Overcoming Onto-Theology

[Post by Andreas Lunden.  This is a continuation of the Western THM class on Philosophy and Theology.]

In his article “Overcoming Onto-Theology,” Merold Westfal develops a paradigm for understanding theology in relation to philosophy, or shall we say how faith relates to knowledge. The author makes use of Heidegger in pointing out the ways in which theology in Christian circles all too often turns into onto-theology. This is, according to Westfal (and Heidegger) a “sketchy” move in that we “can neither pray or sacrifice to this god of philosophy.”

The point his article, simply put, seems to be to point out the danger of the not fully entering into the story of God, but instead trying to fit God’s story into our own. The Christian faith, (Church life, biblical interpretation, etc.) in this sense, becomes a commodity, an object, “to be mastered by the (distant) interpreter for the advantage of the interpreter, a source of theoretical treasure to be accumulated and owned.”

Heidegger, influenced by both Luther and Kirkegaard (the amazing Scandinavian theologian who might as well be called Swedish since Sweden once owned Denmark), in response to such “high horse” attitudes, saw the importance of safeguarding faith as the starting point in life, without for that matter disqualifying the role of knowledge or theology. Theology, instead of being something to be mastered, functions exclusively to aid us in our faith journey. Or as Westfal puts it, “theology’s task is to serve this life of faith.” Such Christianity leads the people of God into a story, told by a personal God, and consequently a life long response characterized by awe and praise.

Westfal ends his article by retelling Wagner’s story Lohengin. Here, Elsa is faced with the dilemma that she cannot know the name, and thus the identity, of her lover, Lehengin, who conveniently arrives in a boat pulled by a swan. She is essentially forced to relate to him is through trust. She fails to do so and the relationship tragically slips out of her hands. The moral of the story being, relationship requires loving faith.

The article and the story demand the question, how can we as believers in community be “better” Elsas?

Posted on October 18, 2010, in Philosophical Theology, Th.M. Program and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. As I read over this week’s articles I kept thinking that there is nothing wrong with trying to ponder God philosophically if (a) we do it realizing we cannot encapsulate, control, or even fully explain God and (b) if it is an act of worship that continues to remind us that God is beyond us.

    I don’t think there is necessarily an either-or between Westfal’s approach and that of someone like W.L. Craig if we can ponder God like Craig does with a heart like the one suggested by Westfal. In other words, we can do thinking like Craig if we keep the trust and awe that Westfal points toward.

  2. I think we ought to avoid dualisms if we are truly going to do theology. Which means that theology becomes christology (in many ways). IN other words, we should avoid thinking out of a center in ourselves, and think out of the center of God in Christ.

    There is too often a false dichotomy created by mind/heart type of thinking in this re. This is what both Barth and Torrance would try to overcome by appealing to an “analogy of faith” (vs. one of being ‘analogy of being’); and speaking of a truly “scientific” theology (so Torrance) where the object under consideration determines its own categories and procedures relative to the knowledge that this object imposes and demands upon the inquierer.

    Anyway, interesting post.

  3. Wow, Westphal likes to name-drop, most often in a long series. Despite this, I enjoyed most of the article. I agree with Westphal that theology should serve practical faith. I agree the academy can make some rather comprehensive statements about God that make me cringe. I agree mystery is an essential element to the faith. We will never know as God knows.

    However, I have found that most of my teachers throughout my theological academic career feel and act subject to God and his word. I haven’t met a Hume theologian who is trying to replace God with his own determined world.

    Shouldn’t we attempt to study God’s word using the full capacities of our personalities and intelligence? I’m a rather analytical person according to the personality tests. What is wrong with attempting to understand God through the way he made me?

    Finally, I must say I still liked the article because it was focused on faith. In all the intellectual struggles we face studying philosophy and theology, amidst all the potential doubt and lack of understanding, faith is the key to maintaining our relationship with God.

  4. I have to wonder, is theology something that can truly BE mastered? It would seem to me that theology, defined as the study of God through scripture, is too vast a subject for any man to master no matter what their impressive mental faculties may bring to the task. This being the case (at least to me), theology is daunting as we attempt to do something that we will never complete, and yet also compelling since we will never get to the point that we sit back and weep for there are no more worlds to conquer.

