Today’s reading from Exodus was a favorite of my favorite philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas. The story reads simply enough, but for Aquinas the implications were momentous.
Moses is tending the flocks. He sees a burning bush which is not consumed, and he hears his name called out from the blaze. When Moses responds, “Here I am,” he is warned to “come no nearer.” The spot on which he stands is holy ground. He encounters the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who has come to rescue his people. Yet Moses is hesitant: “If they ask me ‘what is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God says, “I am who am. This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I am sent me to you. This is my name forever. This is my title for all generations.”
This section of Exodus begins an account of the relationship between God and the Israelites. Their God will be a God of free covenant, a God who personally intervenes to save them. “I am will always be with them.”
True, there were other formulations that referred to God, for example: “The Most High,” “The One Who Sees,” “The Eternal One.” And even this particular expression has been given various interpretations, ranging from “I will be who I will be” to “I will be what I was.”
But Aquinas saw in the burning bush a revelation of the deepest mystery of a God who could never adequately and accurately be named or conceptualized. There is no other way to talk about who and what God is other than to say that God is existence itself. Am-ness. God is the holy ground of being. At the bottom of the universe is not some mindless grinding machinery or evolutionary process. What moves everything, from stars to human hearts, is personal existence.
If you just think about it, the fact that there is anything at all is the most wondrous thing. Existence is the giver and gift of all gifts. Nothing could be known, if there were nothing to know. Nothing could be loved if there were nothing to love. There could be no fulfillment, no desire, no truth, if there were no “is.”
Thus, in Aquinas’s own great exodus—his theological and philosophical journey called the Summa Theologica—after offering his five ways to God, he centers on existence itself as the word that can most adequately be applied to God.
Existence is the primary value, the fundamental good, one with the very being of God. And since all other beings have their own existence by gift of God, our existence is our primary value and goodness. “Everything that exists is, as such, good, and has God as its cause.” If we exist, and we cannot give existence to ourselves, we must have been willed, loved into existence.
God not only creates and sustains every existing being; God also creates each kind of being there is. Every being participates in a hierarchy of goodness and intrinsic value. Each species is good, not only because it exists in the first place, but also because of what it is. Each species brings its own kind of goodness into the world; and each species lost would be a loss of goodness. All creation, in all its myriad forms, is existentially good.
Aquinas valued personal reality as the “most perfect grade of existence” because it images the “I am-ness” of God: life that knows itself and gives itself to the other. This is not some glib species-ism, which degrades other kinds of life. It is just an acknowledgment that freedom, intelligence, and love introduce a new splendor of intrinsic goodness and value into the world which, without persons, would be bereft of such beauty.
But the existence of personal creatures like human beings also introduces a host of problems to the world. Our peculiar goodness as humans is not only a function of the fact that we exist and that we exist as a special kind. We also present a moral goodness to the world, since we, with our capacities for intelligence and freedom, are able to know and possess ourselves and consequently choose to become the kind of persons we become.
Evil, for Aquinas, has no reality in itself. It occurs only as a parasite. Evil appears only because good things exist.
Physical evil is a deficiency or lack in the physical reality of various kinds of beings. Thus, a horse might not be fully good as a horse, because it is lame. A fig tree is physically evil to the extent that it does not bear the fruit of what it is.
Moral evil, however, is a deficiency or lack in the kind of human being you or I have freely chosen to be. It is a negation of our truth. It is a rejection of our goodness. It is a radical lie about existence.
All too speculative, perhaps. But might not these philosophical ruminations unlock the mysteries with which Lent ends? That bright vigil will recall for us the holy ground of being: In God’s own image, male and female, God created us. And like the great cosmic march of species, we, humankind, were pronounced good by the one who gave us the gift of being. Seduced by the great deceiver, the liar of liars, we seem to have rejected it all. But by the bountiful grace of “I am with you,” even the fault itself became a happy one.