An Introduction to Christian Metaphysics

Part 1: Participatory Ontology

Dear Reader, 

What do we mean when we say that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, or omni-causal? When we refer to God as eternal or necessary being, do those categories make sense to us or do we just use them because they are the terms we have always been told? When philosophers comment on divine simplicity or on the fact that in God there is nothing potential that is not actual, or, even more confusing still, that God’s essence is his existence, can human experience give understanding to these concepts? I would argue that not only can our intellect make sense of these ideas, it actually helps us understand the nature of God more clearly because it reveals to us the nature of our own existence. 

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive philosophical survey. Rather, it is to serve as a dipping of one’s toe into the vastness of the ocean that is the quest for understanding ultimate reality and the nature of God. The aim is to write as plainly and clearly as possible the idea that participatory ontology explains both who God is and also argues for the necessity of his being. It is to this end that we now turn.

Helpful Definitions:

  • Accident – a quality that is not of the essential nature (substance or essence) of a thing. E.g. “blueness” is accidental of all blue things since no single object is a “blue” nor does the color blue make something what it is. A blueberry or blue bird or blue toothbrush do not lose their essential nature if they happen to be red.
  • Act – actual. This is in contrast to potency or potential. Something is considered actual or in act if it is a thing that exists in the present and does not rely on any potency to bring it into reality.
  • Essence – the fundamental categories to which all things belong.
  • Scholastic – The philosophical theology associated with Medieval European thought which primarily used the works of Aristotle and Christian theology.

Understanding the nature of reality is the role of philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular. Metaphysics may sound technical, but it has a simple explanation. Aristotle’s students wrote about first philosophy after hearing lectures on physics (nature). So, μετὰ (“meta”or after) and φυσικά (“physics”) or “after the physics” refers to the distinction of first philosophy from the study of nature. Aristotle regarded metaphysics as the first philosophy since it involved the study of fundamental reality. Essentially metaphysics asks the question, “what is and what is not.” Everything from the existence and nature of God, the origins of universe, whether or not minds or souls exist, to the origin of genetic information are all metaphysical in a very real way. 

In metaphysics, participation refers to a relationship between entities in which entity B only has existence because entity A exists in a more fundamental and prior state. This could be any number of things essential or accidental. However, for our purposes we will be referring to participation of being or more crudely that something has existence. Ontology simply refers to the study of being as a sub-discipline of metaphysics. So, participatory ontology implies that entity A gives (participation) existence (ontology) to entity B by allowing B to share in the being of A.

During the time of antiquity, Aristotle observed that nonessential being and motion (things changing from one state to another, e.g. acorns becoming oak trees) must be accounted for by something prior. If a thing C is contingent on thing B and B is contingent on A then A must either be an absolute being able to explain itself and give necessary being to itself or A is thus likewise dependent on something other than A to explain its existence. Since everything that comes into being can also be thought to have non-being (Socrates can exist and also not exist) something must be sufficient to give being to that which comes to be and also, in an ultimate sense, be essential being itself. There must be a First Principle which does not rely on anything prior to derive its being — it must be being itself. Without this necessary First we would either arrive at an infinite regress in which no essential being exists to explain all later beings or all explanations to successive being would have to be explained by an unintelligible brute fact. This means that there must be a being who is uncaused, whose being is necessary, and whose causal power is pure act.  

When medieval philosophers and theologians discovered Aristotle’s works they realized that only God sufficiently answers this dilemma. These men took the truth of Aristotle’s metaphysics and brought it into conversation with Christian theology. The conclusion of this coupling was that God’s necessary being participates our contingent being. In essence, God is immediately present to his creation because he is the first and final cause of its being. The very life of God is shared with us and present to us from the moment of our conception and unto eternity. Were God to remove his participated being from the creation it would be annihilated. 

It is important to realize that this does not make pantheism the default position of medieval metaphysics. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is because of this metaphysical reality that pantheism becomes an untenable position. For anything to participate of its essence means that that to which it participates only receives the participated quality in a derivative sense. Whatever qualities A possesses essentially of itself and, by virtue of participation share with B, are not also essential of B. Rather, they are accidental of B, even if they are essential to the existence of B. In other words, if God is essential being itself and he participates his being externally to the creation, the creation necessarily has being for it to exist, but it is only in a derivative or accidental sense of being. The creation does not give or explain its own being nor does it have the causal power to maintain its own existence ad infinitum. To the extent that a thing has being it is only because it has received being from something prior and superior. Thus, if God is essential being in himself then anything other than God cannot possess being absolutely, but only in esse per accidens (unnecessarily and contingently). Therefore, the ontological distinction between the uncreated and creation remains absolute – a created thing participating in God’s uncreated being cannot be God or part of God.

