An existentialist theology

Expectation presupposes finite possibilities. We expect a number between one and six when throwing a die and not, say, a chicken. These finite possibilities are like grids into which chance realities might fall, or into which planned or natural events might develop. If we take the totality of this grid, we get “possibility”, if we take it as the terminus of what comes to be or was meant to come to be, it is “essence”. Essence is thus the intelligible structure that pre-exists whatever comes to be. This “pre-existence” makes it a potency for which the proper act is existence.

So what if there were some existence that was just existence, and not the proper act of some essence. By the definition given above, we get four characteristics:

1.) Such a being cannot be expected. But this is not strong enough: to see it would be essentially and absolutely surprising. I say “absolute” surprise to indicate that there is no component, element, or logical structure of such a being that could be given in advance and into which the being might fall. To be surprised by something seen is at least to be able to predict that it is visible, and in this sense the no surprise given to the senses or falling within the ambit of intelligible objects can be absolutely surprising.

If, per modern theory, information is the novel or unexpected, then only this being is absolute information: that than which nothing could be more informative.

2.) Such a being has no being before it or simultaneous with it in time. What is in time arises from its possibility and intelligible structure.

3.) Such a being is unintelligible, in the sense of not being any act given latent within our intelligence. We can know it only under the condition over it being absolute information.

4.) It does not come to be, and is prior to whatever comes to be.


  1. October 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    I like this.

    However, I’ve lately been pondering the existentialist principle that existence precedes essence, and I’m not sure it means what it seems to mean. That is, whatever existentialists may say, the important point seems to be that existence precedes *identity,* or more specifically, self-identity. I exist before I have any self-conception, and my self-identity changes as the facts of my existence change. To the extent to which this is the real substance of the principle, I find it helpful. Understood in this way, it would apply only to created, mutable, dynamic personhood and not to the divine.

    Conversely, to the extent that the principle is used to dismiss older, broadly Aristotelian substance metaphysics, I find it unhelpful. As you imply, the only being that can fit that criteria is God. And even then, I suspect it would yield a heterodox theology if rigorously applied. (The idea that the Persons of the Trinity were, by essence, God—as you likely know—was of paramount importance to St. Athanasius and others in the early Church.)

    • October 22, 2014 at 1:01 pm

      I wavered over the title since “existentialist” has that narrow sense. But it certainly has nothing to do with Heidegger or Sartre or Camus here. This is existentialist in the sense of recognizing existence as the act of acts.

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