What’s in a Name: On the Primacy of Existence in God

Among all possible names given to God, the most proper of all is ‘He Who Is’

Gebhard Fugel, “Moses and the Burning Bush,” ca. 1920
Gebhard Fugel, “Moses and the Burning Bush,” ca. 1920 (photo: Public Domain)

Between the omnipotence of God, who holds all creation in being, and the nothingness of man, there is an impassible barrier which no creature may breach.

Even the best and the brightest are forced to submit to that exigent fact. Only grace will enable us to smash through the wall that separates us from God, that sheer divide between contingent and necessary being. The differences are simply too vast, too incommensurable, to permit natures as sadly ill-equipped as our own to scale that metaphysical cliff. 

And so it is not only sin that keeps us at an infinite distance from God — although it certainly complicates things, driving ever deeper the wedge between us. But the fact that we are not God, nor are we ever likely to become God. In fact, as creatures, we are not even remotely like God, whose being, to quote the description found in St. John Damascene, “is an infinite and boundless ocean of substance.” Does that sound like anyone you know? No, it does not. 

Or, to push the envelope right to the edge, God is that being whose entire essence or substance is to be, to exist. Ipsum Esse subsistens, citing the formula for Being subsisting in its very self. God’s own essence, in other words, which is absolute and eternal, is nothing other than the pure act of existence. Which is precisely why, among all possible names given to God, the best possible, the most proper of all, is “He Who Is.” So says St. Thomas Aquinas, who was the first to unpuzzle the great theophany of Exodus 3, wherein God spoke to Moses his very name: I AM WHO AM.

Time and again God had shown unto Israel the graciousness of his heart, looking after his people with the warmth and constancy of a lover — a Supreme Someone, as it were, on whose word of promise they could depend. “I will be with you,” he tells Moses again and again in his struggle against the powers of Egypt, the awful oppressions of Pharaoh. Including even the very words he will need to speak in order to wrest freedom for his people: “Now therefore go,” God tells him from out of the burning bush, the bush that burns but is not consumed, “and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (4:12). 

Yet that will not be enough, not for Moses and certainly not for the Jews whom destiny has determined he will speak for. Thus God’s promise to be present to his people in bondage, the assurance that he will break the chains that bind them, that will not be enough if God does not first tell them his name. Everything turns on the name, the truth and invocability of which will alone assure the freedom of Israel to trust in the Lord their God.

Then Moses said to God, If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them? God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO AM.’ And he said, Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, Say to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations (3:13-15). 

The genius of Israel, the singularity of this people of the promise, was not in the least philosophical. It was an entirely religious affair, binding them to a book filled with so many words of promise issued by a God whose name was given to them as Yahweh, which just happens to mean, “He who is.” But for Israel, amid the concrete details of its history, its continuing travail, the majesty of the name meant, not the science of being, not abstractions, but applications in real time, regarding God’s assurance that he would remain their God, intimately present to his people. And to be sure, most fearfully powerful on their behalf. Nothing else mattered to them. They were not interested in the metaphysics of the matter, parsing the meaning of a name bespeaking the mysteries of being — it was rather the sheer relational reality of a God who had chosen them from among all other desert tribes to be his people, the sole recipient of his love and protection. The only thing more odd than God choosing the Jew, one might suppose, was the fact that, having made the choice, he should remain forever steadfast in keeping to it. 

And the Christian genius? Nothing less than the inheritance of the name itself, which, in the achievement of Aquinas, so deepened its understanding that in order for God to be — esse in the Latin — something far more than a mere noun (that is, being or essence) would be needed. The very act of be-ing, or is-ing itself — which is to say, the verb — would have to be given pride of place in the designation of who God is. Thus, in St. Thomas’s own words, the metaphysical chord will be struck: “Dictur esse ipse actus essentiae.” That to be is itself the very act whereby a nature or essence is.

In a beautiful and incisive commentary on this very point, Etienne Gilson — whose mastery of the metaphysics of the Common Doctor has put the scholarly bar perhaps as high as it can go — reminds us, “A world where ‘to be’ is the act par excellence, the act of all acts, is also a world wherein, for each and every thing, existence is the original energy whence flows all that which deserves the name of being. Such an existential world can be accounted for by no other cause than a supremely existential God.” 

And so we’ve really no choice but to remain with St. Thomas on this matter. “We must,” says Gilson, “with St. Thomas, pass beyond the identification of God’s substance with his essence and posit the identity of his essence with his very act-of-being.” To do so is not to complicate God, he assures us, but it is to leave intact and thus quite perfect that very simplicity — a simplicity consisting of pure act. 

We shan’t be able to conceptualize or define it, of course. But by an exercise of judgment we shall surely affirm it. And draw no end of comfort and joy from it.