Jul 13, 2022
But did you know that a 6th century Irish poet developed his own version of a ‘creed’…which I have named, the People’s Creed?
You’ve probably heard of the Nicene Creed, maybe even the Apostles’ Creed. You’re less likely to be familiar with the Athanasian Creed. But did you know that a 6th century Irish poet developed his own version of a ‘creed’…which I have named, the People’s Creed?
Philosophy has traditionally distinguished between the ‘essence’ of things (what is) and the ‘existence’ of things (that is). ‘Essence’ normally refers to the qualities, attributes, and values that characterize a particular event (or ‘actual entity’), while ‘existence’ is usually thought to be ‘value free:’ Is just is! (Bill Clinton notwithstanding).
Right off the bat, this raises a few eyebrows. Can there be an ‘it is’ without a ‘what is?’ Or a ‘what is’ without an ‘it is?’ Can there be essence without existence or existence without essence?
From Augustine to Aquinas to Leo XIII and beyond, it has been a bedrock principle of Christianity that Essence and Existence cannot be logically isolated from one another.
Anselm of Bec (c. 1077), for example, attempted to use the relationship between essence and existence to prove the existence of God. Called his ‘ontological proof,’ Anselm defined God as the supreme Good (essence). His task: to prove that the supreme Good (i.e., God) exists! Anselm reasoned that existence is ‘better’ than non-existence (so existence is not value free after all). Therefore, for an entity to be supremely Good, it must exist.
An entity, in all ways supremely good but lacking existence, is not supremely good because being and good are aspects of each other. According to Parmenides of Elea, the Father of Western Philosophy, whatever lacks something, lacks everything. (“On Nature,” Fragment 8)
Good, without Being, lacks something. It lacks existence! And lacking existence, it lacks everything else (all qualities) as well, per Parmenides. Values (20th British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, called them ‘eternal objects’) are vacuous until and unless they enter into the constitution of an ‘actual entity.’
‘Being’ and ‘Good’ are synonyms and both are synonymous with ‘God’ (God is the source of both, and in fact, is both). In his great ontological poem, “On Nature,” Parmenides (above) spoke of two modes of being: Aletheia (the mode of truth) and Doxa (the mode of appearance).
Aletheia is featureless: “…ungenerated and imperishable…all together, one, continuous.” In the realm of Doxa, on the other hand, things “come to be and perish…shift place and…exchange bright color.” One way (and just one way) to read this foundational work of Western philosophy is to understand Aletheia as the existence of things and Doxa as their essence.
A half century later, Plato talked of ‘universals’ (variously translated as ‘forms,’ ‘ideas,’ or ‘ideals’) and ‘particulars’ (concrete objects and events that reflect those ‘forms’). Later philosophers talked of substances (existence) and accidents (essence). Immanuel Kant wrote of noumena and phenomena. 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.
Russell translated the insights of the Impressionist painters into philosophy. Think Monet. Existentialism tried to restore balance. Think Cezanne. Martin Heidegger distinguished Wassein (‘what it is’) from Dasein (‘that it is’). Jean-Paul Sartre made use of the essence/existence dichotomy to define God as the being whose essence precedes his existence and Man (sic) as the being whose existence precedes his essence.
God knows ‘what he is’ before (logically precedent, not temporally precedent) he knows ‘that he is.’ His essence precedes his existence, He is what he is because what he is (e.g., good) is what it means to be God. Human beings, on the other hand, know that they are (‘Cogito ergo sum’), long before they have any idea who or what they are. No set of qualities can define what it is to be a human being. To be human is to transcend ‘mere qualities.’ With Jean-Paul Sartre, the most we can say is, “I am not what I am, and I am what I am not.”
Now, Deconstruction (aka, ‘The Case of the Disappearing Subject’) has brought us back full circle to Russell’s ‘universalist’ argument. According to the Book of Job, and my own experience, most human beings die without ever finding knowledge (i.e., without ever learning who they are). They die knowing that they were but never really knowing who they were. (Job 4:21)
“Resolved: Anything that exists is better than anything that does not exist.”
Let’s see how our high school debate team handles this one! According to Anselm, existence is one quality among others. Essence is fundamental and it entails Existence.
A 6th century Irish hymn, traditionally (but doubtfully) attributed to Saint Dallan, makes a similar argument but from the opposite perspective, the perspective of existence. Existence is fundamental and it entails Essence. Dallan argues that only the existence of God matters since everything of value (essence) flows automatically from God and God alone. Good is God’s nature. Good is the way God participates in the world, and God is the way Good participates. Without Good, there is no real God; without God there is no real Good. Good and God might survive as abstract ‘concepts’ (John Lennon) but neither can participate in any actual world without the other.
