Your perversity is as though the potter
were taken to be the clay:
As though what is made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me!” (Isaiah 29:16)
These words are as pertinent today as when they were first spoken by the prophet Isaiah (ca 740-681 BC). If there is a God today, then he remains little more than a projection of human consciousness, readily revised at will. In a talk delivered in 1946, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) posited God’s non-existence in formulating his now famous phrase, “existence precedes essence.” Essence here is what defines a man or woman, what determines them to be who and what they are and have become. Sartre explained, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.” He begins as “nothing… [and] will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it.”
The self-designing worldview wherein there is no God is familiar enough today amidst the fluidity of gender ideology and the makeover marriage received in Obergefell vs. Hodges. But there is a subtler side to Sartre’s phrase, “existence precedes essence,” namely, the presumed conflict between God and the human condition at a fundamental, metaphysical level of reality. In fact, so pronounced is the conflict that Sartre’s humanism requires atheism; there can be no a priori laws (like the decalogue) or values (honesty, goodness, integrity) to which the human condition is beholden in advance. If there were, it would constitute “a self-deception” whereby “I am in contradiction with myself if I will these [a priori] values and at the same time say that they impose themselves upon me.” God and the necessary freedom for determining one’s essence cannot coexist. Yet man and woman are free to make something of themselves and, therefore, the conclusion follows: God does not exist.
And the conflict in the first instance is metaphysical, not psychological. The casualty of this worldview is the existence of God. It is also a photographic negative, the exact opposite, of how medieval theologians, like St. Bonaventure, understood existence. Bonaventure held that “essence precedes existence” where essence is a given form or design for a creature. The essence of a created entity precedes its existence in a twofold manner. First, it pre-exists in the Word from all eternity, since “the Father begot His own likeness, that is, the Word coeternal with Himself… and in so doing He expressed all that He could [including minuscule creation].”
Second, essence precedes existence in an entity as its potential to exist, but without the power necessary to actually exist. Essence is a potency or possibility to exist, yet only the Father has power sufficient to make it come into existence out of nothing and, when he does so, it is through the Word. Everything created constantly exists out of nothing in accord with its Word-provided essence. Bonaventure’s worldview is rooted, not in Plato, but in the prologue to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:1, 3).
This means that as the Father brings a creature into existence out of nothing, it always already comes to exist in keeping with its preceding essence as given by the Word, and the Holy Spirit gives life. For our purposes, however, notice the complete lack of conflict implicit in the doctrine of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). There is no fundamental conflict between God and the human condition, since there is nothing “there” with which to conflict as God creates or, as Bishop Robert Barron has said, “non-violence is ontologically basic.” This complete lack of fundamental conflict underlies God’s relationship with his creation. It doesn’t mean that man and woman will not contend with God, but it does indicate, at the very least, a primordial peace to which they may return after acknowledging the wisdom of God’s ways and the “perversity” of their own.
The worldview of Sartre wherein “existence precedes essence” is a world in conflict from the ground up. There is no underlying peace or non-violence to which one may return after death. Even in the absence of God, there remains “the neighbor” with whom one may still conflict in exercising free, self-defining choices and decisions. Others may get in the way, which can sometimes even lead one person to take the life of another. In this light, Sartre later wrote: “Hell is other people” with whom one must contend, tolerate, put up with, and by whom one is so frequently imposed upon. A world without God is a contentious world of competing self-definitions and freedoms: “peace, peace… there is no peace!” (Jer. 6:14).
By contrast, the worldview of the theologian wherein “essence precedes existence” is one where peace and non-violence are essential characteristics of creation. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo means there is no conflict when God creates. In addition, God’s existence does not mean that nothing remains of human creativity and freedom. Bonaventure, speaking of human creativity, wrote: “while God is the immediate cause of all things, of some he is the only cause… but of other things God is a cause, along with another…. And this other cause is a concurrent cause, not because of some deficiency in the divine will, but because of its great liberality.”
This is in complete agreement with the name for the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah: “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us” (Is. 7:14). Emmanuel is not conflictual as evidenced by the calm, still character of the silent, holy night on which he was born outside Bethlehem. There’s only peace, a fundamental peace the world cannot give (John 14:27). There’s also a fundamental, basic truth that is the beginning of wisdom, a truth to which Scripture refers when addressing “the fear of the Lord” (e.g., Prov. 9:10). This truth is not primarily propositional, though it can be expressed in propositions; it is first and foremost an experience of being shaken to the core and learning from there a truth uniting all true Catholics and Christians, regardless of other differences, namely, there is a God, and I am not he.