God is Being Itself
Fr. Paul Stein
In the first article, we discussed how God is not the “supreme being,” meaning a god like one of the pagan gods such as Zeus or Thor. God transcends all beings (angels, humans and others) and everything that exists. God is Being itself, not a being among other beings. This line of Catholic thought can be found in the writings of people such as St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing from the encounter of Moses with God at the burning bush in chapter three of Exodus in the Bible. When Moses asks God’s name, it was common practice in those days for the pagans to invoke their gods by name. Yet, God is above any concept humans have of “the gods,” and responds: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). It is, precisely, not a name at all.
The Hebrew word or “name” for God, which is translated as “I am who I am,” is called the tetragrammaton. It consists of four letters rendered into English as YHWH. While the Hebrew language has vowels, it is only written down with the consonants; you must know which vowels to supply. To the Jewish people, the name of God is considered unpronounceable. Thus, instead of trying to pronounce it, the Jewish people substitute the word Adonai for the tetragrammaton. Adonai is translated into English as “Lord.” Keep this in mind when Jesus is proclaimed as “Lord.”
"God is Being itself,
not a being
In recent times, people in the Church have mistakenly treated it like it is a proper name to use: “YaHWeH.” In deference to God and in respect to Jewish tradition, we should avoid this. Additionally, the translation “Jehovah” is simply incorrect. The tetragrammaton is translated into the New American Bible as “I am who I am” and not “Yahweh.” It can also be translated as “he who exists” or “he who causes to be.” This is why we can speak of God as Being itself.
God is the one who causes humans, angels, the universe, and everything else to exist. Anything that does exist, exists because God wants it to exist. Apart from God, nothing can exist. But calling God “being itself” does not mean that the universe and all beings are made out of God, like children make shapes out of Play-doh or artists makes vases out of clay. God is not the stuff from which the universe and everything in it was made. That would be pantheism, which is Greek for “all is God.” The physical world and the spiritual world are not God and are not made out of God; he transcends them.
When children in school and religious education ask, “who made God,” the answer is, “no one.” God exists outside of all temporarily, both time in this universe and the aeviternity of angels and saints in heaven. He always was, is and will be. God has “always” existed; he has no beginning.
Furthermore, we can distinguish what a being is, from the idea that a being is. For example, Pope Francis is a human being, he is not an angel or a dog. Pope Francis currently exists, or currently has being, whereas in the year 1620 AD he didn’t exist yet. With God, there is no difference between what he is and that he is. He is his own existence. When we ask, “what is God?” the answer is, “God is his own act of existence.
This means that God is simply the one who is; he is the cause of his own existence. Anything apart from God that does exist, exists because he causes it to exist. And he has to keep causing it to exist, he has to continually make it exist; otherwise, it would simply vanish from existence. Thus, there is something kind of true to the words of the song: He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. God sustains all things in their existence, he not only initiated their existence, but causes them to continue existing. He sustains all things in their existence. The moment God no longer wants something to exist, it simply disappears from existence.
Thus, while creation is in one way separate from God, it can only exist because he is present to it, sustaining it in existence. So, we not only say that God is transcendent, but also immanent: God is interior to and present to his creation in order for it to exist. Creation is not made out of God, but can only exist because he is present to it at all times.
What This Means For Us
Calling God “Being itself,” means that he is not a being among other beings. He is transcendent, infinite, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent. At the same time, he is immanent. Beings such as humans only exist by participating or sharing in his existence. This is why God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows not only our conscious thoughts, but our subconscious and every hidden motivation that drives us. As St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, “You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest” (3.6.11).
As transcendent and yet immanent to us, we can trust that God knows us, sustains us, and is always with us. No matter where we go or what happens, God is there. This is the idea behind the daily examen in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (n. 43): looking to find God in all things each day.