Concerning God, Anselm wrote: “…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…” You alone, Lord, are what you are! Powerful words. But what about you and me? Are we what we are? Just the opposite! According to J-P Sartre (above), we are not what we are, and we are what we are not.
Ok, we’ve taken care of you and me and, oh yeah, God, but what about the chair in the middle of my bedroom? Where does it fit in?
From the perspective of the world, it is a tool (if I want to sit down) or an obstacle (if I’m walking around in the dark). Being a ‘chair’ is being a tool/obstacle (opposite sides of the same coin). Like God, a chair is its essence. But is it God? Can I decorate it and worship it, elevate it and pray to it? Well, I could, but first amendment or not, I wouldn’t expect to remain unconfined for very long! Two reasons:
(1) the chair consists of its own particular qualities (size, firmness, craftsmanship, etc.) but it does not embody any of the other qualities that make up the universe. Like an old Model-T Ford, you can get it in any color you want…as long as it’s black.
(2) ‘Chair’ per se does not exist! It’s all hat, no cattle.
If the chair does not exist, then what’s that dark space in the middle of my room? Roughly speaking, it’s a jumble of molecules, and each molecule is a jumble of atoms, and each atom is a jumble of subatomic particles, and each subatomic particle is a jumble of quarks. Then what’s a quark? Well, it’s either the ‘sound’ of a one-dimensional string vibrating or it’s an element in the constitution of a subatomic particle. So, take your pick: an idol with a very limited number of qualities and no existence, or a God that includes all qualities and exists through those qualities in the world.
St. Dallan, on the other hand, begins his poem: “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.” Dallan’s poem, now a hymn but originally written in the form of a prayer, is also an ontology, a Creed. Sometimes called “Be Thou my Vision,” it is found in The Poem Book of the Gael, a treasure trove of early Irish verse.
“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 dignity, Thou my delight. Thou my soul’s shelter…”
St. Dallan’s existentialism challenges duelist and essentialist ontologies head-on. Notice that every word Dallan uses to ‘describe’ God is a noun, not an adjective. In God, qualities are nouns. God is not only ‘just;’ God is Justice itself, etc. Only God is what he is! Our ‘accidents’ (qualities) are his ‘substance’ and his ‘substance’ (values) is our ‘accidents’.
Superficially, essences, qualities, and accidents do not matter to this poet; all that matters is Existence, specifically the existence of God. That trust can only be attributed to his great faith. “Seek first the Kingdom of God…and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6: 33) I am immediately reminded of Job’s famous profession of faith:
“I know that my vindicator lives and that on the last day he will testify on earth… Something I myself will view, what my eyes, not a stranger’s, will see.” (Job 19: 25-27)
St. Dallan variously refers to God as “my Vision…my Wisdom…my dignity…my delight…(my) shelter.” He does not thank God for these graces, as others would because he knows that these qualities are God himself. God cannot cease being God! God is what he is! We can praise God, we can celebrate the fact that God participates in our world, but we cannot change God’s nature. God is good – live with it!
Crudely stated, if God exists, Goodness is ours by virtue of God’s nature, but if God does not exist…then who cares? No God = no Goodness, Beauty, Truth, or Justice. Without God, whatever is, is, and that’s an end to it. Nothing is better - more beautiful, truthful, or just – than anything else. It is as meaningless to say, “Better days are coming,” as it is to say, “My best days are behind me.” There is no objective difference between shooting up a classroom full of 4th graders and volunteering at the school to tutor those same students. It’s just a matter of ‘personal taste.’ No judgment!
The Old Testament Book of Judges repeats its famous ‘signature verse:’ “In those days, Israel had no king; every man (sic) did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 26: 25) Without God, we would need to rewrite Judges to read, “…every man did whatever he felt like doing.” Hmm, does this sound at all familiar? “If it feels good, do it.” (compliments of the years 1965 -1975)
For Dallan, God is Vision, Wisdom and Dignity, per se, and specifically Dallan’s vision, wisdom and dignity, and ours too, of course! Anselm wrote regarding God: “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…”
Good is God’s nature. He cannot but be good. Therefore, God is ‘no respecter of persons,’ be they good…or not so good. You bring good, God brings good; you bring not-good; God still brings good!
