Our dependence in ‘being’

We feel in our bones our total dependence in being

The concept of dependence in being at first seems complex and abstruse. Allow me to elucidate it and to explain some related philosophical terms.

Think of our various degrees of dependence. We depend on our boss for job security and financial income. We depend on our parents for the genes we have inherited. We depend on farmers to grow our food and on the police to protect us from criminals. All these are partial forms of dependence. Dependence in being refers to a more basic dependence: dependence in the very fact of our existence and in being what we are.

We also need to reflect on different degrees of `being’. We need to distinguish imaginary, contingent and necessary being.

You may have read the stories of Superman, the champion who was born from an alien father and mother, and who flies through the air from one part of the globe to another to rescue people in need. For many teenagers he is a hero whose character they imagine in great detail. Yet, he does not actually exist. He is only a fictitious being.


Now think of Winston Churchill. He was not fictitious. He actually existed. But on reflection we realise that his existence was not of itself necessary. He was born of a fortuitous meeting of his parents. He studied, fought as a soldier, engaged in diplomacy and politics, wrote books. Thousands of random events made him eventually the great leader he was. Nothing of this happened of necessity, including his very existence. We express this by saying that Curchill was only a contingent being.

Every object or person within our universe is contingent. Everything we know needs an explanation, not only for its particular properties (which are explained by physical causes), but for its being. Our vision of this is obscured because we usually focus attention on how something depends on another thing in immediate causality. So we move from one link to another link in a long chain. What we overlook is that not only each link, but the whole chain needs support. Somewhere there must be a peg that supports the whole of its weight, otherwise it would drop to the floor. The peg supports the whole chain and every one of its links.

The same is true of the universe. Everything in it is contingent. Even an infinite series of contingent beings cannot hold the whole chain of the universe in being. For that we need a reality that possesses being of its own, a necessary being. That necessary being is God.

The origin of being

The strength of this argument is increased by the fact that it has been independently developed by philosophers and mystics in many separate parts of the world. The terminology may differ. The substance of the argument remains the same.

This how Chuang Tzu, of Ch’i-Yuan in China during the 4th century BC, describes it.

“If no one else exists, I don’t exist.
If I didn’t exist, I could not perceive.
I am close to the truth, but I don’t know why.
There must be some primal force, but I cannot find any evidence.
I believe it acts, but I cannot see it.
I can feel it, but it remains intangible.”
CHUANG TZU, Sayings, 2,3.

“Tao possesses reality and substance.
It can be given; not received.
It can be obtained; not seen.
It is its own source and origin.
It existed before heaven and earth;
yes from all eternity.
It makes spirits and gods divine;
makes heaven and earth to be born.”
CHUANG TZU, ib. 6,1.

Though he is using other words, Chuang Tzu’s thought is plain. The universe needs an explanation because it is contingent. It could exist or not exist. It is dependent in being. However, the reality it ultimately depends on, must be a necessary being, namely divinity, the Tao.

Agnostics often state that proving that a Creator exists because the universe cannot make itself, does not help us. For then the question arises: who made the Creator? The objection shows a complete lack of understanding the argument. The universe requires a Creator because it is contingent. If the Reality that created it, is also contingent, the argument repeats itself. But ultimately it will require a necessary being, a being that is not made, that exists in its own right, that is: Being itself.

Fifteen hundred years ago Indian philosophers had also come to the same insight:

In the beginning, my dear, there was Being alone, and nothing else besides.
Some people say: “In the beginning there was non- being alone, with nothing else besides. From that non-being, being was produced.”
But how, indeed, my dear, could it be thus? says the teacher.
How could being be produced from non-being?
On the contrary, my dear, in the beginning there was Being alone, with nothing else besides.
All creatures, my dear, have their root in Being.
They have Being as their foundation, Being as their support.
Chandogya Upanishad VI, 2,2; 8,6.>

In other words: God as the necessary Being, the foundation of being, the ground of being, is the source of being for all that exists.

The great philosophers of the Middle Ages spent much time and energy refining the argument. Its classical formulation may sound abstract. Basically it remains as valid as ever:

We find things in nature that are possible to be and not to be, since we find they are generated and corrupted, and consequently, it is possible for them to be or not to be.
But it is impossible for such (contingent) things always to exist; for that which can not-be, sometimes is not.
Therefore if everything can not-be, then at one time there was nothing in existence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through something already existing.
Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be inexistence — which is absurd.
Therefore, not all things are merely possible.
There must exist something the existence of which is necessary — This all people speak of as God.
THOMAS AQUINAS (1224- 1274 AD), Summa Contra Gentiles, I, ch. 12-12; III, ch.29; see also the modern discussion in J.MACQUARRIE, Principles of Christian Theology, London 1977, pp. 117-122.

Few of us can be professional philosophers. The question thus arises: is the argument of dependence in being no more than an academic exercise, reserved for the privileged few?

Awareness that life is a gift

The answer is: no. In a more direct form we know the truth of it in our bones. At crucial points in our life, all of us become aware of our smallness and brittleness. As human beings, we are severely dependent.

H.Richter points out that Western society tends to argue away and smother our basic human limitation, including the possibility of suffering. Our boasts of greatness, which are contradicted by our experience, introduce neurosis into our culture. This leads to psychological break down of individuals and social dictatorships (see: Der Gotteskomplex, Hamburg 1979, pp. 29, 40-41, 63.

Basically, we have not made ourselves. We could not choose to be black or white, a woman or a man, to be intelligent or just middle of the road. Our situation of dependence shows itself in unhappy as well as happy circumstances.

Our intrinsic human limitedness may make itself felt when a close relationship breaks down; or a loved person dies, or illness strikes us, or we fail badly in spite of our tireless struggles. Perhaps, we find ourselves in a personal crisis. On such occasions it is not just the particular problem that hits us, but a sudden realization that we are, after all, just human. There is only so much we can do, and no more.

The same realization may dawn on us in just the opposite kind of experience. We may feel extremely happy because of a wonderful partner, or the birth of a child. We may be elated by a breath taking view, a magnificent painting, an enchanting piece of music. We may feel the thrill of having done some creative work. And we suddenly are conscious of the fact that, in spite of our own involvement, in all this we have received a gift. We feel that, in spite of our smallness, we are privileged to have been given the experience.

Awareness of our radical dependence is another way in which our contingency of being manifests itself. It unmistakably points to a higher power on which we ultimately depend. Both our fragility and the `gifts’ we receive, come from God. And love is one such gift.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of creation