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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?