    Can it be possible for someone to accumulate theology or their own advantage? Thinking through James, his argument seems to go if you dont do what you hear, you lose even what you have heard. It would seem to me that if one “masters theology” but never applies it, have they actually mastered anything? And if they do apply it, then all who are around them are blessed by the godly love and fruits of the Spirit that the master of theology will be living out, which eliminates the possibility of it being to their own advantage!

  5. a3w275,

    Just to clarify, are you arguing against the ThM program?

    If so, this is off point — but I would say that the ThM is not intended to portray the idea that anything has been “Mastered;” instead it’s just a “signature” which identifies that said person has attained a certain level (to one degree or another) acumen in this particular discipline.

    The sense is isn’t that there is an exhaustive knowledge (which you imply), but a requisite knowledge per the demands of being a Bible/Theology teacher of some sort.

  6. Teyve’s fiddler balances upon his roof embracing tradition while having little need to “overcome onto-theology” – for onto-theology is embraced and that is my point (see segment 2 minutes -4:30 minutes).

    Westphal reacts and rejects to the totalization of God into the rational compartment of Being (p.4) He lauds Kierkegaard and Heidegger as prophets who call us out of Athens, (rationally reducing God to nous), back to Jerusalem, a place of mythos free from philosophical reductions of God to causa sui B/being (p.13).

    In Jerusalem, we are freed from the delusion of our caged constructs of God, constructs of cause-effect even the God as the cause of Himself. All this is odious to Westphal as exemplified in his constant reference to Jean-Luc Marion (p. 14,19,23) and Marion’s excursis on “Gxd without Being.” It is an attempt to free the God-thinker from analytic reduction of Gxd unto mystery and worship.

    The strings of the fiddler on my roof resonate with Heidegger, Westphal, and Marion to a point. God discloses B/being within but then exceeds Western theological categories of Trinitarian (sometimes gender projected) discussions and even our liturgical penchant for magical incantatory prayers (see TDNT v.5 p. 250 also see Keith Putt in Benson (ed) Phenomenology of Prayer).

    But what if contra Marion/Westphal the “God without Being” has chosen to communicate to human beings through the only context to which they can relate, being. For us “I am sent me to you” (Exo 3:4,14) is not Being reduced but rather B/being contextualized. Perhaps the sacred Tetragramaton AHWH at the burning bush accommodates dualism of real matter and transcendent spiritual essence (Karl Rahner-Mystery TI-4), not because of ontological necessity but because of our transcendental ontological reality, we ‘being’ “spirits in the material world” and He choosing to B/be in this world for us (John 1:14). It is the only space/porosity where we can ‘be’ salvifically embraced by the Thou. It is “where we live to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our (theological) neck.” Teyve.

    “Sounds crazy huh.”

    • From RT Michener via Jerome

      Allow me to scratch my head on your reflections . . . .
      Granted the onto-theo-logy that fellows such as Westphal, Marion (especially the influencer here as you note), John Caputo, and Richard Kearney (via Heidegger also) is the brand of onto-theology rooted in a rationalist metaphysic (post Medieval theology) . . . . an Onto-theo-logy which has put up a rational system or set of rational concepts to which (in effect) God must submit. The causa sui point you make is really key here isn’t it? As soon as God became something “self-caused” rather than simply “un-caused” then God became submissive to the entire notion of causation (Caputo wisely points this out from J-L Marion as well). This is what you are getting at in your read below in your first couple of paragraphs . . . right?

      Ok, so far we are in solid agreement (dare I say we have a similar “foundation” to our thinking along these lines? No . . . I musn’t. 🙂

      But, I am wondering about the point you make in your last paragraph below. I have these questions:

      1) Why did you use “A” instead of “Y” for the tetragrammaton?

      2) Is Westphal and company really denying the sort of “B/being” paradigm that keeps the God of the Bible in His rightful place as the Eternal, pure, complete, Self-contained, Personal Creator and Sustainer? I think, perhaps they are denying the B/being paridigm of reality that was used (as you note) most exclusively to de-mystify the God of pure Being in medieval theology. But is this then anymore “Onto-theology” or simply “Theology”? Hmmmm. I know the origins of this onto-theology terminology go back to Kant, but its context is still quite purely rationalist right? The rationalists like Descarte, Leibniz, Spinoza, took the real unique power and ultimate authority (and the Incarnational qualities!) out of God and put concepts of REASON in His place . . . .making the notion of B/being (for instance) the one calling the shots instead of God Himself.