I am reminded of a five-year-old boy playing ‘rock, scissors, paper’ with his Dad. After a few rounds, the boy volunteered, “I always choose rock.” Not exactly a winning strategy on the boy’s part…and yet, the boy is in good company. It is God’s strategy too ,“If I throw rock every time for long enough, maybe you’ll eventually thrown scissors, either out of your own boredom, to see what will happen, or out of your compassion for me.” You can keep throwing paper and, congratulations, you win…every time. But it’s a hollow victory indeed. God lets you win – boring and a bit humiliating - but hey, you won the toy (prize) didn’t you? Isn’t life all about who has the most toys?
God always picks ‘rock,’ i.e., Goodness. He can’t help himself. He is good to those who are good, but he is just as good to those who are not so good. And like this five-year-old, he let us know early on that he was going to be his strategy.
Surprisingly, this makes a lot of people mad…very mad…mad at God! They think that they deserve to be rewarded by God for their so-called goodness, and a major part of that reward should be to see others punished for their wickedness. Imagine this: you are Beauty, Truth, and Justice and yet people are mad at you! You can’t win for losin’ in the God-game – at least not if you’re God.
We are like pre-teen children, we live to see our siblings punished, the more severely the better, even for the most minor transgressions. Of course, when we ourselves ‘run afoul of the law,’ we tend to be much more lenient. Suddenly, we hear a lot about the ‘forgiveness’ and ‘second chance’ that we deserve because we are ‘normally so good’… forgiveness and a second chance for us, but not for our ‘rotten brothers and sisters.’ We exist because we participate in God, who is Being. We are who we are because God, who is Good, participates in us. It is our response, freely given, to God’s Goodness that constitutes who we are. God is supremely good by nature; I am not! But I do have the capacity to be good, to make the right choices, and that capacity I derive directly from God.
This is not just ‘any god.’ This is an explicitly Trinitarian God. In my relatedness (Vision), I recapitulate the Son (logos); 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.
Later in Dallan’s poem, we read that God is “power of my power” and “heart of my own heart.” God’s existence is the sole source of our ability to act upon the world (power) and to be acted upon by the world (heart). In grammar, we call these two modalities of being (power and heart) 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 the Eucharist: we incorporate the body of Christ at Communion, and by that very 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 third voice is usually referred to as the “middle voice” because, ostensibly, it falls ‘between active and passive.’ In reality, it transcends both. The middle voice is the voice of love, the voice of prayer, and the only voice we should ever use when speaking with God or about God…if only we still had a middle voice in our modern Indo-European languages.
But back to Dallan’s text: “Thou mine inheritance”. Do I inherit God, or does God inherit me? I am reminded of Alice’s closing line in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Lookingglass: “Was the Red Knight part of my dream, or was I part of the Red Knight’s dream.”
Thinking in the middle voice, our answer to Alice should be, “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”). It is the perfect middle-voice paradigm. Just as the spatiotemporal world is a projection of the eternal, so the eternal world is a roll-up of the spatiotemporal: “So that God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15: 20 – 28). I interact with the world on the spatiotemporal plane (power and heart, active and passive voices), but I interact with God on the plane of eternity.
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.”
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. Paraphrasing an ad for the US Army: “Being is the process of being all that you can be.” The urge to exist is the urge to be Good, to be like God, even to become one with God. 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 entirely if we choose to do so, or we may ‘modify them’ to achieve what we believe, mistakenly, is a ‘better end’ than God intended. We do know everything after all!
Yet spatiotemporal relations constitute only one dimension of my being; I am also in an eternal relationship with God. God is existence! Therefore, whatever exists must participate in God. Whatever we transact with the world, we are simultaneously transacting with God.
From Plato on, mainstream philosophy has struggled to reconcile essence and existence. Numerous extremely clever solutions have been proposed to account for both without slipping into dualism. But St. Dallan’s Creed asserts that this reasoning is for ‘naught.’ There is no conflict to be explained away, there is no dichotomy to be resolved. God’s essence conceptually precedes his existence, but at the same time, his existence physically entails his essence. It is a ‘virtuous cycle.’
So, St. Dallan’s ‘simple’ Irish poem is much more than a poem or a hymn or even a prayer; it is a creed! It defines and accounts for the key elements of Christian ontology: Creation, Incarnation and Salvation, and it does so in the context of a Trinitarian God. St. Dallan’s creed stands next to the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed; it is the “People’s Creed.”
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.