The controversy over existence as analogous between creation and creator

Taken most broadly, to be told that “being” or “existence” is a term with analogous uses is as uninteresting as to be told that it has a universalized spelling. English words are analogous as frequently as they have uniform spellings – color and colour or hylomorphism and (the well-intentioned but mistaken) hylemorphism being exceptions to the rule, if they even amount to this. A term has analogous uses whenever the same sound or spelling has different meanings which are related in some way other than by sheer accident, and this is the rule for all terms in a language.

So sure, being has analogous uses. And water’s wet.

The controversy over the analogous use of “being” and its cognates reduces to a question of whether it is used in this way when said of God and creatures. St. Thomas’s claim that being is said analogously of the creator and creatures can be simplified down to this:

A secondary cause and a primary cause are named analogously

The creator’s existence is the primary cause of the (therefore secondary) existence of creatures.

The major premise is an observed feature of primary and secondary causes. We mean different things when we say that the plane and the pilot can fly; or when we say that both a means (like dieting) and an end (looking attractive) are things we want; or when we say that fire and mean molecular motion heat things, or one of the Watergate burglars and Nixon were responsible for the break-in, etc. This sort of analogous naming occurs in every genus of causes. The minor premise is almost analytic: “creation” clearly means to be responsible for existence as such, but there is a question whether we should say that the existence of the creator is what gives rise to the existence of creatures. 

Existence or being is clearly an intrinsic cause of things – a sort of form. For example, I’ve repeatedly used the idea of “heat” and “mean molecular motion” as examples of the being of God. But this seems to point us in the direction of making God somehow the very existence of things, just as it is precisely the mean molecular motion of fire that allows it to heat things. To straighten this out, we need to take another look at the old debates over active and passive creation.

Considered actively, the act of creation just is God. Taken passively, it is a creature, but we are not exactly sure how to take it. The dispute between Thomas and, say, Petrus Olivi was over whether passive creation was an accident in things. St. Thomas said it was, though it was a very peculiar sort of accident, sc. one that did not proceed from the created substance.  Olivi disagreed and argued, inter alia, that if creation were an accident it would have to be either separable or not, and both options were untenable.

From the safe distance of one looking at an abandoned controversy, this all seems like a dispute over words. All sides agree that something essential to accidents is lacking when we call creation an accident, which leaves only a judgment call of whether what remains is accident-like enough to warrant calling it an accident in an extended sense. It’s probably better just to gather up all the ways in which it is like an accident, and the ways in which it is not. Here are three ways in which creation is both like and unlike an accident: 

1.) Accidents modify substance. Created existence is not an accident so far as it adds nothing to the created substance. We mean exactly the same thing by 100 thalers whether we suppose they exist or not. That said, there is obviously a difference between the two things just mentioned – as Brentano points out, there’s 100 thalers worth of difference. So created existence in one sense makes no difference and in another sense makes all the difference to created substance.

2.) Accidents proceed from substance. All sides agree that the act of creation does not proceed from created substance – this involves the contradiction of making creation the creator. But if we say that it proceeds from the substance of the creator we still need to make some qualifications. This is true so far as God’s will is God himself. This identification also raises the need for more explanations: God’s will cannot be identified with his substance so far as his substance is necessary, but the act of the will cannot be contingent since we cannot reduce the contingency of creatures to another contingency. Straightening all this out will take awhile. Suffice to say that in one sense creation proceeds from the substance of God and in another sense it does not.

But it’s fascinating to consider the sense in which creation is an accident not proceeding from the divine substance. Taken in this precise sense, it is an accident with no substance beneath it at all. This opens up an exciting avenue for Sacramental Christians since this is exactly the description given of accidents in the Eucharistic species. Creation is, as it were, a sort of consecrated host without Christ; it is an ontological emptiness to which the corresponding ontological fullness is not God, but the Eucharist.

3.) Accidents are posterior in being to substance. In this sense created substance is prior to the act of creation, not because it actually exists, but because the act of existence has a limitation that it is incapable of being transcended. Existence comes after essence in the created so far as it cannot be infinite, but only comes after an intrinsic limitation.

This intrinsic limitation of essence in one sense makes the creature intelligible, and in another sense is completely incapable of making the creature intelligible. On the one hand, the fixity and determination of essence is crucial for us to understand that a thing is this and not that; in another sense what has no act of existence is not just unintelligible but actually impossible. A fictitious character can never be determined in every way that a real thing is (was Hamlet right or left handed?) but every existent thing is perfectly so determined. Thus, it is impossible for a fictitious or merely possible thing to come to exist. This is why Barry Miller can argue that things become intelligible only when they exist.

1 Comment

  1. Cullen Bordages said,

    August 30, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Is this article related to the Analogy of Being in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar?


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