Westphal and Onto-Theology Review

Merold Westphal’s book, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a postmodern Christian Faith, is a collection of essays concerning onto-theology.  Westphal’s goal is to show the problems with the onto-theological project and why it should be abandoned.  Westphal has impacted my perspective on human faculties, and has opened me up to appreciate more postmodern thinking.  As successful as he was in accomplishing his goal, I believe he also creates some problems for himself.  He makes too much of the embeddedness of humans and its effect on our relationship to objective truth.  To me this could end up undermining his work in some ways.  It also has some implications on biblical interpretation that have left me uneasy.

We will start with defining onto-theology.  Onto-theology is the task of making the whole of reality intelligible to the human mind by putting God at our disposal (pg. 12).  In doing this, we assume that the world conforms to our concepts and categories and is structured in a way that mirrors our intellectual capabilities (pg. 269).  Westphal takes aim at these assumptions and methodologies of interpreting the world.  Onto-theology epitomizes modernity, which is Platonism run amuck (pg. 135).  The human mind is not up to the task of onto-theology, and appealing to ontic characteristics about God does not give us the divine secrets to unlock all mysteries.  Trying to rationally understand this rational world does not mean that we will be able to understand it to the extent God does.  There is a qualitative difference between divine and human knowledge.  We can talk about Absolutes, but that doesn’t make our talking absolute (pg. 193).

Westphal does not think that denying onto-theology necessarily means one can’t affirm God as causa sui (pg. 13).   He resists us using causa sui as a way to say we now understand the nature of reality and being.  Westphal is wise to follow Heidegger’s lead in protesting against those who only allow God to enter into philosophy on philosophy’s terms.  It is an attempt to box God into categories and demand he be understandable to us (pg. 39).  When this is done, we are using God as a means for our own philosophical endeavors.  This is why Westphal says there is not a problem with what we say about God, but how we say it and for what purposes (pg. 7).  It is clear onto-theology works to master God for its purposes, while theology recognizes God has mastered us for his purposes.

Westphal also draws on what he calls the hermeneutics of suspicion and the hermeneutics of finitude to discredit onto-theology.  These hermeneutics are heavily influenced by postmodern thinking.  It is from a thorough application of these hermeneutics that Westphal is convinced when it comes to truth; the only truth is there is no Truth (pg. 84).  This denial of Truth is a denial of the entire onto-theological project.  It is not that Truth doesn’t exist, but that humans are not able to know it.  Westphal is clear that he thinks his theory is truth, but not Truth (pg. 85).

Our unavoidable humanness is the most important part of Westphal’s thinking when it comes to denying onto-theology.  The hermeneutics of finitude draw attention to this humanness.  We err in the conclusions we affirm and even have erroneous truth generating methods and practices (pg. 228).  As humans, we are hopelessly historically and geographically embedded beings (pg. 49).  We should accept that our existence is constituted by these realities, and we cannot transcend them to some timeless, absolutely object perspective to judge and evaluate truth claims.

We do not know objectively or absolutely, but from the subjective and relative position of a human.  We do not know reality as it is, but as a human can understand it (pg. 82).  All understandings and insights about the world come from a particular perspective which shapes the way we see the world.  Thus, all seeing is seeing-as (pg. 118).  Not only are there multiple perspectives with how to view the world, but the world itself can be taken and understood in multiple ways.  It is this “play” of the world that makes it difficult for us to decide how the world is, and from what perspective we should view it (pg. 187).

Unmitigated hermeneutics of finitude concerns me that we will become trapped in our perspectives.  We may lose absoluteness, but we do not need to lose objectivity.  We cannot reflect out of our humanness, but I do think with sensitivity, humbleness and listening, we can reflect out of our particular human experience to an objective human experience that we can all communicate at.  Without this, communication would be hopeless, and would make Westphal’s book only relevant to those who shared a sufficiently similar life experience as him so as to see the same as his seeing-as.

The hermeneutics of suspicion point out the fallen and sinful nature of humans.  Our tendency towards selfishness and power suggests we should be suspicious of who benefits from truth claims.  We should be suspicious about conclusions and methods, and claims about these methods being the best methods.  Our conclusions and methods to reach conclusions should not be treated as impregnable, but as imperfect and potentially in error.  Being human truth claims, they are always susceptible to deconstruction and reevaluation (pg. 183).  If absolute truth is unattainable, then we should be suspicious of those who claim to achieve it or even claim to know how to achieve it.

I like this hermeneutic, but up to a point.  Power and self-interest can cloud and direct our understanding of truth.  Yet, even as sinful beings, I find it too critical to see all truth claims through the lens of power and self-interest.  That if we deconstruct all truth claims we will uncover at the heart of them is really a motivation for power and not the pursuit of truth or love.  I believe this because of the redeeming grace of God.  God can redeem us to a level where we sincerely pursue truth for truth.  Even more than that, that we pursue truth because it leads us to God, even if that means losing power.

This deep criticism of onto-theology and Truth has heavy implications on biblical interpretation for Westphal.  For even when it comes to the Bible, it is inescapably human, since it is humans saying what they heard God say (pg. 192).  Not only is the Bible human translation of divine speaking, but it is translation of divine “misinformation”.  When God communicates to us, he has to communicate to us as humans and so some information must be converted from Truth down to truth (pg. 99).  This leaves us in the precarious position that biblical interpretation is human reiteration of God’s simplified words from a human perspective.  I find it hard to deny the reality of the situation but it leaves me uneasy.  We have put any meaningful truth behind multiple layers, layers we really can’t get through because of what Westphal makes of the nature of humanity.

I am also concerned about the truth we actually can glean from the Bible.  If God is needing to “simplify” information so humans can understand it, to some extent we are missing out on truth.  Even truth that could be important for us to understand the simplified version sent down to us.  Sometimes you can get by just knowing the gist of something, but sometimes you really need to know the details.  I wonder if this act of simplifying divine information is a reason for at least ostensible contradictions in the Bible.  Maybe it’s the case that God’s simplified and human translated words may contradict, but that the ultimate truth they point to are harmonious.

Westphal has made me more interested in postmodern thinkers.  Not in just a need to refute them, but to learn from them.  Instead of dismissing all their insights wholesale, we should attempt to find those portions that are not inextricably bound up in a rejection of Christianity and see how they can be appropriated in our pursuit of understanding God and his creation (pg. 87).  Their suspicion of epistemology and awareness of our finitude do reflect well implications of sin and the reality that God made us finite beings that are not him.

Onto-theology is dead in the water, and postmodernism has helped us in taking it down.  We cannot escape our human reality and perspective.  We are finite creatures with limits.  We cannot use cheat codes to stand outside of our human embeddedness.  Just because we talk about God, that does not make us God or give us his privileged position.  Making all of reality comprehensible is probably a fool’s errand, but slowly understanding God and reality more and better are honorable tasks.  We can appreciate the reality of our finitude and be suspicious of the way sin distorts all our activity involving truth, while also holding to a real sense of truth.  We must not get confused though, and think truth is Truth.

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