe at its most fundamental level is best understood as a perpetual series of choices.

In the realm of philosophy, this insight popped up as the Existentialist doctrine of absolute freedom. Jean Paul Sartre, the high priest of Existentialism, divided Universe into en-soi, which was perfectly deterministic, and pour-soi, which was perfectly free. He avoided the fallacy of dualism by defining en-soi as etre (being) and pour-soi as neant (nothingness). Le neant functioned as the negation of l’etre and in this way diversity was reconciled with solidarity.

Sartre understood that freedom, while absolute, could not be unbounded. For example, one is not free to draw a square circle, or fly to Mars by flapping one’s arms. Facticity (‘the real world’) imposes logical and physical limitations but those limitations are external to the free agent and do not in any way limit or qualify that agent’s freedom. Limitations are part of en-soi, never pour-soi.

Quantum Mechanics defines Universe as a matrix of choices but it also imposes some constraints (‘facticity’) on those choices; for example:

  • The choices must be exclusive; they cannot be ill-defined or fuzzy and they cannot overlap.
  • Taken together, the choices must be exhaustive; they must encompass each and every possible outcome.
  • The choices, while distinct, must be compatible for integration; they must permit a definite outcome.

In The Road not Taken, Robert Frost confronts a simple, two option choice. He has a destination to reach and there are two roads that will take him there. Facticity excludes any other option: he cannot fly, he cannot tunnel, he cannot crawl 10 miles on his hands and knees through underbrush. If he is to accomplish his ‘project’ (arrive at his destination by end of day), he has only two choices. There are only two roads he can take to get there.

Frost’s preferred solution: travel both roads and still be one traveler. But, bound by the limitations of classical physics, he rejects that notion as impossible. QM, however, suggests that such a strategy is possible. In fact, most interpretations of QM assert that this is the only possibility. Given the existence of two paths, Frost must travel both.

But this consensus view comes in at least three very distinct flavors. One flavor, supported by various “double slit” experiments, suggests that a quantum follows two or more paths simultaneously but does not “select” its one final path until it is observed (measured) by an external agent; metaphorically, the quantum is then at the end of its journey, it has reached its “destination”.

According to this view, Mr. Frost can indeed “travel both and be one traveler”; in fact, he must. There’s no other way to get where he’s going. But when he finally arrives at his destination, it will appear to all observers (including Frost himself who is now his own observer) that he has come by one path only…and not the other.

In essence, this theory postpones the decision. Ideally, Frost can experience both walks and then, at the very end, ‘he’ can decide which walk was more satisfying, select that walk, and make that his actual experience, his history. Imagine if we could do the same thing when confronted with the menu in our favorite restaurant!

But this option is not all it’s cracked up to be. First, it isn’t really ‘Frost’ who makes the decision. The decision is made by the whole experimental apparatus and is a matter of mathematics (probability) rather than aesthetics (taste). Second, Frost will have no memory whatsoever of “the road not taken”.

A second flavor is Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”. According to Everett, every time Universe confronts a choice it bifurcates, it splits. In one Universe, Choice A is made; in a second Universe, a perfect copy of the first save for this one decision, Choice B is made.

According to this view, Mr. Frost must also “travel both”…but he is no longer “one traveler”. According to Everett’s theory, there are now two Frosts, entirely unaware of one another; sadly, they can never again meet.

Both Frosts arrive in the same town up ahead…but now it is really two different copies of the same town, each existing in its own Universe.

Everett’s theory allows Frost only one set of experiences but he can be consoled by the thought that he is having the other set of experiences in an alternate universe. Paradoxically, in this model, Frost both keeps “the first for another day” and never comes back. Frost will indeed go down the first path…but be a different Frost when he does.

The third flavor is Richard Feynman’s “Sum over Histories” model of Quantum Mechanics. According to this view, Mr. Frost does indeed travel both paths and he remains one traveler. The two sets of experience merge when he reaches his destination. His memory includes both histories. However, it might be more accurate to say that a part of Frost travels one path and another part travels the other path. Feynman’s model does not double the amount of experience Frost enjoys but it does combine experience from both pathways into a single outcome.

