A Note on the Theological (Mis-)Use of the Word “Ontological”

The AAR seems to run in cycles for me. The first year I attended I remember the complete disillusionment I felt with the event after sitting through three sections that seemed far weaker and less exciting than at smaller conferences. I don’t know if it was really the quality of the paper so much as the pressure everyone seems to be under to attend as much as possible, thereby crippling the most vibrant part of conferences, in my opinion at least, the discussion that flows from the Q&A out into the hall and hopefully well into the night. That’s where I’ve discovered new lines of research and felt like I actually engaged with fellow scholars. And that simply happens very rarely at the AAR, once about every other year or so. Though the work of Synousia has made great in-roads at a permanent place for secular theologians/philosophers that simply isn’t available at the Continental Philosophy and Theology group that seems to have to vie with the interests of Christian phenomenologists as well as more interesting work.

Anyway, this year was a pretty bad one, owing in large part to the horrible venue that is the dystopia called McCormick Place, my own rushed scheduled when I was there, and the very white and very male and very straight domination of theological studies in general. Of course there are wonderful sessions outside these rather narrow coordinates, but if the field is represented by its scholarly output and who is making the money, I worry that we are in a field dominated by the likes of very traditional theology propagated and protected by white theo-dude-logians. One particular thing I found annoying was hearing all the “ontology” talk, an issue I’ve long had a problem with in theological circles from my grad school days. Like when, for example, a rather popular gasbag proclaimed that gay marriage is “ontologically impossible” or when certain students (usually male and almost always white) proclaim their need and desire for a “rigorous and consistent ontology” to ground their religio-ethical commitments. Regarding the first, it seems a strange claim unless one is absolutely an idealist of the worst kind, since gay marriage has actually happened and being-qua-being has, it would seem, not collapsed under the weight of all that gay marriage. And regarding the second, is that anything other than a way of saying that you want your religion to be grounded on the actual existence of God with some surety? And if so, isn’t that just a symptom of the theology of fear we see driving the sale of so many Christian responses to Darwinism and other forms of naturalist exploration? It is essentially a rather big word being used to cover over one’s fears and does, as far as I can see, absolutely zero theoretical work.

All of this seems to me to cut to the real problem of the practice of Christian theology (and perhaps monotheistic theology in general), which is ultimately a problem of knowledge and authority. In conversations with young graduate students in theology I often see repeated a particular argument that seems to be coming from those in my generation and the one just above. Let’s take an example from a session on Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory where Agamben is found to be committing the heresy of Anti-Barthianism. A young Barthian rose to defend Barth with the claim that though Agamben recognizes a form of sovereignty at work in Barth this sovereignty has to do with God and therefore isn’t problematic. Or, in other words, the ontological difference between God and creatures is such that it isn’t a big deal, even if we see this same logic repeated at the level of creatural governance. Or, in other word, don’t look at the empirical when you are thinking about the transcendental and don’t look at the transcendental when you are thinking about the empirical.

Or consider another example, which really, really bothers me, regarding the political claims made about the Eucharist. It has become increasingly popular after Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist to claim that the true political act happens within the traditions and practices of the Church (which, of course, for Cavanaugh means the Roman Catholic Church, but for many of his quasi-Catholic protestant readers refers to some more amorphous body). It’s a strange claim considering that book is in many ways about a specific and horrifying failure of the Roman Church. But it is also an empirical claim, if it is true that life is better in the Church than outside in the realm of the secular where we have abortion vans and let people starve in the streets, well then life within the Church should reflect that. As soon as you point this out the move again is to say, well don’t look at the empirical level, look at the transcendental or ontological. Or, essentially, the move is to repress this criticism, to practice a kind of weak theodicy by way of appeal to a mystical but securing notion of the ontological. And what’s sad is, it doesn’t even mean what they think it does.

24 Responses to “A Note on the Theological (Mis-)Use of the Word “Ontological””

  1. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    I didn’t go to the AAR, but I share your distaste for the particular kinds of discourse that you’ve described here. I think that the words ontology and ontological can take on various meanings, but I too often hear people use them in ways that make absolutely no sense to me. I can consider whether or not Deleuze was doing ontology, but I have a tough time thinking about how gay marriage can be an ontological impossibility. Anyway, I heard someone recently use “ontology” to mean a generalizable ontic category (e.g., “the student as such”, when really the person meant “the students in my 8:30am class this semester.”

    At the same time, I’ve heard people in other disciples use the term ontology is ways somewhat different from phil/theo. For instance, Clay Shirky (http://www.shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.html) uses “ontology” simply to mean classification.” I can get down with this usage, but, of course, Shirky knows up front that he’s not trying to talk about being qua being.

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I think a lot of this has to do with the way that Heidegger gets taught to theology students as essentially doing something Thomas already did and so they don’t really know much about it except that it means something like “really really matters” and that Christianity can do it better than secular philosophy.

