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On Wednesday, February 8, Dr. Andrea White, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, gave a talk on divine love at Fuller Theological Seminary. Drawing on Jean Luc Marion and other continental thinkers, her paper advanced a claim of this sort: love is the only means through which one comes truly to know that which is beyond being, viz., God. This was set in contradistinction to doing theology—or advancing knowledge claims about God—with the aid of philosophical metaphysics of the kind that aims at carving reality at the joints. Trying to do theology in this metaphysical way, on this (what I’ll call) Marionist account, is to do “onto-theology”, a purportedly idolatrous activity. If that’s right, one could infer that much analytic theology is idolatrous, since most of us gladly use philosophical metaphysics to help our theologizing.
Now, the motive behind the rejection of “onto-theology,” as I understand it (if I do), is to remove any possibility of objectifying God. God, on this view, just is (a?) subject. He’s (an?) other. I’m sympathetic to this move, if I understand it correctly. Surely humans shouldn’t objectify—where this means something like reducing a thing to a utilitarian means-to-an-end—God the Lord of Hosts, the sovereign of the Cosmos. And if God isn’t a being, he’s not an object. If he’s not an object, any attempt to objectify Him is one that’s going in the wrong direction.
Even still, I find the claim “onto-theology is idolatry” a curious one. This is for at least two reasons. The first reason is that I’m not altogether clear about what “onto-theology” is, though I do understand that it’s supposed to be a derisive epithet. I take “onto-theology” to be the study of God as if he’s a concrete existing entity (Marilyn McCord Adams’s paper in Journal of Analytic Theology (2014) seems to understand it this way). If that’s right, then I’m an unrepentant onto-theologian and I don’t know why I should repent of doing theology as if God is a concrete entity. The second reason is that I can’t see the connection between recognizing God to be an existing thing and that this recognition moves me, the recognizer, into a posture of idolatry. Idolatry, I should think, involves worship. But onto-theologizing (if I’m understanding the term correctly) is neutral with respect to worship.
Here’s my attempt to understand what’s going on. Maybe, by ‘idolatry,’ White (by way of Marion, et. al.) means that one who onto-theologizes constructs an idol, a bit like Aaron fashioning a golden calf for the impatient Israelites. If God isn’t a being or being itself, if God is “beyond being,” then suggesting that God is a being or being itself is to fashion a god that’s not God at all. And to worship this “god” is to worship an idol. If this is the line of reasoning that the anti-onto-theologian deploys, I think one could easily draw out a deductively valid argument from these premises. But I doubt it’s a sound one.
One reason to think that it isn’t sound is because no sense can be made of a thing that is “beyond being.” Just check out the previous sentence. A “thing” just is something (again: ‘thing’ appears in the word ‘something’) that exists, that either has or is being. If so, the phrase, “a thing that’s beyond being” is internally contradictory. For we can rephrase “a thing that’s beyond being” like this: “a being that’s beyond being” where “beyond being” is supposed to mean “is neither a being nor being itself”. Clearer: “a being that’s neither a being nor being itself.” This is a contradiction.
Moreover, while I fully agree that one shouldn’t objectify God, couching him in the class of “being” or that he just is being neither implies nor entails that one objectifies God in the pejorative utilitarian sense I mention above. To see this, consider that humans are all objects; we’re also all subjects, because we’re (at least) persons. We have first-person subjective experiences and are acting subjects. But we’re also objects of actions. We can be hugged by our spouses, for example. If my wife hugs me, I’m the object of her hug. Check out this sentence: “Bethany hugs J. T.” Who’s the subject of the sentence? Bethany. Who’s the object? J. T. Is J. T. objectified? No, J. T. is still recognized as an “other” even if he doesn’t occupy the subject position in the sentence. Let’s switch the sentence: “J. T. hugs Bethany.” Who’s the subject of the sentence? J. T. Who’s the object? Bethany. Is Bethany objectified? Hardly.
Hugging might be particularly appropriate here. For both J. T. and Bethany are subject and object, giver and receiver of a hug. If both J. T. and Bethany occupied the subject position in the sentence, we’d have no way of knowing whom (notice that ‘whom’ is an object term) they hug. Here’s the sentence: “J. T. and Bethany hug.” This sentence is ambiguous. Do they hug each other? Do they hug someone else? If so, that someone else is the object. If they hug each other, then ‘each other’ is the suppressed object of the sentence, an object term quantifying over both J. T. and Bethany. They’re both subject and object. What’s wrong with that?
Now, let’s apply this to Christian worship. Here’s a sentence in which God is an object: “Jones worships God.” Jones is the subject; she’s the one acting in the sentence. God is the direct object of her action. Why is that bad? How is it that Jones commits idolatry here? We can, of course, rephrase the same sentiment such that God is the subject of the sentence. “God receives Jones’s worship.” But why think that moving God to the object position in a sentence is a morally evil move, one that commits idolatry? Jones (subject) loves (verb) God (direct object). Where’s the idolatry? I think we onto-theologians are due an explanation.
We can apply similar reasoning to Christian theology, which is the anti-onto-theologian’s concern. Here’s a sentence in which God is an object: “Jones thinks about God.” Jones is the subject; she’s the one acting in the sentence. God is the direct object of her thinking. Why is that bad? How is it that Jones commits idolatry here? Rephrasing the sentence wherein God is the subject goes like this: “God is thought about by Jones.” But, as above, why think that moving God to the object position in a sentence is morally evil and idolatrous? Why think that moving God to the subject position alleviates whatever is supposed to be the problem here? A noun’s position in a sentence seems an awfully odd way to keep track of whether one’s committing idolatry when one does theology.
There’s a further worry too: subjects just are things, whether abstract or concrete. If abstract, it’s not clear that they exist. But they’re not “beyond being.” If they don’t exist, they’re not beings in the sense that they’re not real. Their inclusion in a sentence is something like a useful fiction. If the things in question are concrete, then they’re beings. Because of this, I submit that we have no way of formulating a sentence in which a no-thing that’s neither concrete nor abstract can occupy the subject position in a sentence. And if we can’t construct a sentence of this sort, then we can’t construct an idea of this sort. And if we can’t construct an idea of this sort, then there’s nothing here we need to mind, because it can neither be expressed nor thought.
What does all this have to do with love? Love, on the offered Marionist account (insofar as I understand it), is supposed to be the way one comes to know the God beyond being. It’s supposed to be the mechanism through which God is known in His “absolute givenness” where this term is supposed to be a way of saying that God is subject, not object; that’s he’s radically other, not something to be studied within the realm of metaphysics. But “love” denotes a particular kind of relation, and if a relation is real (i.e., neither illusory nor imaginary) it only holds between real relators (it presupposes them). And real relators just are beings, which are the subjects and objects of metaphysical inquiry.
J. T. Turner is a Research Associate on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology Project for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. He holds a PhD from The University of Edinburgh, a ThM from Erskine College and Seminary, and an MA and BS from Liberty University. Turner’s current research projects include writing a book on the metaphysics of afterlife in Christian theology, and work on constructing an analytic theology of what some biblical theologians call “holistic eschatology.”