      Granted, when we deconstruct the entire notion of “Being” it will still lead us down the path to Plato and Aristotle and the whole Hellenistic inheritance baggage via Augustine and Aquinas . . . . . (remember, I’m just scratching my head on the screen here) . . . . . But as you note, if this IS one of ways by which God “discloses” and/or incarnates himself into our world (even through concepts revealed in philosophical history as part of gen. revelation), then we would be guilty of the genetic fallacy if we presume that by deconstructing or uncovering the origin of the concept of B/being that it is necessarily pernicious to our theological understanding today.

      So, . . . . . is B/being in the sense that Marion and company are rejecting the same kind of B/being contexualized that you are affirming? Hmmm. I think you are affirming the kind of God that they would want to see recovered . . . . . the God who was flattened out by the God of the rationalist philosophers back to the God of Abraham and Isaac . . . the same God (in-Fleshed) as you point out in this world for us.

      Well, hopefully I didn’t break my theological neck with my string scratching tune above

      • 1) Why did you use “A” instead of “Y” for the tetragrammaton?

        Dico: in Hebrew “I am” = AHWH and He is = YHWH, so it is the “I” God rupturing my horizon as the you (plural) community.

        RT responds: Oh, Okay, I see . . . contrasting the “I am” Ex. 3:14 passage you refer to in contrast/ dialogue with the proper NAME. Perhaps when you referred to the “sacred tetragrammaton” of Exodus it through me off a bit. I don’t think I’ve heard the verbal structure of ‘ehyeh referred to as the “sacred” tetragrammaton, even though it is always used to support the YHWH designation. But upon reflection, I can certainly appreciate why you say this . . . . After all , this is GOD speaking of Himself isn’t it!

        2) Is Westphal and company really denying the sort of “B/being” paradigm that keeps the God of the Bible in His rightful place as the Eternal, pure, complete, Self-contained, Personal Creator and Sustainer?

        Dico: I sense Westphal and Marion probably aren’t’ but Heidegger, well his distant impersonal god in the to and fro Dasein seems a little to close to Hegelian reduction to me. It’s the Levinas contamination from Leuven I suppose J

        RT Responds: Yes, Ok, I really agree with you at this point. I don’t think Levinas is contamination at all . . . . . it keeps the “least of these” before our faces in the midst of all this academic pool shooting we can so easily get caught up in. But this is the flesh and blood sort of “B/being” Levinas (in a manner) exhorts us to recover right?

  7. What I like about you, Jerome, is that you don’t care if you sound crazy 🙂 . And you often speak in “riddles” or “tunes” which makes for some fun, I’m trying to place all of your “notes” right now.

  8. Bobby,

    I am arguing against neither Andreas’ summarization of Westphal’s argument, nor this aspect of Westphal’s argument itself as best I understand it (which I will admit may indeed be limited). I am disagreeing with the concept that theology can be “mastered”, which I see as the height of human arrogance. And Yes, I am using the term “mastered” to indicate exhaustive knowledge.

    I beleve that all Christians are to know God to the best of their ability, and that some will have greater ability and training than others. Th.M, Ph.D/Th.D are indeed as you said, just human titles representing a certain level of work towards that goal, not exhaustve knowledge.

    btw, I am a fellow student in Western’s Th.M program, so while I will confess to a certain level of self-contradiction which is part and parcel to human nature, at least in this I am not being self-contradictory. 🙂

  9. It seems to me that there is great benefit to thinking philosophically about God and to interact with the related philosophical writings of our times. It should go without saying that our minds must always be shaped by the Scriptures. However, I think it is necessary to be aware of the logical conundrums that Christian thinkers can fall into. We should then determine if these conundrums can be solved or should remain in the realm of mystery as a testimony to God’s otherness.

  1. Pingback: Week in Review: 10.22.10 | Near Emmaus

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