ESSAY
Integration: Putting the Pieces Together
POSTED
August 13, 2019

#13 in Theopolis Papers, Seeking Integration in a Fragmented World

It is time for me to “cast off” integration, the way a knitter removes a completed scarf from the needles. I want to bring my quest concerning integration to a decent closure, though my happy quest for reality continues.

With some intense summer reading, I’ve found my way to what I feel is the core of the matter of integration, the thing I’ve been seeking that integrates integration. I have reread D.C. Schindler, but also his friend Michael Hanby’s No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology and Biology; W. Norris Clarke’s Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas; and Natalie Carnes’ Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa.[1] My summer study concerned beauty, in preparation for two upcoming conferences. To understand beauty, I felt that the place to start was understanding the Christian doctrine of creation more deeply—grasping its philosophical implications. Hence the reading choices.

I have unearthed a diamond mine! I’m “in the door,” finally, with respect to classical Christian metaphysics. I’ve found the thing I’ve been seeking in these posts. And I’ve opened up fresh vistas in my quest for reality.

I learned—surprise—that the formulation of the Christian doctrine of creation requires, first, the doctrine of the Incarnation, and next, the doctrine of the Trinity (Hanby, 77-90). To understand creation and the Creator’s relation to it, first, Jesus had to come; then, the church had to reflect on that and its implications for the ontological status of creation. This reflection, centuries in duration, was marked by the famous Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. It’s only in even later centuries that the Christian doctrine of creation could be expressed and lived out.

Also of significance is that it became apparent that the Christian doctrine of creation supplied something critical and transformative that was missing in the Greek understanding of reality. Profound and heritage-shaping thought that Greek philosophy was, it took Christianity to supply the keystone.

The keystone was (drumroll, please!) esse. Esse is “the act of existence.” This was “without a doubt St. Thomas’s [13th century] most original and significant contribution to philosophy, one without close parallel in any philosophical thinker either before or after him” (Clarke, xvi). To express it in something longer than a word, it is “the real distinction between essence and existence.”

When I teach this to students, I talk of Cera, the baby triceratops in the old film, “Land Before Time.” The standard Aristotelian account of things is that things actualize, or grow up from potential to actual. Cera, as a baby, will actualize into a mature member of her species (yikes!). But it is another question entirely whether she exists. The Greeks simply presumed that the material world had always existed; they had no sense that it might not have—that things are “contingent.” That only comes with the Christian doctrine of creation. Greeks grasped well the question of essence: what is it? They never considered the question of existence: is it? St. Thomas identified this, and then developed it into “the inner metaphysical structure of beings themselves” (Clarke, xv). He “penetrates further, beyond this mere fact of existence as affirmed by a knower, to the inner act of existence within the being itself, which is the ultimate ground for this affirmation of fact. This inner act of existence—which St. Thomas calls the esse or “to-be” of a being, that which makes a being precisely to be a be-ing—is not a what, an essence or nature . . .It is, rather, an active presence which posits the entire essence, with all its properties, in the real order of actual existence, making it actually to be what it is.” The more obvious thing about Cera is that she does not exist. But—you do.

Clarke affirms that this realization shifts the whole center of gravity in metaphysics, from concern with essence to “the deeper level of the act of existence which alone gives actuality and value to everything within the being.” “Existence itself now turns out to be the central core and reservoir of all positivity and perfection of any kind within the order of real being.” All that exists, each in its specific essence, has its source in Him who is existence itself—the One for whom alone essence is existence. God is pure Esse, “in all its inexhaustible richness and fullness” (Clarke, xvi).

The Christian doctrine of creation concerns God’s relation to his creation: creation is his delighted, generous, ever-dynamic ongoing esse that makes all things, and any thing, exist in any here and now.[2] . Natalie Carnes expounds Gregory of Nyssa’s account of the metaphysics of creation: Gregory insists that only the Christian God is radically transcendent and radically immanent; and he argues this from the doctrine of the Incarnation (Carnes, 42-124).[3]

There’s another huge matter for which Greek philosophy really had no account, which this doctrine supplied: the intrinsic value of particular material things. Particularity really had no worth on a Greek scheme; they get lost in the larger unity. But in Christianity, created things are not absorbed into a transcendent One. Though utterly dependent on God, he “esse-s” them as valued particular unities.[4]

The heart of you (and any other being or thing)[5] is esse—the act of being that brings you to be. You might not be, but you are![6] That you exist is the deeper-order source of everything that is you, and every action that you take. And this esse is God’s “Yes!”, his “Let there be,” his consent, in this now and throughout my life, to my being. In my very being, and the being of all things, I am God’s yes. As Hanby says, the doctrine of creation, part of the doctrine of God, tells us about the ontological structure of creation itself. But it is also central to philosophical anthropology—what does it mean for you and me—to be? You and I are a tissue of God’s yes—a yes founded on nothing outside of the yes.

It is my conviction that every person can and does know this act of being, this esse, this yes, in the very heart of who they are. One need only contemplate: I might not exist! But I do! That is the wellspring of you. Learning to contemplate this is good: it returns us to the integrating core of ourselves.

