On Christmas Day in 1989, I wore liturgical vestments and swung a censer in the altar-bound procession at St. Benedict’s in the Bronx. I was in the third grade and at the height of my faith in God. I never wanted to shake my comfortable, childish concept of God as the lead character in the Bible who more or less dictated the contents of the Roman Catholic catechism. Twenty years later, when that faith was challenged, it crumbled into an unhappy nihilism. Theology, specifically the concept of Being, roused me from my confused depression and gave me hope.
The God of my youth died while I cared for my father during his final months. Not coincidentally, he was the one who guided me toward that God. Dad was an intelligent but fundamentalist Catholic who taught me that missing Sunday Mass meant eternal damnation, and that there was something fishy about evolution. He was a good man, though, and a loving father. Near the end, when he could no longer speak, he handed me a note that said, “I love you, Ant, and I’ll tell God so when I see him.”
But I didn’t believe him. After watching him suffer, the immortality of the soul seemed an absurd, self-soothing myth. Gregory of Nyssa, in a dialogue with Macrina after their brother Basil died, articulated what I came to believe about immortality and God in general, “We have not been led to such a doctrine by any logical reasoning. It seems to me that our intellect accepts these orders by a kind of interior slavery, rather than assenting to the argument by a voluntary impulse.”1 I was angry that a religion imposed on me as a child “by a kind of interior slavery” now offended my reason and was doing nothing to console me. Until that point, I understood God to be a sort of divine craftsman who leapt in and out of history as a super being among beings. This is the God worshiped by fundamentalists and easily dismissed by atheists. I became an atheist, but I built my philosophy of unbelief upon the same faulty foundation of an immature understanding of God.
While mourning, I found solace in Spinoza, whose pantheistic philosophy helped satisfy a need to perceive divinity in the world, and in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which taught me you can create your own idealized meaning in an otherwise dusty and disenchanted world. The character of Quixote embodied the existentialist idea that existence precedes essence, which, according to Sartre, means that “man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.”2 For the atheistic existentialist, existence has no prior meaning or cause, “no excuse behind us, nor justification before us.”3 We are alone and nothing other than what we make of ourselves.
I plodded along as a pessimistic existentialist for years until the sudden death of a college friend grabbed me by the lapels. My self-brewed philosophy’s answer to every important question about life seemed to be a nihilistic shrug of the shoulders, and I was sick of it. Meaninglessness felt wrong. So, I looked for atheist conversion stories. Thomas Merton led me to Etienne Gilson, who led me to Thomas Aquinas and the concepts of Being and participation.
Aquinas wrote, “God is existence itself; hence existence belongs to Him in virtue of His essence, but pertains to all other things by way of participation.”4 Having been primed by my early saturation in Catholicism and the pantheistic interpretation of Spinoza, Aquinas’s description of God, or Being, felt intuitive even though it differed from Spinoza’s belief that “there exists only one of the same nature,” which, if true, would mean there is no God.5 I reckoned that if Being’s essence was existence itself and the fountain of everything’s existence, Being must be God, and if something is, it participates in God’s is-ness.
In Aquinas’s definition of Being I discovered a coherent explanation of life. For me, existence is the most magnificent phenomenon available to our reason. It is, in many ways, the only thing that matters. Aquinas, and contemporary theologians like Andrew Davison in his Participation in God, helped me understand life to be a gift-given participation in God’s existence. This offered a plausible reason for existence that existentialists like Sartre could not give. Though Sartre recognized its crucial significance, existence, for him, was an unexplained starting point. Why do I exist at all? Instead of shrugging my shoulders, I now answer that our existence is a donation of Being; it is a gift. There is no randomness to that. There is love in that, because it is completely gratuitous. My reading of theology brought me to that life-affirming conclusion. Scripture would take me further in that it returned me to Christianity.
Gilson wrote, “There is but one God and this God is Being, that is the corner-stone of all Christian philosophy, and it was not Plato, it was not even Aristotle, it was Moses who put it into position.”6 It seemed quaint to think anything of philosophical value could be found directly in the Bible, but I returned to Scripture and started noticing Being everywhere, from “I Am” in Genesis to “I Am” in John. The psalmist in Psalm 139 thanked God for “the wonder of my being,” a phrase that encapsulates a common starting point for scientific and philosophical inquiries. In Colossians 1:17, Paul wrote, “He is before all else that is. In him everything continues in being.” Over a thousand years before Aquinas, Paul neatly defined the contingency of creation upon God.
Theology filled the gaps in my thinking and the hole in my heart. The concepts of Being and participation reconstructed my faith. These notions were already in Scripture, but the philosophical theology of Aquinas, Gilson, and Davison, among others, permitted my hesitant mind to assent. When I was a child, I believed in God because I was told there was a God, and because my father believed in that God. As an adult, I believe because I choose to, because theology helped make faith reasonable.
This is not to suggest that Being is a sterile philosophical concept. One autumn morning in the Adirondack Mountains, I paused to absorb the sunlight and observe the fiery colored leaves. My dog trotted over and sat by my feet. It was a peaceful moment, and my instinctual response was gratitude. At the time, I didn’t think about where that thanksgiving was directed. Looking back through the lens of participatory theology, I recognize that I was grateful to God — Infinite Being — for freely giving me my existence and the existence of everything around me in that instant. The perception of life as a gift of being from Being itself is a solid foundation for understanding the world. With the help of God’s grace, I’m building my philosophy of belief on it.
- St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 29.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, trans. Bernard Frechtman (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1997), 15.
- Ibid., 23.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, trans. Richard J. Regan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), I.68.
- Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Edwin Curley (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 6.
- Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, trans. A.H.C. Downes (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 51.