According to our restaurant metaphor, we get to enjoy all the items on the menu…but as tapas, not as full courses.

In contrast to these three QM models, how would classical scientific models understand Frost’s dilemma? Frost confronts a choice but his decision is a product of his genes and his past experiences. Depending on the particular classical theory, Frost’s decision may or may not be totally determined but it is certainly heavily conditioned.

While all three QM models project the decision forward onto the future, classical models project the decision backward onto the past.

Classically speaking, Frost is conditioned to go down both paths; existentially speaking, he is not conditioned to go down either path. Either way, there is a 50% chance he will go down one road and a 50% chance he will go down the other. So in this special case, both models happen to yield the same result.

So I might just as well flip a coin; it comes up heads (or tails) and I set off along one path (or the other). Either way I get to my destination. So what’s the big deal? This is certainly not something to write a poem about!

Or is it? Quantum Mechanics, it seems, has a very different story to tell. According to QM, Frost’s choice is much more difficult. Because of the peculiar arithmetic that applies to QM (“Sum of Squares”), there is actually a 70% chance that Frost will take the first path and a 70% chance that he will take the second. But when Frost makes his final decision, the probability of his taking one path is 100% (not 140%, obviously).

So when Frost makes his final decision and selects his path, he loses a part of who he was before. No wonder he tells this story “with a sigh”.   But this particular decision Frost made “ages and ages” ago is only the tip of the ontological iceberg. Every decision we ever make, every time we exchange pure potentiality for concrete actuality, we sacrifice a part of who we are, at least potentially.

As long as we remain in the quantum mechanical world of pure potentiality, we are indeed ‘supermen’ (lie quiet Nietzsche). When we exchange that world for concrete actuality, we become mere ‘enduring objects’ (to borrow terminology developed by Alfred North Whitehead).

So then why do we do it? Why does Frost finally select a path, knowing that it will lead to loss and regret? We do it in order to reach a destination. And why is that so important? Because that is the only way we can re-join society; it is the only way that we can ‘make a difference’. Every time we make a decision, we sacrifice a piece of ourselves; but we do it so that we can share a piece of who we are with others. But this is not pure altruism. A piece of who we are is now incorporated in those others. Now who we are lives on, beyond the confines of the self. When we move from pure potentiality to concrete actuality, “something’s lost but something’s gained” (Clouds).

Every decision, every action, is a tiny death. Taken together, this is what we mean by the human condition, ‘mortality’. But we embrace mortality as the price that must be paid for ultimate ‘immortality’, for the capacity to have an impact on others and on the world. A seed must fall to the ground and die so that a tree may grow.

This then is the essence of existential angst and it is the real import of Frost’s great poem. While Frost had the original insight in 1916, it took half a century for QM to give that insight a proper theoretical framework. We are grateful to both for deepening our appreciation of the human experience.

Yet that same insight can be found centuries earlier in Christian theology. There, Incarnation is the pivotal event in God’s internal procession from value-based potentiality to history-based actuality. Jesus dies so that sin may be forgiven because sin must be forgiven so that God may be “all in all” (Corinthians). Incarnation is the opening act of crucifixion, crucifixion in turn is the opening act of resurrection, and resurrection the opening act of parousia, the reconciliation of all things in God. God must sacrifice himself (John 3:16), so that all things may be redeemed in Him.

The sacrament of Eucharist underscores the critical importance of this process. Every hour of every day all around the world, God is incarnating himself under the appearance of bread and wine, sacrificing himself (the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass), and then resurrecting himself in Communion with the celebrant and the congregation.

When we celebrate Eucharist, we incorporate into ourselves the Body of Christ. But at the same time, we are also being incorporated into Christ so that “when everything is subjected to him, the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him so that God may be all in all” (Corinthians).