  3. Hill Says:

    Well said, Anthony. I’ve withdrawn almost entirely from the world of formal theological reflection, but it stuns me now when I encounter this kind of insular pseudo-thought.

  4. Hill Says:

    In the interest of full disclosure, I definitely went through a phase where I glibly deployed “the ontological.”

  5. david cl driedger Says:

    Ditto with Hill. This post continues to articulate how AUFS helped in my conversion. Though in my professional life I am guessing I probably remain guilty in some areas, but I’m working on it.

  6. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    The Heidegger/Aquinas connection you’ve noted could very well be correct. I definitely have theology colleagues who adore Rahner and see him as a thomistic corrective to early Heidegger.

  7. Adam Braun Says:

    Bultmann. Bultmann. Bultmann. Existence precedes theology!

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I believe I responded to the Barthian in question by asking whether he wasn’t saying that everything his opponent was claiming was true, but that it was all good rather than bad. Everything gets short-circuited into finding out what is most essentially Christian, and then what’s good is a matter of course.

  9. Kampen Says:

    Anthony: Do you think “ontology” has any traction in theology anymore? Or ought to? If so, how would you articulate that the term be used? And if not, why not?

  10. Michael Says:

    This may be blisteringly obvious, but I trust the dominance of onto-talk in theology is also partly due to RO’s influence? As someone who did an undergraduate degree in science, I’m fairly confidence I had never even heard of ontology until I started hearing about the bogeyman of nominalism.

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Of course it does. What, though, I’m not entirely sure. Historically though medieval theology is concerned with ontology, though perhaps this was all tainted with the same idealism present today.

  12. Daniel Silliman Says:

    Regarding the Barthian in question at the AAR, Adam did indeed ask, aren’t you just agreeing with [the other person] but saying it’s good, not bad?, and someone from the audience said loudly, “yep.” Though the Barthian himself just quibbled and reiterated.

    To emphasize Anthony’s point about this problem being about theology in general, my experience of the AAR is that some of the problems pointed out here are much more pronounced in the continental philosophy/theology sessions than at the AAR as a whole. The dude-ness, e.g., meaning both the extent to which a session is dominated by males and the extent to which sessions are dominated by ritualistic dominations (and a respect-my-authori-tah! attitude) seems much worse in these channels than elsewhere. I do think there’s something specific about the practice of Christian theology (or a lot of it, anyhow) and the practice of continental philosophy that’s to blame, though the monstrosity of a conference center didn’t help.

    In the part of the AAR orientated towards cultural studies, there was a lot less testosterone.

  13. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    What struck me about the theologising at the panels I went too was the sheer laziness involved. Adam’s panel wasn’t unique. Struggling with issues of sovereignty? God’s sovereignty sorts it out! Problems with forgiving horrible crimes or abuse? Just appeal to the forgiveness God has already perfected! Faced with challenging questions about how we speak of God? Trump everything by referring to a ‘dogmatic hardcore’ that never changes! Worried that metaphysics turns God into an idol? Just read Augustine, who has no metaphysics – he just speaks with God! (This last one was from Marion). It is a dismal strategy, which of course privileges those lucky few in touch with the already existing and revealed substance of truth. The politics of this, and its connection with the awful gender imbalance at the sessions I went to in philosophy of religion, is surely not accidental.

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I know this is true, but I don’t do cultural studies so I often find myself interested but ultimately an outsider at those events.

  15. Brennan Breed Says:

    References to a “dogmatic hardcore” would seem to be the ultimate trump card, because I imagine nobody wants to ask what that entails. Sounds like it would make me queasy.

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I like the two-step move. “Christianity just describes how things are.” “But what about…?” “Well, of course I don’t mean how things are!

  17. Brad Johnson Says:

    All this reminds me that time & time again I’ve been told that my concern with the structures that give the condition for theology — its philosophical foundations, let’s say — is not really a theological concern. I encountered this so commonly, in fact, that I just gave up considering myself a theologian at all. I did so with a kind of lament, as nothing else really felt right — particularly since the world of Aesthetics didn’t quite want me either. But one does wonder whether theology itself, like America, is just too far gone for anything truly good to come of it beyond niche-y corners of critique.

  18. Mark N. Says:

    @Mark: Side point, but I read Clay Shirky as using the jargonish sense of “ontology” from information science, which has some historical relationship to philosophy’s sense of ontology, mostly via Frege and company, but has pretty strongly diverged.

  19. beatrice marovich Says:

    Perhaps what’s lacking is a cultural studies of ontology group at the AAR.

  20. Dave Says:

    I submit that you are ontologically wrong about this, and, furthermore, Aquinas.

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Ontically, however, we’re correct. It’s confusing.

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