Within the context of human experience this means that we are participants to the reality of God at every moment of our life. This does not mean, however, that God is obviously present or that he is somehow acting as a divine puppet master. The Scholastic response to this was that God allows for real secondary causation to govern the material universe. The laws of physics, the fundament forces of the universe, what we perceive as cause and effect, are all real qualities with causal powers. DNA is able to communicate to the human genome ways in which base pairs of amino acids should create and fold proteins, make new physical structures, order organic organisms, and contain within it the potential to which actual entities are ordered. However, something prior to the information contained in DNA has to account for its existence, intelligibility, and ordering. God’s presence and participation of being is something that necessarily explains the existence of all other realities and subordinate causes. 

Yes, but what about counter arguments. Could God not make something in which he was not present? Does material reality need a supernatural explanation? Aren’t Aristotelian metaphysics antiquated in light of modern science? 

1. Q: “Could God make something in which he was not present?” 

A: This question is often the position of deism. Deism essentially posits a God who creates the universe and then is totally removed from it. God creates material reality but is not inherently present to or within that reality. However, this position fails to answer the observation of, “where does God create anything, if prior to the universe nothing exists but God.” The assumption seemingly paints the picture that God is either in some type of continuity with the created world or that God creates a space which is “God adjacent” into which he creates the universe. However, this is not a trivial question: where does God create? 

If God is the eternally uncreated one then prior to the existence of the universe there is no “where” other than “in God.” Therefore, God makes room “in himself” into which he creates the universe. One cannot arrive at the thesis that God is eternal and yet ontologically removed from that which he creates. The only logical conclusion is that God creates in himself everything that is not God, participates his being to the creation in a derivative sense, and then continually sustains that being. To assume that God can make something in which he was not present would mean that there exists a coeternal reality that is “God adjacent” and also the sufficient cause of its own existence.

2. Q: “Does material reality need a supernatural explanation?”

A: Yes. Material reality suffers from the problem of nonessential being that was outlined above. The material universe seems to be one in which the laws of physics clearly demonstrate change or motion. By motion I do not mean that things move through space, but rather that things change from one state of existence into another. One example of this is an oak tree which only comes into being from the germination of an acorn. Within every acorn there exists potentially an oak tree which will yield thousands of acorns which themselves will potentially possess an infinite number of possible oak trees and acorns. However, all that actually exists is one single acorn. This acorn must cease to exist as an acorn in the becoming of an oak tree. As the possible becomes actual the actual must be annihilated (at least in all conceivable ways). Since all oak trees are only explained by acorns and acorns by oak trees, we either have the problem of A explaining B because B explains A (infinite regress and/or circular reasoning) or that by some sort of cosmic “magic” acorns and oak trees just exist (a brute fact). Material reality needs something to explain this state of motion. However, the explanation cannot itself be material since the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that the entire universe is in a state of entropy. Whatever the explanation for material existence, it cannot be that matter explains the existence of matter since there is not material reality that is in an eternal state of essential, non-changing being. Only an immaterial and eternal First can explain the appearance and existence of all other realities. Since the future state of everything actual is only potential and at some prior point in time the current actual was itself only a potential, then we either arrive at an infinite regress, brute fact, or something outside of the material universe must be able to participate its own essential being. 

3. Q: “Aren’t Aristotelian metaphysics antiquated in light of modern science?”

A: No. This objection is similar to the previous one. If we define Aristotelian metaphysics in light of modern science and adjust for erroneous assumptions by earlier thinkers then science must admit that it owes a great deal of its own success to the discipline of metaphysics. While I could outline all of the argument here, I will refer you to the prodigious work, “Aristotle’s Revenge,” by Dr. Edward Feser. However, a quick observation. Modern science is very good at measuring and demonstrating physical and mathematical phenomena using instruments and/or certain methods. Science cannot, however, explain how things come to be from a prior state of nonexistence or why they exist at all. To do so is to leave the world of science and enter the field of philosophy. The observation that things change into previously unrealized states only complicates the scientific endeavor to give a purely physical explanation to reality. For example, science cannot explain what life is, from where it comes, why it cannot be re-introduced into something that once possessed it, or why anything is conscious. The endeavor of science to dismiss philosophy only highlights the hubris with which scientific parsimony heavily relies on metaphysical assumptions to undergird the rejection of immaterial reality. Aristotelian metaphysics, especially that of the Thomist tradition, prove that science is the handmaid of philosophy.

In conclusion, the goal of this essay is to introduce you to the idea that God shares of his necessary being to us and therefore gives and sustains our finite existence. This means that not only is God the necessary and immediate cause of being for creation but he continues to sustain and give being to everything at every moment. The opposite of this would be annihilation (not physical death). If God, who is by definition necessary being, were to remove his being from something contingent that thing (you, me, the trees, the material universe, the human soul, etc) would cease to exist in totality. Let us rethink our own metaphysics as they pertain to God’s provision over our lives and his immediacy in them and consider the words of the psalmist more literally, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7) 

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti

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Isaac Blakemore
Isaac Blakemore
Isaac Blakemore is a philosopher and Christian apologist. He is the founder and CEO of Theology, Inc. Find his work at or @isaacblakemore on X/Twitter, or YouTube.