So this is the keystone of my inquiry regarding integration. The “event” that integrates us is esse, the act of being. This is the “openness to the heart of things” to which David Schindler has called us. This a matter of metaphysics, and a matter of the Christian doctrine of creation.

Our characteristic modernist self-contradicting denial of metaphysics, and our consequent metaphysical myopia, have perpetrated and perpetuated our fragmentation, by depriving us of the permission, and the metaphysics, to see.

Schindler unpacks the nature of esse. My few sentences here can only portend the greater depths of his discussion and also of this profound reality. The tenor of God’s “yes” that we are is…love. Love is something more fundamental than a feeling or appetite for the good. Being itself is love.

Schindler and Clarke stress “the dynamic character or every real being as tending naturally to pour over into self-communicating action. The full meaning of “being” now becomes not just that which is actually present, as standing out from nothingness, but actively present to other beings, opening out to them to form a network of interacting beings, bound to each other by relations of giving and receiving, acting an being acted upon, which we call the universe . . . (‘turned toward unity’)” (Clarke, xvii). Love, to be love, must be in union with an other. Union is essentially non-possessive, a relation in and through which both lover and beloved are more what they are, not less. It is the perfection of self-giving freedom. According to Aquinas, love entails union, mutual indwelling, and ecstasy. (I’ve been thinking of this as expressed by the numbers 1, 2, and 3.)[7]

So creation, both esse and ens, act of existence and existent beings, involve these three: we are the overflowing desire of the Lord, including toward us his creations, we are constituted in this union with God, and God and his creation mutually, reciprocally, indwell each other.

Schindler argues that love has about it a unity that is both “from above” and from “below” (Schindler, 118-45). When any of us come to the moment of acknowledging our love for someone, the sense we have is that the love predated our acknowledgement: we ‘re just turning around to recognize what was already there. That’s the “from above” part. But it is also the case that love grows, unfolding in time in many little sacrifices and gestures and gifts. That’s the “from below” part. The generosity of love is that it gives to the beloved even the opportunity to pursue it. All this is instantiated in the first hours of our lives in the welcoming gaze of the mother, as well as throughout our lives.

This gives us what we need for integration to be our reality. Modernity fragments fundamentally metaphysically: it forwards anti-metaphysics (while requiring the very metaphysics it denies). For modernism, things are only ever the forced product of the pieces. There is no “from above.” And entirely from below, really no integration can be entailed.

And it doesn’t require modernism for our lives to disintegrate—in the brokenness of our sin and suffering. We are broken shards in need of kintsugi integration.

The good news is that we are integrated from above, in the very act of existence which we are. We are the love of God. He desires us—and creates! But it is a love so generous that it gives to us the freedom to desire back—to pursue the love which is a foregone conclusion.[8] That means desiring integration—nonpossessive union with God, with others, with things, with ourselves. That we seek integration in a fragmented world itself bears witness, in direct challenge to fragmenting modernism, to this generative act of being. Our seeking to hold ourselves together, in God’s radical transcendence and immanence, is his own holding us together.

Much more to say, but we must finish. There are events which specifically evidence the integrative act of love that we are. Beauty is one—beholding that night-blooming cereus. Friendship and marital love evidence it. Discovery and insight evidence it. Michael Polanyi’s subsidiary focal integration just is the unfolding of a surprising recognition—a unity that precedes us that we have nevertheless pursed in our not-yet-understanding. In these we drink from the endlessly new, overflowing spring that is our act of being, the enacted love of God, as individuals and as part of all creation. These refresh us in the existent being we already are—who might not be, but nevertheless are. Our seeking integration is itself integration working itself out. To be the being that we are, in our esse, this most fundamental, intimate, communion with the real, is to be human, and it is the good life.

The threads are tied together, and the garment is cast off. But now open further vistas in this exhaustibly rich quest for reality.

With gratitude for you, the reader.


Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:​Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for KnowingLoving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.


[1] D.C. Schindler, Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness and Truth (Cascade, 2017); Michael Hanby, No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology and Biology (Wiley Blackwell, 2017); W. Norris Clarke, An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas (Regnery, 1997); and Natalie Carnes’ Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa (Cascade, 2014).

[2] The question of the temporal origin of things really isn’t the main matter. Esse is. For there to be creation, there must be a “Let there be.”

[3] The question may be raised concerning where this approach takes into consideration the fact of sin and the brokenness of the world. Jesus, the one in whom all things cohere, came to mend the rent fabric of his own gift to the Father. He did not throw out the garment and start over. It is his even deeper yes to creation.

[4] That they are unities itself means that he gives it to them to hold themselves together—to integrate.

[5] A being is “that which exists”—ens—as a result of esse.

[6] This makes me think of Kathryn Hepburn’s ringing, “Nevertheless!” at the end of the film, “African Queen,” in response to the people who tell her it is impossible that any boat and occupants could have survived the falls near the mouth of the river.

[7] I also reread Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (Brazos, 2009).Also there is something Trinitarian implicit here.

[8] I can’t help but think of the Prodigal Father here!

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