Wednesday, September 14, 2005

On onto-Theology and its fate

John G. was asking me about onto-theology this afternoon. It seemed a perfect excuse to blog something. Simply put, onto-theology is theology built upon ontology. Ontotheology confesses a God built upon a Greek metaphysic of being (ousia), where the divine is the Being of beings and the rest of us find our place within a descending ladder or chain of being according to some characteristic or limitation or other. Onto-theologies' definition of the divine was created by the Greeks and largely taken over by apologistic, Greek speaking Christian theologians searching to make sense of the gospel in a certain metaphysical climate.

Onto-theology met its match with Descartes' -> Hume's -> and Kant's observation that there is no way of knowing anything at all about the being of beings. When theology begins with "the one God" and works out from there, it makes assertions based on...what? This begins the process of a turn to the subject, where knowledge begins with what people (subjects) can know, an epistemology which rules absolutely in our own day - even if not so securely as in the heady days of the early Enlightenment.

Now I haven't personally thrown off onto-theology completely. I'm loathe to put aside what has so informed the thinking about God for most of church (theological) history. I wonder if there isn't some Christian nuance about it that the philosophers may have missed. At the same time, the arguments against it are 100's of years old now, and have stood quite a good deal of scrutiny. Theology has long decided that it must abandon the old ontologies and learn how to survive in a turn-to-the-subject climate. Any theologian doing work in an onto-theological universe is either hopelessly out of date or innovative to the extreme of genius (and either unknown or - to put a conspiracy theory into it - or shunned by the academic community.) In short - for myself I'm still weighing the odds and trying to simply understand the argument, which is quite complex unless you want to choose sides ahead of time and take their word for it. Trinitarian-ontology seems to be the better way to go, whereby relation rather than absolute subject lies at the very bottom of things (and, if you remember, this is exactly what I argued for in my paper at Harvard a few years ago.) Trinitarian relation-ontology seems to keep the best of onto-theology, while allowing room for the Other. Also, the textured and layered presentation of God in the Old and New Testaments makes more sense apart from a God of the Absolute "I". Taking this route also provides a way around process, at least you don't have to go there as far as I can tell. The process-god of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorn, and John Cobb Jr. is the new God of the Philosophers, the new God of the Spirit of the Age, as far as I understand it. A trinitarian/relation ontology means that one's epistemology will be hermeneutic: knowledge is absolutely and radically interpretative. The hermeneutical circle is how we know. This seems to jive well with what Christians mean by revelation and how we read, process, apply, worship, and preach. It makes everything alive, and opens up living spaces that were just slots with Aristotle.

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